CODA is named for its protagonist, Ruby Rossi, the youngest Child of Deaf Adults, and the only hearing member of her family. As such, everyone in the small fishing town where they live looks to her as their de facto interpreter, rather than putting in the work themselves. At one point in the movie, Ruby's fed-up older brother Leo exclaims, "Let them figure out how to deal with deaf people!"
It's a line Sian Heder wrote into the screenplay, but would become the guiding principle on set.
Heder was approached to write and direct an adaptation the 2014 French film, La Famille Bélier, and agreed, so long as she could make it her own, but also make it more authentic to the deaf experience. As she set out writing, that meant being in constant conversation with actual CODAs and collaborating with her American Sign Language masters, Alexandria Wailes and Anne Tomasetti.
"I feel like I was catching myself in my hearing perspective all the time. Part of the reason that ableism or audism is so insidious is [because] we don't even know the way that we're thinking until we see it from another perspective," Heder tells A.frame. "I had to change the way that I work."
Unlike the original movie, it was imperative for Heder that CODA cast deaf actors in deaf roles: Troy Kotsur stars as dad Frank, Marlee Matlin as mom Jackie and Daniel Durant as Leo. (Emilia Jones rounds out the Rossi family as Ruby.) Heder took it upon herself to begin studying ASL as she was writing the script, but originally planned to work with interpreters once she got to set.
The first day of filming involved a dinner scene with the entire Rossi family. "I was giving a note to Daniel and I realized a couple things," Heder recalls. "One, that he was looking at the interpreter instead of at me when I was talking, because he needed to to understand what the interpreter was signing, and he was getting none of the nonverbal communication that was happening on my face."
"I also find that word choice -- and specific word choice -- is so essential, even when working with a hearing actor. But I had no idea what that interpreter was choosing, because there are so many different ways to sign any specific word." They did another take and Heder realized the nuance of her direction was being lost in translation. "On the second take, I went up and said to Daniel and Marlee and Troy, 'Is it okay if I just sign with you directly?'"
With an interpreter on hand for clarification purposes, Heder was able to speak directly to her cast, thus establishing a trust between director and actor and building the intimate connection necessary to make great art. If she didn't know a certain sign, she communicated what she wanted to say using physical gestures and facial expressions, and her actors or ASL masters would teach her that sign so that she would know it for the next time.
"I was learning a language as I was directing the movie. And I give so much credit to Marlee and Troy and Daniel for really working it out with me," Heder says. "In a way, I've never learned a language so fast. It was out of sheer necessity. And, by the end of the film, I remember -- at the wrap party -- I was drunk and interpreting for everybody!"
"If anything changed about the way that I direct, I think I was much more direct and to the point with how I communicate," she adds in reflection. "That was freeing to me, and actually felt was very effective. That's something I will take forward into future directing is, honestly, saying less and being much more clear about exactly what I want."
It wasn't just Heder's direction that needed to evolve to meet the moment, but every level of filmmaking. "Everything was a learning experience for me," she says. In her research, she saw that deaf spaces tend to be circular so that everyone can see everyone else as they sign. That required production design to set up the furniture in the Rossi home just so.
"My crew came into this with open hearts but not a lot of experience with dealing with deaf people and how to bridge that communication gap," Heder shares. "I remember my camera operator on the first day said, 'What do I do? I need Troy to move over.' And I said, 'You're a human and he's a human and you have so many tools to communicate besides spoken language.' Like, figure it out."
Heder and DP Paula Huidobro also had to adjust their cinematography to make sure that all of the signing was visible within the frame, while still allowing for cinematic blocking and camera movement. That then informed the approach to post-production and dictated editor Geraud Brisson's cutting of the film.
"In a speaking dialogue scene, you might have someone be off camera for several lines and just hear that dialogue. Because I wanted to keep all of the language in frame, the edit really had to create its own rhythm that was dictated by the language," Heder says. "I would say everything was an organic experience that stemmed from me learning about and understanding both ASL and deaf culture."
"Everything was an organic experience that stemmed from me learning about and understanding both ASL and deaf culture."
CODA premiere at last year's Sundance Film Festival, where it won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize, the Dramatic Audience Award, a Special Jury Ensemble Award and Best Director. One year later, the movie collected three Oscar nominations, for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Kotsur, who made history by becoming the first deaf male actor nominated for an acting Oscar.
"It's amazing. And it's also surreal," she says, looking to a nearby shelf where her awards haul thus far lives alongside one of her kids' T-rex toy. "It's wild to be in your own life and dealing with kids and all of the chaos of normal life, but then also putting on gowns and being in these very intense rooms, full of powerful, interesting artists and actors that you've watched your whole life. It's surreal, but it's also amazing. And I'm so happy that this film is being recognized in the way that it is, because it means that more people will see it."
"Also watching Troy walk a red carpet is, like, the greatest thing ever, 'cause he's such a movie star," Heder laughs. "I can't believe how quickly he's taken to it."