Shannon Plumb has shot over 200 short films, which have been exhibited in museums, galleries, and on international screens. She started by shooting herself as various characters, acting out three-minute situations using humor and silence as her vehicles for storytelling. In 2013, her first feature film, Towheads, premiered at MoMA as part of New Directors / New Films. You can see her short films at shannonplumb.com and Towheads is available on Netflix and iTunes. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, director Derek Cianfrance, and their two sons.
It felt like Darius and I hadn’t talked in years. We used to see each other every day. We’d drop our kids off at the same school, walk to our caffeine provider, talk about ideas, about our gripes, our yearning to get things made, and laugh at scenes for unwritten movies constructed while sipping coffee at a Clinton Hill café. We watched each other’s kids grow up. Talked about their challenges, our challenges, teachers’ challenges, Hollywood challenges. Talked about art, and once tried to name 10 female directors as fast as we could name 10 male directors. That wasn’t easy 10 years ago. We ate dinners together. Darius cooked the crispiest, tastiest mushrooms. He showed me how to fry an egg without it sticking to a metal pan. (You have to heat the pan first.) We celebrated birthdays that began new decades and ended old ones. We heard our kids sing at spring assemblies, watched them get a little taller every year on the choir risers. When I first met Darius, I was invited to a screening of his documentary Loot. During the Q&A, I said, “That was magic.” Thought this guy is in touch with something.
My husband Derek Cianfrance and Darius had become friends. They were eventually writing together at our house. Wherever they created character and plot lines, they left a trail of fortune cookie crumbs and Chinese takeout containers. When they left my house, they took their mess to Darius’ house where Liza, Darius’ wife, would remind them to clean up their dirty foot prints.
Darius and Derek were finishing the script for The Place Beyond the Pines while we raced north on the highway to see my grandma, who was about to part from our world. Darius was in the backseat, but might as well have been in the front the way he reached up between me and Derek while they worked out the ending for the movie. I forfeited my shotgun seat for the sake of a decent ending. He had seen what kind of people Derek and I were, and we had seen a lot of who he was. We liked each other, no matter what flaws or flab was showing. We were growing up as parents and as artists, and now, I realize, growing up as friends.
We walked in the cold for this interview. It was the second day of April. While our fingers curled around cups of hot coffee, we lifted our masks up and down as deemed necessary, and we talked.
We sat at a table outside and ordered pots of mint tea. I didn’t notice there was a metal filter to strain the tea, so mint leaves were swarming in my cup. We sipped and sniffled and warmed our fingers again. Navigating leaves of mint in my mouth, I began our interview. But first, I should tell you the origins of Sound of Metal.
It was once called Metalhead and was conceived by Derek a couple years before we met Darius.
When I met Derek Cianfrance, there were two things he had been doing his whole life: drumming and filmmaking.
As a teenager, Derek was obsessed with Dave Lombardo of Slayer and Lars Ulrich of Metallica. He wanted to be like those guys. “Heavy metal music is all about rage and power and speed and aggression,” he says, “so it’s very loud.”
He had a 36-piece drum set by the time he was 18. Cymbals everywhere. The set took up half the living room. He didn’t wear earplugs. By the time he was 18, he had severe ringing in his ears.
When we became pregnant with our first son, Derek made a decision to put the drums away. Playing in a band, trying to make films and balancing family time was too much. He felt he had to make a sacrifice somewhere. But his admiration of great drummers never disappeared.
Derek had been trying for nine years to make Blue Valentine. He was about to embark on the 51st draft of it when he decided he was sick of scripts. He says he had a burning desire to chuck the script and just shoot something. After watching the documentary In the Land of the Deaf, after tinnitus, after facing the fear that he might lose his hearing, after packing up the drums, a story came to him. Metalhead: the tale of a heavy metal drummer who suffers hearing loss and is told he has to stop playing the drums or he’s going to lose his hearing completely. He lives in the world of the deaf while raising money for a cochlear implant.
Derek wrote his idea into a 10-page treatment.
He wanted to do the movie without a script. Superimpose his story on a real-life drummer. Derek proposed the idea to the heavy metal duo Amber Valentine and Edgar Livengood of Jucifer. This was the loudest band Derek had ever heard. Edgar was the hardest hitter Derek had ever seen. The first time he saw them play, Edgar busted a cymbal into two pieces. Amber played guitar in front of a three-ton wall of amps. While we were pregnant with our second son, Derek began flying out to Georgia, Nevada, and Virginia, filming life on the road and the live shows of these two musicians.
