Sian Heder Just Made One of the Best-Reviewed Movies of the Year, But She Had to Fight Hard for Her Vision

Coda has broken Sundance records, is beloved by critics, and, with a largely deaf cast, is a breakthrough for representation. Writer-director Sian Heder talks responsibility, risk, and the importance of lived experience.

by | August 10, 2021 | Comments


(Photo by © Apple )

CODA, which draws its title from an acronym for Child of Deaf Adult(s), was a breakout hit when it premiered at the first ever virtual Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. At any given screening, you only had to look in the chat to see that everybody was talking about it. The coming-of-age story about Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), the hearing daughter of a deaf fishing family who acts as their interpreter and, in many ways, guide through life, had audiences laughing and crying as they watched her struggle with being stuck between two worlds, navigating love, life, and the unforgiving experience that is high school.

It came as no surprise to industry watchers when it was announced that Apple had secured the rights to CODA for $25 million, a new record for a Sundance acquisition. Here was the kind of film critics and buyers dream about whenever the Utah festival comes around: a unique feel-good family drama, stuffed with deeply moving moments – many involving Ruby, an aspiring singer, taking to the stage – and incredible performances from deaf actors Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant as the rest of the Rossi clan. And it announced, in a big way, the arrival of writer-director Sian Heder, who would go on to ink a deal with tech giant herself.

Heder has been well on her way to this moment for a while, hitting her stride as a writer on Orange Is the New Black for its first three seasons; writing and directing the Certified Fresh Tallulah, released in 2016; and then producing the Apple TV+ series Little America in 2020. With her most recent success, she is going to be booked and busy for a while to come – and a likely familiar face during awards season. 

Ahead of the movie’s release, Heder spoke to Rotten Tomatoes about assembling a cast and crew that could tell the story of CODA authentically (and the roadblocks she faced in doing so), working with Matlin and the rest of the team who became like a “family,” and why that Sundance moment was about so much more than dollars.


(Photo by © Apple)

Kristian Fanene Schmidt for Rotten Tomatoes: So CODA is a remake of the French film La Famille Bélier, and my understanding is that one of the producers came to you to retell it for an American audience. Why do you think they came to you specifically?

Sian Heder: It wasn’t just to me, I was up against other filmmakers. I think they had the rights, it was originally a studio movie and they were looking to make a remake. So they were having filmmakers come in and pitch their vision for the movie. I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I was as a kid going to Gloucester, Massachusetts every summer and was really familiar with that town and the fishing community on the North Shore and really wanted to set the story there and make the Rossis this Italian fishing clan. And so I went in with this vision for the film and sort of pitched my take on it. Also, the vision for using deaf actors in these roles, which is not something that the original movie had done, and the kind of level of authenticity that I wanted to capture about deaf culture and ASL scenes and all of that. I think they just got excited about the vision and I was lucky to have the producers I had.

Rotten Tomatoes: I’m a Pacific Islander and I’ve been brought on as a consultant for different projects that are about my community, but they’ve been initiated by outsiders. So as someone who’s hearing and you’re making a film that centers a deaf family, what are some of the things that you learned in telling a story about a community that you’re an outsider to?

Heder: I think there’s a huge responsibility when you’re going into telling a story that is not your own lived experience. And especially when it’s about a community or characters that historically have been marginalized or underrepresented or even harmfully represented. I think so much of it for me was knowing that I was coming in as an outsider and knowing what I didn’t know, and making sure that I had a team around me and a real creative team. You talk about being a consultant, and I think what I do see sometimes nowadays is people kind of bring in the token person from that community who’s there to kind of put their stamp on it at the end and say, “No, no, it’s okay, what they did.” And that was not going to be my process on this.

From the moment that I was writing the script I wanted true collaborators who were working with me and on set with me every moment of every scene discussing these things and being in it and telling me when I screwed up and going, “Hey, you know what? The living room furniture is in the wrong place. No deaf family is going to have their living room laid out like this because the couch would have to be facing the door.” You have to involve collaborators.

And I had collaborators in my actors, Marlee and Daniel and Troy, but also behind the camera with Alexandria Wailes and Anne Tomasetti, who were my directors of ASL and were there throughout the whole process and even into post and were not only my eyes on the ASL scene, but in terms of the representation of deaf culture and these nuances in this family to make sure that I was getting it right. The deaf community has this saying, like, nothing about us without us. I think it’s really important that when these stories are told that there are real voices in the mix that know that lived experience.

Rotten Tomatoes: Yeah, I hear that. Is there anything about the process that you would change? Were there any parts of it that you’re like, “Oh, you know what? We could have done this better. We could have, or would have liked to have seen this happen.”

Heder: I think there’s obviously a learning curve with figuring out the best way to facilitate communication on set. I think when we started out we had an absurd amount of interpreters. We overcompensated and we had seven or eight interpreters that were all rushing around. And I was like, “This is too many people, we don’t need this many people.” I think for me, it was about finding the interpreters that were really engaged, that understood the story, that understood those creative conversations and could be in the middle of discussions about character and performance and all of that. That was a process that probably, if I were to do it again and work in this way, I would know better going in this time what we actually need to put in place.

And I would have liked to have been better at ASL. I was definitely signing with my actors but my level of communication was limited because I was new to the language. If I were to have been more fluent in ASL, I think it would have made the process easier because I was trying to present nuanced performance ideas, and oftentimes a little bit ridiculous. I was communicating those and Troy got to make fun of me a lot with my sign choices. But it was an amazing process. I actually wouldn’t take any of it back. I think this was one of the most amazing shoots I’ve worked on. And I think the crew and cast would say the same thing. I think we all came out of this feeling like we made this family and it was a really cool process.


