Marching to the beat of his own drum

  • Darius Marder, of Ashfield, and his brother, Abraham Marder, of Amherst, stand outside the Greenfield Garden Cinemas ahead of the release of their new film, "Sound of Metal," Thursday afternoon. Staff photo/Andy Castillo

  • Darius Marder, of Ashfield, stands outside the Greenfield Garden Cinemas ahead of the release of his new film, "Sound of Metal," Thursday afternoon. The movie’s promotional poster can be seen in the background on Main Street in downtown Greenfield. Staff photo/Andy Castillo

  • Darius Marder, of Ashfield, stands outside the Greenfield Garden Cinemas ahead of the release of his new film, "Sound of Metal," Thursday afternoon. Staff photo/Andy Castillo

  • There are many similarities between the location Darius Marder selected as one of the film's primary settings and the farmhouse on Parsons Road where he grew up. Contributed photo/Darius Marder

  • There are many similarities between the location Darius Marder selected as one of the film's primary settings, seen above not far from Ipswich, where much of the movie was filmed, and the farmhouse on Parsons Road in Conway where he grew up, pictured below. Contributed photos/Darius Marder

  • There are many similarities between the location Darius Marder selected as one of the film's primary settings and the farmhouse on Parsons Road where he grew up. Contributed photo/Darius Marder—

  • There are many similarities between the location Darius Marder selected as one of the film's primary settings and the farmhouse on Parsons Road where he grew up. Contributed photo/Darius Marder—

  • Photographs of Darius Marder as a child, taken by his grandmother, Dorothy, who was a prolific activist and photographer. She became suddenly deaf from an antibiotic administered to treat a serious bout of pancreatitis. Contributed photo/Dorothy Marder—

  • A photograph of Darius Marder as a child, taken by his grandmother, Dorothy Marder, who was a prolific activist and photographer. She became suddenly deaf from an antibiotic administered to treat a serious bout of pancreatitis. Contributed photo/Dorothy Marder

  • Above and below: Sequences of movement are pictured here from Darius Marder's upbringing in Conway at a commune where practitioners pursued the teachings of philosopher George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. The piano piece played for the movements is featured at one point in 'Sound of Metal.' Contributed photos/Darius Marder

  • Sequences of movement are pictured here from Darius Marder's upbringing in Conway at a commune where practitioners pursued the teachings of philosopher George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. The piano piece played for the movements is featured at one point in 'Sound of Metal.' Contributed photo/Darius Marder—

  • An acting headshot of Darius Marder from the 1990s.

  • Young Darius Marder can be seen in the plaid shirt posing with the Conway community with a Tibetan Lama. Contributed photo/Darius Marder

  • Darius Marder with his sons, Asa, 21, left and Ezra, 16. Contributed photo/Darius Marder

  • Darius Marder and his son, Asa, working on "Sound of Metal" with Director of Photography Danïel Bouquet and the film's producer, Sacha Ben Haroche. Contributed photo/Darius Marder

  • Darius Marder on the set of "Sound of Metal." Contributed photo/Darius Marder

  • Darius Marder on the set of "Sound of Metal." Contributed photo/Darius Marder—

  • Darius Marder talks with actor Riz Ahmed during a scene for “Sound of Metal.” Ahmed plays a hard rock drummer who suddenly becomes deaf. Contributed photo/Darius Marder

  • Darius Marder, seen at left in the blue sweater, talks with actors during a scene of “Sound of Metal.” Contributed photo/Darius Marder

  • Darius Marder Contributed photo

  • Darius Marder Contributed photo/Darius Marder—

  • Darius Marder plays drums on the set of "Sound of Metal." Contributed photo/Darius Marder

  • Darius Marder on the set of "Sound of Metal" with Actor Riz Ahmed.

  • In this movie still from “Sound of Metal,” Actor Riz Ahmed plays the drums inside of a club. The movie, which has received stellar reviews so far, was released Friday in American theaters and will be available to stream on Amazon Prime as an Amazon Original film Dec. 4. It was directed by Darius Marder, of Ashfield; the screenplay was co-written by Darius Marder and his brother, Abraham Marder, of Amherst. Contributed photo/Amazon Studios

  • The cover of ‘Sound of Metal.’ Contributed photo/Amazon Studios

  • A promotional poster for “Sound of Metal” seen outside the Greenfield Garden Cinemas Thursday evening. The film opened in American theaters Friday. Staff photo/Andy Castillo

  • Garden Theater Marquee on Main Street in Greenfield. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Garden Theater Marquee on Main Street in Greenfield. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Movies playing at Garden Theater on Main Street in Greenfield. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

Staff Writer
Published: 11/20/2020 1:20:41 PM

A cold November breeze swept beneath Greenfield Garden Cinemas’ iconic Main Street marquee on a recent evening, rustling a poster promoting an upcoming release displayed just outside the glass doors: “Sound of Metal. Music was his world. Then silence revealed a new one.”

