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10 Directors to Watch: Sian Heder’s Deaf-Inclusive ‘CODA’ Set Sundance Sales Record

Sian Heder 10 Directors to Watch
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Siân Heder admittedly had to manage her expectations prior to premiering “CODA” at the virtual Sundance Film Festival. After all, her first movie “Tallulah,” a 2016 melodrama starring Elliot Page and Allison Janney, gave her a taste of the hype that greets a screening in Park City’s Eccles Theatre.

Yet Heder quickly realized that even at home, audiences were experiencing a collective emotional response to the film. “It was reassuring that somehow in our virtual worlds, we were able to connect,” she says. Sure enough, “CODA” became the toast of Sundance and was acquired by Apple for a record-setting $25 million.

“CODA” received multiple offers; the choice to work with Apple was deliberate. “Apple said, ‘We don’t want this to be a movie, we want this to start a movement,’” says Heder, who previously collaborated with Apple on the TV series “Little America.” “I felt they have a real commitment to the film as part of a bigger change.”

Accessibility is especially important because Hollywood rarely tells authentic stories about deaf people. “CODA,” an acronym for Children of Deaf Adults, centers on a teenager (Emilia Jones) who is the only hearing member of her family. In adapting the script — “CODA” is a remake of the French film “La Famille Belier” — Heder says casting deaf actors was essential. The movie stars Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant.

“I hope we’re reaching a place where creators with disabilities have financing to tell stories,” Heder says. “I feel like it’s my job to support more stories like this.”

“CODA,” a crowd-pleaser in every sense of the phrase, evokes the kind of visceral emotional quality that Heder hopes to replicate for future projects. “If I don’t feel something in my body as I’m reading a script, that’s a big litmus test for me,” she says.

With two feature films under her belt, she’s focused on fostering inclusive sets. “I’m learning every time how to be a good leader,” she says. “That’s always through trial and error.”

Agency: ICM Partners
Management: Mosaic
Legal: Goodman, Genow, Shenkman, Smelkinsen, Christopher