Beautiful Signs

CODA writer and director Siân Heder talks to Ella Kemp about the expressiveness of ASL, ‘treacle cutter’ writing, Joni Mitchell and how Deaf culture can connect us all.

When you’re communicating in ASL, you have to look right at the person you’re talking to. That’s something we don’t do often in hearing culture, and could probably stand to do more of.” —⁠Siân Heder

When I speak to Siân Heder, she teaches me how to say “thank you” in American Sign Language—making sure I can say it properly before we move on in our conversation. The writer and filmmaker, bringing her sophomore feature as director into the world in the shape of CODA, is laser-focused on creating greater awareness of Deaf communities on screen, despite being a hearing person herself.

Her new film, a warm and big-hearted coming-of-ager about Ruby Rossi, a hearing teenage girl in a Deaf family (also known as a Child of Deaf Adults, the acronym which gives the film its name), is technically a remake of the 2014 French film La Famille Bélier. But where that film was criticized for casting exclusively hearing actors in the film’s roles, that was never going to slide with someone as headstrong and empathetic as Heder.

While our ostensible heroine is Ruby (played by an incandescent Emilia Jones), CODA takes the time to swim among half a dozen different dreams and difficulties within her entire loveable and determined family. And it’s not just anyone playing the Rossi clan: Matriarch Jackie is played by the indomitable Marlee Matlin, while her beloved husband Frank is brought to life by a foul-handed Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant stakes his claim as a major talent, playing Ruby’s older brother, Leo.

Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin in CODA.
Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin in CODA.

These family members rely on Ruby as their unofficial interpreter, both on a day-to-day basis and as part of their fishing business, but her dream of being a singer means everyone must make room for each other’s ambitions to thrive. What elevates CODA, along with its focus on ASL, is the way in which Heder and her cast establish the family’s quirks and tiny everyday joys, giving their home a solid, lived-in vibe (Matlin’s and Kotsur’s chemistry is off the charts).

A few details ring slightly untrue—that the Rossis would still be considered outsiders in their small town, for example, when they are a generations-deep fishing family, is somewhat hard to fathom. But review after review is happy to overlook the dialed-up drama and extra helpings of cheese, choosing to fall willingly victim to the film’s feel-good charms.

“The size of its massive heart crushes any of its flaws,” Brian Tallerico wrote at the start of this year, after the film opened the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival (it won three big awards and smashed the festival’s sales record when Apple acquired distribution rights for a cool $25 million). It takes a special story to make you feel as involved and excited when you’re forced to discover a new movie at home on your own, rather than with a crowd in a cinema—but that’s exactly what CODA does best. And, it’s one for every member of the family: “My mom’s gonna love this, but for once I agree,” Sarah aptly puts it.

We spoke to Heder about what happens when you have to have ‘the sex talk’ with your teen in ASL, learning to make each other laugh, and the magic of Joni Mitchell.

Ruby (Emilia Jones) translates for her fishing family in CODA.
Ruby (Emilia Jones) translates for her fishing family in CODA.

CODA is based on La Famille Bélier, but you fought quite hard to cast Deaf actors in the film and have ASL experts on set. It feels like your relationship with the film’s story, and the Deaf community, goes far beyond fiction?
Siân Heder: When I came to the project, I was really an outsider. I didn’t know a lot about the Deaf community and I was struck that there were so few films to look at that represented Deaf culture. I really could count them on one hand when I started trying to research, and so when you start to realize how little representation is out there, there’s an enormous responsibility that you’re taking on.

I thought, if I’m going to put these characters and this culture on screen, and it’s a culture that is not my own, I want to make sure that I am honoring it—that I am including collaborators from the community that can speak to the lived experience, and put my own hearing perspective in check; making sure that I had a really amazing team around me who could help me to tell this story and make it deeper and richer and more authentic than I ever could have done alone.

Did you have any fear that you wouldn’t be the right person to do this?
There was never a feeling of ‘I’m not going to do this’. The only feeling I had was when there was pressure being put to not cast Deaf actors in the roles. I thought, ‘I would rather just watch this movie die than see it get made the wrong way’. So I really dove in.

I wish that I had been studying ASL when I was writing this script. I got on set and of course was like, ‘Oh, it’s so different being in class than it is when you’re engaging and trying to direct actors in sign language’. And so if there was any fear, it was like, ‘I wish my level of fluency was way higher so that I wouldn’t have had to rely on interpreters as much’.

There wasn’t really a roadmap of like, how do we do this? How many interpreters do we need on set? Where should they be? What are the things that we need to put in place to make a truly accessible set? It was all just exciting and led to the kind of problem solving you do on a movie with anything that you’re diving into.

Siân Heder directs Eugenio Derbez in a scene from CODA.
Siân Heder directs Eugenio Derbez in a scene from CODA.

I’m not very familiar with ASL, and something that struck me in CODA is just how funny the film is, and how much of that comedy comes from facial expressions and body language. In comedies about hearing communities I often think, ‘This is just not funny, it’s a bit forced’. What do you think we—as much audiences as performers and just empaths generally—can learn from ASL in terms of how we make each other laugh?
When hearing people think about ASL, they think it’s using your hands to talk, it’s just hand shapes. And ASL is not just that. ASL is using your hands, but your facial expressions are a part of the language. So how your eyebrows move, for example. If your eyebrows are not raised, you’re not asking a question. You ask a question in ASL through your eyebrow shape, your mouth shape. If you want to say something that is big, your mouth is open. If something’s small, your mouth is closed. It’s very expressive and it’s also very visual. So when you’re signing, the sign for anything looks like the thing itself.

So if you’re having an embarrassing sex talk where a father is explaining to his daughter how she needs to have safe sex, seeing him sign that would be genuinely embarrassing because the language itself is so visual. And so if you sign ‘ejaculate’, you’re looking like you’re doing the thing! So there are many lessons to take, in terms of the expressiveness of the language and really living the thing that you’re talking about.

