Siân Heder Talks Sundance Crowd-Pleasing Drama 'CODA,' Deaf Culture, Families & More [Interview]

Writer-director Siân Heder, whose unconventional family drama “Tallulah” premiered at the 2016 edition of Sundance, is excited to be back at the festival, even if the conditions are somewhat different this year with the event taking place virtually due to the ongoing pandemic. “Sundance sent us a package yesterday,” Heder says over a Zoom conversation before the opening night premiere of her film “CODA.” “[It] had a down coat, my festival badge, and a hat for Sundance. My kids went through [it] and put on all this swag, and it was just really funny. It was actually a nice gesture, because it made me feel like, ‘Oh, here we go with the festival.’” Still, Heder wishes she could share the moment with her actors. “But it’s also been amazing that people all over the country can share in the premiere at the same time,” she adds. “So that’s the equitable fun part of this.”

READ MORE: ‘CODA’ Transcends The Feel-Good Movie Genre Even When You See It Coming A Mile Away [Sundance Review]

Telling the story of a Gloucester fishing family of four with only one hearing member—young Ruby (Emilia Jones), an aspiring, high-school-aged singer—Heder’s big-hearted film with moments of genuine laughter and tears might score it big with the festival audiences this year. It’s a deeply considered movie that takes great care towards proper Deaf culture representation, a mission that Heder took to heart from the get-go by bringing on experts to the set and studying ASL herself. Below, she broke down her approach to both writing and shooting “CODA” (which stands for Child of Deaf Adults) with the help of ASL masters and her non-hearing cast members, working with the legendary Marlee Matlin (“Children of a Lesser God”), capturing the specificity of the Cape Ann area and how Kenneth Lonergan became an unexpected resource in her journey.

Follow along with all of our coverage of this year’s Sundance Film Festival here.

There’s such intricate humor in “CODA.” During a pair of scenes, I was laughing in hysterics. Then I got a little teary-eyed, thinking, “Oh man, this would have gone down like gangbusters at the Eccles.”

That’s honestly the thing that you really miss. Humor is one of those things that you do not get as a filmmaker until you sit next to people in an audience and watch your film. I remember screening “Tallulah” and there were laughs in places where I did not expect. That kind of immediate response from an audience, there’s really no replacing that. So I do hope that moving forward, once the world opens up a bit, that we will get to have that theatrical experience because there is nothing like it.

“CODA” is the remake of a French movie, “La Famille Bélier.” How did you come across this, and decide to adapt it to a very specific American family in a very specific locale, around Cape Ann, Gloucester Massachusetts?

It was actually after I was at Sundance with “Tallulah,” when I first met with the producers Patrick Wachsberger and Philippe Rousselet. Philippe had produced the French film “La Famille Bélier,” and they were interested in doing a remake for an American audience, but also they were interested in finding a filmmaker who could bring their own voice to the project and take the premise of the film to a wholly original movie. I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I knew the town of Gloucester really well. Over the years I have watched the fishing community there really get decimated, particularly family fishermen, by regulations. While I am an environmentalist and fully support regulating commercial fishing, I think the target, the consequence of this was that big corporations were still fine, and the family fishermen really got the brunt of the economic pain from that. A lot of family fishing boats had to stop fishing after many, many generations of doing that. So I was excited by setting something in that world.

Because I’m from Boston, [I know] the humor of those characters and the people in that town. I really felt like it was also an opportunity with a remake to have a kind of authenticity, in terms of portraying this Deaf family, casting Deaf actors in those roles, and really getting to explore this particular family. And also, it needed a cultural specificity that I was invested in creating.

READ MORE: 25 Most Anticipated 2021 Sundance Film Festival Premieres

As I was watching “CODA,” I thought about Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea” a little bit, a film I love. It’s another movie that is very specific to that region. Your film felt like it had that authenticity too, from costumes, to humor, to production design.

What’s interesting is, I grew up with Casey Affleck. We went to high school together. I wrote the movie for Gloucester, and have mutual friends with Lonergan. When I knew we were going to actually be shooting the film there, I reached out to him and asked him if he had any recommendations for crew or local resources in that area. He actually brought me to my marine coordinator who was key for me. In Manchester, they were lobster fishermen, and so he had a marine coordinator that was really wonderful. Kenny connected me with Joe Borland, who was a huge part of organizing the whole fishing element of the film. In order to film the kind of fishing it was written for—which is ground fishing, these boats are called draggers—you actually really have to go to sea and fish. It’s not an easy thing to fake in the harbor. So it was a huge production challenge to figure out how we were going to get our entire crew three miles out to sea to actually film this kind of fishing. Then it was a huge process with my actors to go out with local fishermen, to learn how to man those boats, to work the winch, to pull in the nets.