On this night, instead of a red carpet, yellow tape spaced 6-feet apart welcomed movie-goers braving the cold and the coronavirus.

It’s not exactly the setting one might expect for the American release of a critically acclaimed film that’s been five years and a lifetime in the making. But then again, Darius Marder, 46, of Ashfield, isn’t the typecast of one who is basking in the glow of Hollywood’s glistening lights, even if he looks the part — lightly draped scarf, leather Chelsea boots, styled gray hair and all.

“In a million years, I couldn’t imagine (opening at) the Garden Theater in Greenfield, the cinema where I grew up and saw ‘A Hard Day’s Night,’” said Marder, the writer and director behind “Sound of Metal.” He recently moved back to Franklin County after living in New York City for 25 years. “In a way, it’s beautiful. And it brought me home.”

Standing beside him, Abraham Marder, of Amherst, his brother and the screenplay’s co-writer, is quick to step out of the spotlight.

“I’m mostly so proud and thrilled for my dear brother, here,” he added.

So far, “Sound of Metal,” which tells the fictional story of a hard rock drummer who suffers sudden hearing loss — portrayed by Emmy Award-winning actor Riz Ahmed — has been met with high praise from reviewers far and wide.

Jeanette Catsoull, a film critic for the New York Times, writes that Marder “builds a singular tension between silence and noise”; John DeFore, of Hollywood Reporter, describes the film as “one that should be warmly welcomed at arthouses”; Edward Douglas, a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, says “There’s no question in my mind that ‘Sound of Metal’ ... will be in serious talks for awards in the new year.” Notably, the film won the Golden Eye for Best Film in the International Feature Film Competition at the 15th Zurich Film Festival and has been nominated for a Golden Athena Award. As of Friday, the movie review website Rotten Tomatoes listed “Sound of Metal” as “certified fresh” with a stellar 96 percent rating.

With a theater debut Friday, “Sound of Metal,” which premiered globally for the first time at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, will be available to stream digitally on Amazon Prime Dec. 4 as an “Amazon Original” movie. Its release is the culminating achievement of Marder’s hard-fought and occasionally illustrious film-writing career — a journey that was first sparked in Greenfield teacher Ruth Charney’s literature classroom at The Center School, where he attended before moving on to South Deerfield’s Frontier Regional School.

Before the pandemic derailed plans, “We had a premiere set up for the ArcLight in LA,” Marder said. “The movie is coming out in theaters. It’s my dream. Literally, my lifelong dream. But it’s the worst time to come out in theaters.”

‘Slightly unusual and varied’

Hollywood’s glamorous lifestyle is a far cry from Conway’s quiet hills, where Marder grew up. To say the least, he describes his Parsons Street upbringing as “slightly unusual and varied.”

His parents, Lauri Marder, an artist, of Shelburne Falls and Efrem Marder, an abstract painter from Conway, were New Yorkers who moved to a local group home of about 35 practitioners in pursuance of the teachings of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, a Russian philosopher and spiritual leader who promoted a discipline known as “The Work” as a way to achieve a higher level of consciousness. In his 1949 book “In Search of the Miraculous,” author P.D. Ousepensky writes that Gurdjieff believed most humans lived in a state of a hypnotic “waking sleep.”

The community, comprised of people hailing from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds (not all of whom lived there), “was an infusion of real diversity of perspective,” Marder recalled. “The people drawn to Gurdjieff were not of a particular political bend; they were seekers.” According to Efrem Marder, the teacher of the Gurdjieff community, Paul Anderson, “invited various Tibetan Lamas to work with the group, the first of which was Khenpo Thupten” in the late 1970s and Tibetan Dzogchen Master Chogyal Namkhai Norbu in 1982. Notably, a remnant of that Conway community still has its center at the Conway Grammar School, which Darius Marder attended; others continue to practice at Mandala Hall in Buckland.

