CODA’s Sian Heder on Directing This Oscar Season’s Little Indie

The writer-director had to fight for years to make her groundbreaking movie the right way. With the Oscars around the corner, she’s still being underestimated.

Afull 12 months after premiering at a virtual Sundance Film Festival, where it swept the awards and scored a record-breaking distribution deal with Apple, CODA has entered 2022 as one of the year’s strongest Oscar contenders. It’s competing against bigger-budget, studio-backed fare, from art house hits like The Power of the Dog and Licorice Pizza to acclaimed spectacles like Dune and West Side Story, but keeps showing its strength. In the past week alone, CODA was widely recognized on the BAFTA longlists from best picture to lead actress (Emilia Jones) to supporting actor (Troy Kotsur), while the film’s ensemble received a coveted best-cast nomination from the Screen Actors Guild.

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It’s been a long road for writer-director Sian Heder, who’s been attached to the project for several years, since CODA was set up for a studio treatment at Lionsgate. Adapted from the French film La Famille Bélier, it tells the story of a hearing teenage girl of deaf parents who begins pursuing her dream as a singer. Following a period of Lionsgate conflicts and shake-ups, the project was eventually made independently, with Heder committing to her vision of authentic casting (as in, employing actual deaf actors) and filmmaking.

It’s a big moment for Heder, who’s primarily known for her work in television (Orange Is the New Black, Little America) as well as her 2016 debut feature, Tallulah. Her immersive, yearslong work on this nuanced and groundbreaking family drama has certainly paid off, even as it’s perhaps still being underestimated. CODA has been labeled the resident “crowd-pleaser” of this year’s race, praised for its more conventional elements, which belies the film’s more radical, subversive aspects.

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In a wide-ranging conversation, we spoke with Heder about her rigorous crafting of the film, from writing to casting to directing, and how this marks a culmination in her career so far.

Vanity Fair: The movie is getting a lot of awards attention in the lead-up to the Oscars, which always bodes well for its chances. How’s all that landing for you right now?

Sian Heder: It feels amazing. We finished the film as the pandemic was hitting, so I had finished my edit but we were doing all of post during lockdown. It was an indie film, there was no distributor in place. I had a lot of fear that it was just going to sit on a shelf somewhere. There was a sadness around, Is this film ever going to be seen and find its way into the world? Even finding out Sundance was virtual; I’d premiered my first movie Tallulah there and I’d had that experience of standing on the Eccles stage and feeling a crowd respond to your movie, so there was a little bit of heartbreak around, What is this going to be?

But to watch the movie not only come out at Sundance with that kind of reception, but then continue to build and keep finding audiences—we released it in the summer and so I didn’t even know that there would be an awards conversation. It’s been really thrilling, to be honest.

With Omicron, now it’s obviously slowed, but let’s go back to fall 2021. You got to campaign the film a little bit, I imagine, and talk to more people. What was that like, finally sharing the film in person?

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I’d spent basically a year in my house hanging out only with my husband and two small children. And so it was like getting shot out of a cannon. I went from wearing sweatpants and Birkenstocks and never washing my hair to having to be in glam and talking to hundreds of people and being out presenting the movie, trying to be articulate and funny and back on in a social way. It was interesting to see the awkwardness of all of us trying to return to society at this moment where you’re really being asked to be on and public. [Laughs] And we never got to celebrate the film together; at Sundance we had a Zoom party after we won four awards, and I never got to hug Troy, or hug Emilia, or have a moment of sitting in a theater and watching the film together. This campaign in the fall has been this incredible experience for all of us because we’re finally getting to be together and getting to sit in screenings together. It’s been a special time.

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In the context of this season, CODA gets talked about as more of a “crowd-pleaser,” or feel-good movie. I know you’ve spoken a little bit about that and some mixed feelings on the term, which I totally get.

I shouldn’t react to the term “crowd-pleaser” because that is what you want, the crowd is the audience. [Laughs]

The crowd is pleased.

If the audience is pleased watching your movie you should be so lucky. I don’t know. I guess in a way there’s always been this relationship when you’re talking about indie film: Does a movie need to be hard to watch? Does it need to challenge you or fuck with your head or leave you feeling nihilistic in order to mean something? Even though I came out of this indie world, I’ve always been drawn to hope and a certain warmth within a story that in a way might move more over into a commercial space.

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