Interview: Siân Heder Talks The Record-Breaking Sundance Sale One Year Later, Emilia Jones, and the Authenticity of ‘CODA’

There wasn’t a single film in 2021 that made me feel the way “CODA” did. I first watched it via a screener sent by Apple while I was on a family vacation in Iceland. We had gone whale watching that evening, but I got seasick. Since my body was still adjusting to the time difference, I felt game to watch “CODA” that evening starting roughly at 1 a.m. Icelandic time, which meant it was 8 p.m. on the East Coast. That time could not have been spent any better, and while many films came after it, no film made me laugh or cry in the same way. Maybe it was the authenticity with real deaf actors, with Academy Award-winning actress, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant filling out the main cast around the budding star, Emilia Jones. Or maybe it was the way the film framed and handled trivial concerns of high schooler Ruby (Jones). Whatever the case, “CODA” deserves all of the recognition and awards it has coming its way, and roughly one year after the film made Sundance history, becoming the biggest acquisition ($25 million) in festival history, director Siân Heder took time out of her busy awards campaign to discuss the film. Thank you to ID PR for allowing me this pleasure and best of luck to Siân and her team this awards season.

First, thank you so much for your time. “CODA” was my favorite film of the year, and I truly mean that; it was such a wonderful film and I really think that you nailed so much [of] the authenticity of representation.

Looking back now that this year’s Sundance [Film Festival] is winding down, a year ago, your film made history [being] the biggest purchase in the festival history. So what is it like for you now to look back a year later?

I guess it probably has flown by it’s sort of flown by, and it also feels like it’s [been] five years. This movie has been such a ride, I think, going into Sundance last year, in a way, I had no expectations because we were in a pandemic. I didn’t know what the landscape looked like, I didn’t know what a virtual festival would feel like. I think I went in feeling like, “Okay, I hope something comes of this.

And we were an indie movie. We had no distribution in place. It was a scary feeling. Obviously, the festival was amazing. It was [a] life-changing moment as a filmmaker, but in a way, I almost didn’t get to experience it because I was having this moment you dream of, but having it on a Zoom screen at home with my five-year-old and seven-year-old.

So it was a very different kind of Sundance, but it has been an amazing year. I didn’t expect that the movie would still be in the conversation a year later. I didn’t expect that we would be in the awards conversation. It’s just been a really, truly amazing ride. And it did start with that incredible, surprising experience and sale at Sundance, which was so validating.

What did it feel like to have the weight [of not having a distributor] lifted off?

When someone invests in me and puts money into something that was my idea and that I am responsible for, I feel the weight of that investment. I don’t know if all filmmakers feel this, but I want to get people their money back. And I felt this way [with] my first movie too. I mean, “Tallula” sold before Sundance, and I remember an incredible feeling of relief of, “Okay, I’ve got your millions of dollars back. You made this big bet on me and your bet paid off.

And somehow that also felt important; the business side of it, not just that the movie was an artistic success, but you believed in me with your investment and you got a return on your investment. And that is very meaningful to me, not just in my own ability to work again, but also in the idea that the messages sent. Here was a movie [with] three disabled characters in the leads and a 17-year-old unknown [Jones]. And it was an incredibly difficult movie to get made for that reason. That massive sale, to me, sent a message about the viability of movies like that, why they should exist in the marketplace, and why they are a good investment and should be backed and hopefully open the door for more studios and more independent producers to understand that they should be backing projects like this.

“CODA” was picked up by Apple TV+, a streaming service, and streaming has kind of become a home for mid-budget movies or smaller budget movies because theaters are dominated by tentpole movies. What is your opinion on streaming services as a filmmaker?

You know, I started writing [for] “Orange Is the New Black” [during its] first season. And Netflix was a DVD rental service and I remember thinking, “What is this? Am I writing on a web series? What are we doing here? Is this only going to be on the internet?” It was so confusing and man, I wish I’d bought stock in Netflix. I was the dumbass that didn’t.

But watching how the streaming services have risen, and certainly with my first feature to “Tallula,” I felt a kind of sadness around like, “Oh, is this only going to be, on this platform?” and there’s not really an emphasis on the theatrical element. And yet, when I saw how many people saw that movie all over the world, it was a very different kind of reach than you would ever have had with an indie movie with a small theatrical release in art house theaters.

So, it’s a double-edged sword. I think as a filmmaker, you always want audiences to have that theatrical, communal experience and sit in a theater and see it with the exact perfect color and sound as you designed it. At the same time, the most important thing is that people see your film and these streamers have incredible reach.

And it’s been amazing to be on Twitter. “CODA” came out in Japan two days ago and just see like this flood of responses in Japan. And you’re like, “Oh, this is amazing,” it’s just traveling in a way that it probably wouldn’t otherwise.

What was your journey to “CODA”? To my understanding, it was a foreign film [that you adapted].

