By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Musical instruments become instruments of death in SOUND OF VIOLENCE, which premiered at this year’s SXSW Film Festival and goes into release on digital and cable VOD tomorrow, May 21 from Gravitas Ventures. RUE MORGUE spoke with the film’s writer/director Alex Noyer and co-star James Jagger, both of whom have experience with music: Noyer produced 808, a documentary about the Roland TR-808 drum machine that helped launch the electronica wave, and Jagger is the son of Rolling Stones frontman Mick.
SOUND OF VIOLENCE, an expansion of Noyer’s award-winning short CONDUCTOR, starts with a hearing-impaired young girl named Alexis involved in a brutal incident that triggers a synesthetic experience (in which sounds become hallucinatory images for her) and leads her to recover her hearing. Years later, as a young adult played by Jasmin Savoy Brown (HBO’s THE LEFTOVERS), Alexis’ hearing has started to cut out again, and she has become obsessed with recapturing that childhood experience–to the point of creating torturous and deadly variations on musical instruments that she uses on a series of victims. Jagger plays Duke, boyfriend of Alexis’ roommate and assistant Marie (Lili Simmons)–who further complicates Alexis’ largely unrequited romantic attraction to Marie.
How did your work on both 808 and CONDUCTOR lead into SOUND OF VIOLENCE?
ALEX NOYER: Well, there’s a logic to my madness, and it definitely came from 808. That took over my life for five years, so I was drum machine-obsessed for all this time, and when you dedicate yourself to such a big project and speak to people like The Beastie Boys, Pharrell Williams, Questlove and Phil Collins, you become obsessed with the subject. And after 808 premiered at SXSW in 2015 and then became the first documentary on Apple Music in 2016, I felt exhausted and a bit done with documentaries, and that was when my wife suggested I follow my lifelong passion for horror movies. While developing a different project, I had a lightbulb moment reminiscing about drum machines and thinking, “What if I killed somebody with one?” That led to CONDUCTOR, and coming up with the character of Alexis.
When we toured the short, it took on a life of its own, and the feedback I was getting was a lot of questions about Alexis. Those motivated me to start writing her backstory–first, maybe, as a second short, but then I started coming up with her journey going forward and expanding on her universe. Things happened very, very quickly; I wrote the first draft of the script in January 2019 and we shot it that November, which in film time is a minute.
When a movie idea can be summarized in one sentence–as when I was in Cannes telling people it was about a killer who makes music through her murders–it helps in developing it. Next thing I knew, I met Jasmin, which was an incredible moment because I was a big fan of THE LEFTOVERS, and we hit it off and I felt like I had met Alexis. Then James and Lili came on board, and the process kept rolling, and I was very, very lucky.
How did you develop the angle of Alexis’ hearing loss, and work with Brown on that?
NOYER: We consulted heavily with people from the deaf community to understand how we could address that, because we needed to get that right. For example, because it was hearing loss, we knew we couldn’t use the word “deaf” when referring to her. Those distinctions were important; in fact, in SOUND OF METAL, which aside from the kinship in titles also addresses hearing loss, it was great to see similarities in the way it was handled; it helped validate us a little. When it came to Kamia [Benge], the wonderful little actress with a hugely bright future who plays young Alexis, based on our consultations, we had to have a hearing actress because the loss comes after Alexis has already been speaking, so she shouldn’t be able to sign too fluently, and she would still speak naturally.
Then, with the hearing loss coming back into the process, that was where Jasmin’s fantastic acting skills came through, because sensorial deprivation is not easy to enact. We took the time to make sure her disorientation felt real, and again, we asked those questions of the specialists we talked to. With every element of this film that I could not relate to directly, I wrote about them almost as open questions, so that I could hopefully research and get the right side of those topics.
James, how did you become involved with SOUND OF VIOLENCE?
JAMES JAGGER: I read the script toward the end of summer 2019, and it was really two things. There was the screenplay itself, which I was very curious about, because I skim-read scripts when I first get them just to see if there’s anything that really sticks out to me, and I remember having to turn back about four pages, thinking, “No, no, wait, this is really interesting.” I was then curious to meet with Alex and find out who the person was who came up with these maniacal ideas. After we first got together, I was caught up in the enjoyment of the whole thing, and I’m drawn to small productions and small casts, which give you a lot of space and creativity to explore. I also welcomed the opportunity to work with Jasmin, whom I’d been a fan of from THE LEFTOVERS; she’s got an incredible, natural talent.
Having grown up around music, was that side of the story especially attractive to you?