But Kenny Lonergan was a big resource in terms of getting to know who were the key people within the local community, who would help with the film. We shared locations with that film just because Gloucester’s a small town. So there are two local fishermen bars: one is the Crow’s Nest and one is Pratty’s. You’re either shooting at one or the other. We shot at Pratty’s, which was also the location for the fight with Casey Affleck. So it was very funny. There was a lot of crossover and I think Kenneth has said, my film should have been called “Gloucester By the Sea.”

Well, I’m glad to hear that because I did think, “Oh this looks like the bar where Affleck punched that guy.”

[Laughs] I texted Casey when we were shooting that scene and I was like, “We’re in the same bar.”

These days, and rightfully so, we pay more attention to who has the license to tell a story; and if you are an outsider, how to responsibly be one. So as a hearing person, what was your process around immersing yourself into Deaf culture, to make sure you’re portraying it authentically and respectfully. Of course, casting Deaf actors is one element. But what else went into it for you?

I knew that I was an outsider coming into this, and I knew what I didn’t know. So I made sure every step of the way, from my initial research before I started writing the script, that I had CODA consultants and people within the Deaf community who could read the script and give me feedback. I started learning ASL the moment that I got the job to write this movie. I knew that I wanted a good portion of the film to be in ASL. Two really key people for me were my ASL directors. They’re called directors of ASL or ASL masters. Alexandria Wailes and Anne Tomasetti were the two people that I had in that role.

Alexandria worked with me in the writing stage. ASL is not a direct translation into English, because not only is there a whole different grammar and syntax to ASL, but there’s a cultural aspect to interpreting any of those scenes into ASL. I think at every step of the way, Alexandria was that for me in the pre-production process. Then once we got on set, Anne Tomasetti took over and she was, along with my actors, really key in being my Deaf eyes, and putting me in check when there was something that was coming from a hearing perspective. One example would be, when my production designer laid out the furniture in the living room of this family. Anne and my actors walked onto set and immediately said, “There’s no way a Deaf family would lay out their furniture like this. The couch would never be with its back to the door.” So at every step of the process, the script was evolving and changing. I think I stayed in a state that was very open, and I felt like it was my job to be receptive and be a conduit to have my Deaf collaborators really have a voice in what we were making.

Because ASL is a language we need to see, that must have impacted your shooting style too.

Absolutely. There are things that you don’t realize until you are in the process. I knew certain things going in, and my cinematographer, Paula Huidobro and I had had a lot of conversations about wanting to make sure that all of the signs were in frame. So we never wanted to be in close up where we were cutting off people’s hands. At the same time you don’t want to keep the camera in a medium the entire movie. You want to find a way to have interesting cinematic language. So we really worked a lot to figure out how to do both, whether it was putting the camera behind someone over their shoulder, but you could still see their signs from behind from their back. So there was a lot of that.

Then definitely in blocking scenes, ASL requires a different kind of communication. You need to be facing the person that you’re talking to. You need to be looking into each other’s eyes. There’s no walking away and throwing a line over your shoulder because you need to be directly interacting face-to-face. So it definitely changed the way that I blocked scenes. It changed decisions about how we were going to cover them. Certainly, I talk about Daniel and Emilia had a fight on the beach. When I saw the wide shot of that fight, I realized that it was very dynamic to see them start that conversation in a wide shot, and that a lot of times throughout the movie I ended up staying in the wide shot for longer than I probably would if I were telling a story about hearing people. Because ASL is such a physical language and the interplay between two people feels so important and dynamic.

It affected every part of the process; also how I worked as a director on set. I usually am someone who doesn’t like to call cut. I will shout out to my actors something in the middle of the scene and take them back to a certain line and have them keep it going indefinitely. It required a lot more calling cut, walking in. The pace of set had to slow down a bit. I think it also changed the way I work in a positive way. What seemed like challenges were actually opportunities that will probably change the way I work as a director moving forward.

