Sian Heder (‘CODA’ writer/director) on the challenges of writing a script in ASL [Complete Interview Transcript]

Sian Heder is now an Oscar nominee after writing the screenplay for her film, “CODA,” which she also directs. The film, which recently won the SAG Award for best ensemble, tells the story of a hearing child of deaf adults (CODA) living in a household where her parents and brother are all deaf.

Heder recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery about her relationship to the original French film on which “CODA” is based and figuring out how to write a script with primarily deaf characters. Watch the full interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: You wrote and directed the film “CODA,” which is about a child of deaf adults who wants to pursue music. It’s based on a French film from 2014. So what about that film resonated with you when you were approached to adapt it for an American film? 

Sian Heder: I think it was the character at the center. I mean, I think the CODA experience is a very unique experience. Oftentimes, CODAs are raised within deaf culture. ASL is their first language. They really feel a part of the community. They are a part of the community. And yet, they’re hearing people who then sort of have to be a bridge between two different cultures, oftentimes interpreting for their parents and just trying to navigate being a part of two different worlds, but also kind of a part of neither. There’s a lot of inherent tension in that that’s very dramatic and interesting. So there was a lot in that character that I thought had incredible potential and to deepen what had been started with the French film and to really find my own film within that story that could be personal and feel like I could imbue it with all these other things. 

And then, honestly, just a chance to explore deaf culture in a very deep way. It struck me when I saw that film how rarely I had ever seen deaf characters onscreen and in the French film, the actors playing the parents are both hearing. So there couldn’t be an exploration, really, of the language or culture in a way that I felt like the story was asking for. So I don’t know, I was intrigued by the fact that like 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” and it just seemed crazy that this is the most cinematic language in existence, it’s a purely visual language that is begging to be on screen, and that the culture, the community of these characters had not been seen before. 

I don’t think I would have embarked upon it if I didn’t think I could truly make my own movie that would feel like mine and feel like it had a reason to exist outside of the original film. So, tonally, they’re very different. I never used the script from the original film. I watched the film once and then I sort of absorbed the story and then embarked on my own journey with it. And then I wrote it for a place that I loved, which was Gloucester, Massachusetts. I grew up in Cambridge, and we would go up to Gloucester every summer of my life and I knew the fishing community there and had watched this working-class town fall apart, really, when the fishing industry died. People were struggling to figure out what to do when they couldn’t make a living anymore. So that also felt like a very ripe setting for a story and conflict within this family. 

GD: And since it’s a story about deaf characters, largely deaf characters, played by deaf actors, and I know you learned some American Sign Language in the process of making this movie, how’s that writing process different when you’re writing a film… as you said, it’s the most cinematic language. It’s very visual as opposed to what you can hear. How is that a different writing process or is it different? 

SH: Oh, it’s hugely different. Well, it didn’t start out different. So yes, it is the most cinematic language, but it also has no written form, so there’s no way to write down ASL. There’s ASL gloss, which is a form of notation where you’re sort of using English words as labels for certain signs and drawing diagrams and pictures. But there’s no way to express the language on the page that eventually exists on the screen. So when I wrote, 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 because obviously, I’m a hearing person. English is my language. That’s kind of how I’m approaching these characters is really hearing their voices come alive. I mean, I even heard the Boston accents because I’m from that area. So I kind of was in the world of these fishermen and these characters. 

And then there was definitely a point in the writing where I was like, “Oh, this is a dumb way to work because I’m never going to hear these lines. These jokes are not going to be dependent on the rhythm of a punchline or the way something’s delivered. This is really the unknown for me.” So in a way, that initial script that I wrote was like a launching pad, where I was like, “OK, this is where we’re starting, and then there’s going to be this massive exploration as we kind of discover the language,” and 50 percent of the dialogue is in ASL. So in a way, it was just like this leap of, like, “This is where I’m starting. This is where these characters are coming to life for me as three-dimensional, complicated, flawed people. Now we need to discover who they are within this language.”

So I had two ASL masters or directors of ASL, Alexandria Wailes and Anne Tomasetti, and both of them are deaf women and they’re artists themselves, and they have extensive theater backgrounds. So the first time I met with Alexandria, we went line by line through the script, every piece of dialogue, and we would go back and forth and discuss, and she would show me possible sign choices and at that point, I had been studying ASL, so I was not fluent, but I was conversational. Recently, we both realized that we met the first time without an interpreter and I think about, like, we spent five hours just dissecting the script, and neither of us had remembered that there was no interpreter there because I think we were so focused on the material. She would really discuss the meaning of every line, so in a way, it forced me to excavate my own script in a way that you don’t normally do as a writer until you’re on-set with your actors. What does the character want and what’s the intention behind this? And she would sign the line back to me and then we would kind of discuss or sometimes I needed a sign that felt emotionally different, so we would play with different signs, and then she was making some videos and recording in ASL gloss but mostly keeping it in her mind, in her body, which is this incredible sense of trust I had to give over where I’m like, “OK, you’re holding all of my words in this way.”

And then the actors showed up, and of course, they have their own ways of signing. Marlee [Matlin] has a very different signing style than Daniel [Durant] and then Troy [Kotsur], and Emilia [Jones] was new to signing. So then there was kind of this work to make everybody feel like a cohesive family and find the local signs. It’s like, what’s the name sign for Gloucester? And the town has this name, which is like a little G in the air, but we didn’t know that till we got there and we were talking to locals in the deaf community there. So it was this amazing thing. Troy is just the most inventive signer you’ve ever seen in your life. So any joke that I wrote, he would take off with, and his signs would go so far past where I’d written, in the sex talk or whatever, where things can’t even be subtitled because they’re just so creative and visual. 

So the script was a really amazing thing because, in a way, it was a document to start with. But it could never be the document of the thing because the language only exists on a visual space. So that was really amazing. 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 that there was. You’re watching your words transform into a kind of expression that is solely physical and much more expressive than spoken English. So that was cool as well. And then to work with Emilia, who was as new to the language as I was, and having the two of us really live in a space on-set where ASL became the mode of communication, so that’s how I was communicating with my actors. That’s how Emilia was communicating with her costars, and then the crew started to take part in that. So it just became the dominant culture on-set as well, which was a really beautiful thing to watch.

To watch the same video with closed captions, please use the YouTube video below and click the CC button on the bottom right.

PREDICT the 2022 Oscar winners and other awards shows champs

Make your predictions at Gold Derby now. Download our free and easy app for Apple/iPhone devices or Android (Google Play) to compete against legions of other fans plus our experts and editors for best prediction accuracy scores. See our latest prediction champs. Can you top our esteemed leaderboards next? Always remember to keep your predictions updated because they impact our latest racetrack odds, which terrify Hollywood chiefs and stars. Don’t miss the fun. Speak up and share your huffy opinions in our famous forums where 5,000 showbiz leaders lurk every day to track latest awards buzz. Everybody wants to know: What do you think? Who do you predict and why?

SIGN UP for Gold Derby’s free newsletter with latest predictions

More News from GoldDerby