After watching her family drama CODA break ground this morning as both the first Apple Original, and the first feature led by a predominantly deaf cast to land a Best Picture Oscar nomination, writer-director Sian Heder caught up with Deadline to discuss the meaning behind this recognition from the Film Academy, and upcoming projects including a biopic on disability rights activist Judy Heumann.
“I’m just stunned. I’m so moved. I’m so proud of this cast and this crew,” the director said with regard to CODA’s reception. “It was a really scrappy production. It was a little indie movie and people poured their hearts into it, and it’s just so incredible to see the movie get recognized on such a big scale. I’m just so unbelievably moved by this cast, and their commitment to these characters and the story, and what this kind of representation does for this community.”
CODA is a comedic drama based on the French film La Famille Bélier, which tells the story of Ruby (Emilia Jones), a CODA (or “child of deaf adult”) who serves as an interpreter for the members of her Boston family, including her mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin), her father Frank (Troy Kotsur) and her brother Leo (Daniel Durant). At a pivotal moment in her life, the character finds herself torn between the role she plays, in connecting her loved ones to the outside world—above all, with regard to their fishing business—and her pursuit of an education in music.
Heder’s hope is that her film will be part of a movement toward more representation onscreen for the deaf community. “Audiences have been delighted to see ASL on screen,” she said, “and [by] the realization that it’s such a cinematic, beautiful language, and why haven’t we seen it before, and why can’t we see it more?”
The hope is also that those who have taken in the film will recognize just how much deaf talent there is out there—including, but certainly not limited to Matlin, who paved the way for her co-star Troy Kotsur’s Oscar nom today as the first deaf actor to be nominated for and win an Oscar, for 1986’s Children of a Lesser God. “I think for so long, Marlee has had to hold the torch as the only one, and this is a community that is full of incredible artists,” said Heder. “I really hope that this movie helps kick the door open so that more deaf actors, deaf writers, deaf directors, deaf creators get to tell these stories.”
Projects coming up from the filmmaker include a feature adaptation of Sarah Lotz’s 2022 novel Impossible—which she calls “a lovely, funny, weird story”—and the second season of Apple’s acclaimed series Little America, which will soon enter production. Then, there’s the biopic on Heumann, the lifelong civil rights advocate whose efforts were chronicled in Netflix’s Best Documentary Oscar nominee, Crip Camp.
While Heder says she has been in “an indie filmmaker mentality for so long,” having spent nine years trying to get her acclaimed debut feature Tallulah off the ground, she’s warming up the idea of being able to more easily tell the stories she’s passionate about, on the heels of CODA’s success. “The idea that this might mean that I can tell the stories I want to tell, and that people will see that those stories are worth telling is just an incredible shift to feel,” she said. “I feel like with CODA, and with the story of [Heumann and] the 504 [Sit-In], I just want to make sure that stories, particularly stories from the disability community, continue to be put out in the world, and people understand that they can be entertaining and funny, and commercially viable, and movies that audiences will embrace.”
Heder also scored a nomination today for Best Adapted Screenplay, as Kotsur became the first deaf actor to land an Oscar nom in 35 years. The film garnered critical acclaim upon its premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, winning its Grand Jury Prize, as well as its Audience Award, Directing Award and U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Best Ensemble. Apple acquired it out of the festival for a record-setting $25 million, releasing it in theaters and on Apple TV+ on August 13. Over the course of the 2021-2022 awards season, the film has also been recognized with noms at the BAFTA Awards, the Critics Choice Awards, the Artios Awards, the Independent Spirit Awards, the PGA Awards and the WGA Awards.
The 94th Academy Awards are set to take place on March 27.
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