Catching Up With CODA's Siân Heder and Paula Huidobro

Sparking a bidding war at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and selling to Apple for a record-breaking $25 million, CODA chronicles the coming of age of teenager Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) – the only hearing individual in her working-class family. While the livelihood of her fishermen parents (Oscar® winner Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) and older brother (Daniel Durant) is imperiled by stringent fishing regulations and climate change, Ruby must navigate her newfound interest in singing in her high-school choir, while helping her family stay afloat.


CODA – which stands for “Child of Deaf Adults” – marks a reunion between its writer/director Siân Heder (AFI DWW Class of 2005) and cinematographer Paula Huidobro (AFI Class of 2004), who first met at AFI while collaborating on the award-winning DWW short film MOTHER. The duo later reteamed for the short DOG EAT DOG, their first feature together – TALLULAH – which premiered at Sundance in 2016 and the Apple TV+ anthology series LITTLE AMERICA.


Before the record-breaking sale, AFI spoke to the Siân and Paula about working together, their experiences at AFI and how they crafted the story of CODA in an authentic and culturally specific way.


AFI: Congratulation on CODA having its World Premiere at Sundance. How does it feel to be invited back to play the festival this year?


Siân: It’s really fitting and lovely to be able to return to the festival with another film. It feels like exactly where I would want to be with my second movie. Sundance feels like a bit of a family, like once you’re in, there’s a continued engagement after the festival. I was a part of the FilmTwo program which is for first-time feature filmmakers thinking about their second features. Obviously, there’s a little bit of heartbreak at not physically being able to be there, but I think this is the next best thing. The nice part is that my parents get to watch the premiere in Boston and the fishermen in Gloucester who worked with us on the film get to watch it at the same time. It’s a much more equitable and inclusive premiere.


AFI: What was it like working together on CODA?


Siân: Paula and I have a really long history. We met when I was doing the Directing Workshop for Women and she had just won the Student Academy Award. I think we have similar story language and know what the other is thinking, which is very helpful to have a shorthand. Certainly, there were a lot of challenging aspects of CODA and in shooting a language that is visual and not heard.


Paula: It feels really awesome to have grown as filmmakers together from when we first connected on the film MOTHER, which got a lot of recognition, and then we’ve kept working together and have done other projects since then as well. I think we still work a little bit the same where we love to talk about the story and shot list, and we love to have a plan. Siân is very visual, so I think we work well together in that way. The stories are getting bigger from when we first started out, but Siân has a lot of energy and is a great leader.


AFI:  Siân, what made you first want to make CODA and how did growing up in Massachusetts inform your process?


Siân: CODA is based on a French film called LA FAMILIE BÉLIER. The producers Philippe Rousselet and Patrick Wachsberger were planning on doing an American remake, and this was right after they had seen my first feature TALLULAH premiere at Sundance. I met with them and also watched the original film. I’d never done a remake before, so while I knew they wanted to honor the original, I also wanted to be sure I had the freedom to wholly make my own movie. They were very adamant that they wanted me to have the freedom to reinvent the original.


I was definitely inspired by growing up in Cambridge, MA, and going to Gloucester every summer where I’d go quarry jumping. I also knew about the struggles that the fishing community was going through and the way that family fishermen have really been decimated over the past 15-20 years by the regulations. And while I am absolutely an environmentalist and believe in fishing regulations, it inordinately affected family fishermen versus large corporations. When I thought about the idea of this working-class family, I really wanted to set the movie in a place that could also be a character in the film. I wrote the script for Gloucester specifically. I had the amazing freedom as a filmmaker to embrace everything about the town, and it was really great to get to shoot in a place where I’d originally conceived the film.


AFI: How did you as a hearing individual make sure you told this story authentically and respectfully to the deaf community?


Siân: I was very aware going in that I was an outsider telling this story. I am not from the deaf community. Ideally, we need to get to a point where there’s enough inclusion in Hollywood that deaf artists and deaf creators are empowered and financed to make their own work, which is the goal. I was brought onto this project and fell in love with the story and really related to this teenage girl and what she was going through. My parents are immigrants and growing up I really did feel this divide – like you don’t understand my experience as an American kid. While I related to this story, it was really important to me to learn about deaf culture, to educate myself and surround myself with deaf collaborators who really could be my guides in how to tell this story. From the moment I got the job to write the script, I started taking ASL classes. I had consultants and worked with CODAs who were friends of friends.


I had two ASL masters – Alexandria Whales and Anne Tomasetti. It was really a process for them to look at the dialogue in the script and understand what my intention was and then figure out how to transform it into sign language. And then there’s no written form of sign, so they were keeping the entire film in their heads. Anne worked with the actors to see what their instincts were for signing, and also addressed regionalisms and family dynamics. Alexandria really did her research so that we could work together to find out what the signs should be for each scene, and then Anne was with me on set by the monitor through the whole shoot really watching all of the ASL scenes and flagging anything that felt inauthentic for this family.


AFI: Paula, what was your preparation process like before shooting the film?


Paula: We had to learn about the town of Gloucester and about fishing restrictions while we were filming. We had to learn all the logistics and how to capture everything effectively but also make it as visually powerful as we could. The fishing part was a real learning curve, and we had to talk to marine experts and fishermen. The other big thing for me was learning about the deaf community – how to communicate on set, how to photograph to hold characters’ hands in the frame, and the blocking was entirely different too. Visually, I think the film is subtle, simple, natural and realistic. There was so much happening within the story, I felt like we didn’t need to impose a style. It was more like getting out of the way of the story.


