Siân Heder knew she’d have to cut the sound. Her movie, “CODA,” features three deaf characters, and Heder wanted to give us, the viewers, a sense of a how they experience in the world. “I always knew that there was a place in the story where I wanted to put the audience in the deaf perspective and immerse the audience in what that was like,” the writer/director told TheWrap in the latest episode of the video series “How I Did It.”
She found the perfect place in the scene where high school senior Ruby (Emilia Jones) performs at a singing recital. Ruby is the only hearing child of her deaf mother and father (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur), hence the film’s title, which stands for child of deaf adults. Her older brother (Daniel Durant) is also deaf, and for her entire life, Ruby has served as the family’s link to the hearing world. (All three actors are deaf; earlier this month, the entire “CODA” gang was nominated for the Screen Actors Guild’s Best Ensemble Cast, strengthening the movie’s chance of scoring one of the 10 Best Picture Oscar nominations.)
And Heder used that key recital scene to show both Ruby’s passion for music and the fact that her family can’t experience it in the way she does.
“The concert scene — the audience has a set of expectations going into that scene,” Heder said. “You’ve watched Ruby rehearse this song over and over, multiple times, and you’re waiting to hear what comes out of her. Yet at the moment when Ruby steps up to sing, I wanted to suck out the sound, turn the cameras on extras in the audience and have Ruby’s parents, Frank and Jackie, kind of looking to strangers to understand what’s happening with their daughter in that moment.”
Ruby performs “You’re All I Need to Get By” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell with her classmate Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), but just as they start to sing, the camera pulls back from the stage to where her family is seated and the sound fades out until it goes completely silent. We see Ruby and Miles looking at each other and mouthing the words, while Frank and Jackie study the reactions of fellow members of the crowd, many of whom are visibly moved. When the duo finishes the song, the soundtrack returns and Ruby’s family joins in the standing ovation.
“It was a challenge in the edit,” Heder said. “I think we recut that scene over and over and over again so that we could really live with her parents and her brother and be in their perspective, watching Ruby.” Even though Jones (who is not a trained vocalist in real life) sang better than she had in any rehearsals, Heder did not change her mind.
“We were recording live on set and I remember the moment she went to sing, she hit this note she’s never hit before and she kind of looked at me like, ‘Oh, my God! I can’t believe I did that!’ And I gave her a big thumbs up, like, ‘Oh, my God, you did it!’ And I remember thinking, ‘Oh, wow, I’m going to take this out, nobody is going to hear this except us in this room right now. And that actually felt powerful, like my own desire to want to share what had happened with her voice in that moment, that to me was the very reason that I had to take it away from the audience and take it away from myself to really be with them, be in their perspective.”
And like Jones, who studied American Sign Language for nine months prior to shooting, Heder had to learn to communicate with Matlin, Kotsur and Durant. She hopes to take what she learned into her future films. “I had learned to sign. I was communicating with my actors in a language that I was new to,” she said. “I’m going to sign sometimes, if I don’t know the sign, I’m gonna make up a gesture, I’m going to pantomime or I’m going to use my body or the emotions on my face. And trying to express my vision and give an actor a note and yet use my body to do that was a really intense and exciting experience that I would really hope to carry forward with me.”
“CODA” is currently streaming on AppleTV+.