Between the Lines is a monthly column discussing everything around the craft of screenwriting: from in-depth breakdowns of screenplays to interviews with screenwriters.
Once again, the buzz around Awards Season has kicked in. Several awarding bodies have announced their nominations for films, shows, cast and crew, but this year feels slightly different. The past year has seen a variety of on-screen projects take the spotlight, thanks to the lack of event films dominating the multiplexes, which in turn has given smaller features a shot at winning awards.
The Writer’s Guild of America have an interesting line-up for their Original Screenplay category, from time-loop comedy dramas to a biographical drama centred around the Black Panther Party, but one screenplay in particular stands out for its technical aspects and the story it tells. Written by Darius and Abraham Marder, Sound of Metal is reliant on sound design to tell the story of a man coming to terms with losing his hearing and to put the reader in his shoes.
A good screenplay communicates to the reader who the protagonist is and what their world is like in the opening pages. The writers here manage to accomplish that and more on the second page. After an intense first page showing our protagonist, Ruben (Riz Ahmed), playing the drums on stage with his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), we get a calmer sequence:
It’s a cliched morning routine but it works. In less than a page, we know Ruben takes care of his body through exercise and diet, deeply cares about his music gear, and is interested in other genres outside of the heavy metal he plays at gigs. We also know that he can hear too. The use of capitalisation draws attention to sounds we usually would not care about, but the writers cleverly make sure Ruben’s morning routine involves loud activities, from the blender to the record player. Everyday sounds envelop Ruben’s daily routines, which make their absence all the more effective. Throughout the next few pages, we become familiar with Ruben and Lou as they drive to their next gig. During set up, he suddenly loses his hearing to a constant ringing sound and the next morning attempts his morning routine:
Again, it’s not a ground-breaking technique by any means to revisit a previous sequence of events to show how the protagonist’s world has changed, but the simplicity is so effective in showing that stark change. What makes this so refreshing is how the emphasis is on audio
, and not visuals. Deafness or difficulty in hearing is obviously a challenge to visually show, so the writers have no choice but to make sure the sound design is from Ruben’s perspective. Setting up and subsequently flipping Ruben’s world within seven pages is a testament to the writers using tried and tested techniques to tell a new, interesting story.
Further into the story, Ruben reluctantly bids farewell to Lou and takes up residency with a community of deaf recovering addicts. Of course, Ruben doesn’t know any sign language, but the writers seem to pick and choose when the other characters have their American Sign Langauge (ASL) subtitled for the reader. It is first extensively used in a conversation between the leader of the community, Joe (Paul Raci), and one of the community members. Ruben obviously can’t understand their conversation, but the subtitles give the reader a proper introduction to Joe’s character. No subtitles would have made the scene more authentic from Ruben’s perspective, but it wouldn’t have let the reader connect with Joe and would give the character a weak introduction.
A little further along, Ruben has his first evening within the community of deaf addicts, and joins them for dinner:
We first get Ruben’s perspective and again, the sound design is used to signify his loss of hearing and difficulty in communication. The reader is already aware of the challenges Ruben currently faces, but the writers then take that a step further by giving able-bodied readers a sense of Ruben’s situation from their perspective. The majority of readers will have their hearing but won’t know ASL. Those readers can sympathise with Ruben by seeing his perspective, but won’t necessarily be able to empathise with him due to their ability to hear. This scene does a great job of putting the reader one step closer to empathising with Ruben by utilising sound and still not communicating the conversation the characters are having. It’s an alien situation not just to Ruben but to the reader.
Even though film is a medium that is 50% audio and 50% visuals, it is shockingly rare to find screenplays that really make use of sound and isn’t just words describing beautiful imagery. Obviously Sound of Metal’s whole narrative is tied around sound, but it is still refreshing to see Darius and Abraham Marder make clever use of sound that brings the reader closer to the protagonist’s journey. It is a story that is rarely told, and a topic rarely explored, so I hope we see more screenplays like Sound of Metal in the many conversations during Awards Season.
The Sound of Metal screenplay can be found at: