What sounds would you miss the most if you were to go deaf? That is the central question of The Ultimate Playlist of Noise, a moving new Hulu original movie that illustrates the understated role that sound plays in our daily lives.
Written by Mitchell Winkie and directed by Bennett Lasseter, the film follows the coming-of-age journey of Marcus (Euphoria and Alita: Battle Angel’s Keean Johnson), an audio obsessed high-school senior who learns he must undergo brain surgery that will render him deaf. In the month before his life-altering operation, he decides to record “The Ultimate Playlist of Noise,” a collection of his favorite sounds that he describes as “a going-away party for my ears.”
Realizing that his time is running out, Marcus decides to run away from home to embark on a solo road trip across the United States with a carefully curated list and his late brother Alex’s old cassette recorder. Within minutes of his departure, he quite literally crashes into a struggling singer-songwriter named Wendy (The Handmaid’s Tale’s Madeline Brewer), who is also on the run from her abusive ex-boyfriend.
Before long, the two kindred spirits decide to travel to New York City together, as Marcus wants to listen to an old record that his brother recorded before he died and Wendy has a hidden desire to escape the only life that she has ever known. Along the way, they collect all of Marcus’ favorite sounds—raging thunderstorms, fast-talking auctioneers, exploding fireworks, knocking bowling pins.
In a conversation over Zoom, Johnson and Brewer talk to Observer about the unique challenges of playing their respective characters, the sounds that they have missed and would put on their own ultimate playlist, and the biggest universal lesson that they hope viewers are able to take away from this film, especially after a year filled with loss and grief.
Note: Interview contains spoilers for The Ultimate Playlist of Noise.
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Observer: You have both starred in some major productions, but this YA film has an intimacy that seems far removed from the recent projects that you have done. What was it about this script that made you want to jump on board?
Madeline Brewer: I read the script and I knew that Keean was attached and was like, “Well, that’s cool—he seems like a cool guy.” I met with Bennett [Lasseter] and he told me what his vision was, and it was this teaser that he had made that really grabbed me. It was orally just so intense and I had a visceral reaction. I had goosebumps, I remember, when I was done listening to it. And I was like, “This just seems so cool and it’s clearly affecting me, so I might as well [do it].”
Keean Johnson: Yeah, I’m very much the same. I had been reading a bunch of [scripts for] YA films, and they all did the trick, but I didn’t really gravitate towards any of them in terms of the overall story. But right when I saw this, I saw that there was something beyond the fun and the jokes along the way. There’s this really, really important path that this character’s on, and it’s definitely what made me want to audition for it.
Keean, you delivered such a beautifully spirited performance from start to finish in this film. How did you prepare to play someone whose life really begins to unravel as he begins to grapple with his own grief?
Johnson: Yeah, I personally don’t have a story that I could have pulled from. I just thought about losing my hearing, something that is obviously so important to my life and to anyone’s life. I think most people, especially when it’s sudden and they’re given this devastating news, they act like it’s not real. Through the film, you see it because the first few acts are him in denial.
I think that Mitchell [Winkie] wrote such a great turning point where not only does he have to go through all of this, but then he’s kind of betrayed and all of these certain things begin to come up right before [his life-changing surgery]. It was definitely fun playing that character and trying to do the best version of what I thought that story would be.
Madeline, you sang a beautiful original song written by Wet’s Kelly Zutrau called “Where I’m Going.” Given your past in musical theater, how would you say the experience of singing changed when you went from the stage to the screen? Was it nerve-wracking at all for you?
Brewer: Yes! (Laughs.) I grew up doing musical theater, but I also haven’t done it in years. I’ve pretty much just done film and TV, so I’ve only, in the last several years, just sung for myself. I’m not a musician or a songwriter, so to play one was really cool. My dad’s a singer-songwriter, so I’ve seen it happen and it’s always been such a marvel to me that people could do that and be that vulnerable.
It was exciting for me to be able to sing because it is something that I am capable of doing, but it was incredibly nerve-wracking. Just standing on the stage with lights and a guitar that I don’t know how to play and singing a song that isn’t [composed by Broadway legend Stephen] Sondheim, it all felt very out of my comfort zone but in a really good way. It was a lot of fun.
Keean, your character obviously has to come to terms with his new way of life, and one of those things includes the way that he communicates after his surgery. Did you have any experience with ASL before this film?
