In her latest film, CODA, Sian Heder tells a poignant story of communication, family and coming of age.
At our recent member event, fellow director Emerald Fennell spoke to Sian about the experience of directing the film – from working with both Deaf and hearing cast and crew, to casting, editing, music and more.
Emerald Fennell: What’s the night before you start shooting like? What are you doing, are you zen or are you stressed?
Sian Heder: Both! I love your question. There are so many nerves. You go through prep and there’s always that anxiety and I will never get over the feeling. I remember on my first feature, Tallulah, walking on to set the first day, and we were on location in Manhattan and there was that line of trucks were you just see 10 giant movie trucks lined up. And you’re like, ‘Oh my God, this came out of my brain and now we’re here and all these people are here to do it.’ The first day on CODA, we were shooting at the quarry, that was the first day that we had, and it was that beautiful place where they jump off, Emilia (Jones) and Ferdia (Walsh-Peelo) jumping off the quarry. And it’s a really magical quarry, it’s these very intense 40 foot cliffs around with the woods around you. So I woke up the morning we were going to shoot and my sister had put a big note on the mirror, which was adorable, because she was staying with me and it was like, ‘You’ve got this.’ And then I showed up early and just sat on the edge of this quarry and went over my shot list and it was actually a really complicated day that we were starting with. I always try to get there before everybody else so I can be in the space alone and walk myself through my plan for the day. But yes, I think there’s always the first take, the embarking on the movie and all the prep that’s gone into it.
It helped actually that first day was so complicated. We were on this raft in the middle of the quarry and my marine coordinator had rigged up a series of ropes that were attached to each end of the quarry, and that way he was pulling us to these different locations, and pulling on these ropes and moving a camera platform across the water. We’d worked out this intricate plan because the stunt doubles were going to jump off the cliff. So I had a very intricate first day with diagrams and a super laid-out plan. But yes, I think I always feel nerves going in. It’s about finding the vibe and getting everybody going. Discovering your actors and how they like to work I think is always a journey too. Because every actor works differently with a director and some actors want a lot of notes, and some actors want just one thing to think about. And so it’s just that process of stepping in and forming these new relationships.
Emerald Fennell: Do you do a first morning pep talk to everyone?
Sian Heder: I think, especially in this case on this film, it was such an unusual experience, I think, for so much of the crew. I mean we had a lot of interpreters on set, we had not just hearing actors and Deaf actors, but Deaf crew members and hearing crew members. So it was getting everyone on the same page. It was kind of like this communication experiment. We’re all going to work together and we don’t quite know where the interpreters need to be and we’re not quite sure how this should go, but we’re all in this together. So yes, usually I think I’ll bring whoever’s there the first day and be welcoming and get everybody on the same page and feeling like a team, that we’re doing this together. I don’t know if I made any kind of official speech, I think it was largely about how it was going to go and how we were going to work out the day and then work out communication as well. And there was a different pace to set, definitely on the days when I was working with Deaf cast. There can definitely be a vibe when you’re in production where everybody’s rushing, and if you’re not on the same page you have to catch up. And there couldn’t be that feeling on this set, we really had to make sure that everyone knew what was happening before we started. When we would cut there was a bigger reset every time to just make sure that we were all communicating. And it was a really good thing for the set. I actually felt like the focus on communication and slowing down the pace of set a little bit was very helpful for the process.
Emerald Fennell: How long was the shoot?
Sian Heder: The shoot was 30 days and we were on location in Gloucester, we didn’t build anything around a set. And there were some high stakes shooting. I mean, I remember meeting with my marine coordinator early on and he had read the script. And I had found him by calling Kenneth Lonergan, because Kenny had shot Manchester by the Sea, basically in the same time, mostly in Gloucester. And we have a mutual friend and I called him to just be like, ‘I need advice about shooting in this area, are there any crew people you really recommend or no-nose.’ And he said, ‘If you hire one person on your set it’s this guy Joe Boreland.’ Who was his marine coordinator, and he said, ‘Our days at sea were our best days of the shoot.’ Which is so rare because it’s so hard to shoot out on the water. But I remember meeting with Joe really early on and he read the script and he was like, ‘You can’t make them dragger fishermen. Can they be lobster-men?’ And I’m like, ‘Why should they be lobster-men.’ And he’s like, ‘Well, you know, you put the traps down in the harbour, you can pull them up, we can shoot in harbour. If you’re going to shoot dragger fishing, you need to go 3 miles out to sea and you have to actually go fishing to shoot this kind of fishing. And you don’t want to do that with a crew.’ And I was like, ‘I do want to do that with a crew.’ So he just had this huge challenge where we went 3 miles out to sea. I had found a real captain, this guy Paul Vitali and talked him into letting us use his boat.