(Photo by © Apple)

Rotten Tomatoes: It looked like they had a great time, from the fighting to just clowning each other. They looked like they were really living the experience.

Heder: Oh yeah. I mean, we can talk about having a great time! We were all living in Gloucester, Massachusetts and it’s a small town. And so everyone in the town is running into each other and Troy and Daniel were living together, and they were out at Pratty’s every night, which was the local fisherman’s bar, and getting into character, and learning the town. So I think a lot of the fun that the cast was having offscreen, I think, starts to infuse what’s happening on screen. And so, there were moments where I think Troy just tried to make Emilia laugh in scenes, and I think you can feel that energy on camera. It was definitely a fun cast to spend time with.

The other thing I will say about the authenticity of the casting is you’re missing out on so many creative opportunities when you limit an actor in the way of not having these deaf actors in these roles. Marlee and Troy can sit there during the concert and improvise the entire time and have these signed conversations and really live in it the way a couple would live in it and it was so much fun. So yes, those were moments that we did get to play and enjoy Troy’s sense of humor, which is often very far over the line.

Rotten Tomatoes: Speaking of limiting opportunities, there was some conflict from financiers or potential financiers because you wanted to hire deaf actors. How did that all go down? How did you deal with it for the ones who weren’t keen on casting them?

Heder: Well, it started out as a studio movie and it didn’t end up as a studio movie. I think there’s just a way that some of these movies are financed traditionally where it’s very star-driven and it’s very much about which stars can you put in the movie that’ll mean this and this for foreign sales. There’s just a structure to the financing of these projects that is funneling everybody and pressurizing everybody to be like, “Go get Brad Pitt and teach him to sign.” And “Why can’t he play deaf?” Not that that was suggested, but the point being, I had a 17-year-old girl in the lead who was going to be a discovery pretty much for sure. Then I had three deaf roles and I wanted those played by deaf actors and Marlee Matlin is a famous deaf actor, but pretty much the only one.

I think that it was a challenge for a conventional studio model to think about how to put together the financing structure on this movie. And I had gutsy producers who took it out of the studio and financed it independently and believed in me as a storyteller and believed in the cast that I’d put together. It paid off for them. That was the best part of that Sundance deal: You’re like, “Well, good for you guys. That’s what you get when you take a risk and you support a story like this.” That was what Sundance meant to me. And that deal was just kind of shows that stories like this can be profitable and worth investing in.


(Photo by © Apple)

Rotten Tomatoes: I hear that! One thing that the movie made me think about was discrimination and employment. We recently had Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Equal Pay Day on July 29 and Black Women’s Equal Pay Day on August 3. And so it made me think about the wage gap for people with disabilities. When you see how there are so many barriers to employment and what was going on with the Rossi family, what are some of the real life issues that came up while you were filming, that you were able to incorporate into the film?

Heder: I mean, it’s definitely a thing. I had a friend of Marlee’s, who’s a lawyer and she’s a deaf woman. She watched the movie and she was like, “They needed to sue, civil rights were being violated,” and it’s true in the movie. But it happens all the time. It happens all the time, especially in smaller communities, especially when people don’t know their rights and don’t know how to fight for accessibility and against discrimination. So I think there is a big wage gap. I think deaf employment rates compared to not, are much lower and it’s harder for deaf people to find work. And yet, there are deaf people in all kinds of professions. There are deaf lawyers, there are deaf doctors. You know, I just was reading about a deaf engineer at NASA.

So I think there are ways, but it requires accessibility and it requires the community at large to kind of put things in place, access at hospitals, putting interpreters in place. And one of the things I think the movie deals with is, the Rossis would not have to rely on Ruby to interpret for them if there was access. If there were an interpreter at these community fishing meetings, if there was an interpreter at the local health clinic, she wouldn’t have to go. So I think a lot of it is commentary on their financial means. I think they’re a working-class family and interpreters are expensive. Paying for an interpreter or paying for that access.


(Photo by © Apple)

Then I think also the relationship between the deaf community and law enforcement is problematic; I think just with the disability community in general. And that was something that I really felt like was illustrated in the movie, with the coast guard boarding scene, where a lot of times those situations are full of tension. And as we have learned, cops are often coming in adrenalized, and when they encounter a deaf person or don’t know that that person is deaf, I think that miscommunication in the moment, can rapidly escalate into something that is really not good. And I’ve definitely heard stories from deaf friends about being pulled over when driving, and reaching for the glove compartment to get a card that says, “I’m deaf,” and suddenly that action is really threatening to the cops. So I think all of it is requiring a training and awareness.

I didn’t set out to deal with any of these issues in the movie kind of in an “issue way,” but I think just showing these moments on screen…. Troy and Daniel had a run in with the cops really early on in Gloucester, where they went into their Airbnb rental and there was an alarm system, and they didn’t know that they’d set the alarm system off. And they’re just chilling, eating pizza in the middle of the living room. And the cops show up and banging on the door, and then they didn’t hear the cops and the cops kind of busted into this house, because the neighbors were saying this alarm was going off. And luckily in that instance, the cops were cool and realized quickly what was happening, and they all ate pizza together. But that could go really wrong.

Rotten Tomatoes: I hear all that and we haven’t even gone into the intersections of race and disability and dealing with police! But sadly we’ve run out of time. Gosh, so much to talk about, I wanted to ask if you were a Marvin Gaye fan too, but…

Heder: I am a Marvin Gaye fan, and I wrote that song into the script and I never thought we would get it, because it was an indie movie and music is expensive. And I was so grateful that my music supervisor was able to get me that song, because I’m totally a Marvin Gaye fan, which is why there’s two of his songs in the movie. But yes, absolutely.

CODA is available on Apple TV+ from Friday August 13, 2021. 

On an Apple device? Follow Rotten Tomatoes on Apple News.

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