Director's Chair: Sian Heder — <i>CODA</i>
Issue: July/August 2021

Director's Chair: Sian Heder — CODA

Writer, director and showrunner Sian Heder first made a name for herself with her short film Mother, which was awarded the Cinéfondation Jury Award at the Cannes Film Festival. Her debut feature film, Tallulah, starring Elliot Page and Allison Janney, premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and was released as a Netflix original. Her latest film, CODA (which stands for Children of Deaf Adults), was another big hit at this year's Sundance, where it scored a record $25 million acquisition deal from Apple TV+, as well as the grand jury prize, the audience award, the directing prize for Heder, and a special jury prize for the ensemble cast. 

The crowd-pleasing family drama, also written and adapted from the 2014 French film La Famille Bélier by Heder, tells the story of Ruby (Emilia Jones), a teenager who lives in Gloucester, MA, with her fishermen family — parents Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and Frank (Troy Kotsur), and brother Leo (Daniel Durant). The first big twist is that her parents and brother are all deaf. The second is that Ruby isn't much interested in fishing. Her passion is singing, and that passion is ignited with the encouragement of a high-school teacher (Eugenio Derbez), who helps guide her innate talent and shape her dreams.

Siân Heder (center) directs Emilia Jones and Ferdia Walsh-Peelo.

Here, in an exclusive interview for Post, I spoke with Heder, who wrote and produced for three seasons on the acclaimed Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, receiving multiple WGA nominations for her work, and whose credits include executive producing and co-showrunning Little America for Apple TV+ and directing episodes of Netflix’s GLOW, about the challenges of making and posting the film.

What sort of film did you set out to make?

"It's one of those rare cases where I made exactly the film I wanted to make. I had a lot of freedom from my producers to make this coming-of-age family story about finding your own identity, and the whole CODA experience was very interesting and relatable to me, as my parents were immigrants and I felt they didn't understand me as an American kid. So it was the same feeling of being caught between two worlds — the hearing and the deaf worlds in the film. And I loved that the story was so specific yet so universal."

So how did you prepare in terms of dealing with all the fishing and then the deaf community. I assume it was quite a steep learning curve?

"It was steep, and there were three big challenges: dealing with American Sign Language (ASL), the fishing and the music. For the first, I'd started taking ASL classes as I wrote the script, but I was directing in a language I didn't speak fluently, and we had seven interpreters on-set, but having someone between the actor and director made it difficult for me, as I consider myself an actor's director. I came from acting, and I'm used to direct communication with my actors. In the end, I realized the best way was to sign directly with the actors, then have an interpreter clarify. As for the music, we didn't want to pre- or post-record it, but capture it live, on-set, which meant having a real live choir. And the fishing was wild and I'm amazed my marine coordinators didn't tell me to screw myself when I explained how I wanted to do it (laughs). They suggested making it lobster fishing, which you can do close to shore. But I wanted ground fishing, and you have to go out at least three miles."

James Cameron told me years ago, 'Never ever shoot at sea.' You obviously never got the memo.

"No, and I've broken every rule. My first film had babies in every scene, and on this we're way out at sea, which is really hard in terms of moving crew, film equipment and all the logistics. But I felt the fishing issues were so important to the story, and the visuals of hauling in the nets and the catch are so beautiful, so I really wanted to capture all that, and the only way to do it was to really go out to sea. You can't fake it by sitting in the harbor."

Where did you shoot, and how tough was the shoot?

"It was tough. We shot in summer for three weeks on location in Gloucester, and we used real working fishing boats. When you're in the harbor, you think, 'It's a fine day to go out.' But once you get out there, it's three-to-five foot waves on a calm day, and your crew starts barfing. And shooting at sea has so many complications apart from that. How big a crew can you get on a fishing boat? If you shoot a real catch, there are all these fishing restrictions, and you need monitors on board to make sure you comply with all the regulations. The actors went out many times in rehearsal, so they learned how to run the boat and pull in the nets, and by the time we shot they were naturals at it. And we planned out what shots were needed and worked as efficiently as possible."

