Sian Heder is on point in the awards season circuit when every time she leaves the house, her six-year-old asks, “Where are you going, Mommy?” Another Q&A? “It’s been more than a year since CODA, the writer-director’s Apple TV+ indie about a deaf family, premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival before eventually becoming the toast of Hollywood. Now Heder (also the showrunner of Apple TV+ Little America and writer-director of Talulah) East Oscar nominee for adapting the screenplay for Best Picture nominee. (She recently won the BAFTA Film Award in the same category.)
As the Oscars approach and members of the Academy vote for the best films of the year, Heder spoke with The audiovisual club on the unexpected success of CODA and his best moments of awards season, meeting Steven Spielberg see one of his actors sweep every ceremony. “Seeing Troy Kotsur own the red carpet like the movie star he is is simply the best feeling in the world,” she says. Plus, Heder shares his thoughts on Hollywood’s authentic Deaf portrayal (and, of course, the lack thereof) and why filmmakers could benefit from learning sign language.
The AV Club: How do you feel about this final leg of the film awards race? Congratulations on always being known as an Oscar nominee!
Sian Heder: I say! The first time I heard someone say it was the day after the nominations were released. “Oscar nominee Sian Heder.” I was like, Wow, that sounds so awesome to hear someone else say that. The journey this film has taken is a complete dream. And I remember before sun dance, when I found out the festival was going to be virtual, I had no idea if anyone would be watching. And we didn’t have a distributor in place. I was so scared that the film would never find its way into the world and have no way forward. And so it was just amazing.
AVC: What were your initial expectations for CODA More than a year ago ?
SH: I mean, we finished the movie during COVID and I remember a lot of the big festivals weren’t happening. It was an independent film. And I still feel an intense sense of responsibility. You spent someone else’s money and you want to give it back. And you want to make another movie! So there’s this feeling of pressure, of not having a plan for how it’s going to go. And I was full of nerves the day of the Sundance premiere and I remember wandering around my house with my stomach in knots thinking, I hope someone buys this movie. So yeah, starting with Sundance and just the reaction to the festival – the sale and the prizes we won there. But then the movie came out this summer in the middle of the Delta Variant and our premiere was canceled. So we missed that whole part and I wasn’t counting on that. But it’s been amazing because the talent and the artists that are involved in this awards season are so much of my movie heroes. To be in these halls and building relationships and befriending Denis Villeneuve and Guillermo del Toro and these people that I’ve looked up to all my life is just amazing.
AVC: Wait a minute, is an Oscar campaign just one long networking event?
SH: You’re all getting to know each other and that’s the best part! I mean, having a conversation with Steven Spielberg about CODA was just – you know, here I am, being like, Oh my God, it’s Steven Spielberg; I have to introduce myself. And all the while he’s saying, “I love your movie,” and I can’t believe it’s from Steven Spielberg. So that’s the part you don’t realize: that you’re all doing it together and you’re all at the same events and on the same signs. And I also think that we’ve all come out of a pandemic and everyone’s kind of raw and vulnerable and excited to be around other people. So there’s an openness and a warmth to that.
AVC: What was your favorite moment of this awards season?
SH: Steven Spielberg telling me he loved CODA looks pretty up there. I did a panel in Santa Barbara with Maggie Gyllenhaal and Adam McKay and Denis Villeneuve and Kenneth Branagh. It was so much fun; we were all laughing. And it was great to hear about everyone’s process and realize that writing is painful for everyone. It’s been an amazing year for movies and these [Oscar nominees] are all so different. In a way, it’s kind of absurd to pit them against each other and make it a competition. I like to tell stories and I like storytellers. The fact that I can ask Denis Villenueve how he created this world of Dunes— you know, being a nerdy filmmaker asking nerdy filmmakers questions — was the coolest part of the ride.
AVC: You have written a wonderful Los Angeles Time room on writing CODA then translate the dialogue into American Sign Language. How did this impact your creative process?