Edgar wore ear plugs when he played. Derek took him to a hearing doctor to test his ears. He had perfect hearing. On his sixth and last trip, Derek composed a scene with Edgar getting a hearing test with a real doctor. For the sake of the story, Edgar had to eventually lose his hearing. Derek puts earplugs in Edgar’s ears to make the hearing test go bad. Derek was superimposing a fantasy version of who they were onto their real lives. He was blurring the line between doc and fiction. But Amber and Edgar weren’t actors. They were musicians. They were Jucifer. They were themselves. They resisted stepping into a character’s shoes. They didn’t want to confuse who they really were with the world.
All at once, Blue Valentine was ready to go. The actors and financing were finally in place. Derek had to put away Metalhead.
He says he learned a lot from shooting with Jucifer. Instead of putting real people in made-up situations, he thought he could put actors in real-life situations which might instigate their performance. Metalhead informed the way Derek would make Blue Valentine and all his other films. He created a method he has used ever since.
Derek says letting go of Metalhead was like offering up his creation for adoption. He knew Darius was someone who could keep it alive and guide it with a script. We knew Darius was a great storyteller. Giving Metalhead to Darius was the best thing to do for the movie. Derek says, “It felt like the creative process, which is always, at its heart, a gift.”
In 2012, the hand-off happened. Darius looked over the footage that Derek shot, saw shreds of his own experiences that could be cultivated into scenes, and got started on crafting a screenplay.
The waiter asks us if we’re too cold outside, if we want a table inside. “No, no,” Darius says. “We’d rather be cold without COVID. We figure we’ll be cold and not die.”
Darius’ grandfather was an Austrian Jew. He was obsessed with the grosser Mann. A German term for the Great Man. Darius says his grandfather was a genius. He was teaching physics at the age of 18. Darius’ family was made up of writers and artists, professors and champion chess players. Even though he was surrounded by talent and achievement growing up, Darius was restricted creatively. There was always pressure to achieve a godlike greatness. Darius says to “just make work” was not easy in his family. The judgement of the work could paralyze the creative process. Art was done in isolation. Away from critics. Away from the glaring eyes of the Great Man.
The Great Man was a curse. The Great Man had hubris. The curse is the hubris, Darius says, it’s in thinking the gift is yours. Genius visits you. When it’s knocking, let it in. It’s not going to stay. When it’s ready to leave, you have to work. No man or woman can ever maintain greatness like the Great Man. The Great Man is all genius, the Great man is not a man at all. Human beings just can’t be that great all the time. We have to be terrible most of the time, and work to be great some of the time. We have to be willing to be everything but great.
There was always something at stake to get there. To get to that sacred space where genius enters, where ideas land like packages attached to silk parachutes. “I know storytelling is a gift of mine,” Darius says. “I knew it early on. But the curse of the gift of the Great Man is very dangerous.”
Darius says he is a paradox. He was a fuck-up in school, but was always asked to move ahead a grade. He judged himself harshly, but felt he had something to offer. He wants humility, but his work can be nothing less than magic. “I had to move beyond the curse.”
There were three angels in Darius’ life: Ruth Charney, Dan Campbell, and Derek.
Ruth was the first. In the seventh and eighth grade, Darius’s teacher Ruth put him in a high-level writing class. “I was always the athlete, the pain in the ass, the clown. This teacher said, ‘No, you’re an artist, you’re a writer. You’re not the mess you think you are.’ The writer was awakened in me.”
When he left the class at the end of eighth grade, Darius says he didn’t write another word for many years. That Great Man was always looking over his shoulder. He finished high school feeling like a failure. In 1993, Ruth came back to him and asked if he would teach that same class he’d taken years earlier. For four years, he helped young students with their writing. “Instead of forcing myself to write, I was helping children to write. They were putting on plays. The reason Ruben in Sound of Metal ends up with children is because of this. That’s where that comes from.”
