Sian Heder is now an Oscar nominee after writing the screenplay for her film ‘CODA’, which she is also directing. The film, which recently won the SAG Award for Best Ensemble, tells the story of a hearing child of deaf adults (CODA) living in a home where his parents and brother are all deaf.
Heder recently spoke with the editor of Gold Derby Daniel Montgomery about its relationship to the original French film “CODA” is based on and how to write a screenplay with mostly deaf characters. Watch the full interview above and read the full transcript below.
Gold Derby: You wrote and directed the film “CODA”, which is about a child of deaf adults who wants to make music. It’s based on a French film from 2014. So what about this film that stood out to you when you were asked to adapt it for an American film?
Sian Heder: I think he was the central character. I mean, I think the CODA experience is a very unique experience. Often, CODAs are raised in the deaf culture. ASL is their first language. They really feel part of the community. They are part of the community. And yet they hear from people who then have to kind of be a bridge between two different cultures, often interpreting for their parents and just trying to navigate being part of two different worlds, but also kind of not being part of any. There’s a lot of inherent tension in there, it’s very dramatic and interesting. So there was a lot of stuff in this character that I thought had incredible potential and to expand on what was started with the French film and really find my own film in this story that could be personal and feel like I could soak up all these other things.
And then, honestly, just a chance to explore deaf culture in a really deep way. I was struck when I saw this film how rarely I had seen deaf characters on screen and in the French film, the actors playing the parents both hear. So there couldn’t be any exploration, really, of language or culture in a way that I felt the story called for. So I don’t know, I was intrigued by the fact that like when I was trying to go and get movies with deaf characters, I was going back 35 years to “Children of a Lesser God” and it just seemed crazy that it’s the most cinematic language there is, it’s a purely visual language that just begs to be on screen, and that the culture, the community of these characters hadn’t been seen before.
I don’t think I would have gotten into it if I didn’t think I could really make my own movie that looked like mine and felt like it had a reason to exist outside of the original movie. So tonally they are very different. I never used the script from the original film. I watched the movie once and then kind of absorbed the story and then embarked on my own journey with it. And then I wrote it for a place that I loved, which was Gloucester, Massachusetts. I grew up in Cambridge, and we used to go to Gloucester every summer of my life and I knew the fishing community there and I had seen that working town fall apart, really, when the fishing industry is dead. People struggled to find what to do when they could no longer earn a living. So it also felt like a very ripe setting for a story and a conflict within this family.
GD: And since it’s a story about deaf characters, largely deaf characters, played by deaf actors, and I know you learned a bit of American Sign Language while making this movie, how did that process writing is different when you’re writing a film… like you said, it’s the most cinematic language. It’s very visual unlike what you can hear. How is it a different writing process or is it different?
SH: Oh, it’s extremely different. Well, it started out no different. So yes, it’s the most cinematic language, but it also doesn’t have a written form, so there’s no way to write ASL. There’s the ASL gloss, which is a form of notation where you sort of use English words as labels for certain signs and draw diagrams and pictures. But there is no way to express the language on the page that ultimately exists on the screen. So when I wrote, I wrote in English and I wrote the way I wrote each script, where I talk to myself out loud and play each role and I really hear the characters because Obviously, I’m a hearing person. English is my language. That’s kind of how I approach these characters, it’s really hearing their voices come to life. I mean, I even heard Boston accents because I’m from that area. So I was a bit in the world of these fishermen and these characters.
And then there was definitely a moment in the writing where I was like, “Oh, that’s a stupid way to work because I’m never going to hear those lines. These jokes won’t depend on the pace of a punchline or how something is delivered. It’s really the unknown for me. So in a way, this initial script that I wrote was like a launchpad, where I was like, “OK, this is where we start, and then there’s going to be this massive exploration as we discover kind of the language,” and 50 percent of the dialogue is ASL. So, in a way, it was just like this jump from, like, “This is where I start. these characters come to life for me as three-dimensional, complicated, imperfect people, and now we have to find out who they are in this language.
So I had two ASL masters or ASL directors, Alexandria Wailes and Anne Tomasetti, and both of them are deaf women and they are artists themselves, and they have extensive theater experience. So the first time I met Alexandria, we went through the script line by line, every bit of dialogue, and we were back and forth and talking, and she was showing me the possible sign choices and at that point, I had studied ASL, so I wasn’t fluent, but I was conversational. Recently we both realized that we first met without an interpreter and I think, like, we spent five hours dissecting the script, and neither of us remembered that there was there was no performer there because I think we were so focused on the material. She was really discussing the meaning of each line so in a way it forced me to dig into my own storyline in a way that you don’t normally do as a writer until you’re sure the set with your actors. What does the character want and what is the intention behind it? And she would sign the line to me and then we would kind of chat or sometimes I needed a sign that felt emotionally different so we would play with different signs and then she would make videos and record in brilliant ASL but mostly keeping in his mind, in his body, which is this incredible feeling of confidence that I had to give where I’m like, ‘OK, you’re holding back all my words that way.’
And then the actors came along, and of course they have their own way of signing. marlee [Matlin] has a very different signature style than Daniel [Durant] so what Troy [Kotsur]and Emily [Jones] was new to signing. So there was a kind of work to make everyone feel like a tight-knit family and find the local signs. It’s like, what’s the name sign of Gloucester? And the town has that name, which is like a little G in the air, but we didn’t know that until we got there and talked to the people of the deaf community there. So it was this amazing thing. Troy is simply the most inventive singer you have ever seen in your life. So any joke that I wrote, he went with it, and his signs went so far beyond what I wrote, in sex talk or whatever, where things can’t even be captioned because that they are so creative and visual.
So the script was a really amazing thing because, in a way, it was a document to start with. But it can never be the document of the thing because language only exists in a visual space. It was really amazing. People talk about that feeling as a writer where you see your words come to life, and that was the most literal form of that there was. You watch your words turn into a kind of expression that is uniquely physical and much more expressive than spoken English. So that was cool too. And then working with Emilia, who was as new to the language as I was, and having us both really live in a space on set where ASL became the mode of communication, that’s how I communicated with my actors. This is how Emilia communicated with her partners, and then the team began to participate. So it became the dominant culture on set as well, which was a really nice thing to watch.
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