Siân Heder’s groundbreaking adaptation

March 23, 2022 Danny Munso

For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this free excerpt from our article interviewing writer/director Siân Heder about CODA from Backstory Magazine’s issue 46 – now available to read! This is not the full article – so, if you enjoy what you’ve read in this free excerpt – we hope you’ll join us to read the rest of the article by by subscribing to Backstory Magazine so you can read the rest of the piece and so much more!


Oscar Lessons

Siân Heder on the many voices that went into her script for one of the best films of the year.

By Danny Munso

When Siân Heder’s CODA premiered opening night at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, she couldn’t have known the journey that film would take her on, one that is still ongoing over a year later and culminated earlier this month with three Oscar nominations, including one for Adapted Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Picture and seems to be showing momentum as a possible underdog victory in that category. But even if it comes up short, Heder’s indie film has already carved out its own part of history as a groundbreaking piece of cinema for its genuine portrayal of a deaf family.

CODA’s story starts over five years ago, after Heder – who was coming off writing and producing for Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black — premiered her feature directorial debut, 2016’s Tallulah. Lionsgate and producers Patrick Wachsberger and Philippe Rousselet approached her to adapt the 2014 French film La Famille Bélier, about a girl who loved music and was the only hearing member of her family. Heder watched the film only one time after she was approached. “It felt very important for me to make my own movie,” she says. “They were looking for a filmmaker who could put their own spin on the material, and I had this very vivid vision for who this family could be.” Having grown up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and visiting the fishing town of Gloucester with her family every summer, she thought it would be a good setting for her take on the film. “After I pitched my vision to them, I never rewatched the movie. I took the scenes that had stayed in my head and resonated with me emotionally and put them on note cards and then just really thought about my own journey for these characters and who I wanted them to be. Doing it that way allowed me to make it really personal and draw on my own life and my own family and find a movie that resonated with me in a deeper way.”

CODA — the acronym for child of deaf adults — follows high schooler Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), the only hearing member of her family that includes her father Frank (Oscar nominee Troy Kotsur), mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and brother Leo (Daniel Durant). As Ruby works with her father and brother on their fishing boat in Gloucester, she harbors a secret desire to sing. Her choir teacher, Mr. V (Eugenio Derbez), sees her talent and takes her under his wing to prepare for an audition at Berklee College of Music, all while Ruby has to help her family navigate a new business venture in the struggling local fishing industry. Before attacking the script, Heder dove headfirst into intense research, visiting Gloucester and even going out with the townie fisherman. But the majority of her digging was done within the deaf community, including mastering American Sign Language (ASL). She wanted to learn the language not only to make her writing more authentic but because she wanted to hire deaf actors to play Ruby’s family—something the French version of the film did not do—and would need to communicate with everyone on the set. And the more she learned, the more the script would change. “I learned ASL because I knew I wanted 50 percent of the movie to be in ASL, and I felt it was important for me to have an understanding of the language,” Heder says. “So the script became an ever-changing thing because as I opened up as a human and learned more and understood the culture and the community, I allowed that to affect the story and the characters and the way I was portraying the story.”

Heder wanted to showcase a deaf family in a way they have never been portrayed onscreen. There are long scenes with little to no sound because the family is signing to one another, with subtitles provided for the audience. However, there are other points where Ruby will talk out loud as she is signing. These moments were not calibrated during filming but rather were carefully scripted in conjunction with Heder’s ASL masters, Anne Tomasetti and Alexandria Wailes, who were on hand from the writing stage through postproduction. “They were incredible for me both in doing the translation of the script but also understanding what my intention was and figuring out sign choices that would be true to that,” she says. “One of the things we talked about was when would a CODA speak aloud. Ruby is really between two worlds. She grew up in a deaf world, and that’s where she’s most comfortable. ASL is her first language. That’s what she would sign with her parents, and yet she’s a teenager who is pulling away. She’s in a hearing world when she’s at school, and it can be a messy flow between the two. I think we liked the idea that these two worlds were blending into each other.” Heder, Tomasetti and Wailes decided Ruby would only speak aloud while signing when she was angry or frustrated. Part of that was as an emotional touchstone for the character, but it is also just the reality of the language. ASL doesn’t perfectly correlate to exact English, so speaking both at one time is usually not done unless it’s in a translation situation. “English word order is really different than the way you would use ASL grammar and syntax, so it’s really butchering ASL when you do that. We tried to keep Ruby talking in places where the ASL was close to the English word order or when she was in a heightened state of emotion. It was really conscious decision making to find those moments.”

