For her film CODA, filmmaker Siân Heder found that delving deep into the cultural differences between the deaf and hearing communities to be wildly informative in creating a fresh cinematic experience.
“I was very excited kind of by the specificity and yet the universality of the story,” Heder said during the Apple Original Films panel Saturday at Deadline’s Contenders Film: New York, where she was joined by production designer Diane Lederman. Heder noted that that precious few film as detailed as CODA‘s exploration of the dynamics of deaf culture had been made since 1986’s Children of a Lesser God, and that it was necessary to have deaf collaborators in front of and behind the camera.
Along with cast members including Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur, Heder noted, “I had two [American Sign Language] masters, Ann [Tomasetti] and Alexandria [Wailes], who worked with me on the translation of the script, but then also as really deaf eyes on set…It was so helpful to have Ann and Alexandria there to go, ‘No deaf families putting their couch here,’ and ‘You need to kind of really think about deaf spaces and how they work, and it’s different from how a hearing family would set up their living room.’”
Heder found ways to add authentic aspects to the story she’d crafted – based on the French film La Famille Bélier – with input from her collaborators. “It was interesting writing the script – obviously in English because that’s my first language and that’s how I write and there’s no written version of ASL, so that’s kind of how I had to approach the script,” she said. “But then the process with my actors and my ASL masters of finding how humor can live in sign and how a joke transforms when it becomes purely visual; how there are kind of jokes that live kind of purely within deaf culture that can be only visual jokes.”
“A lot of the moments I wrote, once Troy particularly got his hands on them, they took off to a place that I was like, ‘Oh, the MPAA is never going to rate this movie as anything other than something totally obscene,’ because Troy is so visual and blunt with his language,” Heder laughed. “Sign language is blunt to begin with, so there’s not a lot of nuance when you’re talking about, you know, a sex talk, but I think it added a whole other level to have Troy and his hilarious mind involved.”
“It’s the most cinematic language out there,” Heder added. “So when writers talk about the experience of watching their words come to life, this was the most literal version of that and very beautiful to write something, have it in my head, have these characters in my head, hear their voices and then realize I was never going to hear their voices, I was going to watch this come to life, and it was very moving.”
Adapted by Heder, CODA follows teenager Ruby (Emilia 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 Kotsur) and working on the family’s fishing boat, Emilia finds herself torn between autonomy and her obligations.
Apple paid a record $25 million-plus to acquire the film after its opening-night premiere at Sundance, where it 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.
Check out the panel video above.