The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of CODA.
What drew you to this material and inspired you to direct the film?
Sian Heder: I came to this because it was originally a studio film, and Lionsgate was looking to do a remake of La famille Bélier, a French film that came out in 2014. And coming in, I wanted to make sure that if I was taking on a movie that already existed that i could really make my own own movie. And, that there was enough in the story that I felt drawn to, that I felt deserved to become a whole other film. The CODA experience is a very unique experience. Particularly the idea of this character who was raised a hearing girl within deaf culture… and being sort of a bridge between the hearing world and the deaf world, and it seemed a way to explore both of those communities and that experience. And there was a lot in there that I felt was very deep, and could be explored in a character. Just the opportunity to explore deaf culture and see it on screen was really exciting to me!When I went back to look for films that I could watch to see how deaf culture had been treated in the past (to look for interesting three-dimensional deaf characters in the lead), there were so few. You know, I had to go back all the way back to Children of a Lesser God, which Marlee won an Oscar for, but it was thirty five years ago! So it was definitely something where I felt like there was this incredible lack of representation in film of deaf characters and of deaf culture. And that made me excited to dive in and surround myself with collaborators who could help me tell this story the right way, and who could help me present this culture in a way that honored American Sign Language (ASL), that honored this family and their particular dynamic, and that could put three amazing deaf actors in leading roles. So all of those things made me very excited about the project, and I did a lot of research when I was writing the script. I talked to many CODA’s, and listened to their stories, and their experiences growing up… I worked with deaf people to read the script and give me feedback on the story, and found the right collaborators, I think, to be able to be as authentic as I could be in representing this family.
Disability is only created when a culture does not make it possible to participate
What was it like to be able to collaborate in this way, for the actors?
Marlee Matlin: When I first read the script, I was really impressed. I knew that I was going to be in my element, but I had never played a part like this before, and I had never had an opportunity to work with more than one deaf actor in a part before. Three deaf actors carrying a film! And it was a story that would be talking about a deaf family— we’ve never seen that before. A family who is deaf, who has a hearing daughter. Which is called a CODA. It really just struck home for me. And so, knowing how powerful the script was, knowing that it really was representing what is out there, what happens in the deaf community… one of many, many stories of the deaf community that are out there… I knew that I had to go after this role, and I wanted to pursue it as much as I could. It wasn’t something that I wanted to let go. And I knew that the set would be extremely deaf-friendly. Not only did we have interpreters left and right, and everyone learned to sign— but also, the actors who were deaf were working in collaboration so wonderfully, so well together. And the bottom line was, it was just a great story with great actors, with a great crew, with great writing, and a great director to top it all off. And it was just a script and a story that was simply one-of-a-kind.
Troy Kotsur: When I first read that script, the first thing that struck me was, “oh yeah… I can show dirty sign language! Finally!” And I was totally enthused. I wanted to share our culture! And our language… our signing, our dirty jokes. I mean, I had seen so many movies that have cursing and graphic language… and I got pretty used to it. But this was our opportunity to depict our language, in that respect. And it was jarring for a lot of people, but I’m thinking, “really? Where have you been all this time?” So it was just an exciting opportunity to finally, through that script, to get a peak at our culture. Throughout our history, it’s usually been a single deaf role in a film, and that actor works with an all-hearing cast. And finally, we have more than one deaf actor— we have three authentic deaf characters who can really show our language in an authentic way. Like Marlee said, we felt at home. We could finally bring that to the big screen. And it was amazing to see our journey. And Sian as a director had a huge heart: she was sensitive, she was respective of our culture. Sometimes we felt like something wasn’t quite working in the script, and in other projects we may have been scared to ask about it or point it out. But Sian was receptive to our feedback, and really wanted to adapt it to fit our culture. It was an amazing process, and it was a rare opportunity. I feel very blessed.
Daniel Durant: Yeah, exactly. I had never seen a script like this before. I mean, obviously it was so strong in deaf culture. You know, other writers who may want to cover this material don’t have a deep understanding of deafness, but Sian did the research. She knew the culture, she got into it. And just as Troy said, with the dirty jokes, I was thrilled as well! Because you’ve never seen that on screen before. And we had this opportunity to do that here that was just so nice. Every actor here was amazing, the crew was fantastic, the director was great… I mean, it was just a magic opportunity and I feel so honored to be a part of this.
TK: If I could add: what’s more, with this story, it navigates between two worlds, two cultures. And the CODA has that experience, drawing from both communities and in some sense has that in common with the audience.
What does this film have to teach us about living, together, in a shared world, with mutual respect?