One of your cast members, Marlee Matlin, is obviously a legend, having won the Academy Award for “Children of a Lesser God.” But what did it mean to you, to have her on set and also other non-hearing actors like Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant?

Marlee was the first person that I cast. I think I had her in mind even when I was writing. I knew her work and I was a fan. Then she and I just really clicked on a personal level the first time we met. She’s very funny. She’s got a great, dirty sense of humor, and I appreciate that.

So what we see in the film is truthful in a way.

Oh my gosh, yes! Troy, all of these people, are so funny. We laughed so much on set. Everyone was busting everyone’s balls. Troy is totally mischievous. He’s always up to, he’s just a very funny guy. So I think there was a lot of chemistry in this family already. I think just personality-wise from the beginning, we all became very good friends, and Troy and Marlee really got a kick out of each other. Daniel and Troy had played father and son before on stage. So they had a whole relationship going into it. Emilia really clicked as well. So I think that was very helpful. Marlee is such a pro, and she’s worked so much that I think it was very helpful to have her voice in the mix.

There were just funny moments. I remember we were shooting a dinner scene, and the first take, Daniel ate a bunch of chicken off his plate. Marlee was just laughing at him. Like, you don’t want to eat that much chicken because you’re going to have to eat that much chicken 20 more times over the next few days. He was like, “No, no, it’s fine. I was hungry. I just wanted to eat.” Then by the end of that dinner scene, Daniel was like green in the face and looked like he was going to throw up because he’d eaten so much chicken. Marlee has been around the block. She is very comfortable on a set with that.

But yeah, I was always looking for input. I think there was a lot of improvisation that happened in certain scenes that was really fun. That was a result of casting multiple Deaf actors, you allow for improvisation to happen, because there’s more freedom in being able to find a moment. So it was a pretty amazing, special experience. I think the crew found a different way of working. My sound crew had to figure out how to sign with the actors. My camera operators started signing with the actors and figuring out how to communicate. My AD and I found ourselves signing to each other when there were no Deaf actors boat to boat, because it was easier than using a walkie to sign with each other. So I think it started to affect the whole crew, and it really changed the way we worked as a set.

I have to say, I do love that you didn’t shy away from sex in CODA. The parents are crazy for each other and emphasizing their sexuality felt radical to me when society often chooses to think of it as secondary or even non-existent, especially when we’re talking about either Deaf individuals or people with disabilities.

I grew up with two artist parents who were very open about sex. I remember just as a kid being super mortified that my parents were so blunt and open around my friends. So some of that is probably infused with my own childhood. But I do think, characters with disabilities have been portrayed in a very limited way for a long time. I think with all of my work, be it on “Orange Is the New Black,” or on “Little America,” or any of the things that I’ve worked on, I really am invested in subverting stereotypes and in surprising an audience with the humanity of the characters. It was very important to me that this not be the story of this generalized Deaf family. This is a very specific family. They’re fishermen, and they have their own culture within their town, and they have their own dynamics and conflicts, both generationally from the character of Leo, who is completely in a different place than his parents in terms of how he thinks they should be interacting with the world. So it was just important to me that they swear, and they’re dirty, and they laugh with each other, and they bust each other’s balls in the way that my family does. It just feels like a very universal thing.

I think we have to move into different kinds of portrayals of disability, so that it’s not always seen as noble or long-suffering or these tropes that have been in the media for a really long time that are very harmful to these communities.

Emilia Jones is so wonderful in this film. I was actually surprised to find out that while she obviously has singing experience, she didn’t necessarily do singing to this level before. How did you find her, how did she become this incredible performer?

Emilia is being very modest. While she did not have formal singing training, she has an absolutely gorgeous voice. Her tone is so beautiful and unique and pure. So when she auditioned, I heard that in her voice. I think, yes, she worked with a vocal coach. She was really diligent about singing lessons along with learning ASL, and was doing that all while she was on set shooting her Netflix show. So I think she worked very hard to prep for this film. I heard her voice open up and change and expand as we went along. But her dad is a very famous singer. I think it’s in her blood. I think she has that musical background and she’s a really hard worker. She was up to the challenge and very determined to rise to the occasion, both in terms of the singing and in looking like a fluent signer.

Here’s an introductory Sundance clip of “Coda” featuring Heder, but take a closer loo because there’s basically something of a trailer within the clip.