Correct. This is an adaptation [of] a French film called “La Famille Bélier.” And I came on because [of] Patrick Wachsberger and Phillippe Rousselet. It was originally at Lionsgate, [who] had the rights to do an American remake of the French film. I wasn’t that interested in doing a remake, cause I kind of felt like the movie exists, why would I make it again? And then when I saw the original in a way, it was such a beautiful premise [and] I loved the heart of the story and the character at the center of this coda girl. And at the same time, there were a lot of missed opportunities in that original film that I felt like there was room for me to expand and grow the story, to make a deeper movie about what that experience was, and to put authentically deaf characters on screen portrayed by deaf actors and have a true exploration of ASL, which didn’t happen with the original film.

Your [adaptation] is set in Massachusetts, which I know is your home state. Was this kind of a no-brainer for you to set it in Massachusetts or was there another place in mind?

It was a brilliant idea. I grew up going to Gloucester every summer and I knew that town really well. I had seen the struggles of the fishing community there, and it just was such an interesting place.

It had this cinematic quality of being quintessentially New England with these incredible vistas and these rocky coastlines. And yet it was a very working-class gritty place where a lot of the waterfront was abandoned processing plants, and a lot of the town was out of work. And you saw those two things living in conflict with each other.

And I loved the idea of this family being these north shore, Italian hardscrabble fishermen. I went in and brought that take to Lionsgate and said [that] I really want to set it in this town [Gloucester]. I want the town to be a character. I want to feel this struggle. And it feels like a portrait of working-class America.

It’s a kind of small working-class town that’s actually disappearing because the industry that built [it] collapsed in the [same] way that Pittsburgh collapsed in the eighties when the steel industry died. It’s a lot of these small towns stories of towns that were built on a particular industry. And when that industry dies or that profession dies, the town kind of dies along with it.

So that was what I brought to them. And then I never thought we could shoot there, but I fought really hard to shoot there. And I was so glad that we did because it was so personal. The quarry that the kids go and jump off of was a quarry that I jumped off when I was 16 years old. And I would sneak in with my friends through the woods and we would go cliff jumping off those walls.

A lot of the locations in the film were very personal to me. The scene on the beach, where Leo (Durant) fights with his sister, that’s Lane’s Cove and it’s a very incredible visual landscape. And I drove by it all the time and I was like, “Oh, we get to go shoot the scene on Lanes Cove at low tide.” I just had a really strong connection to the place, and I think you can feel that actually in the movie.

Did you know a lot about the fishing industry coming into the film, or did you have to do research while you were writing?

I did so much research that there was a point where I delivered a script that was so boring because all it had was like fishing regulations because it’s complicated. And I went and I met with the mayor and I met with the Gloucester fishermen’s wives association and I got the whole layout, you know? The battle between Noah that had been happening and the local fishermen. And it’s like when you learn too much about a subject, and then you’re like, “I got to get everything in here.

And I remember my producers reading that draft and being like, “No one cares,” not that no one cares about what’s happening, but no one cares about, [the fact that] it’s a catch share program and you have this quota. So in a way, it was like getting, doing an incredible amount of research, and then figuring out: “What are the elements that emotionally play into the ride that this family is on?” and “How do I create a convincing backdrop of what is actually happening there and the conflict that is rooted in reality, but is not going to like put an audience to sleep with the ins and outs of what a catch share program is and how you get a quota for Cod?

I did want to talk about the cast. You mentioned Emilia Jones, who was in a couple of things [prior to “CODA”], but this is her breakout role. How does it feel to have directed her breakout performance? I feel like we’re going to see her in a lot of projects coming up.

I think she’s going to be a huge movie star. I mean, it’s wild. She was 17 when we shot [“CODA”] and she’s 19 now. And it’s amazing to see the transformation in two years, like who she’s coming into. And I just think she’s wonderful. I mean, she is so good in the film and also just had a massive education.

Siân Heder, Emilia Jones, and Ferdia Walsh-Peelo on the set of “CODA.” Photo courtesy of Apple TV+.

She had never had a singing lesson [and] she had never done sign language before the movie. She did nine months of vocal training, nine months of sign language training with a deaf coach in Toronto, and she went out on fishing boats with Troy and Daniel and learned how to run those boats; pulling the nets and running the winch.

I [have] never seen anybody work so hard on a movie and she had such a good attitude through the whole thing as well. Our schedule was exhausting and she was so good-natured about the whole thing. So I think she’s going to have a massive career and it feels really good to have found that person. I saw hundreds of girls for this part and I found her very late in the game. Actually, I think I had even decided on someone else. And then my casting director said, “Oh, you’ve got to see this one more tape.”

And then on the other end of that, you had Marlee Matlin, who’s an Academy Award winner and gives another powerful performance. Was she the first person to sign on or how did you get her in the film?

She was definitely the first, but she was sort of in the back of my high mind when I was writing [“CODA”] and I sent it to her, and yet, I didn’t want to just go, “Okay, it [has to be] Marlee Matlin because [she’s a] woman of that age.” I mean, I auditioned as well. I saw other actresses for that role in [but] I just think Marlee really connected to this part. I had a meeting with her, we went out to breakfast and we had like a three-hour breakfast together and just chatted the whole time. She was just really passionate about the script. She was really excited about it. She said, “I haven’t read anything that I responded this much to, since ‘Children of a Lesser God,’ and that was 35 years ago. I have to play this part. You can’t give it to anybody else.” And so, yeah, she was the first person to come on and she knew Troy’s work and had followed him for a long time.