Oftentimes, in hearing culture, words are coming out, but you’re not really connected to them. Because in ASL there isn’t really past tense or future tense—you’re telling a story in the present, and then you’re putting it in the past or the future—you’re really living what you’re saying in the moment. That can feel connected, and also funny, but also very emotional when it needs to feel emotional. When you’re communicating in ASL, you have to look right at the person you’re talking to. That’s something we don’t do often in hearing culture, and could probably stand to do more of.

Another very direct tool you use to convey emotion is a-cappella performances. There’s great faith in a singer’s voice to be just as powerful even without instruments. Why did it feel like a right fit for a lot of the music in CODA?
I had an amazing music team in Marius De Vries and Nick Baxter, who were wonderful in putting together arrangements that could feel very exciting and musical, and, especially with the choir, really energetic and fun. We recorded all of the music on set live, so there was also that element where you don’t know what was going to happen, and you don’t know what’s going to come out of the group or Emilia.

It was high pressure for Emilia because she wasn’t a trained singer. She’d been working with vocal coaches, but her voice was really opening up as we were shooting and she was discovering these moments herself. I remember in the concert, she opened her mouth and this huge note came out and she looked over at me and was like, “Holy shit, can you believe that just came out of me?!” and I’m like, “I can’t, actually I’ve never heard you make that sound!”

So, that was the fun of it. And we worked with a real choir, the Berklee choir, and they had worked together before and also really helped with a lot of the vocal arrangements. I actually had to take them down a bit because I was, like, “this is supposed to be Gloucester High School and you guys sound too good to be Gloucester High School”. It’s a good problem to have. “Can some of you be off key? Can I throw in some kids who can’t sing at all so this is more realistic for high school?” But the music element was really fun and a very nice contrast to the silence in the film.

Daniel Durant, Matlin and Kotsur in a concert scene from CODA.
Daniel Durant, Matlin and Kotsur in a concert scene from CODA.

There’s one specific silence which blew me away, during Ruby and Miles’ major duet in the concert, where suddenly we’re in her parents’ skin and the film goes quiet. It speaks to something I so love about the film, which is that it took me by surprise. In some scenes you’ve got very sincere emotion undercut with an insult at the end, and here you’d expect this huge musical catharsis and instead we sit with the silence. As a filmmaker, how do you know when to take that risk to go against the current, formally and emotionally?
I think there is such a lesson in that if you can make people laugh, then you can make them cry as well. It’s actually the same part of us that opens up and that lets down your guard, and you’re much more open to the emotion when it comes.

The movie could tip over into being melodramatic and could feel manipulative, and so my editor [Geraud Brisson] and I were so careful with the emotion in the film. We wanted to make sure we were never using score to lead emotion, we were always letting those emotions be organic, and scoring much further after the emotional moment than you would normally do in a film. And we wanted to make sure you do have a laugh at the end of a very serious scene—like when there’s this incredible heart to heart between Ruby and her mother where she says, “Don’t worry, you’re a bad mom for all these other reasons.” It’s genuine, it’s how you would be with your mom who annoyed the shit out of you most of the time! I think those moments are really important.

I used to work on Orange is the New Black for many years, and Jenji Kohan, who created the show, was actually brilliant at that. I would write a script and it would be an emotional scene, and she would write “treacle cutter” at the end of the scene. And what it meant is, like, “Find something here that’ll undercut that emotion that you’re delivering and surprise the audience”. It was great training for me because I love living in the emotion but I also love comedy, and Jenji was very bold about mixing those two things.

What should we watch after CODA?
ASL 101 on YouTube! Actually, Lifeprint have some really great free ASL lessons. You should go to Lifeprint and study “ASL first 100 words” after the movie, so that next time you encounter a Deaf person in the world you’ll have a hundred more words to use. Well, you’ll have to go and study BSL [British Sign Language], so that will be your own journey…

Challenge accepted! And what was the first film that made you want to be a filmmaker?
When I was thirteen, I went to see Do The Right Thing in a theater and I was so blown away by that movie. But I also really felt Spike Lee. I was like, ‘Oh, somebody made all of these choices that made this movie’. I think it probably planted the seed of like, ‘Oh, that’s what that is. That’s what that job is, you can be an artist and make all these choices and make a film. That’s powerful.’

Andrea Arnold was a very inspiring filmmaker for me, too. Fish Tank is one of my favorite movies, and she was really somebody that I looked up to and modeled as a female director who was making really impressive work. I wanted to make work that felt as deep and connected as her movies make me feel.

I obviously have to finish by asking about Joni Mitchell, and what ‘Both Sides Now’, so beautifully used in CODA, means to you.
I love Joni Mitchell and I love that song. It was one of the first songs she ever recorded, when she was just starting out in her twenties. When you listen to the original, it’s full of all this hope and optimism, it’s got a faster tempo. And then you listen to the recording that she did at 65 and it is a completely different song. You can tell that she’s imbuing her own song with all of this regret and lived experience and heartbreak. I love the idea that one singular thing an artist creates could take on these two very different perspective shifts.

A CODA experience is all about perspective. It’s living through the hearing eyes and through Deaf eyes and trying to live both, and see the world in these different ways. Joni Mitchell has described that song as being the end of her childhood, about childhood fantasy butting up against adult reality. And that’s what the movie is about. It’s about how you find your own identity once you’re outside of the culture and the womb of your family.

And it’s beautiful when it’s signed. I loved what Alexandria [Wailes, ASL Master on CODA] did with the sign choices there and what those lyrics look like visually. It was the perfect song to end the film with.

CODA’ is now available worldwide on Apple TV+.

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