How Riz Ahmed Learned to Play Drums Convincingly in ‘Sound of Metal’

Roy Trakin
·6 min read

While it took co-writer/director Darius Marder 12 years to bring his passion project, “Sound of Metal,” to the screen, star Riz Ahmed learned to play drums believably in just over seven months. For his role as Ruben, the punk-metal-noise drummer whose increased hearing loss leads him to a deaf community for addicts and wounded veterans, Ahmed threw himself into the task with Method-like abandon, according to his chief drumming guru Guy Licata.

“Riz is a drummer, he’s one of us,” says the touring and session pro who shared the task of tutoring the actor — Ahmed dubbed him “my Mr. Miyagi” — along with Sean Powell, a veteran stick man for hardcore acts including Austin’s Fuckemos, who seconded as the star’s “spirit animal” and inspired much of his tattoo design. London-based drum teacher Adam Betts, who handed the actor over to Licata to film stateside, gave fellow Brit Ahmed, a complete novice, his first lesson.

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“Sound of Metal” provides a view into two quite different, yet interconnected, subcultures. The film goes from the thunderous din of the punk-metal hardcore scene to a quiet rural retreat. The animated communication via American Sign Language — expressed with body movement and gestures taking the place of words — makes for an apt analogy for Ahmed’s immersion in percussion. His Oscar buzz is similarly getting louder.

“None of us even knew if this film was going to get made,” said Ahmed. “The day before we were scheduled to shoot, the financing fell through. Darius was on the phone all night calling everyone he knew to wire us money so we could start filming.”

The project itself dates back more than a dozen years, when Marder’s frequent collaborator, director Derek Cianfrance (he co-wrote the screenplay to “The Place Beyond the Pines” with him) abandoned an unfinished hybrid “docufiction” dubbed “Metalhead,” sporting the same plot — based on Cianfrance’s own experiences as a metal drummer — starring members of the real-life doom metal couple Jucifer.

Taking up the gauntlet, Marder has spent the time since trying to get the project off the ground. When the drum-themed “Whiplash” came out in 2014, his friends offered their sympathies that one movie on that subject per decade was probably all the market would bear. At one point, Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts [“Bullhead,” “Rust and Bone”] and Dakota Johnson were slated to star as the movie’s fictitious duo Blackgammon in the roles that eventually went to Ahmed alongside Olivia Cooke’s punk poetess howler Lou, trained for that role by Pharmakon’s real-life heavy warbler Margaret Chardiet.

“There was something very ‘meta’ about the film’s process for Riz,” said writer/director Marder, whose brother Abraham co-wrote “Purity,” the three-minute-plus performance which opens the film and establishes Ahmed and Olivia’s bona fides as a real metal band, the first scene in a chronological shoot that helped Riz approximate his character losing his hearing, and livelihood. “It was audacious to film it in order, because it put a huge amount of pressure on Riz to learn in time for us to start,” admitted Marder. “That didn’t just set the tone for the movie, it’s how Riz embodies the character, how he becomes Ruben, which continues to be part of him until the end of the film. That’s what real acting is… not pretending, but embodying.”

“The overwhelming, immersive nature of that challenge really appealed to me,” Ahmed says. “I lean towards projects that take me out of my comfort zone. Once I realized what I was in for, it was too late to back out.”

That purity of intention is what makes “Sound of Metal” so successful, down to the deaf actors in the cast and fellow Oscar hopeful Paul Raci, who is a hearing actor but grew up with deaf parents and has appeared for decades in deaf theater productions and is himself fluent in ASL. Raci’s character introduces Ahmed’s Ruben to sign language and teaches him being hard of hearing is not a disability, but a rich culture all its own.

“Drumming and ASL are both non-verbal means of communication,” says Ahmed, who raps under the name Riz MC. “They both shared the same challenge for someone word-oriented like myself, to get past that crutch and communicate with my body. That was the challenge.”

His chief tutor Licata, a drummer boasting the lexicon of a product manager, using terms like “deliverable,” “moving target,” “reverse engineering” and “required result,” to describe his work with Ahmed, who proved an apt student willing to put in the work.

“He was just so dedicated,” says Licata, who also praised the Groove Scribe software that allowed Ahmed to follow the drum notation as a bouncing ball on a monitor while playing along. “We didn’t take any short cuts. We pushed each other. Riz was so into it, he began asking me how to break down a cymbal stand or move a bass drum.”

While Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” — also his first major feature — was an homage to precise, disciplined Buddy Rich-style jazz drumming, Marder’s narrative leans on raw, unbridled passion, rather than technical polish, which Ahmed delivered in the film’s crucial segment, shot in a single take in front of a live audience at the fabled the Middle East in Cambridge, Mass.

“Having that pressure really helped me prepare,” says Ahmed of playing in front of the cameras and a live audience. “Limitations, parameters and tightropes in any creative process focus the mind in a way that forces you to bypass that part of the brain. What it all boiled down to was letting go. I had to learn the same lesson my character did, which was that one can’t control certain things. It was only when I surrendered that I truly felt comfortable, and it all fell into place. And that’s true for Ruben’s journey.”

“Drumming is a matter of time,” echoes Marder, a self-declared punk-rock fan of Dead Kennedys and Bad Brains. “You can’t rush it. Those connections only came to Riz with constant practice and repetition… until the moment when the right and left hemispheres clicked. But you can’t push to that moment. Riz was freaking out, but he persevered. There had to be something at stake. You can feel that onscreen. I was much more interested in feeling something real than something beautiful or technically perfect.”

Those emotions, along with the film’s groundbreaking sound design, which emulates the feeling of losing one’s hearing in real time, has attracted a riveted, if homebound audience in a way a theatrical debut might not have had a chance to, away from any critics, in their own living rooms.

“That fact is not lost on me,” says Marder. “It’s just a blessing that a film like this has risen above the fray, that people are seeing and feeling it. As a filmmaker, that’s all you can ask for. The rest is just noise.”

Adds Ahmed: “After we finished filming, I walked up to Darius and said, ‘Honestly if no one sees this, it has been an intense, transformative experience for me.’ I went in with minimal expectations, so it’s mind-blowing to see how people have responded. You do films where you try to work through something and arrive at a place inside that you haven’t been before, and then the world responds… It’s hard to put into words.”

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