‘CODA’ writer/director Sian Heder on scripting in American sign language, ‘the most cinematic language in existence’ [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

“It struck me when I saw that film, how rarely I had ever seen deaf characters on screen,” explains Sian Heder about the French film “La Famille Belier,” which she adapted into the American film “CODA.” It tells the story of the hearing daughter of a deaf family who is torn between the family business and her passion for music. Heder wrote and directed “CODA” and joined us for our “Meet the Experts” Film Writers Panel to discuss the unique experience of making the film. Watch our video interview above.

“When I tried to go look for movies that had deaf characters in them, I was going back 35 years to ‘Children of a Lesser God,'” she adds. Trailblazing deaf actress and advocate Marlee Matlin won an Oscar for that 1986 film and also appears in “CODA” as the matriarch of the family. The dearth of deaf roles in film “seemed crazy” to Heder because American sign language “is the most cinematic language in existence. It’s a purely visual language that is begging to be on screen.”

But it’s a “hugely different” process to write in ASL because it “has no written form.” Heder learned ASL in the process of making the film, but at first, “I wrote in English, and I wrote the way that I’ve written every script, where I’m talking out loud to myself and playing every part and really hearing the characters.” Then she and the film’s ASL consultants “went line by line through the script, every piece of dialogue, and we would go back and forth and discuss, and [ASL master Alexandria Wailes] would show me possible sign choices.”

That process from the initial English-language script to the finished film was “really amazing,” Heder says. “People talk about that feeling as a writer where you watch your words come to life. And this was the most literal form of that.”

To watch this same interview with closed captions, view the YouTube video below and click the CC button on the bottom right.

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