And I had seen him [Troy] on stage at Deaf West, in Edward Albee’s play. And I also totally loved him. So he came in and auditioned. And from the moment that he walked through the door he just looked like such a Seadog. He looked like a guy who’d been out on the water since he could walk and he just understood this part. He had all the humor and depth. And then Daniel was also a Deaf West member and I auditioned him and I just think he really understood Leo. So finding the cast was a really organic journey. Even Eugenio Derbez; I had seen his work and thought he had so much potential as a dramatic actor and is only known for comedy. And I thought, “This guy can do so much more.” So he was a really fun addition to the cast as well. But I was very lucky with this cast. This movie was so performance-dependent and I’m really lucky to have found the actors that I did.

I did want to touch on Daniel more. Did you have a big brother growing up? Because this relationship [of Ruby and Leo] was nailed so well and I felt that they were a real brother and sister.

I did not have a big brother; I was a big sister. I just really thought that sibling relationships are so interesting in families, just how much tension exists, even in families that love each other so completely, and that these tensions are just simmering right underneath the surface. So I love the idea of these siblings who have a really fun relationship where they can bust each other’s balls and laugh but underneath it is incredible anger and resentment and this idea that he’s the older brother, and yet he feels completely disenfranchised within his family. And he feels like what should have been his responsibility and role has been passed off to Ruby just because she’s hearing. That’s incredibly frustrating to him and yet she’s feeling this incredible burden that she feels like he doesn’t understand because he doesn’t have to bear it. I loved exploring that you can have a family that’s full of love, and yet still have deep hurt and wounds. Things that have gone unspoken for too long have become damaging.

Siân Heder and Eugenio Derbez on the set of “CODA.” Photo courtesy of Apple TV+.

Whenever I recommend the film, and I do that quite often, there are two scenes that come up. The first is more subtle, it’s the scene at the beginning where Ruby is trying to do her homework and everybody’s so loud [around her] because they [obviously] can’t tell how loud they’re being and she’s just trying to concentrate. The other is the choir concert where the sound kind of drowns out and you are put into the perspective of the family. Was muting the sound in this scene something that you had decided from the start or did you kind of [decide this] when you were filming?

Well, both of those moments came out of research for me actually. I spoke with a lot of codas when I was writing the script and all codas have very different experiences, but yet these commonalities of experience emerge where you speak to three different people and they have totally different families and yet they each [would] say, “Oh my God, my deaf parents were so loud,” “They had no sense of how loud they were in the house,” and “My house was always noisy.” And you know, that just struck me as being a universal code of truth.

That was a fun thing to lay into the movie because I think every coda that sees the movie goes, “Oh my God, yes. I completely relate to that.” And the concert was, for me, out of a deep desire to understand through my research and through the friendships and collaborations I made on the movie, what it actually is to be deaf because there’s so much of hearing people romanticizing that experience, imagining that experience, you know, “Oh, can deaf people magically feel vibrations and feel the music through the floorboards?” or whatever hearing people want to put on it. And because I was on this quest to truly understand what the experience was, I felt that it was important to have the audience actually experience that at some point in the movie, not just connect with this family and relate to them, but feel what it is to be them.

And the only way to do that was to take out the sound completely and do it for a long enough time that you really have to sit in it. And so many people hearing audiences have mentioned to me how uncomfortable they are in it and how emotional it is. And people describe crying in that because of the silence and how shocking it feels to sit in silence.

I think it’s a powerful thing because you [think you] know what it is to have a sense taken away, and yet you don’t really until you feel it.

A big theme was kind of with Ruby finding purpose in her dreams [of being a singer]. I hadn’t seen the original film but was this something that you might’ve put in there as an artist yourself? Finding validation in your dreams can be tricky. Like having to tell your parents, “I want to be a director” or something like that.

I mean, it wasn’t tricky for me because I came from a family of artists. Both my parents were artists and my sisters and artists as well. That concept of Ruby finding music and finding her passion was in the original film of Ruby finding music and finding her passion and having it be the thing that catalyzes her leaving her family.

For me, what was very relatable to me about the film was that I came from an immigrant family and my dad was a refugee. And there definitely was this feeling in my family that family sticks together and you know, it’s everything. And I think we had a very boundaryless, loving, but very entwined family.

And it was really hard. My identity felt very wrapped up in my parents and who they were and who I was within that unit. And there was something about how hard it was for me to pull away from my family and individually and find out who I was apart from them that was really resonant for me.

Interestingly, I’ve had a lot of children of immigrants come up to me after they’ve seen “CODA” and say, “I really saw myself in that story” because there’s something about being the cultural bridge, being the American kid to the non-American parents who is the translator of sorts between cultures and that I think is very resonant with the coda experience. It’s kind of interesting that that was one of the ways I connected to the story. And then it’s clearly resonated with other people that way as well.

This interview was edited for clarity.

“CODA” is streaming now on Apple TV+.

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