‘CODA’ Director Sian Heder Opens Up About Her $25 Million Sundance Deal and Creating the Perfect Tear-Jerker

Sian Heder knew the sound department wasn’t going to be thrilled.

About two-thirds into her movie, “CODA,” a touching melodrama about a teenage girl who is the only hearing member of her family, the writer-director wanted the audio to cut to complete silence. In the pivotal scene, 17-year-old Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) belts out a soulful rendition of “You’re All I Need to Get By” at her high school concert. Her parents, played by Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur, and her brother (Daniel Durant), all of whom are deaf, sit in the audience, unable to hear the lyrics that pour out of the youngest Rossi’s mouth like honey. Instead, they scan the crowd, watching as a woman soaks up tears with a tissue or people clap along to the beat. It lends the moment an added poignance, because the Rossis, as much as they love their daughter, cannot fully share in the emotional reaction of the room. As the music fades, moviegoers begin to perceive what it’s like for deaf people to experience everyday life.

“Of course, every sound designer on the movie was like, ‘We’re not going to go to complete silence, right? We’ll have a tone or, like, couldn’t there be something?’” Heder recalls with a laugh. “In a way, it’s all hearing people trying to romanticize the deaf experiences and feeling true discomfort in the complete silence.”

But Heder knew the moment wouldn’t be as emotionally impactful with pervading pitches or modulations. She stood her ground, paving the way for one of the many moments that will bring audiences to tears in “CODA,” which opens on Apple TV Plus and in select theaters on Aug. 13.

By championing those moments, Matlin, the Oscar-winning actor of “Children of a Lesser God,” who plays Jackie, the matriarch of the funny and foulmouthed Rossi clan, knew “CODA” would be in good hands with Heder. It would have been easy to understand if Matlin initially had reservations about taking the part. “CODA,” which is an acronym for “child of deaf adults,” is a remake of 2014’s “La Famille Bélier,” a French film in which hearing actors portray the deaf characters. But after their first meeting, over lunch at Little Dom’s in Los Angeles, Heder assured Matlin that wouldn’t be the case with “CODA.” In fact, she was willing to go to bat with any producer who attempted to resist casting deaf actors. Heder also hired two on-set American Sign Language experts to ensure accuracy in the script, 40% of which is in ASL.

“I don’t think I’d ever met a director who was so invested in her work, as well as in learning about the deaf community,” says Matlin through her longtime sign language interpreter Jack Jason.

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Keeping It Real Emilia Jones as Ruby signs her feelings; the film had two on-set ASL experts to ensure accuracy. Courtesy of AppleTV+

Heder’s vision extended to ensuring the story would showcase an authentic family, one in which siblings constantly bicker, parents take pride in embarrassing their offspring — and potential Tinder matches are mutually agreed on as a household. In “CODA,” the family friction doesn’t come from the fact that Ruby is hearing and her immediate family is deaf. Instead, the tension stems from Ruby’s internal struggle. She wants to go to music school and pursue her passion for singing, but she’s integral to her family’s fishing business, serving as their interpreter with the outside world. “I’ve never had an experience where a family bonded this way,” Heder says. “I include myself in that because I really felt that way. I think that translates on-screen.”

As a hearing person, Heder was aware she was approaching deaf culture as an outsider. Yet she reveled in the research period, an affinity she discovered about herself while she was a writer on “Orange Is the New Black.” “There was a joke that I was the person who researched how to make a bomb out of things in the commissary,” Heder says of working on the Emmy-winning Netflix series that takes place at a women’s correctional facility. “I’m probably on every Homeland Security watchlist because of the things I Googled while working on that show.”

With “CODA,” that meant going beyond learning American Sign Language and immersing herself in books and personal essays about deaf culture. Delving deep into ASL and its regional dialects (“It’s like having a Boston accent,” she says) also gave Heder an unexpected opportunity to expand her arsenal of profanities. “I love to swear,” says the director. “Being introduced to ASL and having a whole other way to swear is the best for me.”

There were plenty of opportunities to get linguistically creative, as in one instance where Ruby, at the doctor’s office with her mom and dad, has to translate that her parents have jock itch. “Troy is an amazing improviser,” Heder says. “We were dying laughing behind the monitor because every time he described having jock itch, it became more outrageous, more visual and more graphic.”

Conveying humor with hands, Heder soon realized, was entirely different from spoken punchlines. “I remember discussions of ‘How do we sign “shit nugget”?’ recalls Heder, in reference to an exchange between Ruby and her brother Leo, who rarely bid adieu without getting in a colorful dig at the other. “‘Twat waffle’ is another really funny one because it’s super graphic. Daniel at one point signed ‘twat waffle,’ but then he created steam coming off the waffle. In another take, he cut up the waffle and took a bite. I was like, ‘No, no, this is too far. It’s your sister.’”

That kind of silly energy pervaded the production, which filmed on location in the fishing town of Gloucester, Mass. Though Heder grew up not too far away, in Cambridge, and spent every summer in the coastal city as a child, she had to pay her dues to acclimate and make inroads there. (After all, her childhood vacations didn’t involve production crews and extensive camera equipment.) That meant getting scrappy, hanging out on docks to bait fishermen with beer so she could borrow their boats and befriending the well-connected Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Assn. The moviemaker Kenneth Lonergan, who filmed “Manchester by the Sea” in the same area, gave Heder key advice on hiring the best local marine coordinator, who was essential for shooting days at sea. Coincidentally, “Manchester by the Sea” star Casey Affleck went to high school with Heder. (“I texted Casey: ‘Oh, my God, we’re shooting in the same bar that ‘Manchester’ was in,’” Heder recalls. An excited Affleck responded, ‘Oh, the same place I got punched.’”)

