For this installment of Filmmaker Spotlight, we’re featuring the woman behind the film that sold for $25 million out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the biggest sale in the festival’s history. We’re talking about Siân Heder’s CODA, a family drama that releases in theaters and on Apple TV+ come August 13 that also happens to be the filmmaker’s sophomore feature endeavor.
Heder wrote and directed CODA, just as she did for her feature debut, Tallulah. Elliot Page and Allison Janney led the cast of the film, which was inspired by Heder’s former job nannying at 4-star hotels in Los Angeles. While that experience lent itself to making Tallulah, Heder had to do a significant about of research in order to accurately tell the story of her second feature film.
CODA is a remake of the French film La Famille Belier and centers on a 17-year-old named Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) who is the only hearing member of a tight-knit fishing family in Gloucester, Massachusetts. “I felt invested in making sure that the deaf characters in the film had rich journeys and full characters, as well,” Heder shared during a Variety interview.
She was committed to only casting deaf actors in those roles to ensure they were authentically depicted, which included Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin playing Ruby’s mother, Troy Kotsur portraying her father Frank, and Daniel Durant as Ruby’s brother Leo. Heder also called in experts to help ensure she got all the script and production details right. “[ASL master] Alexandria Wailes worked with me in the writing stage,” she noted during an interview with The Playlist. “Then, once we got on set, [ASL master] Anne Tomasetti took over and she was, along with my actors, really key in being my Deaf eyes and putting me in check when there was something that was coming from a hearing perspective.”
CODA won all the top prizes at this year’s Sundance, making it the first film in the festival’s history to take home the Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast, the Audience Award, the Directing Award and the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. But like most Hollywood stories, the filmmaker behind the festival darling did not realize such success overnight.
The earliest credits on Heder’s IMDb page are from her work in front of the camera. She has appeared on series such as The Sopranos, Charmed and Boston Legal. Heder’s transition to filmmaking began with Mother, a short film she wrote and directed that won the Cinefondation Jury Award at the Cannes Film Festival. Television writing credits for two episodes of the Ray Romano-led Men of a Certain Age followed, and she eventually wrote and produced for three seasons on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black.
More recent work that led up to the success of CODA includes Heder’s role as executive producer on the Apple TV+ series Little America, and the rising filmmaker isn’t slowing down anytime soon. She’s slated to write and direct an onscreen adaptation of Sarah Lotz’s novel Impossible for Patrick Wachsberger’s Picture Perfect Federation. The move marks a reteaming of Heder and Wachsberger, who produced CODA, for the film he calls “a romantic comedy for our time.”
Considering the success of Heder’s record-breaking sophomore feature endeavor, it may come as no surprise that the up-and-coming filmmaker made Variety’s “10 Directors to Watch” list this year. Wachsberger goes as far as naming her “one of the world’s most promising writer/directors.” And for our part, we think Heder has certainly earned her filmmaker spotlight.