SH: The journey of actually learning a language in order to write and direct a film, and learning perhaps the most cinematic language there is, has been the most eye-opening experience as an artist. I had to write the script in English and then work with my ASL masters Alexandria Wailes and Anne Tomasetti to dig out my own script. And not just the lines that I had written, but what was the meaning of those lines, what was the subtext, what was I actually trying to say, in order to translate it into this visual language. Sign language is the most beautiful language in the world. You use your whole body; you have to use your face and the space around you and you have to be emotionally connected to what you say when you say it. Going through the process of figuring out how to tell that story in that language, and then involving my actors and bringing them to life in a whole different way – our whole set became this amazing language lab. Everyone was talking and working together and looking at how this family signed and how they expressed themselves. And then directing in sign language too, and understanding how to guide a performance using my body rather than my voice was such a new experience for me. And I think that probably changed the way I work from now on. There’s a kind of connection and direction in what I was trying to do as an artist that I think I’m going to take with me.
AVC: And you said that signing on a film set is just more efficient, like when you’re shooting scenes from boats, for example?
SH: Yes, boat to boat! My [assistant director] and me, instead of using a walkie, we could sign back and forth. Emily [Jones]when she was on the cliff and I was on the water, I could give her an acting grade [by signing] instead of yelling at him. It’s almost like we can have a private conversation 50 feet away. It was really funny, actually, to be at these awards shows and be able to silently chat with Troy across the table while things were happening. I am not part of the deaf culture. I am a stranger to this. But I feel like I tasted it. And you have to connect with people when you sign with them; you have to look someone in the eye. You need to be connected to what you say. If you say “I am sad”, you must show that you are sad; you can’t just say it. So in a way, there’s a lot less bullshit for me when you sign with someone because you have to embody what you say. And everything is in the present. There is no future or past. You tell a story as if you were living it in the moment. And I think we could all benefit from being more connected to what we say, why we say it, and who we say it to.
AVC: It’s so great that sign language is the most cinematic language. It’s actually crazy that Marlee Matlin is the only deaf actor to historically receive major awards, because it’s such an expressive tool for actors.
SH: There was no opportunity, however! I mean, name the movies that have [authentic deaf representation].
SH: Yeah, and she’s been alone most of the time. Marlee describes her 35-year career as being the only deaf person on set, feeling super isolated most of the time, having lunch with her performer because she doesn’t feel like she’s in an inclusive environment. So I think CODA was a truly unique experience. But it’s not just about ASL, it’s about these actors, who they are and what they bring to the table. Troy Kotsur is a brilliant actor. He could have gone his whole life and never been seen or recognized because there were no plays written for him. The same goes for Daniel Durant, a terrific actor. And when I auditioned for those parts, there were so many choices! I mean, Troy won this game. Daniel won this game. There were many other choices for these characters. That’s the thing that blew my mind the most, that most people don’t know: there is a wealth of talent within the deaf community. They mainly work in theatre, places like Deaf West Theater which have been talent incubators. But there haven’t really been any opportunities to break into television and film.
AVC: So what do you think is the future of Hollywood and accessibility? Where do you think the industry is going and where do you hope it goes?
SH: I think audiences are hungry to see stories that we haven’t seen before. And the deaf community and the disabled community have been ignored for so long, even in the conversations about inclusion that we have. So I think it’s so important to tap into not just Deaf actors, but also Deaf writers, Deaf directors, showrunners, storytellers, creating paths to Hollywood, pipelines with mentorships, ways to create accessible spaces for these artists to collaborate. And I hope that CODA is the rock that triggers the avalanche, or one of the rocks that triggers the avalanche. I think it will take a lot of other projects. And it is useful that sound of metal came out, that screaming camp came out, that there is a deaf superhero in The Eternalsthat Millicent Simmonds is in A silent place. It’s starting to look like a collective movement with all these projects. And I hope it’s not the flavor of the year, that CODA at this moment of recognition and that it does not continue. I hope that the door is now open and that many other artists will be able to cross it.