You and your DP, Paula Huidobro, whose credits include an Emmy nomination for her work on HBO’s Barry, and the TV series Fargo and Grown-ish, met at AFI and have worked steadily together ever since. Talk about how you collaborated on this project?

Heder with Eugenio Derbez.

"We shot on the Sony Venice 6K, with Arri Signature LF Primes and a couple of Angenieux EZ zooms. Paula wanted to use the Venice because of the resolution, and shooting 6K was so great for all the sea and fishing scenes. We have a shorthand after doing so many projects together, and on this, we both wanted to keep the look very natural and simple, and not let it get in the way of the story."

Tell us about post. Was it remote because of COVID? 

"No, we actually made it through all the editing before COVID, which hit right as we were starting the color correction and sound work. So I felt very lucky I had time with my editor, Geraud Brisson. I had amazing collaborators on this film, but I have to say my all-star player was my editor. I'd worked with him on Little America and I liked him a lot and the way he cut."

How did you work together on this, and what were the main editing challenges?

"He never came on-set. He was cutting back here in LA while we sent him dailies from Boston [through Finish Boston], and then when I got back we began working together every day, and I've never had a movie change so much in the edit. We cut and cut. It was all part of the process of honing in on the simplicity of the story, and there were all these side storylines about her brother and girlfriend, the teacher, and then the other fishermen, that we realized were actually taking away from the main focus on Ruby and her family. We actually cut out 36 scenes in the end, which is a huge amount. My producers joked that I could probably make the sequel out of all the material we cut (laughs). But the other thing is that ASL is such a visual cinematic language, and I realized so much was communicated visually that the script turned out to be very overwritten."

Well, you wrote it.

"You're right. But I wrote it in English from a hearing person's perspective, and when I shot it and worked with the deaf consultants on-set, I gradually realized I didn't need all the talking."

So how did the ASL scenes affect the edit?

"That was another big challenge, as Geraud didn't sign and wasn't familiar with ASL, so we worked out a system on-set where an interpreter was in the video village recording a separate soundtrack along with the ASL scene, just for the editor. So when Geraud was cutting the ASL scenes, he'd turn on that track as a guide to know where we were in the scene. And I also had an ALS master on-set taking extensive notes in those scenes, like when a sign was off or dropped below frame. So that whole process was very unusual and key to the edit."

Where did you post?

"We edited at Flashcut and did the sound at Formosa Group, both here in LA. The plan had been to do it all in Montreal, but COVID hit and we moved post to LA, and then I did the color correction remotely with Mels in Montreal, which was quite tricky, as me and Paula weren't getting the same image here in LA. Paula had a DIT on the set, Leonard Mazzone, and began working on it on-set and then did a first pass with the colorist, Marc Lussier, and then I went there and it finally got sorted out. But it was sort of terrifying to realize you're not seeing the same thing, as I'm very hands-on with color correction and I really love the process. I love every part of post, from editing and sound design to the mix and color correction, as you're crafting your movie the whole time. So the idea that the image you're studying remotely isn't the same as the colorist's just reinforced for me that it's just so much easier when you're all in the same room during post."

There were a few VFX. Who did them and what was entailed?

"Mels did them all. We had to do a bit of cleanup and fixes, and we took out land in the background for some of the fishing scenes, and then also the little mics in the singers' ears. I love working with VFX and the way it really frees you up on-set to be more spontaneous. If you capture this amazing moment, but there's some problem in the background, you know you can easily fix it later with VFX." 

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you?

"They were hugely important to me and I had a great team, including sound designer Paul Col, and a great music team. Again, I'm very hands-on with all of it, and so is my editor. For instance, there's a moment where we go to complete silence, and it's important as it puts you in the perspective of the deaf characters. And every step of the way, the sound team were begging me to put something in that spot — a tone, a low subliminal sound, anything! But I wanted total silence there, and details like that were crucial, I felt."

Even though you radically reworked the script in post, did it turn out the way you first envisioned it?

"It did. In terms of the tone and emotion and the way it feels, I feel I realized the potential in the story."