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Austin Chapman's life changed when new hearing aids allowed him to hear a wide range of sounds for the first time.

Deaf film director can finally hear the soundtracks to his films

Column One

Deaf film director can finally hear soundtracks to his films

Austin Chapman's life changed when new hearing aids allowed him to hear a wide range of sounds for the first time. (Bethany Mollenkof / Los Angeles Times)

When aspiring filmmaker Austin Chapman was able to choose the soundtracks for his movies, he went on a musical binge.

Nov. 5, 2013


he first thing you notice about the short film is that you never hear dialogue, only the dreamy, Daniel Lanois-type score. Instead, it's subtitled — even though the actors appear to be speaking in English.

In the opening scenes, a young woman falls on the street, and a young man approaches to help.

"What, are you deaf?" the subtitles have her saying. "I said go away."


"Actually, yeah, I am," he replies.

The music swells, but the actor and director, Austin Chapman, never heard it while making "Eleven, Eleven." The movie, which won the grand prize in Pepperdine's student film festival in 2010, was based on Chapman's experiences as a deaf person.

Two years later, the aspiring filmmaker's life changed: New hearing aids let him hear a wide range of sounds for the first time. One of the first things he did was watch "Eleven, Eleven." When it was over, the 24-year-old cried.

"It was like the first time I was kissed by a girl," he said. "Scary, but exciting at the same time."

Now, he knew, he would be able to choose the music for his films.

Amazed at first, he went on a musical binge, listening to everything from Mozart to Metallica, to prepare himself to choose the soundtrack for one of his shorts, about a man who loses his dog in Lake Arrowhead.

At a pivotal moment, when the man realizes his pet is missing, Chapman proposed a series of loud notes at each cut, almost like something from "Jaws."

"It wouldn't have worked. It would've totally taken viewers out of the scene," said the composer, Max Royer. "I thought, 'We're going to have to work on some stuff.'"

"I didn't know what cliche was," Chapman said. "I still had a lot to learn."

A few months after Chapman was born, his parents, Molly and Peter, noticed that he never seemed startled when their dogs barked and didn't calm down when they spoke to him.

Molly, a pediatric nurse practitioner, thought he might have fluid behind his eardrums. But when Chapman was tested at 9 months old, doctors said he was profoundly deaf, the highest degree of hearing loss short of total silence. There was no cure.

Nobody is sure what caused Chapman's hearing problems, although his parents suspect it's genetic. Several relatives needed hearing aids at an early age.

Once Chapman's parents got over the shock, they decided they wanted him to learn sign language and how to speak. "I didn't want him to be limited or isolated," Molly said.

Chapman was tested at 9 months old, and doctors said he had the highest degree of hearing loss short of total silence. (Bethany Mollenkof / Los Angeles Times)

He was going to a school for the deaf, but his parents decided he would be better off in a regular school. So they enrolled him in Mariners Christian School in Costa Mesa, starting in the second grade.

He went to school with an interpreter. His younger sister, Kelsey, who also knew sign language, occasionally translated for him.

Still, Chapman didn't have a lot of friends. One of his favorite films is "E.T.," because he related to the alien who had trouble communicating with his peers. "Most days in elementary school I went home wondering what the kids were saying at the playground," he said.

Chapman preferred reading and watching subtitled movies. He was 11 when he saw "The Wizard of Oz." The scene where Dorothy first lands in Oz, and her black-and-white world is transformed by color, struck him, and he decided he wanted to create images like that.

He began commandeering the family's VHS camera, making parodies of evening news programs with his friend Taylor Bonin. The two moved on to mysteries and short films, which they would enter in festivals. "Even then, you could tell he was talented," Bonin said.

It was easier for Chapman to socialize once he got older and people began communicating via messages. "Texting was the most impactful invention of his lifetime," his mother said.

After getting accepted to Pepperdine, he enrolled in a film class as a freshman and mentioned that he was interested in directing. His professors were skeptical.

"I'd never heard of a deaf director," said Craig Detweiler, the head of the school's Center for Entertainment, Media and Culture.

But when Detweiler saw Chapman's first film, he changed his mind.

"I told him: 'You are doing this.'"

Last August, Chapman went to his doctor to get outfitted for new hearing aids.

He wasn't expecting much. He'd worn the devices since he was a child and had tried several new pairs, but none worked well. Most of the time, Chapman could hear only a buzzing sound.

But when he put on the new aids, he could suddenly hear the sound of his computer and of someone typing on a keyboard.

Later that night, Chapman was riding in a car with some friends. The first song they played was Mozart's "Lacrimosa."

"I was blown away by the beauty of it," Chapman said. "It sounded like angels singing, and I suddenly realized that it was the first time I was able to appreciate music."

Chapman started to cry; he tried to hide his tears. "But when I looked over, I saw there wasn't a dry eye in the car," he said.

Afterward, Chapman went to Reddit and posted a question: "I can hear music for the first time ever, what should I listen to?"

He received nearly 14,000 replies. One suggested "I'm Too Sexy" by Right Said Fred — "so that, for the first time, you can have a song stuck in your head." Others offered up everything from Beethoven to Jeff Buckley.

Chapman prefers classical because he doesn't have to try to understand lyrics, and he also likes reggae because "the beat is easy for me to understand." Still, his favorite song is "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen, to the chagrin of some of his friends.

"I think, 'Ugh, who put this song on?' because I've been hearing it everywhere since I was little,'" Royer said.

Austin Chapman's film "Eleven, Eleven"

Chapman, who graduated from Pepperdine in 2011, earns a living doing freelance video editing, music videos and occasional weddings. None of his films have been distributed in theaters, but he hopes to direct his first full-length feature. He's launched a Kickstarter campaign for that film, a drama that will be semi-autobiographical.

He recently returned from Haiti, where he worked on a documentary about a community of deaf people and filmed footage at orphanages for children with disabilities.

He and Royer spent hours sitting in front of a television, with the composer playing a guitar and Chapman fiddling with controls on a small editing machine.

"I want it to go like this," Chapman said, raising his hand to signal a buildup during the final shots.

"Like this?" Royer asked, playing a few chords.

"More," said Chapman, hitting a few notes on a keyboard to illustrate his point.

Chapman and Royer settled on a crescendo that didn't overwhelm the images but still conveyed the children's poverty and hopefulness.

"It was the perfect way to close," Royer said. "He's really progressing."

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