JAGGER: I think so. It’s interesting, because even given my background, I’d never really thought about the creative process and the way people develop their own sounds, or how people need to do certain things for their own musical creativity. That was something I was definitely curious about, as well as how these maniacal machines of music and torture would be brought to life. I have also long been interested in the theremin, and seeing it popping up in the script, I was like, “That’s a rare instrument; that’s not something you encounter very often.” My imagination just ran wild when I read the script, and that curiosity was really the driving factor that brought me into this project.
Alex, how did you come up with the musical torture devices, and balance those over-the-top gore scenes with the reality in which the rest of the film takes place?
NOYER: The experience of the short was obviously very valuable for that, because we were able to test the waters with the idea of a music setup used in a murder environment. So taking it forward, I let my imagination go crazy. I didn’t know if I would be able to go beyond the drum machine; that was a big concern, because obviously I knew those and that beats are inherently violent, so there’s a logic to that. But bringing other instruments in was a huge challenge, and I started to jot down ideas of those that could scare as much as entertain. One great thing about working with Hannu Aukia, who produced the film and also has a background in music, and Jaakko Manninen, who composed the score–both of them in the short and the feature–was being able to bounce ideas off them. We additionally brought in Alexander Burke and Omar-El Deeb to work on the music and concepts as well. There’s no budget limit on imagination, so I just tried to think far and wild, and about instruments that fascinated me. The theremin is one I absolutely adore because it’s so kooky and weird, so building a scene around that was interesting.
The challenge was that in the short, the contraption is quite a big setup, and in a six-minute movie, we don’t have time to ask questions. But in the feature, I needed to bring it down to a scale that was fit for Alexis. In fact, there were scenes that didn’t make the cut at the writing stage because they were just too big, and distracted from the intimacy of Alexis’ process.
Can we talk about the slogans we see in the artwork in the gallery scene, like THE FUTURE WILL GET WEIRD?
NOYER: [Laughs] I’m a son of artists and was very involved in the art world, and spent a lot of time in galleries, and I wanted to have a scene that encompassed that. Those pieces were done by one of my good friends, an artist named Adam Mars. I met him at a friend’s gallery in LA, and I asked him if we could use his works in that scene, because they’re very pointedly humorous about our real life, and I felt they could be part a certain criticism I set up in that scene. His messages are always very sharp and funny, so I felt it would add to the experience for the audience to catch a glimpse of those pieces. The one behind the stage, TRUE LOVE WAITS AND WE’RE IMPATIENT, is especially on point as far as the dynamic of the characters and that stage of the story as far as their relationships are concerned.
Plus, that one is red, which helped because it’s a cinematographer’s nightmare to shoot in a full white space like that. This was where our cinematographer, Daphne Qin Wu, was so wonderfully adaptable to some of those setpiecess we were coming up with. That scene has an almost SUSPIRIA look, and the high contrast and the saturation in some of those paintings helped a lot with that.
James, what was your favorite scene to shoot for SOUND OF VIOLENCE?
JAGGER: I would say that it was my last scene that I shot, which I don’t want to give too much away about, because it was such an expression of raw animal instincts. That’s something you don’t get to play very often. You’re not supposed to express that in real life, and you certainly don’t get to express it very much in even play-acting, let’s call it. It was an incredibly fun process, and Alex gave us a lot of space to truly explore and try to catch the lightning in a bottle that is those very visceral, violent moments. We hope we achieved that.
Forgive me, but I have to ask: Your father once sang about “Too Much Blood,” so has he seen SOUND OF VIOLENCE, and if so, does he think it has too much blood?
JAGGER: I don’t think he would have seen it yet, but I’ll make sure to send him an edit soon. There’s no such thing as too much blood!
NOYER: I would agree with that!
Did you ever hold back on the blood while creating those scenes, or did you always go for the extreme?
JAGGER: Believe it or not, we held back. If you look at CONDUCTOR, we didn’t hold back there. I had the partnership with my blood wizard, Robert Bravo, who did the special effects on both, and who knows my obsession with how blood has to look on screen. Since we were shifting from a totally gore/horror approach in the short to more of a thriller in the feature, we had to hold back a little. But as it turned out, we didn’t do that too much in certain scenes. We had moments where a few people on set felt a bit queasy, but I’m a big fan of practical effects, and partnering with someone like Robert, who really knows the craft and has the patience to deal with OCD like I have when it comes to blood, means that it’s not just gratuitous, copious amounts of it. We always intend to make the blood seem justified.