AFI: Emilia Jones learned to sign for the film. What other preparation did you have your cast take to fully inhabit these characters and convincingly become an onscreen family?


Siân: The casting process was tricky because my first thought was to get a real CODA who would know how to sign already. But there was so much that character needed to be able to do – she needed to sing beautifully, she needed to be 17 years old, she needed to look authentic out on a fishing boat, gutting fish and pulling in nets. And she’s in every scene and really carries the film, so it was a big audition process. I saw hundreds of girls for the part. Emilia is just a very special actress with a lot going on internally that you can really feel on her face. She has an incredible voice. She’s not a trained singer, but she trained leading up to film, which I’d say was almost as challenging as her learning ASL. She worked really hard to prepare for the role.


In terms of the onscreen family dynamic, two of my deaf actors – Troy Kotsur (Frank) and Daniel Durant (Leo) – had previously worked together, so they had a rapport. But there was something that happened where Emilia immediately fit in with that family. She and Troy, in particular, developed a very strong bond. Troy has a CODA daughter who is the same age as Emilia, so I think that might have been a part of it too. In telling the story of a family, they became a family too.


AFI: What was it like working with your talented cast, including Oscar® winner Marlee Matlin? And what were you hoping to convey about this unconventional family?


Siân: Marlee is such a pro. She’s been doing it for so long. But one of the things she mentioned is that often she’s the sole representation of a deaf character on a project, so she’s not getting to act alongside other deaf actors. And she and Troy really enjoyed playing husband and wife on the film. I think a lot of times characters with a disability are sanitized – either made overly noble, or victims, or martyrs. It was so important to me that this family just feel like any other family. It was fun to tell a story that felt universal, but also really culturally specific. I wanted to convey that they were this unique family that happened to be deaf, as opposed to telling some sort of precious story, trying to represent deafness or deaf culture.


AFI: What were the greatest challenges of shooting a narrative about a deaf family?


Siân:  As a director, I had to learn to shift perspectives. My instinct was to go into close-ups during important scenes, but it was really important to remember that hands always need to be in frame so we could see the signs. It was a real challenge to figure out how to make the film visually interesting, so you’re not constantly stuck in a medium shot.


Paula: Our challenge was to get into the different characters’ perspectives and how they saw the world around them. I think there’s a lot of inspiration to see the world differently in the film and to get into the headspace of the characters. For the concert scene, we were conscious of the experience of the deaf family having to sit through an hour of music and not being able to hear it. You start getting bored and distracted, and you can’t feel what the other people around you are feeling. We wanted to capture that and, at the same time, capture Ruby being worried that she and her parents aren’t connecting and her feeling guilty that she chose to pursue a passion that they will never be able to enjoy.


AFI: What went into your musical selection process, and how did you use music to inform the larger narrative?


Siân: The music was a very difficult part because when you’re making an independent film, it’s very challenging to find songs within the budget that fulfill what you need narratively and that are recognizable enough that you’d believe a choir teacher would be introducing them to high school kids. In the film, one Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terell song, “You’re All I Need to Get By,” is sung five times in the movie, and it serves very different narrative purposes each time. It needed to be a song that this young couple could fall in love to, and then a song that the lead character Ruby could sing to her father, which becomes very resonant lyrically in that moment.


I collaborated with my music supervisor Alex Patsavas, and then Marius De Vries and Nick Baxter were my music team, composing and working with the choir on set. It was really a team effort of how to fill all the narrative needs through music and also what could be arranged that would be fun for a choir. And then where does Emilia’s voice live, and how will it work within specific songs? It was a trial and error process of entertaining different songs and then finally landing on the ones that worked and delivered the kind of emotional impact that we needed.


The Joni Mitchell song, “Both Sides Now,” I loved because she wrote it as a young person and, if you listen to the original recording, it’s optimistic and the rhythm is faster and then she re-recorded it when she was 65, having gone through pain and loss in her life, and it’s so different. That really spoke to the CODA experience as well because Ruby’s in the middle – in between a hearing world and a deaf world ­– and she has to interpret for her parents, see from their perspective, but still find her own identity. And that song really spoke to that.


AFI: What was your experience like studying filmmaking at AFI and is there something you both took away from the program that you still use to this day?


Paula: I really loved going to AFI. It made me very disciplined in how I approach a script, the way I prepare to shoot a film, and how I communicate with a director about the story and the intention behind the scenes. I think AFI was great in that you specialize in your discipline from the very beginning, so it prepares you for your path really well. I was also lucky to do an internship with Emmanuel Lubezki when I was at AFI on LEMONY SNICKET, so I was able to pursue people I admired and learn from them.


Siân: The DWW program truly launched my career as a writer/director. And I can say that with all honesty. Embarking on making that film in the company of eight other women and having that support system is something that I don’t take lightly, and I’ve still continued those relationships to this day. My female director friends, as we’ve moved forward in our careers ­– be it women I did that program with or friends that I’ve made since – have continued to be a huge support for me. Through groups like Film Fatales or the AFI DWW Alumni group, there’s a great deal of support that I’ve taken from other women filmmakers and that’s definitely something that started at AFI.


Following its World Premiere, CODA was acquired by Apple for $25 million, breaking Sundance’s sales record.


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