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‘This is the stuff of childhood dreams,’ says writer-director of ‘CODA,’ shot in Massachusetts

The film, about the musical aspirations of a child of deaf parents, bagged a top SAG Award and is up for three Oscars, including best picture

The cast of "CODA" accepts the award for outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture and signs "I love you" at the 28th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at the Barker Hangar on Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022, in Santa Monica, Calif.Chris Pizzello/Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Sian Heder can easily describe how to form the American Sign Language sign for an Oscar statuette.

It’s a sign the writer-director has become familiar with over the past month, ever since “CODA,” her film about the singing aspirations of a high school senior who is the only hearing person in her otherwise deaf family, clinched three Academy Award nominations.

To form the sign, you put both of your thumbs and pinkies together with your palms facing inward, pull that to your chest, and then, as Heder puts it, “you become the little Oscar guy, so you fold your arms across your chest.”


“We’re spreading the signage of this awards campaign along the way,” Heder said in a phone call with the Globe shortly after this year’s Oscar nominations were announced.

“CODA,” which was shot on the North Shore in the summer of 2019 and debuted on Apple TV+ to rave reviews last August, is up for best picture, best supporting actor for Troy Kotsur, and best adapted screenplay for Heder, a Cambridge native. “CODA” is the first film to be nominated for best picture that stars a predominantly deaf leading cast, and Kotsur is the first deaf male actor to receive a best supporting actor nomination, according to Apple.

“This is the stuff of childhood dreams,” said Heder. “In the year since Sundance, I’ve had people from time to time say, ‘This movie should be at the Oscars,’ and it always feels like something your mom would say — people that don’t understand Hollywood and don’t understand that this was a little indie movie, and that it doesn’t work that way. So it’s just so amazing that it did.”

Even before its Oscar nominations, the film was enjoying a fruitful awards season. In January, it scored two nominations from the Golden Globes. Then, at last weekend’s Screen Actors Guild Awards, it won outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture (as well as outstanding performance by a male actor in a supporting role for Kotsur).


Adapted from the 2014 French film “The Bélier Family,” Heder’s movie follows Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), a child of deaf adults — otherwise known as a CODA — who plans to work at her family’s fishing business in Gloucester after graduation. Privately, she harbors a dream of making it as a singer and attending Berklee College of Music. Her aspirations cause tensions within her family (Marlee Matlin plays her mother, Kotsur her father, and Daniel Durant her brother; all are deaf actors), who feel that music isn’t “something we can all do as a family,” as Ruby’s mom says in a dinner scene in the film.

Apple TV+ acquired “CODA” for a record-breaking $25 million after its Sundance premiere, but Heder says she wasn’t expecting an Oscar nomination. “It felt like such a long shot,” she said. “We were a small, scrappy production.”

Looking back, Heder says, she is glad she didn’t compromise on certain elements critical to the film — such as casting deaf actors to play deaf characters or including prolonged periods of silence in the movie when the deaf characters are signing.

“All of the things that I really had to go to the mat for and fight for are the very things that people are responding the most to,” said Heder. “I felt an incredible responsibility going into the film.”


Heder took ASL lessons to prepare for the film, enlisted deaf collaborators who helped translate the script into ASL, and took care to make the end product accessible to deaf audiences. These steps were crucial, she said, to do right by a community that has been “not only underrepresented but misrepresented.”

“With the audience response and the success of the film, it opens the door for more projects to be made with disabled characters at the center,” said Heder. “And, honestly, by deaf directors and deaf writers. There are a lot of stories in this community that need to be told.”

“In terms of representation, this is a big step forward,” she continued. “We found a new way to work, and it can be a model for other people.”

Director and writer Sian Heder, a Cambridge native, on the set of "CODA," which is nominated for three Academy Awards.Courtesy of Apple

For local viewers, there are plenty of Massachusetts locales to spot in the film. Ruby and her love interest, Miles, jump into the waters of the Steel Derrick Quarries in Rockport. A real Gloucester fishing boat, the Angela Rose, served as the Rossis’ vessel. There’s only one exterior shot outside of Berklee — at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Boylston Street, toward the end of the movie — but some real Berklee students got their 15 minutes of fame.

A handful of students who were part of the a cappella group Pitch Slapped appear in the film as members of Ruby’s high school choir (they also contributed to the soundtrack, recording their vocals at Q Division Studios in Somerville). “There’s so much talent there that it’s the obvious choice,” said Nicholai Baxter, a Berklee alum who served as a music producer for the film. “When it came time to find a local a cappella group, this was the first place we looked, and it was an embarrassment of riches.”


One of the students featured in the film, Amanda Bradshaw (wearing a peach dress in the choir performance scene), said she has been “blown away” by all the recognition the film has received.

“Every time I think the movie has reached my expectations, it goes one step further,” said Bradshaw, who was a sophomore at the time of filming. “To go to music school and because of an a cappella group be a part of an Oscar-nominated movie — it’s a very interesting turn of events.”

Though the best picture award is on the table, Heder said she cares more about Kotsur taking home the best supporting actor trophy. Kotsur, 53, has been a film and stage actor for decades.

“It would be a huge historic moment for the deaf community, and he deserves it so much,” she said. “It was my one hope when I finished the film . . . if Troy Kotsur becomes a star from this movie, my work on this planet is done.”

As the accolades roll in, Heder is reflecting on the film’s unassuming start: its low budget, its 30-day shoot schedule, and its lack of distributor at the time of production. She said that Kotsur has been using the sign for “overwhelmed” frequently, which sums up her own feelings well — it’s both hands, palms down, in a sweeping motion over your head.


“You’re so focused on the process and making the thing, that you almost aren’t ever fantasizing about where it will go,” Heder said of the film. “I knew that I loved it, and I believed in it, and I felt like we had made something beautiful — but I didn’t know that it would have a channel out into the world to be seen. And so the ride of this year has been so unbelievable and validating.”

Emilia Jones, who stars in "CODA," which was shot in 2019 on the North Shore.Courtesy of Apple

Dana Gerber can be reached at dana.gerber@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @danagerber6.