In this, Darius Marder has fond memories of those early days on the Parsons Street farm. Gurdjieff practitioners focused on intentional movement and “The meditative quality of physical work,” which included tending vegetable crops and milking goats.

“People picture a very hippy-dippy community; that’s not what this was,” Marder said. “It was a very beautiful experience growing up. There was always live piano (music) in the house.”

Eventually, the community transitioned to Dzogchen Buddhism and Darius Marder and his siblings, Abraham, Gabrial, Ursa and Benjamin Marder, ventured out into the vastly different scene of Conway’s rural social construct.

It was, in a way, culture shock.

Sudden silence

Their family’s ancestry was that of extraordinary multi-national intellects and activists. Darius Marder’s great-grandfather, Moishe Marder, for example, grew up in an orthodox Jewish community in Austria. He became an atheist at 15 years old after smoking a cigarette on the Sabbath and discovering that “he was not struck down by God like he was supposed to (be).” During World War II, Moishe Marder saved the family by “forging passports, bribery, everything under the sun” and “running across the border” into Italy, according to Efrem Marder.

Darius Marder’s paternal grandmother, Dorothy Marder, came out publicly as gay in the 1970s, divorcing his grandfather, Eric Marder, and at one point was friends with American author Grace Paley. In an unfortunate stroke of bad luck foreshadowing the plot of Darius Marder’s latest cinematic release, “She took an antibiotic and went deaf, profoundly deaf. So, this woman who was a bit of an orphan, a cinephile, an activist and an artist who (facilitated) sex groups (for women coming out) in the city went deaf, lost her connection to the hearing world and didn’t have a connection to deaf culture. She spent the rest of her life petitioning for films to be captioned,” he said.

When Darius Marder was young, Efrem Marder noted his son was particularly close with his grandmother. Her sudden deafness, the antibiotic cause of which was prescribed to treat a serious bout of pancreatitis, “imprinted on Darius very much,” Efrem Marder said. “Because she was an activist and a radical, she became very engaged with activism for (everything related to) disability.”

In recalling Dorothy Marder’s experience with deafness, Lauri Marder noted that she always said, “‘Losing the sense of hearing,’ she was sure, ‘was the worst sense to lose.’ It cut her off. She was very angry about it. She felt very, very frustrated.”

As for himself, Darius Marder recalls, “I was a bit of a live wire. I had the voices of my two grandparents in my head. I had a very vigorous sense of wanting to see and feel what is real.”

Even today, while Marder says he can’t quite put a finger on the reason why, he describes holding a “palpable anger and frustration” toward ignorance.

As a teenager, “I was looking to tease and test in the ways I could,” he continued. “It’s a bit of a cliche, I was like a Holden Caulfield in high school. I was very much that kid. I was a big kid, I felt and appeared much older than all the other kids. I was really pushing the boundaries — hitchhiking everywhere, very Carlos Castaneda.”

Case in point, he recalls seeing a group of jocks picking on a gay student once during the lunch hour.

“I remember picking up the lunch table and throwing it at these jocks with their food still on it. I remember running down the halls from these jocks and being beaten up,” he said.

Marder also describes experiencing overt racism: “Kids would throw pennies and quarters and say ‘pick it up, Jew.’”

As an outsider, only one teacher broke through his hard shell: Ruth Charney, a founding member of The Center School in Greenfield.

“She was the seminal teacher in my life,” Marder said. In seventh and eighth grade, Marder says Charney identified in him a gift for writing and encouraged him in the endeavor. When he left her classroom, however, he put down the pen and didn’t pick it up until after graduation, when Charney again pulled him away from the edge.

“She called me when I was in a very dark place after high school,” Marder said. “She called me and asked if I wanted to teach. In a way, she saved me.”

At 18, Charney said Marder worked at the private school on Montague City Road, “Leading groups of young teens in academics, creative writing, music, art, soccer and how to be invested members of a school community. He was a role model, a facilitator, a keen observer and guide. He started a musical program and chorus that allowed him to discover the vocal tenor talents of Brickett Allis (former Greenfield City Councilor and mayoral candidate), for example. He was good at that — at recognizing what others had to offer while living out his extraordinary range of talents.”

The impact on Marder was profound: “Not only did she save me but, fascinatingly, I had locked up my writing so much that it was in teaching children that allowed me to write again,” he said.

