Listening closely

Alex Noyer on inclusivity, creating intimacy and Sound Of Violence

by Jennie Kermode

Jasmin Savoy Brown in Sound Of Violence
Jasmin Savoy Brown in Sound Of Violence

The story of a young musician with a history of hearing loss who is determined to finish her masterpiece before losing her hearing again, Alex Noyer’s The Sound Of Violence has been making a big splash in the horror film world. It’s currently available to watch on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital, and it recently screened at Frightfest. I met up with Alex just as he was preparing for the festival so we could discuss the story behind it.

“It's a complicated story because it traces all the way back to the last feature documentary I produced,” he says. “Because, you know, before being a director, I've been a producer for now 17 years, but that was mostly in documentaries. And, and I produced a documentary called 808, which was retracing the story of the legendary drum machine the TR-808 from Roland. And we had great people involved – we had the Beastie Boys, we had Phil Collins – it was very much the pinnacle of my documentary career and took over five years of my life. So I was both ecstatic and exhausted. And I wanted to have a new challenge.

Screaming at the sound of violence
Screaming at the sound of violence

“My wife pushed me to delve into horror movies, because she knows that's my lifelong passion. But with that, I was noticing a few things, having been obsessed with the drum machine for five years. And most of the ideas that I started to consider had a light bulb that said, I need to kill somebody with a drum machine. And that's where the idea for the short, Conductor, came from. And Conductor, in 2018, did a pretty successful festival run and really took on a life of its own, which I didn't expect.

“It was more about proving to myself that I could switch from producer to director than anything. But the character of Alexis that I created for that shorts is really what resonated with a lot of people. And I decided to write her backstory, maybe to do another short. And then from there I thought to write her journey, or reinvent it. And so the short became more of an inspiration. But yeah, from a drum machine documentary to Sound Of Violence – it's a strange journey, but at least it has music in common.”

Alexis is a wonderfully complex character, but it can be tough to take on a film with an intersectional character. Funders, in particular, can be difficult. Was it something that he was always determined to fight for?

“Yeah,” he says. “I had pushback, but that's the story. That's the character that came to my head. And I felt for the character in the short. I didn't want to betray her.

“I wanted her to illustrate that came to my mind, but I wanted to somehow then be able to meet someone to take me the rest of the way to make it authentic. Because if I'm going to have representation as such, in my film, I want them to be as authentic as possible. And this was where my casting director, Amey René was a genius to suggest Jasmin Savoy Brown, who herself is a queer black woman, and an activist and all those issues.

Lili Simmons in Sound Of Violence
Lili Simmons in Sound Of Violence

“When I met with her, she really met me the rest of the way. She delivered, and wanted me to not mess this up, because she was also excited about the idea of this representation in such a film. So that was where I was so lucky to bring authenticity through Jasmin, but also, she understood the role and everything around it.

“For us, inclusion is a modus operandi. We don't want it to be even a question. This is how we build things, you know? 60% of my crew were women and we had all sorts of representative origins. I mean, we were shooting in America. I'm not American. We just we had all sorts. It was wonderful – the energy on set was amazing. So all in all, yes, I did, I fought for it. I stood my ground and I'm very, very proud of the diversity and representation and inclusivity of our cast and crew.”

I mention that I was recently at a Fantasia discussion about black women’s representation in film where Sound Of Violence was mentioned and people were saying that they felt that in order to have full representation, you have to have villains. Does he see Jasmin as a villain?

“She's a protagonist-antagonist, he says. “She is a very likeable character but what she does is very hard to, or impossible, perhaps, to support. But you see, this is the point for me: what she does has nothing to do with her identity. I do agree that, that when we talk about inclusivity, and representation, it means every role in the movie, and the one thing that we need to do is to stay away from clichés. When I met Jasmin for the first time I asked her, ‘What did you think?’ And the first thing she said was ‘I like it, because there's no clichés in it.’ She felt comfortable in the role, she embraced the role and she elevated my film to what it is, and I'm grateful.

“It’s an amazing partnership. Jasmin related to the pages, she saw the pages, she visualised them in her head, but then she brought her fantastic talent, her ability to bring a persona that we have a real rapport with. It's not a flat character just on the screen. And that's the skill of great actors. She acts with her eyes, and just with her eyes, you can see that she is in the moment. She was a delight to direct because I never had to explain Alexis to her.

Walking a dark path
Walking a dark path

“We were very much bouncing ideas every evening. English is not my first language and the dialogue needed to be just turned more natural. So we would go back and forth, and adapt to make sure that it sounded right. And again, it showed me the grasp that she had. So I will retain a little credit with what I wrote. But I will also give her absolute full credit for what she brought.”

Where did he find the little girl who plays Jasmin in the earlier scenes?

“Kamia Benge? Oh my God. So we put a casting call out and we received tapes. And immediately I saw her tape, I was just like, ‘It's her.’ And and I was right. She is such a strong and unafraid young actress, and she just arrived and it's a tough scene, it's very intense. And her professionalism was like a notch above. And there’s the blood and it was very emotional to shoot this scene. We had this very tense moment at the table where we constantly elevated the tension between Barry and Mrs. Reeves. And it just became – you remember that the short term is called Conductor? In many ways, young Alexis in that scene is already a conductor of what's happening.

“Her calm and composure in the middle of all this, her ability to take blocking instruction and such is just a delight and she's one to watch. I can't say enough praise for her about her. I got very lucky because playing young Alexis sets the tone for the rest of the film. So you know, obviously there's a lot of pressure with that. And I just feel that that she brought that that steady hand, if you will, to to that moment that had a lot of moving parts.

