How the ‘CODA’ cast and director forged a ‘strong connection’ through sign language [SUNDANCE STUDIO]

To say that the cast and crew of “CODA” became close personally would be an understatement. “There were a lot of tears shed,” writer and director Sian Heder tells Gold Derby. “You make movies and you come together and you bond and then move on, but this — it did feel like we were a family.”

Tears aside, the group turned out to be a very happy family when “CODA” set a new record for highest price ever paid for a Sundance acquisition (nearly $25 million) when it was picked up by Apple TV Plus after competitive bidding that also included Netflix and Amazon, according to Variety.

“CODA” is an acronym for child of deaf adults. A remake of Éric Lartigau‘s 2014 French film “La famille Bélier,” “CODA,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Thursday, follows 17-year-old Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), the only hearing member of her family who is torn between pursuing her dream of singing and her fear of deserting her family. The Rossis operate a fishing business in Gloucester, Mass., and have relied on Ruby to communicate with the rest of the world. Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur play her working-class parents who can’t keep their hands off of each other, Jackie and Frank, respectively, and Daniel Durant plays her older brother Leo. Eugenio Derbez rounds out the cast as Mr. Villalobos, Ruby’s strict but warm choir teacher who encourages her to apply to the Berklee School of Music.

Jones spent nine months learning American Sign Language, but she was worried at first that she might not be able to connect with Matlin, Kotsur and Durant to capture the Rossis’ tight-knit bond. “But the minute I met Marlee, Daniel and Troy, we all just gelled,” she says. “We were like a family. Marlee and Troy took me under their wing, and me and Daniel would constantly talk about all sorts. They were all so patient and I just fell in love with the language and I fell in love with them, and I’ve never felt so close to people ever in my life. It was such an incredible experience for me. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.”

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Heder also learned ASL — half the film is in the language — to understand the world she was diving into and to better communicate with Matlin, Kotsur and Durant. While there were interpreters on set, Heder wanted to have a “direct connection” with her actors. “We all kind of brainstormed after the first day, and I said, ‘Is it OK if I come up and I give you notes directly? My signing might be all over the place and terrible, but I’m going to do my best,'” she shares. “And everybody was really game for that. And it was really helpful for us, I think, to forge that strong connection and trust between us. And of course, we had wonderful interpreters who were there to jump in and help, but I think that was an important part of the process.”

Matlin calls Heder “one of the very, very few — if not out of three or four people who have directed me — that really understood the actor in me.” The Oscar winner was a fan of Heder’s previous film “Tallulah,” which premiered at Sundance in 2016.

“When I found out she was directing this, I thought it was a no-brainer for me. I really just wanted to jump into the film. I really feel blessed to have had the opportunity to work with Sian. She’s everything that you would want in a director,” Matlin says. “She very much was at ease working with us even though there may have been some times where we might have creatively been on different planes, we were able to talk it out. She was great to work with, to collaborate with, and it was so exciting. I mean, to have her name in my little biography as someone that I’ve worked with — so I’m blessed. And my hat’s off to Sian.”

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