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BWW Interview: Siân Heder Puts Deaf Talent, Music, & Family On Screen in CODA


Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner CODA will be released tomorrow, August 13th, on Apple TV. 

BWW Interview: Siân Heder Puts Deaf Talent, Music, & Family On Screen in CODA

Director Siân Heder's gorgeous new film CODA will be released tomorrow, August 13th, on Apple TV.

Ahead of the premiere, BroadwayWorld had the chance to speak to Heder about how the film came to be, how she ended up casting actors from famed theater Deaf West, and how working on a bilingual set became part of her artistic routine.

CODA follows a young girl named Ruby who is torn between pursuing her music dreams and helping her family. As a Child of Deaf Adults (hence the title, CODA), she is relied on heavily to keep the family fishing business afloat as she serves as their main mode of verbal communication. When she discovers her love and talent for singing, she has to challenge the status quo of her family in order to follow her dreams.

Universally praised, CODA was the first film in Sundance Film Festival history to win all top prizes in the US Dramatic Competition category, including the Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast, the Directing Award, the Audience Award, and ultimately the Grand Jury Prize. Watch the trailer below.

Siân has a unique ability to humanize her characters and make her films deeply relatable - and CODA is no exception. Countless hours of research, in addition to learning American Sign Language (ASL), went into her preparation to write and direct the film. Her work tends to focus on people on the fringe of society and brings them front and center, which makes for immensely interesting storytelling.

Siân's work in the TV space is equally impressive. Currently, she is an executive producer and show runner on the series LITTLE AMERICAa??for Apple TV+, which has a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes and is currently in pre-production on its second season. She was previously a writer and producer on three seasons of the esteemed Netflix series ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, for which she received multiple WGA nominations. She also wrote for TNT's MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE, which earned her a Peabody Award.

Read the full interview below!

I just want to start by asking about this very exciting time in your career. What was the genesis of CODA and how did you get here?

You know, I think I had made Tallulah and been at Sundance with Tallulah in 2016 and was really searching around for what my next project would be. This was based on a French film called La Famille Bellier. And originally it was a studio movie, where Lionsgate had the rights to do a remake, and they were looking for a filmmaker who could really come into the project and find their own voice and had a vision for what this could be.

And so I dove into that. And, you know, it eventually ended up as this independent movie that we made and shot Gloucester - in the town that I wrote it for. And in a way, my experience with making the movie felt so true to who I am as a storyteller. I felt like I had a lot of freedom to make the film that I wanted to make. And so that's been especially satisfying to watch - the success of the film and the response of the film, because I do feel like it's a true expression of the story that I wanted to tell.

When did you first hear about the French film and what was it that really connected you to the story?

I felt like it was more the story that I connected to - the CODA experience, which is such a unique experience. I had never heard the term CODA before I dove into this world, and the idea of a child of deaf adults, and the fact that a lot of CODAS - most deaf people are born to hearing parents, and and most deaf people, if they have a child, to have a hearing child.

And so in a way, there's a generational divide that occurs between the deaf and hearing worlds. And CODAs can grow up very culturally deaf, with ASL as their first language. And so this idea that they grew up within deaf culture, but ultimately they're hearing people and have to go out and navigate the hearing world while feeling very connected to the deaf world. And that tension, and all of the emotional elements that are at play in the story, were very exciting for me to explore.

And then also the specificity of where I wanted to set it. I grew up near Gloucester, Massachusetts, and I would go there every summer. And there was such a specific place with its own conflicts that were happening within the fishing community. And I got excited to set a story within the culture of those Italian, Gloucester fishermen. And in that very specific world.

I thought the use of music in the film was so smart and effective. So often when you see movies about music, it's about how music fosters closeness and togetherness - and that's present here! But it's also complicated by deafness in a way I've never seen on screen. What was it like to craft a story about music that was both celebratory and tension-sowing?

The really interesting thing for me to explore when I got into ASL, and what that language was, and the scenes that took place in ASL is that there are so many connections between ASL and music. So in a way, music is a divide in the story in the sense that it's something Ruby is passionate about and her parents don't have an experience of - at least not in the way that she does, and so therefore can't connect to it in the way that she does.

But at the same time, it was really intentional that when Ruby is asked to explain how she feels about music, she uses sign to explain that, and doesn't have English words for that moment. Because there is something about ASL that is more emotional, more expressive, more melodic, more rhythmic than spoken English.

So I found the interplay between the silent, ASL scenes and the musical moments in the movie to actually feel very in line with each other and like these two different languages that we're speaking to each other over the course of the song.

I wanted to ask about what life was like on a bilingual set where one of the languages was American Sign Language. Was everybody fluent in both languages or was it a learning curve for everybody involved?

It was a learning curve for everybody. I remember my camera operator early on turning to me and saying, "How do I ask Troy to move over?" And I was like, "You're human. You have a body. There are other tools at your disposal besides speaking with which you can communicate."

I feel it now, even, where people are concerned with what's the right word to use, can you say deaf? Is it okay to say deaf? There's a lot of trepidation and fear, I think, from the hearing community of possibly offending someone. And I think the real thing that we all discovered is that we have many tools at our disposal to communicate with.

So we had interpreters on set - we had probably too many interpreters when we started. I think we started out with seven interpreters and by the end we had three or four interpreters on set because we just didn't need that many.