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Making Her Mark Sian Heder (center) directs Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Jones on the set of “CODA.” Mark Hill

On set, Matlin jokes that her “mama-dar” ­— her loving, motherly instinct — would kick in because Heder was balancing so many components of the film at once. “I would say, ‘Have you eaten yet? Have you taken care of yourself?” Matlin says. “She needed some fuel because she was so entirely focused on her work. Her work ethic is amazing.” Jones describes Heder as “a real actor’s director” because she’s been in front of the camera herself. “She’s calm, direct, encouraging, funny and perceptive,” says 19-year-old Jones, whose self-taped audition singing “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac won over the casting directors. “I always felt completely safe in her hands.”

As a filmmaker, Heder considers herself something of an anthropologist. “I like telling stories about people who don’t get to be the protagonist of their own story,” she says. “There’s no better way to get the experience of someone who is different than you than taking on the ride of a great story.” She also explored that idea in her first feature, “Tallulah,” the tale of a young drifter (Elliot Page) who takes a baby from an irresponsible mother and pretends it’s her own. “I’m always drawn to the idea of people making hard choices,” Heder says. “I like stories that feel very specific but have universal resonance.”

In “CODA,” Heder was able to highlight different perspectives by getting detailed accounts of situations that she personally never faced. Durant, who plays Leo, Ruby’s strapping, scrappy older brother, penned a scene about being the only deaf person at a crowded bar. “Dan wrote me this amazing thing about having to be a detective, basically. You read someone’s lips and you get half of the sentence. Then somebody laughs across the table and you look over and you realize this joke was made. And it’s exhausting; your eyes are darting around trying to follow this conversation. A lot of times, he said, ‘I’ll eventually tune out and stare at the ceiling, because it’s really tiring.’” When it came time to film that scene, Durant’s input gave Heder a unique vantage point for the camera.

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In the three years since “CODA” got off the ground, Hollywood has been under increased pressure to change its approach to the way it casts people with disabilities and other underrepresented groups. The movie’s release is significant because it coincides with an expansion of a movement that’s overtaken the film business, one that questions whose stories it champions. For the most part, that’s long been able-bodied straight white male protagonists — until a recent shift to include more women, people of color and those in the LGBTQ community. A group that has been persistently underrepresented, however, is people with disabilities. Though 25% of the U.S. adult population has either a visible or an invisible disability, they represent just 2% of characters in movies and TV shows. And when they are depicted on- screen, they’re almost always played by able-bodied actors, as was the case with Val Kilmer or Al Pacino playing blind people in films like “At First Sight” or “Scent of a Woman,” or Sam Claflin portraying a paraplegic in the 2016 romantic drama “Me Before You.”

“I understand that studios have financing concerns, and, of course, they want stars,” Heder says. “For me, it wasn’t a matter of it being the right thing to do, although it was. It was a creative thing. It’s not just about learning to sign. I knew if I had deaf actors playing these roles, they could improvise and bring a perspective that I couldn’t bring as a hearing person.”

“CODA” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, roughly a year into a pandemic that forced the world into isolation. Despite fears the movie wouldn’t have the same reception without a packed screening in Park City, Heder quickly discovered the feel-good film was resonating with people who needed some inspiration. “CODA” sparked a bidding war in which Apple beat out Netflix and Amazon with an eye-popping $25 million deal — a festival record.

“I mean, the number is insane,” Heder says. “Your fear is that someone watches the movie and says, ‘They paid $25 million for that?’”

“But there aren’t celebrities in this movie,” Heder continues. “Marlee Matlin is famous and Eugenio Derbez [who plays Ruby’s chorus teacher with aplomb] is famous. But we don’t have Brad Pitt or Jen Aniston in our movie. That number was really exciting to me because it’s encouraging people to take risks and understand that they can be great business decisions. It’s not just the ‘right thing to do.’”

Since she wasn’t in Park City, Heder had to take Zoom meetings with several studios that pitched their grand ideas for the film. Before signing on the dotted line with Apple, however, the conversation turned to selling “CODA” as much more than just a movie. One benefit of working with an arm of the largest company in the world, she says, is that Apple isn’t just a film studio. It was important to Heder that “CODA” play in theaters in addition to its release on Apple TV Plus. But beyond the movie’s rollout, Heder wanted to encourage a global firm with a reach like Apple’s to use technology to create phone and computer applications that could help make life easier for deaf people.

“They have so many different avenues as a company where these kinds of conversations can be rippling through and affecting the choices of the company,” she says.

Months removed from Sundance, Heder still has trouble wrapping her head around the film’s sale price. She jokes that the big payday and the headlines that greeted the megadeal have led to some awkward moments.

“I ran into my aunt the other day, and she was like, ‘You have $25 million!’ I was like, ‘No, no, that’s not how it works. That’s not my money. I’m not now going around buying houses,” says Heder.

And even though Apple is distributing “CODA,” she isn’t getting free smartphones or tablets.

“My dad keeps dropping that he needs a new iPhone,” Heder says. “He thinks I can go get one for him. I’m going to have to work on that.”