For all the accolades that have been thrown at “CODA” this awards season, writer-director Sian Heder and her cast give full credit to the pre-shoot preparations — including two weeks spent on fishing boats in Gloucester, Massachusetts, learning the ropes with grizzled fishermen.
“We literally went to sea together before we started filming,” Heder said during TheWrap’s Awards Screening Series panel on Thursday, where she was joined by by SAG Award-winning cast Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant.
“The way that Troy, Daniel and Emilia were introduced to each other was working together. OK, let’s figure out how do we tie this knot and haul in this net, sort this thing,” Heder told TheWrap. “We would all get back to shore and it felt like we had just been through something major. And it was an intense first bonding experience.”
Once cameras started rolling, an armada of small tankers and speed boats would follow their vessel and try and transfer cameras and crew jumping between boats while five-foot waves crashed around them. It wasn’t easy.
“I suspect Sian was smart, because it was a way to bring us together by being stuck out at sea on the boat. We had no place to escape, no escape route,” Kotsur, who is Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor, added. “We grew together in that way, so good one, Sian.”
Jones recalls Kotsur cracking jokes or knocking an ice lid into the water that forced the film’s team of speedboats circling to collect it, while Heder remembers Jones giving her onscreen brother “s—” about not being able to tie a knot, just like a sister might. Durant and Kotsur had to learn how to sign while wearing massive fishing gloves and determine how a deaf family in this situation would develop their own shorthand ASL. Kotsur too even learned an important lesson about one of the worst superstitions from his fishermen mentors.
“Never bring a banana on board,” he said. “I was chewing it, he grabbed it out of my hand and said, ‘Troy! Never bring a banana on board. It will bring us bad luck.”
But above all, Kotsur, Jones and Durant had to prove to the fishermen — and to themselves — that they could actually cut it on a fishing boat, and Jones did not disappoint when she learned how to gut a fish. “Emilia didn’t bat an eye, she grabbed the fish, chopped the head, threw the guts out over her shoulder,” Heder said. “I remember these hardcore Gloucester fishermen looked at me and were like, ‘This girl is a badass! Where did you find this person? She is completely fearless.'”
Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, meanwhile, joked that she was fortunate enough to get to sleep through the boat excursions, but she really embraced the mom role and regularly cooked meals for her onscreen family. “CODA” is the story of a deaf family and their child of deaf adults who aspires to be a singer in her school choir, but the film has a universal quality that has connected with families everywhere, in part because of the bond the cast all formed.
“I was kind of nervous to meet Marlee, Troy and Daniel, because I was very aware that this story relies very heavily on this family and their relationship, and I learned ASL, but I still had a lot to learn,” Jones said. “[Daniel] was always just willing to give and help me. Troy would tell me stories and I would have to pick things up and then I would get it. And Marlee was just like a mother figure. She would always cook for us all on the weekend…They’re all such lovely people and so easy to be around. It was luck, but also we hung out a lot and we knew how important it was to have that connection and that bond.”
Durant had high praise for his onscreen family. “Emilia, she has such an open heart. She was so ready to learn sign, learn our culture, and Troy, he’s such a good teacher, he would give her ASL jokes, she would laugh and learn, and she picked up ASL so fast,” he said. “Marlee took over the house and she cooked for us, and I just want to let you know, she’s an amazing cook, I still miss your cooking Marlee.”
“CODA” has been on a remarkable journey dating way back to Sundance 2021 when it won four of Sundance’s top prizes, and it’s now culminated over a year later in three Oscar nominations and a win for Best Ensemble at the SAG Awards.
Matlin, of course, is the one person who has already been on this journey, having won her Oscar for “Children of a Lesser God” over 30 years ago. But she admits that it’s still “pretty rare” for a cast like this one to be so close and connected through it all. “Every person here had their own moments, and it’s all put together in this one lovely little package,” Matlin said. “You can’t ask for anything better than this, and at the end of the day, it’s been a labor of love.”
Watch TheWrap’s full conversation with the cast and director of “CODA” here.