New York City

After four years of teaching, Marder moved to New York City, where he held an assortment of jobs — he was an actor for a while; he was a personal chef; he ran a catering company; he was a singing cowboy on a mystery train; he filmed wedding videos and helped out on Hollywood sets; he wrote scripts without compensation; he made his first movie, a silent film about a man stuck working at a gas station, and projected it onto the wall of a barn for an audience of friends.

By that point, Marder says he was finding success as a chef, having recently been featured in Martha Stewart and Gourmet Magazine. But the filmmaking experience inspired him to take a risk on what had become a dream. So he called every food-related contact he had and told them, “I’m never working in this industry again. Don’t call me.”

His cinematic breakthrough came a short while later while watching Asa, his oldest son, play in a sandbox at the 9th Street Playground in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. A man named Dan Campbell, who had recently moved to the city from Utah, by chance sat on the same bench and told him about a Mormon used car salesman from back home who, in turn, knew a World War II veteran who’d allegedly buried a treasure somewhere in Europe during the war.

“I was struck by the energy (of) the story and I said, ‘I’m going to make this movie,’” Marder recalled. “He said, ‘I guess I’ll produce it. What does that mean, produce it?’ I said, ‘That means you’ll pay for it.’”

They had drinks that night and flew to Utah a few days later.

The ensuing documentary, “Loot,” took five years to make and won “best film” in the 2008 Los Angeles Film Festival, an accolade that came with a $50,000 prize. It was subsequently streamed on HBO in 2009.

“That was a real labor of love,” Marder said. “My career has been marked by chapters of saying ‘no.’ I said ‘no’ to cooking and being a chef. That birthed my first movie. After that, I started editing films and I found that I was starting to make good money editing — I’m just not cut out to edit other people’s movies — at one point, I had the same realization: ‘S, I’m going to be an editor; that’s not what I want to do.’ So I did the same thing with editing: I made a rule for myself that I would only make money in the industry (by) writing or directing. That was a very difficult thing to do.”

Back home in Conway, Darius Marder’s father recalled that time as one with a lot of uncertainty.

“For a couple of years, I was quite skeptical,” Efrem Marder said. But after watching “Loot” for the first time, “My jaw just dropped. … In some ways, the making of ‘Loot’ is almost more extraordinary (than ‘Sound of Metal’) because Darius started from ground zero — against all odds, on a shoestring budget,” he continued, noting that by that time his son had two young sons of his own, Asa and Ezra.

Following “Loot,” Darius Marder co-wrote “The Place Beyond the Pines” in 2012 — starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper and Eva Mendes — with writer/director Derek Cianfrance, who is known for “Blue Valentine” and “The Light Between Oceans,” among other productions.

“That brings us full circle,” Darius Marder said. “(Cianfrance) is very much connected to this movie. … He and I met 13 years ago and immediately connected — the first thing we talked about was a hybrid documentary” titled “Metalhead,” which Cianfrance was working on at the time. The proposed film (it was canceled a few years later) was about the metal band Jucifer, focusing on a drummer suffering hearing loss. Marder says Cianfrance’s conceptual documentary “was the seed of ‘Sound of Metal.’”

‘Sound of Metal’

The ensuing production, which runs 130 minutes, stars Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff and Mathieu Amalric alongside Ahmed, whose discography includes notable titles “Nightcrawler” in 2014; “Jason Bourne” in 2016; “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” in 2016; and “Venom” in 2018. At the 2017 Emmy Awards, Ahmed received two nominations for his performances in the HBO miniseries “The Night Of” and the comedy-drama “Girls,” winning Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie for the former. The film was produced by Bert Hamelinck and Sacha Ben Harroche.

Efrem Marder said that “Sound of Metal” features a filmmaking style he’s come to expect from his son: “Uncompromising.” And, even if the coronavirus has put a damper on things, its American release is “just a beautiful moment for Darius and Abraham,” he said. “It’s thrilling to see that the two of them were able to manifest their skills together. ... I’m a really proud dad.” Lauri Marder described the film as unique: “I haven’t really seen anything quite like this because it’s not weird in an independent film way. It doesn’t require you to give up your perspective. It tells its story very clearly.”