SH: I think it’s all about access. Because accessibility is the key to bridging this. Disability is only created when a culture does not make it possible to participate. Being in a wheelchair is not a disability except for the fact that we’ve built a society that has stairs everywhere! Not being able to hear, or being able to hear, is just a difference. And I have a disability when I go out with all these guys and my signing is only so-so, and everyone is chatting… and I’m trying to follow it, and I can’t quite keep up with the conversation, because in that moment, my lack of fluency in their language is making me the outsider. And I think the moment we put access in place — the fact that we are in this conversation right now, and we have someone signing on my behalf, and we can all chat just as we would on any panel — is tremendous. And I think that despite the fact that the Americans with Disabilities Act passed a long time ago… the fact is that access is still a problem, and there aren’t interpreters provided all the time, there aren’t open-captions in movie theaters on all movies, so that everybody can enjoy those films. So I think the problem is that society is somehow reluctant to open the door to bridge these barriers, to make it so that everyone can participate. In the process of making the film I’ve certainly had a very big education, and continued to, as I see these barriers come up… as I see that we don’t have access in certain situations, and I get upset, and Troy and Daniel and Marlee roll their eyes and say, “welcome to our world, we have to deal with this all the time.” But I think that, you know, a lot of the problem is that Hollywood and society has not been able to make the adjustment to say, “it’s actually easy to have an accessible set. All you need to do is put some interpreters in place, and you have a deaf-friendly set.”
MM: I’ve been in this business for thirty five years. And I was the first deaf actor to win an Academy Award… that’s the highest honor you can get in Hollywood, and I’m only one of four actors who got that award for their debut. And the youngest, to this day, for Best Actress. And I have been working fairly constantly, making appearances. And I’ve always attempted to… I don’t want to use the word “teach,” but to enlighten those who aren’t familiar with our community. Which is fine— not everyone knows about everything, after all. So from my perspective, I just learn to have patience and to collaborate. That’s important, that’s the key. We are definitely under-represented, and I believe that we can all agree that we are tired of it, we are overlooked. And that it’s time for people to get over being afraid of deafness and disability. Maybe it’s because they’ve never met deaf people, maybe some have. But they sort of push them aside. And there’s a great deal of “ableism” going on out there— we are tired of it, and yet at the same time, I will stand my ground, and continue to do what I love to do, which is to act. One critic even said, when I won my Oscar, that the voters chose me out of pity. And also that I was a deaf actor in a deaf role… how is that considered “great acting?” So I thought to myself, “ok, here’s clearly, obviously, ignorance.” I mean, if a hearing person plays a hearing role, is that not acting too? It’s a matter of continuing to have the conversation, to continuing to talk to people who want to work with us, to people who would like to work with us… and to be able to put our faces in front in a film like this, and not play roles that are necessarily token roles or background roles. This movie sets a standard and shows us how we can do to move forward to work together to deliver our craft as actors on the screen. And there are so many millions of stories out there to share— this is one example.
TK: You know, working with Sian, she really provided a great example of how to integrate a set. She really took her time to be a part of the deaf community. She visited the set of This Close and saw how they had all the logistics set up, so she was able get onto her own set and know exactly what to do. And then pre-production as well. It was important to have someone who was deaf involved, to make the necessary changes and give the necessary consultation, so that you can prepare— even before the first day of shooting. The same thing goes for post-production with the editing process, to make sure all of the signs are on screen appropriately. And another good example: hearing actors may sometimes misarticulate, and they are able to do voice-over in post for that. But if you make a mistake with signs, it’s there on the screen— you can’t fix it after the fact. So there’s the difference that a lot of people never really think of.
SH: That’s right— you can’t fix signs in editing, because there they are, on the screen. You can’t cut around it! I do think a lot of the time, you know (and these guys have all shared these experiences on-set), there is an expectation when a deaf actor is cast that they are going to show up and do all of the educating on top of their actual job (which is acting). Not only are they expected to perform the role that they are there to play, but they’re also expected to educate the crew, educate the director, educate the entire set on how they’re supposed to work… and I didn’t want that to be the dynamic on our set. I didn’t want to put that burden on these guys. I wanted to do my homework ahead of time, so that they could show up onto a set that was ready to go and we could all work together as collaborators. And having an ASL master on set is a really important part of that. Having that person behind the camera if the director is not deaf themselves, to be watching the sign language, to be making sure that if an actor flubs their lines in their signing, that they’re catching it. Making sure that the sign choices made by the actor will be really clear for a deaf audience. So I think all of those elements are very important, and need to be in place on a set so that the burden is not all on the actor.
MM: Exactly. I’d like to add, on this set, we were ready to go from day one. This was the first time I worked on a set where I didn’t have to worry about whether it was going to be accessible, or if there were going to be interpreters, or ASL masters… or anything. I was able to enter the set as an actor, ready to do my scene for that day. And that is exactly how it should be for actors who are deaf: the set should be ready for them to show up and start acting. You walk in, everything is in place, and we’re on the way to making a film.