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‘CODA’ Doesn’t Play by the Rules, but It’s Still an Oscar Contender

Film and TV director Sian Heder takes IndieWire through directing a deaf cast, her Sundance triumphs, and reaching audiences during a pandemic.

CODA

“CODA”

Apple Studios

It’s not that hard to get a streaming title seen by awards voters. Best Picture winner “Nomadland” would have been a major Oscar player whenever it came out, but it was a surprise that during the pandemic, Amazon took TIFF 2019 selection “Sound of Metal” to six Oscar nominations and two tech wins, further than many would have predicted.

That brings us to “CODA,” which Apple acquired for a record-breaking $25 million and won the Grand Jury, Audience Award, Best Director, and Ensemble Acting prizes at the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Sian Heder’s moving drama about a deaf family stars British singer-actress Emilia Jones and Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin (“Children of a Lesser God”). It opens August 13, both in theaters and on Apple’s streaming service, AppleTV+.

That’s good news and bad. Any movie that expensive carries the burden of expectations. (See: 2015 Sundance hit “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” which Fox Searchlight bought for $12 million and went on to gross $9 million worldwide.) That said: Exactly what should be measured? Today, box office paradigms are out of date. Apple has deep pockets, and can afford to pay for movies that lure eyeballs and will do whatever it takes to reach them, including a wide-ranging awards campaign.

“CODA” launched at a virtual film festival during a pandemic, will be seen by more people at home than in theaters, and opens in August, outside of awards prime time — but the Oscars are not out of sight. This well-wrought heart-tugger hovers at 72 on Metacritic. It plays well and will make noise at the Academy, especially among actors and writers.

I sat down with writer-director-producer Heder (“Orange is the New Black,” “Little America”) to dig into her expectations and hopes for her sophomore feature about the reaction of a deaf family — played by three deaf actors, Matlin and Theater of the Deaf veterans Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant — to the news that their hearing daughter (Jones) wants to leave them to attend college. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

“CODA”

APPLETV+

Anne Thompson: How did you experience your virtual premiere at Sundance 2021? 

Sian Heder: When COVID hit, we had finished the edit, but I still had to do my sound design, color correct, and a lot of post during the pandemic. And I felt a lot of fear about what that meant for the movie. We were an indie movie. We made it without a distributor in place. It felt like there was a lot on the line. And, I didn’t know how the movie would then enter the world. And then it was virtual. “Well, what does that mean? And how is that going to go? And is it going to even feel like anything? Is anyone going to watch?”

I had the experience of standing at the Eccles onstage with “Tallulah” in 2016. Feeling the crowd react to your movie is amazing. There’s nothing like it. It was hard not to compare that feeling. Sitting down for the premiere of my movie on the couch with my five- and seven-year-olds and my husband and, “Okay, here we go! Press play!” It just felt so odd. Then I was tech support for my parents who were calling me and couldn’t figure out how to get the sound working for 15 minutes of the movie. And reading the subtitles out loud to my five-year-old who couldn’t read yet and my husband was like, “You really get to teach him ‘twat waffle’ right now in the middle of the premiere?”

How did it impact the way the movie was received?

Something happened after the movie screened and I went up to the Q&A in my office and there was a palpable energy, a buzz, a feeling of excitement and energy that I could feel online. My phone was blowing up with text messages, and Twitter, and the reactions from people in my life who had never been to Sundance, like, my parents’ friends, or the captain of the boat that we shot on, who was texting me from Gloucester; he watched with his big Italian family. This democratic Sundance felt like it could be shared more broadly.

When you’re at a screening, you feel the audience reaction in real time in the moment you feel when they laugh, you feel them sniffle if they start to cry, and it’s an immediate experience. With this, it’s been the slow trickle where, when I speak to somebody new, they tell me their experience watching the movie, and walk me through the scenes that they reacted to. It’s extended the experience.

You had the fantasy Sundance: huge interest in your movie, a record sale, and prizes. When you talked to distributors, what were you looking for? With Apple, was it the $25 million? What made you go with them?

I made the movie with a lot of care. I was looking for a distributor who would take that same care with the film…it felt very personal by the end of it. When I was meeting with people, it’s such a rush, and there’s so many nerves going in, and then you got to stay up all night, you’re gonna have a Zoom with this group, and then this group.

I was looking to hear that there was the widest plan possible not only to release the movie, but to support a movement around the movie. What else can be done, when there are so few movies that come out that represent deaf characters on screen? Apple has all this reach. It is not just releasing the movie, it’s looking at “What can we do around the movie? What conversations can we start? How can we start to change the world a little bit, making sure that the message of the movie is extending beyond the film itself?”

Sian Heder attends a photo call for "CODA" on Friday, July 30, 2021, at the London Hotel in West Hollywood, Calif. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

Sian Heder attends a photo call for “CODA” on Friday, July 30, 2021

Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

How did learning sign language change the way you and your crew made the movie? 

I had been studying sign [since] I started writing the script, and once I was on set, I wanted that direct connection with my actors. I would approach my actors to give a note and we would sign directly and use that as our main form of communication. And there was always an interpreter there to jump in and clarify my sign language, which is limited. It was an incredible experience for me as a director to figure out how to communicate with my body, and not just my hands: my face, my emotions. I forged strong connections with my actors where we felt safe with each other and they trusted me and were open and felt confident in me as a leader in guiding those performances.