Johnson: The only other experience before that was when I first came to L.A. I did one quick episode for the show Switched at Birth, which is very heavily around [American Sign Language]. That was kind of the first time where I obviously saw how very underrepresented it is in film and television, and I had a really great coach that showed me the first phrases that I had to learn in ASL. It was kind of cool to revisit that and to meet these other coaches who are hearing-impaired and to hear their stories as well, ’cause that also helps. I think it’s such a fascinating language, and one of these days, I’d love to actually be able to converse in ASL.
The powerful use of sound in this film almost makes it feel like a third main character, and it also shows how much we have always taken it for granted. What sounds have you missed the most in the last year?
Johnson: I really miss going to any sort of musical event. We’re stuck here, either listening with our headphones or with whatever speakers we have, and there’s truly nothing like live music. I think, when you haven’t had it for so long, you really feel it. Hopefully, at some point, we’ll be able to do that again soon.
Let me ask you this, then: If you were Marcus, what would you put on your ultimate playlist?
Johnson: I have some great cats. I’d probably get some of their signature meows and purs on it. (Laughs.)
Brewer: I, too, miss the sound of being out in the world. I really miss the sound of a crowded bar, just the buzz and the people. Although when I was able to do that, I avoided it like the plague. (Laughs.) I miss that and live music, but on my ultimate playlist, the ones that I’ve thought of are the clicking-on of a stove and my puppy’s little doggy sounds—she does this little grunting sound when she wants to play or when she’s hungry, and it’s my favorite sound in the whole world. I miss the sound of birds when they’re not waking you up, like if you’re up early enough to hear them.
Just the simple things… That’s the thing that got me in the teaser trailer that Bennett made, like butter being spread across toast. That just, ugh, punched me in the gut. I don’t know why, but I’ve just never thought about that sound before.
Johnson: Yeah, Mitchell came up with some good ones.
Brewer: The key in the lock as well—that was so good.
This film subverts a common YA trope, in that your characters actually don’t end up together. Did you like that they came together for a little bit but eventually decided to become more independent?
Brewer: Yeah, I was so glad that they didn’t end up together because it’s able to show that friendships between people can just be about friendships. They don’t have to be about romantic desire or anything. It was just these two people who came into each other’s lives exactly when they needed each other, to learn things from each other, and I think that happens all the time in life.
Johnson: Just going with that, I think in every film where you see two young kids getting together and then it closes with them making out or whatever, your first thought is always: “Alright, when are they gonna break up?” (They both laugh.)
He’s still a high school senior, and she’s already somewhere else that is completely different in her life. They met at this very special moment, and I think they both gained something from each other, but I don’t think that they necessarily had to be like, “Okay, let’s stick this out. Let’s create a life together.” (Laughs.) It was nice that they kind of drifted together and then apart.
Brewer: Also, the more I think about it, Marcus and Wendy would be the worst couple ever. (Johnson laughs.) They would be so bad, so different.
Even though this deals with a more mature subject matter, there is still a lightheartedness in a lot of your scenes together. What are your favorite memories of working together on this movie?
Brewer: I enjoyed no parts of working with Keean. (They both laugh.) No, I’m just kidding.
Johnson: I loved going to New York City because that actually wasn’t on the ballot for what we were going to be doing. We were gonna kind of treat Syracuse as New York City, and then I think we realized that Syracuse is such a beautiful and quaint city, but it just doesn’t have the feel of New York City. So, we kind of had to go there. We had a day of handheld shooting, and it felt so raw and natural, and these characters were just walking around like they were in Blue Valentine or something.
Brewer: New York was really fun because we had shot all day and we all just got to hang out and play pool. The shooting of it was pretty rigorous because we did do it in such a short amount of time, but shooting it was fun… But now that I say it, I remember experiencing it and it wasn’t actually that fun because we were out in the snow in upstate New York in November and December. (Laughs.) It was freezing.
The Ultimate Playlist of Noise is just one of many YA movies of the last decade that seems to tackle the universal topics of loss and grief in a deeply human way. After such a difficult year, what lessons do you hope viewers are able to take away from this film?
Brewer: It has been a very traumatic experience for everyone in many different ways and on many different levels of grief and trauma, but I think COVID has taught us to be that much more grateful. I walked away from the script and film just thinking, “I could be more grateful in my everyday life for the small things, like my dog waking me up at 7am but with the cutest little growl.” (Laughs.) But just taking that much more attention to your daily life, being more mindful.
Johnson: I definitely second that. Just appreciating the little things, I think, is important, and especially pre-COVID, we were just going through day-to-day life and doing all of these daily habits that now are completely taken from us. There are just so many things that I can’t wait to do when it’s over. I can’t wait to cough in public and not have everybody think that it’s COVID. (They both laugh.)
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Ultimate Playlist of Noise is available to stream on Hulu.