“We’re putting out the signage for 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 filmed on the North Shore in the summer of 2019 and debuted on Apple TV+ for rave reviews last August, is in the running for best picture, bbest supporting actor for Troy Kotsur, and Best Fit Screenplay for Cambridge native Heder. “CODA” is the first film to be nominated for Best Picture featuring a mostly deaf cast, and Kotsur is the first deaf male actor to receive a nomination for Best Supporting Actor, according to Apple.
“It’s the stuff of childhood dreams,” Heder said. “In the year since Sundance, I’ve had people say from time to time, ‘This movie should be at the Oscars,’ and it always sounds like something your mom would say – people who don’t understand Hollywood and don’t understand understand that it was a little independent movie, and it doesn’t work like that. It’s so amazing that it did.
Even before its Oscar nominations, the film was enjoying a successful awards season. In January, he scored two Golden Globe nominations. 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 Troy Kotsur).
Adapted from the 2014 French film “La famille Bélier”, Heder’s film follows Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), a child of deaf adults – otherwise known as CODA – who plans to work in the fishing company of his family in Gloucester after graduation. Privately, she harbors dreams of becoming a singer and attending Berklee College of Music. Her aspirations cause tension within her family (Marlee Matlin plays her mother, Kotsur her father and Daniel Durant her brother; all are deaf actors), who feel that music is not “something we can all do family,” as Ruby’s mom says in a dinner scene in the movie.
Apple TV+ has acquired “CODA” for a $25 million record after its Sundance premiere, but Heder says she didn’t expect an Oscar nomination. “It felt like such a long shot,” she said. “We were a rambling little production.”
Looking back, Heder says she’s glad she didn’t compromise on some core elements of the film, like casting deaf actors to play deaf characters or including long periods of silence in the film. when deaf characters sign.
“All the things that I really had to go to the mat and fight for are the very things that people react to the most,” Heder said. “I felt an incredible responsibility in the film.”
Heder took ASL lessons to prepare for the film, recruited deaf collaborators who helped translate the script into ASL, and took care to make the final product accessible to deaf audiences. These steps were crucial, she said, in doing good for a community that has been “not only underrepresented but misrepresented.”
“With the audience’s response and the success of the film, this opens the door for other projects to be made with characters with disabilities at the center,” Heder said. “And, honestly, by deaf directors and deaf writers. There are many stories in this community that need to be told.
“In terms of representation, it’s a big step forward,” she continued. “We found a new way of working, and it can be a model for other people.”
For local viewers, there are plenty of Massachusetts locations to spot in the film. Ruby and her love, Miles, jump into the waters of the Steel Derrick quarries in Rockport. A real Gloucester fishing boat, the Angela Rose, served as the Rossis’ ship. There’s only one exterior shot outside of Berklee — at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Boylston Street near the end of the film — 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 voices at Q Division Studios in Somerville). “There’s so much talent out there that it’s the obvious choice,” said Nicholai Baxter, a Berklee alum who served as the film’s music producer. “When it came time to find a local a cappella band, 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 scene), said she was “blown away” by all the recognition the film received.
“Every time I think the movie has met my expectations, it takes it even further,” said Bradshaw, who was a sophomore at the time of filming. “Going to music school and, thanks to an a cappella group, being part of an Oscar-nominated movie, that’s a very interesting turn of events.”
Although the Best Picture award is on the table, Heder said she cares more about Kotsur winning the Best Supporting Actor trophy. Kotsur, 53, has been a film and theater actor for decades.
“It would be a great historic moment for the deaf community, and it so deserves it,” she said. “That was my only hope when I finished the movie…if Troy Kotsur becomes a star in this movie, my job on this planet is done.
As the awards roll in, Heder reflects on the film’s humble beginning: its low budget, 30-day shooting schedule, and lack of a distributor at the time of production. She said Kotsur frequently uses the “overwhelmed” sign, which pretty much sums up her own feelings — it’s both hands, palms down, in a sweeping motion above your head.
“You’re so focused on the process and getting the thing done that you hardly ever fantasize about the destination,” Heder said of the film. “I knew I loved it, and I believed in it, and I felt like we had done something beautiful – but I didn’t know it would have a channel in the world to be seen. And so this year’s race was so amazing and rewarding.
Dana Gerber can be contacted at [email protected]