Everybody came up with their own signs for what they needed. I had a camera operator whose sign name eventually just became a thumbs up, because he would get the actors into the position and he would always give them a thumbs up to let them know that that’s what he wanted. We were signing even when there was no deaf cast on set. My assistant director and I were boat-to-boat, 100 feet apart, and needed to communicate when we were out at sea. Sign language was a good tool in that moment. Or, when Emilia and I were on the quarry, and she was up at the top, and I was down on the water, I could sign her a note there.

It actually was an amazing set language. It’s great, because you can’t talk while you’re rolling, but you can sign.

Buzzwords used to describe the film are “crowdpleaser” and “mainstream.” They’re fine words if you’re looking to deliver a commercial movie.

You’re right, those words can be spun with a certain tone of voice to sound like you’re not an artist. As an indie filmmaker, you’re like, “Oh, crowdpleaser, who wants to make a crowdpleaser?” You want to make something esoteric and weird that impresses critics and no one else. I set out to make a commercial movie because what was new about the movie is we were seeing a family that we have not seen on screen before in this way.

“CODA”

It’s an advantage to show a world that we don’t know.

And it’s culturally specific. It’s a culture that has been ignored and isolated and blocked off from access. To make an indie film for people to go see and talk about that was never going to reach the middle of the country? I hope that people are going to be exposed to deaf culture through this film, and exposed to ASL [American Sign Language] who might never have seen a scene before where a deaf family is sitting around a dinner table giving each other shit.

Those moments are normalizing, and the more people connect to certain aspects of the story — that’s why I included familiar coming-of-age elements, so I can slip in, you know, 40 percent of the movie in silence in these ASL scenes. People don’t even realize what they’re watching after a while. It feels like, “Okay, I’m just watching this family, I’m invested in them, that embarrassing dad feels like my embarrassing dad.”

It sounds like you want a wide swath of viewers to see it. 

I would love as many people as possible to see this film. Apple does have reach and the resources that they’ve put behind this movie have been impressive. I’ve done this before with my first film, and I’ve been blown away by what Apple has done and the way that they are not only supporting the movie but also things around the movie, whether they are featurettes, or other materials, or that get the word out and get the world interested in learning about deaf culture and learning about ASL and shining a light on a community that has been largely ignored.

But you want people to have fun, too. Your cast is hilarious, especially the father Troy Kotsur and the singing teacher Eugenio Derbez.

Yes, I also was delighted by the fact that I wrote these jokes in English, and then went through the translation process, like, “Is this joke gonna work visually?” Oftentimes the signed joke would be 10 times funnier than it was on the page. That was a delight, to sit there and realize the potential for humor in sign language is vast, because it is such a visual language that when you are talking to your teenager about safe sex, there is no way to mistake what the conversation is about and can lead to a very funny visual moment. We all have embarrassing parents, but they’re extra embarrassing when they’re signing putting on a condom, and they have to actually shove it over their own fist.

Troy was funny in moments where I didn’t want him to be funny. And Marlee’s going, “This is a serious scene and he’s making me laugh.” It was great to find that humor because in all these representations of characters with disability. It’s often treated with such earnestness, with the characters so noble and untouchable or an object of pity [instead of] presenting characters that are human and flawed and have moments of narcissism or being totally over the line and inappropriate.

"Coda"

“CODA”

Apple

In the old world, this delicate film would be platformed, roll out at all the great arthouses around the country, build word of mouth and buzz, become a hit at the box office. In this pandemic world, no one knows how anything is going to go. How do you feel about that?

I hope that the movie does the work, in theaters and streaming. We’re in every major city in theaters; this is a movie that earns a communal experience. We did a screening in Gloucester [and] I’d never seen the movie with an audience. My husband was sitting next to me. He was like, “You look like a kid, the delight on your face, hearing the laughs and knowing that you made a funny movie.”

That’s what I want to know, that the funny scenes were funny, and that was delightful to sit in a room full of people and have that human experience of sharing a good story together. I hope people go to the theater and see it.

There’s a short list of movies that have gone out in August and moved through awards season, but it’s a daunting task. How do we go from January of one year to the next year and and still wind up where Oscars are a possibility? How important is that to you?

It is a summer-feeling movie. It takes place at the end of summer, at the same time when it’s coming out. That’s when we shot, they’re on the ocean, they’re jumping off quarries, into cliffs, and running along logs in the water. COVID pushed the release of so many films and the fall becomes very cluttered. That was a reasonable pitch to go, “Hey, let’s not be a part of that clutter. Let people experience this movie at the end of summer before their kids go back to school and just have a good story speak for itself.” It’s an experiment, but I feel good about it.

Many people will see it on Apple who wouldn’t see it in theaters, right?

Yeah. That’s exciting. The journey of making this film is complete. It’s been a powerful life-changing journey for me.

Where do you go from here?

I am developing TV with my Apple deal. And we’re with First Look on the feature side, where I am doing a movie with Patrick [Wachsberger] called “Impossible” which is a sci-fi love story. And then I’m doing Judy Human’s memoir, “Being Human.” She was the leader of the 504 protests, an incredible character. It feels like it’s in the same vein of putting a spotlight on characters that haven’t been recognized before.

Apple will release “CODA” in theaters (with open captions at all screenings) and on its streaming platform on Friday, August 13. 

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