CODA writer-director Siân Heder was joined by stars Marlee Matlin and Emilia Jones at Deadline’s Contenders Film: Los Angeles to discuss the drama, which set a record when Apple paid $25 million-plus to acquire the film after its opening-night premiere at Sundance,
“When I watched the original film,” said Heder of the 2014 French movie, “I was just very drawn to this character at the center. I think the idea of a CODA, a hearing person raised within deaf culture, who can navigate both the deaf world and the hearing world, and feels a part of both but also a part of neither; there was amazing tension in that. I really wanted to explore that character more deeply. There was a missed opportunity in the original film, to take a deep dive into a deaf culture and to cast deaf actors and really be able to explore what it feels like to be sitting at a dinner table with a deaf family and what the dynamic is, and show characters on screen that we really rarely get to see.”
CODA follows teenager Ruby (Jones), the only hearing member in her deaf family — a CODA, or child of deaf adults. Busy translating for her parents (Oscar winner Matlin and Troy Kotsur) and working on the family’s fishing boat, Emilia finds herself torn between autonomy and her obligations.
“When I saw this script, I connected,” Matlin said onstage, communicating via American Sign Language through an interpreter. “It was in my element, I understood the character, I understood the story, I understood the culture, I understood everything that Siân put into the script. I connected immediately with Jackie, so I knew I could not pass up the opportunity to do it.”
“I love a challenge,” said Jones, “and when I read the script I thought… it’s not everyday that you get to learn all of these skills for a role. I’ve never had a singing lesson, but I love singing, I was like, this is going to give me an opportunity to learn and grow as a singer, and I’d never had a sign lesson, but I wanted to learn. I was so grateful that I had Marlee, Troy [Kotsure], and Daniel [Durant] and all of the interpreters on set, who were actually CODAs too.”
“This is what you can do with American Sign Language in a film,” signed Matlin, “not only casting it authentically and respecting the culture, but displaying emotions in so many new ways that Hollywood could have done for such a long time with lots of deaf actors in film. I hope this changes the landscape from now on.”
CODA won the Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast, the Directing Award, the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at Sundance. Apple released the film in theaters and on the platform in August.
Check out the panel video above.
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