“Ruben is me,” he says. “He’s a caretaker, he drives the Airstream, he’s in charge; he needs to be in control, lest he fall off the edge of the Earth. That was me. I was taking care of my whole family, my parents, my siblings, I was taking care of 40 kids when I was 18. And I’ve never stopped taking care of people. I had Asa early. When I was in my mid-twenties. When I had Asa, I made my first film. I had bought camera equipment early on to shoot docs. I wanted to make a doc about my grandparents, about four artists who wouldn’t show their work to the world. They wouldn’t let me. I needed to do my own work. I made my first silent film on Super 8 when Asa was born. Projected it on a barn. Played it to music. Transcendent. Holy fucking shit. This was it. I see this.”
Darius knew he wanted to make films. He just didn’t know how. “I’m in a barn in Vermont without a dime and with a baby.”
He wrote another script for another short film. It was judged severely. He didn’t write another word for 10 years. “That’s how harsh my own judgement was.”
The waiter comes over to me and Darius. I remove a mint leaf from my smile. We ask for more hot water to warm our hands.
Darius moved to the city and worked as a food stylist for many years. He was making enough to survive, but still longed to tell stories. He decided he was going to jump. Without any connections, without a clue about the film business, he quit making food and committed himself to the idea of filmmaking.
Not long after he made this decision, he met Dan Campbell, his second angel, on a bench in Prospect Park. Dan told him about a man with a buried treasure. While their sons played in a sandbox, they started mapping out routes for the documentary Loot. The film was five years in the making. Darius executed everything on it. Sound, photography, editing. Loot did really well. It was nominated for a Spirit Award, and HBO picked it up. Darius says he had the golden key to the doc world after that film.
But he didn’t want to make documentaries. Deep down, he was still a writer.
The waiter comes to our table with more hot water. I forget the filter again and pour more tea leaves into my cup. I chew my tea like a giraffe chomping on a tree. Darius and I laugh for the first time. The Great Man on his shoulder rolls his eyes at my imperfect ways.
Darius says, “I made a rule for myself: I will write and direct and not make money any other way. What a stupid thing to say, but I had to say it.”
He showed up at an office every day to write. He sent out his script. He was rejected from all the screenwriting labs, over and over again.
When Derek and Darius met for the first time at a children’s birthday party in Prospect Park, a creative connection began. Soon after, Derek invited Darius to join him in writing The Place Beyond the Pines. “He needed me, and I needed the project,” says Darius. “This allowed me to be in service of something that wasn’t about my own brain. Because my own brain will shut me down.” Darius felt liberated. Together they wrote the script and premiered the film at Toronto.
So … Metalhead became Sound of Metal. This was a true gift for Darius: “It got me out of my own construct. Allowed for that muse.” Darius found himself in the Sound of Metal. Collaborating with his brother Abe, they wrote almost 2,000 pages over a span of four years. The script was almost ready. They had approached the end. But what was the ending? Darius got blocked. That Great Man interfered again.
Derek called up Darius with a job to write another script together. This gave Darius a much-needed break from Sound of Metal. When he’d finished the script with Derek, he returned to fill the empty pages of his own script. Seasoned by a whole year of writing a different movie, and living through challenges of his personal life, he came face to face with grosser Mann. One day, when he was running his son to the train at 5:30 in the morning, he started to see the ending. He needed to write. Immediately. He went to a little café in Fort Greene called Black Forest. He put his laptop down and got ready to bang out the ending to the Sound of Metal. It happened. For a few weeks, he was in a steady stream of writing. The ending had been there all along, but he hadn’t had the courage to visualize it. Every day, he dropped his son at the station. Every day, that man at the Black Forest café let him in at 6:30 a.m., even though he didn’t open until 8. Every day, the guy had a coffee and an egg sandwich waiting for him. Every day, Darius shut down The Great Man. The ending finally came out. “I was writing my story.”
Our hands are frozen. No more mint tea. Time to go.
Darius gives me a bottle of red wine from his car. I don’t care what the grosser Mann says. I know I’ll drink this with great perfection. I’ll do it well.
This past weekend, we celebrated Darius’s victory over the Great Man. Derek, Darius and Abe were nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards. He may not have broken the curse, but he beat the shit out of an old drum, he knocked down that Great Man.
Congratulations, Darius! I hope you continue to duke it out with the grosser Mann. I hope you win with humility. And I hope … we continue to walk in the cold together.