“I remember when Jasmin and Kamia met, they bonded immediately. Jasmin was so happy. She saw a lot of herself in her and that was a wonderful moment. Again, I think a lot of credit needs to go to our casting director, Amey René. She really pushed so that we would really get not just options, but the right people. And for a movie of our size, we are extremely lucky to have such an amazing cast.”

Moving on to another aspect of the film, I ask about the way he used silence in it. It’s a technique which sometimes feels quite shocking and certainly makes the film stand out.

James Jagger in Sound Of Violence
James Jagger in Sound Of Violence

“We had to weigh down the fear of losing our hearing, we have to make sure that it hits,” he says. “We attempted in various ways to have the very minimal amount of sound details that will send a sensation into the audience that they are being deprived. And I wanted to deprive the audience at the same time as Jasmin was deprived. Full withdrawal with the very, very slight tinnitus tone that we used, just made it extremely uncomfortable.

“Going back to the very beginning, you know, I think the audience will relate to the idea of a family dinner being tense, but also when she's not able to hear, and then her father is screaming at her without looking at her...” He winces. “And so we we have all these withdrawals that just show this connection. Then when she regains her hearing, we understand the magnitude of what happened, which goes along with the path that sends her on.

“It's funny because we were well on the way when I saw Sound Of Metal and I realised that they did something similar. So I know some people have decided that I inspired myself on Sound Of Metal but actually, we shot this movie in 2019. Because of the pandemic, it just came out now in 2021. But I love that film. I love it very much. And it's funny that we were very like minded at the same time, not just in title.”

On the flip side of that, his film has a depiction of synaesthesia. How did he decide what to do with that?

“We had a conversation with my producing partner, and we had to decide how to encapsulate the high. How do we encapsulate the feelings that Alexis feels when she commits those acts, when she makes the music? And synaesthesia is a great example of an ability. I know it's described as a condition. I do really genuinely believe it's an ability because the way it is described by people who have synaesthesia who are experiencing sounds beyond.

“It could be, you know, numbers that give them colour, it could be something else. Everybody has a very particular type of synaesthesia, which also gave me a certain liberty to create this. You have to be specific, but it allowed us to really encapsulate the audience with Alexis and be enthralled into this colourful light. Almost cocooned, if you will. And also it reminds the audience that it detaches her from the carnage. And so living as vividly in Alexis’ world or what goes on in her mind was a necessity and synaesthesia allowed this.

Sound Of Violence DVD
Sound Of Violence DVD

“I was very happy to see that it had never been done. And I was baffled, frankly, that hadn't ever been done. But you know, I love being the first at doing something, so I was very proud of that. And we obviously consulted, and the same thing with the loss of hearing, we consulted with both the Deaf community and the hard of hearing community to make sure that we got it right. For example, you’ll notice, in the movie, we never used the word deaf. Because she was never deaf. She had lost her hearing. And we were you know, early on we were told ‘Do not use that word. This is not the same thing.’ When you lose your hearing, it's a loss of hearing and she had lost it in an accident and regained it, so again, we went with that.

“The more we consulted, similarly about synaesthesia, the better we understood that we could really create something that was very personal, very unique to her. And then maybe because I'm from Finland, my first game plan was to create Northern Lights projections. That turned into this sort of multicolor psychedelic set of projections around her, and we had a lot of fun. We had some lights on set, there were those multicoloured tubes, and sometimes I would be next to Jasmin and I was dancing with the tube so that the light would be on her. And then in post production, we would overlay that.”

Did having the silence and the synaesthesia set up in that way affect the way that he shot the rest of the film, giving him a structure that the rest was built around?

“That's a very good question,” he says, pausing for a moment. “I didn't feel the strain because it was so organic. And because we decided to be with the killer, we would be, anyway, quite intimate. So the necessity to remain intimate with her is a pretty traditional method of filmmaking. So adding the light element was just finding a dynamic solution that we could set up without losing too much time.

“But yeah, the coverage had to be, as per the story, really following her, so using intimacy when we needed it. And then when we were in the twosome of Jasmin and Lili - so Alexis and Marie – we used more wide shots, two shots. And it was interesting to do. Even in the nightclub, with how close we are to Alexis, and then we open and when we see them dancing, it was very interesting, because it forced us to be as dynamic as we could and give ourselves edit options and coverage.”

When structuring a film around violence like that, how does one decide how much it's appropriate to show and how to depict it?

“I decided that when I wrote the script,” he says. “With the short I was very heavily focused on practical effects and a big shocking reveal that just turns into mayhem. I can't hold that for 90 minutes, because the audience drops out. This is one of the problems – when you go over the top with this kind of violent horror, you lose your audience, when you're trying to tell them the story of a character. So I had to go more of a thriller way.

“It's funny because it is surprisingly a lot less gory than a lot of horror movies out there but people keep telling me about how gory it is. And actually, it's a lot of it is in the background. Again, I would recommend everybody go see Conductor, it's on YouTube. That's in your face, camera on carnage. But here the carnage is always in this sort of detachment from Alexis, apart perhaps from the harp scene, but we have a sense of it. It needs to be immersive. It's brutal, and the brutality makes everybody feel that there's so much more than is shown.”

He was thrilled by the film getting to Frightfest, he says, in part because it’s the first festival he has been able to take the film to in person, and because it meant a trip to London where he lived for many years. “I love what Frightfest does. It's an emblem of this genre of film in the UK and and I'm very humbled by their enthusiasm for the project.” He expected mixed reactions to his film, however. “It's a bit of a Marmite, love it or hate it kind of thing. But also the reactions tend to be passionate because there are things that you will never forget.”

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