Notably, there are a few more personal narrative touches that made their way into the final script. Marder drew some inspiration for the main character’s relationship with girlfriend and co-musician, Lou, from aspects of his own longtime marriage and recent separation from artist and high school sweetheart, Liza Cassidy. One of the film’s primary locations, a rambling white farmhouse, is incredibly similar to the Parsons Street Gurdjieff community in Conway. And at one point, there’s a piano piece titled “Rejoice Bealzabub” that was written by Gurdjieff and composer Thomas de Hartmann.

While successful now, Marder says making “Sound of Metal” posed an uphill battle from the start.

Writing the film “Was a complete act of faith. There was no money. Eventually, I brought my brother (Abraham) on board to write with me. We probably wrote 1,500 or 2,000 pages to get to this script. It was a lot of work,” Marder said.

Then, ten days before filming was scheduled to start, the financing fell through and he had to send an email to friends Bill and Kathy Benz in London that read something along the lines of, “Do you want to finance my movie? I need an answer by tomorrow. … They did it. They wired the money without a contract. That’s how we made the movie,” he said.

Logistically, while filming near Ipswich only took about a month, the casting process took more than four years to finalize because of Marder’s incredibly stringent and specific standards.

“I wanted the actor to learn the drums, from scratch. I wanted the actor to learn (American Sign Language) … to a certain degree of fluency,” Marder said. “The casting process was very hard; I scared the crap out of every actor I ever met.”

Cinematically, these demands reveal themselves in both physical and emotional authenticity. In documentary style and beautifully shot on 35mm film, Marder captured actors performing live musical sets in audience-filled clubs. Emotionally, “Sound of Metal” is an immersive soundscape — an aspect of the film Abraham Marder played a particularly strong role in, given his musical background — that is as intense as it is moving. And while it’s shot in beautiful contrast as opposed to being projected onto the side of a barn, “Sound of Metal” sometimes feels like a silent movie, giving a brief window into the suddenly quiet world Dorothy Marder must have experienced.

Combined with a memorable performance by Ahmed and his co-stars, therein lies the creative brilliance of ‘Sound of Metal.’

As Darius Marder puts it, the attention to detail makes for a “transcendent” viewing experience: “You cannot pretend to have an emotion. You have to find that in you. When something real happens on the screen … you won’t soon forget it.”

The emotional resonance of “Sound of Metal” extends beyond its source material. While he can’t personally relate to deafness, Marder says the film is at its core about identity — what happens when it’s suddenly taken away? The film’s antagonist, Ruben, a former drug addict who is one half of the rock duo Blackgammon, grapples with this question in a visceral way throughout.

Deeper than that, it’s an artistically shot story about the search for inner peace — the kind that only starts to settle after the credits have started rolling. In learning to accept his hearing deficiency, Ruben is forced to either confront or flee from his more abstract psychological demons. Having lived in-between rural Western Massachusetts and the multicultural commune, Marder says he’s intimately familiar with this tension.

“I’ve spent a lot of my life having to contend with that push and pull of identity versus presence,” he said. “The feeling of being on the edge of darkness, which is to say, after high school when I felt lost.”

More broadly, he continued, trying to forge a career in the arts as a parent has also been an unforeseen challenge — and one that’s reflected abstractly in the film. These days, his two sons, Asa, who worked behind the scenes on the project and Ezra, an actor in the movie, are 21 and 16 respectively.

“I can’t impress on you how hard that journey was. They saw me fail year after year. They saw the film get set up with an actor and then fall apart. They saw financing get set up and then fall through,” Marder said. “There were so many moments of despair. Absolute despair. In a funny way, I knew I was going to make it. All of it. I always knew I was going to do this.”

Andy Castillo is the features editor at the Greenfield Recorder. He holds a master’s degree in creative nonfiction and can be reached at acastillo@recorder.com.

How to connect

“Sound of Metal” is scheduled to show at the Greenfield Garden Cinemas throughout next week and beyond.

The film will be available to stream on Amazon Prime starting Dec. 4.

Showtimes at the Greenfield theater are as follows: Friday through Sunday: 12:15, 3:15, 6:15 p.m.; Monday and Tuesday: 4:30, 7 p.m.; Wednesday: 3:30, 6:30 p.m.; Thursday: 4:30, 7 p.m. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit gardencinemas.net.

Isaac Mass, the Main Street theater’s owner, said he is “proud” to feature the title. And for those in the community who are hard of hearing, “We have available both amplifying and sound-reducing headphones as well as individualized closed caption devices for the public.”




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