One of the standout moments in the movie is a brief moment where Heder has Ruby signing and not only isn’t she saying aloud what she means but, for the only time in the film, the director didn’t include subtitles. It comes at a moment when Mr. V asks Ruby what music means to her. Rather than explaining through speech, she signs something. We as the audience don’t know exactly what it means, but the expressiveness of the sign is enough of a translation: It means everything. The scene was born out of a conversation Heder had with one of her ASL teachers, actress Hillary Baack. “We were having a session together, and I realized there are concepts that are easier to express in ASL, like big feelings or things where English words don’t feel big or strong enough to hold,” Heder says. “I made the comment to her, ‘It’s almost like ASL is really close to music.’ Music can feel more full emotionally or more expressive than just a spoken line. She agreed they were similar. I came home and was thinking that in this moment where he asks Ruby why she wants to do music, it would make total sense to me that she would choose to sign instead of speaking because it’s her native language and it can be expressive of a feeling you can’t really put words to.”

In the final draft of the script, Heder wrote a line that read, “Ruby signs a figure in the middle of the universe, with the universe growing and growing and the figure growing with it.” But she knew that was just a placeholder and the real sign would have to be found through collaboration. As the shooting of that scene approached, the director spoke with Tomasetti about finding the right sign to match the moment. Tomasetti responded that only Jones herself could find the right one. “She said that needs to come from Emilia because only she knows how she feels when she sings. Emilia had been studying ASL for nine months like I had, so we were both conversational but not fluent. She went off to her trailer then came back and showed us the sign she had chosen.” When Jones attempted the sign in the scene, Tomasetti exploded with laughter. It turns out what Jones picked really meant she had bad indigestion, so Tomasetti clarified what the actress was trying to express. “Emilia basically explained this feeling of her insides being tied in knots and when she sings there’s this release of that tension and she floats out of her body. So then we all worked together to find the right sign choices. That was an example of how everything on our set felt like a language lab. All these minds were collaborating on these lines to figure out the way to transform them into this visual language.”

That visual language expresses itself in another amazing scene after Ruby’s family sees her perform with the choir. Though they couldn’t hear what she was singing, they saw the way the crowd reacted to their daughter and realized she must be incredibly talented. More important, they saw how Ruby lights up while performing. This culminates in a moment back at their house where Frank asks Ruby to sing for him as he places his hands on her throat to see if he can feel the vibrations. The scene is similar to one in the original French film but also illustrates how Heder wanted to set her own version apart. “I was struck when I saw that film that because the actor in that scene is hearing but playing deaf. He is having an experience of the song but pretending he’s not,” she says. “This is a testament to why authentic casting is important.”

To Heder, the scene was never about whether Frank can actually feel anything while Ruby sings. It’s the effort the two of them make to connect. “In speaking with Troy in how he relates to his own CODA daughter who plays music, he sometimes would put his hand on her guitar so he could feel the vibrations. You’re never going to have some magical transference of the music. That wasn’t what the scene was about when I wrote it. It was about the effort and about a parent taking the time to reach out in this very intimate way and the child attempting to communicate a passion to their parent. The effort and the teamwork are what that scene is about, not this kind of magical moment where a deaf character understands what music is.” And in fact, while shooting the scene, Kotsur wasn’t getting any vibrations when Jones was singing so it took the pair a while to work out the rhythms of the moment. “She kept having to sing louder and louder, and he had to move his hands around on her neck. But then he found it, and what you see onscreen is a true moment of connection we were able to capture because they were both working so hard to give it to each other. It was really beautiful.”

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