Sian Heder is at the point in the awards season circuit when every time she leaves the house, her six-year-old asks, “Where are you going, mom? 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+’s Little America and writer-director of Tallulah) is Academy Award–nominated for adapting the Best Picture contender’s screenplay. (She recently won the BAFTA Film Award in the same category.)
As the Oscars approach and Academy members vote for the year’s best films, Heder spoke with The A.V. Club about the unexpected success of CODA and her top awards season moments, from meeting Steven Spielberg to watching one of her actors sweep every ceremony. “To see Troy Kotsur owning the red carpet like the movie star he is is just the best feeling in the world,” she says. Plus, Heder shares her thoughts on Hollywood’s authentic deaf representation (and, of course, the lack thereof) and why filmmakers could benefit from learning sign language.
The A.V. Club: How do you feel at this final leg of the film awards race? Congrats on forever being known as an Oscar nominee!
Sian Heder: I know! The first time I heard someone say it was the morning after the nominations came out. “Oscar nominee Sian Heder.” I was like, Wow, that sounds so impressive hearing someone else say it. The ride this movie has taken is a complete dream. And I remember before Sundance, when I knew that 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 fearful that the movie would never find its way out into the world and have no path forward. And so this has just been incredible.
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 major festivals were not happening. This was an indie movie. And I always feel an intense sense of responsibility. You’ve spent someone else’s money and you want to make it back for them. 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 come out. And I was full of nerves on the day of the Sundance premiere and I remember just roaming around my house with my stomach in knots thinking, I hope somebody buys this movie. So, yes, starting with Sundance and just the reaction at the festival—the sale and the awards that we won there. But then the movie came out in the summer in the middle of the Delta variant and our premiere was canceled. So we missed that whole part of it and I didn’t count on that. But it’s been amazing because the talent and the artists that are involved in this awards season are so many of my filmmaking heroes. To get to be in these rooms and form relationships and make friends with Denis Villeneuve and Guillermo del Toro and these people that I’ve just admired my whole life—it’s just incredible.
AVC: Wait a minute, is an Oscar campaign just one long networking event?
SH: You all get to know each other and that’s the best part of it! I mean, to have a conversation with Steven Spielberg about CODA was just—you know, there I am, being like, Oh my God, it’s Steven Spielberg,; I have to introduce myself. And meanwhile, he says, “I love your movie,” and I can’t believe that that’s coming from Steven Spielberg. So that’s the part that you don’t realize: that you’re all kind of doing it together and you’re all at the same events and on the same panels. And I also think we’ve all come out of a pandemic and everybody’s a little raw and vulnerable and excited to be around other people. So there’s an openness and a warmth to that.
AVC: What’s been your favorite moment from this awards season?
SH: Steven Spielberg telling me he loved CODA is 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 everybody’s process and realize writing is painful for everybody. It’s an amazing year for movies and these [Oscar nominees] are all so different. In a way, it’s a bit absurd to pit them against each other and make it a competition. I love storytelling and I love storytellers. The fact that I get to ask Denis Villenueve how he came up with this world of Dune—you know, be a nerdy filmmaker asking nerdy filmmaker questions—has been the coolest part of the ride.
AVC: You wrote a wonderful L.A. Times piece about writing CODA and then translating dialogue into American Sign Language. How has that impacted your creative process?
SH: The journey of actually learning a language in order to write and direct a film, and learning possibly the most cinematic language in existence, was the most opening experience as an artist. I had to craft the script in English and then work with my ASL Masters Alexandria Wailes and Anne Tomasetti to excavate my own script. And not just the lines that I’d written, but what the meaning of those lines were, what the subtext was, what I was actually trying to say, in order to shift 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’re saying when you say it. To go through the process of uncovering how to tell this story in that language, then to get my actors involved and have them bring it to life in a whole other way—our whole set became this amazing language lab. Everybody was discussing and working together and figuring out how this family signed and how they express themselves. And then to be directing in sign language, too, and figuring out how to guide a performance using my body as opposed to my voice was such a new experience for me. And I think it probably changed the way I will work from now on. There is a kind of connectedness and directness to what I was trying to do as an artist that I think I’ll take with me.
AVC: And you’ve said signing on a film set is just more efficient, like when you’re directing scenes from boats, for example?
SH: Yes, boat to boat! My [assistant director] and I, instead of using a walkie, we could sign back and forth. Emilia [Jones], when she was up on the cliff and I was down on the water, I could give her an acting note [by signing] instead of shouting up at her. It’s almost like we were able to have a private conversation from 50 feet away. It’s been really funny, actually, to be at these awards ceremonies and things and just be able to silently chat with Troy across the table while things are going on. I am not a part of deaf culture. I am an outsider to it. But I feel like I’ve had a taste of it. And you have to connect with people when you sign with them; you have to look into someone’s eyes. You have to be connected to the thing you’re saying. If you say, “I’m sad,” you have to show that you’re sad; you can’t just say it. So in a way, there’s way less bullshit for me when you are signing with someone because you do have to embody what you’re saying. And it’s all in the present tense. There’s no future or past. You’re kind of telling a story as though you’re living it in the moment. And I think we could all benefit from being more connected to what we’re saying, why we’re saying it, and who we’re saying it to.
AVC: It’s such a great point that sign language is the most cinematic language. It’s actually wild that Marlee Matlin is the only deaf actor to historically receive major awards attention, since it’s such an expressive tool for actors.
SH: There’s been no opportunities, though! I mean, name the films that have [authentic deaf representation].
SH: Yeah, and she’s been alone, mostly. Marlee describes this 35-year career of being the only deaf person on set, most of the time feeling super isolated, having lunch with her interpreter because she doesn’t feel like she’s in an inclusive environment. So I think CODA was a really unique experience. But it’s not just about the ASL, it’s about these actors and 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 parts written for him. The same is true of Daniel Durant, a wonderful actor. And when I was auditioning for these parts, there were so many choices! I mean, Troy won that part. Daniel won that part. There were lots of other choices for those 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’re mostly working in theater, places like Deaf West Theater, which have been incubators for talent. But there haven’t really been opportunities to break into TV 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’s going?
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 within the inclusion conversations that we’re having. So I think tapping into not just deaf actors, but deaf writers, deaf directors, showrunners, storytellers, creating paths into Hollywood, pipelines with mentorships, ways of creating accessible spaces for these artists to collaborate, is so important. And I hope that CODA is the rock that starts the avalanche, or one of the rocks that starts the avalanche. I think it’s going to take many other projects. And it’s helpful that Sound Of Metal came out, that Crip Camp came out, that there’s a deaf superhero in The Eternals, that Millicent Simmonds is in A Quiet Place. It starts to feel like a movement collectively with all of these projects. And I hope this isn’t the flavor of the year, that CODA has this moment of recognition and that this doesn’t continue. I hope that the door is now open and that a lot of other artists get to walk through it.