And I had been studying sign, and Emelia had been studying sign. Neither of us were fluent, but we were definitely conversational and could participate in that way. And then we had two ASL masters, Alexandria Wailes and Anne Tomasetti, who were there. Alexandria did the translation of the script with me, and then Anne was on set with me and really like my co-director on those ASL scenes. She was by my side at the monitor. She had all of the signing, and also on elements of deaf culture that I might not be aware of and that I might have missed.

And then the culture of ASL really started to pervade the set in every way. My AD and I were signing boat to boat sometimes when we were out at sea, because it was easier than using a walkie. And when I was down in the quarry and Emilia [Jones] was up on the quarry cliff and I needed to give her a note, it was much easier to give it to her in sign than to shout up to her on the cliffs.

We were sort of using it on set, and the crew caught on, and suddenly grips were coming up to me and going, "Well, we kind use sign language while we're rolling for different things." So in a way, it's a very natural crew language. And you could feel the crew picking up on it and wanting to use it.

So I think the focus on communication in general was just very beneficial for the set and the way that it functioned.

Can you tell me about casting? You ended up with some incredible actors from Deaf West, and, of course, Marlee Matlin.

I was absolutely looking at Deaf West. When I started writing the script and really trying to dive into the deaf community and expand my knowledge of deaf culture, I started going to Deaf West productions. That was the first place I saw Troy Kotsur, in a production of At Home at the Zoo. And he was wonderful on stage, like, so charismatic and handsome and interesting and funny. I was very struck by him. And then I saw him again in a production of Our Town where he played the Stage Manager, and it was such a different performance, but it was equally riveting and charismatic. So, Troy I absolutely discovered through Deaf West, and I reached out to David Kurs, the artistic director of Deaf West, for his opinion. And he also led me to Daniel Durant, who was also a member of Deaf West and was incredible.

Something I was struck by was there's so much deaf talent out there. There's so many deaf actors, and most of them are working in theatre. And I think Deaf West has done an amazing job - they started as the national theater for the deaf and evolved, and I think Deaf West was born out of that. But the productions are amazing, and obviously have gone to Broadway, and are true collaboration between hearing artists and deaf artists, and bridging both audiences, which was very inspiring to me. And sort of taking a page from the way that Deaf West handles its productions and tells stories that are accessible to a hearing audience and a deaf audience and encourage that conversation was something I really also wanted to do with CODA. So I think seeing those productions was very inspiring to me.

And then Marlee Matlin I found because she's Marlee Matlin. I had a character that I was writing that felt right for her from the moment I was writing it, and then we went out to breakfast in Silverlake, and we immediately made each other laugh and connected and bonded over this story and character. And she was very moved by the script and determined to play this part. She said, "I haven't wanted to play a part this bad since Children of a Lesser God. I just really want to do this movie."

And her passion for the movie and for the character, I think, was very inspiring to me. I cast her - she was the first person I cast, and she was really helpful to me in putting together the rest of the cast because she had worked with these guys before. She worked with Daniel intimately, and knew Troy intimately. And I think, you know, in putting together a family that needed to feel like a real family, it was helpful that these actors had a history. And Troy had played Daniel's father before, and Daniel and Marlee had worked together before, so there was a familiarity already in place.

It's interesting that there's this tension between the family in the film and Ruby, their one hearing family member. It must have been interesting for Emelia to work with the tension of that real, already-established relationship.

Yes. I mean, if anyone had a disability on set, it was Emelia. She would be sitting there at the table in the middle of these side conversations and really trying to keep up and wanting to participate. And I think there was an amazing embrace of her by Marlee and Troy and Daniel, and Anne and Alexandria, who really took her under their wing.

Marlee would cook dinner at her home on the weekends, and she would invite Emelia to come, and they would make her play games in sign language and get up to speed. And, you know, no one let her get away with anything - Anne was a real taskmaster in terms of making sure that her signing was clear and rapid-fire and felt emotional and connected. Because there's so many elements of sign, I think, that a hearing person coming in doesn't realize are actually a part of the language. So, it's not just your hand shape, it is your eyebrows. It's your expression. It's spatially where you're signing around your body, and how you're using the space to tell the story visually.

So all of those things are things you only learn when you are having to use that as your main form of communication. Both for Emelia and I, the trial by fire where you were thrown into the mix and forced to express your ideas through a language that's new to you. I mean, I certainly found it trying to give it an acting note in sign language. You really are pushing yourself to figure out how to creatively express ideas through your body, not your voice.

And that was very exciting for me as a director, and as an artist, to figure out what I wanted to say and then and then figure out how to express that in sign. And have an intimate relationship with my actors where I really was communicating very nuanced ideas about these characters and these scenes through a language that I was still learning.

What are you most excited for wider audiences to experience when they see CODA for the first time?

On one hand, it's a very universal story. And I hope that it connects to a lot of people. It's just a story about family - the very simple idea. At the same time, it's a family that we very rarely get to see on screen. And so, I think most members of the audience will probably not have watched a families sit down to dinner and have an ASL conversation. And so I think the specificity of this family and the culture that they come from and putting that culture on screen and normalizing it and exposing a lot of the world to it is just a very exciting thing for me.

And to be a part of that - I hope that it starts a movement that opens the door to more stories within the deaf community being told and more deaf characters being put on screen and these different experiences being represented.

Watch the trailer for CODA here:

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