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Michael Tyburski Finds the Silence in New York City
What is there left to say about New York? The setting and star of countless films—comedies, dramas, romances, fantasies, documentaries, crime capers, think pieces, and disaster tales alike—it can seem at times as if every facet of the swirling city has been captured already, and yet there is somehow always something new to discover. The director Michael Tyburski adds his distinct perspective to the catalogue with his début feature, The Sound of Silence, starring Peter Sarsgaard as a house tuner with an intricate theory about the aural landscape of the city who makes a living optimizing the latent noise of people’s homes for their comfort until he is confronted by a customer, played by Rashida Jones, whose inquietude he is unable to resolve. The film, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year, is a slow-burning and compelling character study about a crisis of faith, but also, as Tyburski explains, “my effort to make the closest thing to a New York City love letter, I suppose.” What better match for a story about the pleasures of harmony and silence, after all, than the loudest city in the world?
Jones’s Ellen first reads about Peter Lucian the house tuner, who specializes in, say, replacing your toaster with one that buzzes in consonance with your radiator and refrigerator, in a Talk of the Town piece in The New Yorker. With his basement apartment stacked full with files of research, Peter brings decades of academic knowledge to his work, along with an exhaustive hypothesis that different neighborhoods of Manhattan have various natural tones, and his reasoning and methods are thorough enough that it is a surprise to many viewers that his job does not actually exist. “It’s a common response,” Tyburski laughs about the line of work that he invented along with his cowriter Ben Nabors. “People ask like, ‘Oh, is this real? Can I hire a house tuner?’ I liked that in a place like New York you can exist with an odd practice and through word of mouth or maybe you get featured in a little column in The New Yorker or something, suddenly people start believing in it. Even though it seems like a wild idea, it’s something people can latch onto.”
Tyburski, thirty-five, admits to having a long-running fascination with the study of sound. He rattles off details about proclamations the Catholic Church made during the Middle Ages, NASA’s findings about black holes, and New York City’s 1929 Noise Abatement Commission with such ease that it is easy to see where Peter got his academic bent. Based on Tyburski’s own earlier short film “Palimpsest,” which introduced the concept of a house tuner, The Sound of Silence offers an incisive and in-depth glimpse into a quiet life which is suddenly thrown off course. The specifics of Peter’s situation may be unique, but the dilemma is universal. “What I wanted to do with that character was show him having a crisis of faith when suddenly an event happens in his life through a client whose problems he can’t solve,” the director explains. “Suddenly, by seeing those holes in his theory, he has a crisis of faith and the question is, should he keep pursuing this knowing that it’s reckless or does he stop and give up his life’s work? I was really interested in the line this character is toeing.”
In some ways, it can be hard to imagine anyone but Sarsgaard playing Peter. With his soft, rolling voice and gentle-yet-decisive movements, he emanates a professorial air in his tweed blazer, serving as a mentor to his research assistant and student played by Tony Revolori. Tyburski says he began pursuing Sarsgaard for the role after watching him in Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter, in which he plays Stanley Milgram, the Yale professor whose experiments—most famously one in which subjects were ordered to shock strangers with electricity—exposed the pervasive influence of authority and peer pressure. “I would describe him as a chameleon,” he adds. “He can really disappear into a role and play so many things. He plays a lot of dark characters, but he’s such a warm person.” They formed an instant connection over the script on their first meeting, cementing Tyburski’s persistence. “I found that he’s very musically inclined himself. He considers himself to have absolute pitch, he plays violin, all of these things. I already thought he was going to be great for the role but now it was like, ‘He’s perfect and I’m not doing it without it him.’”
Tyburski has established himself over the past few years with his short films—“Palimpsest” first screened at Sundance in 2013—but in some ways, The Sound of Silence is the culmination of decades of preparation. Growing up in rural Vermont, he fell in love with movies “like a lot of young people do,” he says. “I was always interested in how things work and experimenting with how to do that, taking things apart. So I think when I saw really good movies, I wanted to understand how they were made and I wanted to try to emulate that for myself.” That early fascination led to a cable access show he broadcast from his parents’ basement over the course of two seasons in his early teens, serving as director, producer, cameraman, technician, and host. “I really was just trying to create the illusion that I had a three-camera late-night talk show from my basement with just me,” he laughs.
After attending film school at the College of Santa Fe, he moved to New York, although he says he was already familiar with the city through film: “I grew up watching New York.” He continues to be drawn to the city’s history, its eras and ages piled on top of and next to each other. Today’s Manhattan can seem like an island overflowing with the shiny and new, but Tyburski insists that bygone days remain accessible, even if they usually remain hidden beneath the surface. “You have a lot of the past that you’re living on top of,” he says. “In New York, you’re building all the time, so we’re living amongst the past.”
The Sound of Silence is his attempt to unearth that past. Even after eleven years, “I’m not a jaded New Yorker yet and I hope never to be,” he says. “I’m still very romantic about the city, so I tried to really find areas of New York that were special to me. This character is living in modern New York, but he’s kind of existing in the past because that’s the city that he’s romantic about too. I wanted to see it through his eyes and hear it through his ears. I wanted it to be somewhat of a fairytale version of the city.” Tyburski jokes that after years of development, he is eager to move on now that the film is playing in theaters. His plans are still in the early stages, but for his next project, he’s looking to dig even further into history. “When you are a filmmaker, it can be almost one of the closest things to time travel,” he elaborates. “You actually can, when you create an era and there’s the illusion. I love that sleight of hand. I’m really interested in time traveling. I’m interested in going back in the past for whatever I do next.”
The Sound of Silence is now playing.