But all the regulations that are in the movie, we were under those regulations as well. So we had to count for every fish we caught, it all had to be under Paul’s catch share of what he was allowed to catch. So basically, we were going fishing with Paul and my actors were just pulling up his catch. That’s how we established it. But it was adding these, working with Deaf cast with Daniel (Durant) and Troy (Kotsur), going out into a really dangerous situation, out on the open ocean, 3 to 5 foot waves and doing boat-to-boat transfers. And having a camera boat and the picture boat and then lots of safety boats and a big whale watch boat that the crew was on. And so, that focus on communication I felt was so important, even on days when we weren’t going to sea. It was just like you said, there were so many conversations about it, everyone was taking their time to make sure we were on the same page. And then when we were going into situations like those fishing days that felt very high stakes in terms of safety, I think it really helped the production that we were all so focused on how to keep people safe. How to have everybody working as a unit, even when we were on separate boats and not necessarily able to communicate so well. And so it was a lot of rehearsal, it was way more rehearsal than I’ve ever had on a movie. And a lot of, not just shot listing but story boarding and having real solid shooting plans for our day.
Emerald Fennell: Is that so you can communicate to the non-hearing cast and crew visually what you mean?
Sian Heder: I mean I think it was mostly a tool for me and the rest of my crew, but I guess what I’m getting at is I think the focus we had to give to communication on set was super beneficial to the production. And it was something that as I move forward, I think I want to put more energy into that, even if I’m working on a movie with no Deaf cast and no Deaf crew. It’s like, it’s so important that everybody feels like they understand what’s happening in the moment. And I do think there can be kind of a frenetic energy that can happen on set where people get left behind or are not brought into the process. And so I think that part of this production was really beautiful, and it created a family with the crew and the actors that I haven’t had yet. I mean, I think you always have that feeling of, ‘We’re all in it together.’ But this was a really unique experience of that.
Emerald Fennell: The movie feels very intimate.
Sian Heder: Yes, it was.
Emerald Fennell: The scene between Leo and Gertie and they’re texting and getting closer. It’s just incredible. It’s the first time I’ve seen that. When it came to working with Emilia, who plays Ruby, was that difficult for her? She must have felt on the outside, how did that work?
Sian Heder: You have such good thoughts in everything you said so I don’t want to miss the first thing, which was about that sexiness of the texting! I mean it was interesting, I had been learning sign when I was writing the script and so I was sort of conversational at that point, although not great and not fully able to express everything. And so, oftentimes, when I was hanging out with Troy or Daniel, and even in social situations, we’d hang out on the weekends and we’d all get beers and go out on someone’s boat in Gloucester. And there were times when Daniel and I would text with each other or you’re looking for ways of, ‘How do we bridge this.’ And sometimes if my sign wasn’t there, you’re sort of pantomiming a story that you want to tell or you’re finding ways to connect a lot more touch or a lot more physicality. And there is something incredibly sexy about ASL because you’re literally using your body to talk with someone. And it feels like this very essential form of human connection that we are missing a lot of the time in the hearing world. And I remember feeling a bit of culture shock coming out of the movie, going back to the disconnect you can have oftentimes with spoken language, where you’re talking to fill the space or you feel that you should be talking or the words coming out are not connected to something you’re really feeling in that moment. And it’s very hard, sign is not just your hands, it’s your face, it’s your emotions, it’s the space around you. You’re having to embody the thing that you’re talking about as you’re talking about it. So in a way you have to live it again. There’s no future or past tense, you tell everything like it’s in the moment and then you put in the future or you put it in the past. So it’s a very present way to be, and I think there’s something sexy about that. I think one of the reasons hearing audiences are very drawn to this family as they’re watching this is it’s a super connected family. And I’ve had so many people say to me, ‘I wish I connected to my dad that way.’ Or, ‘I wish my family felt the way that family feels.’ And I feel that way about sign. I think it’s something in the nature about the language.
For Emilia and I, going back to the second part of your question, which is she was new to it as well, she had been studying sign for 9 months with a Deaf teacher in Toronto where she was shooting something else. And so we were both really new to the language but so hungry to learn, both of us. So at the centre on those days when it was the family, Emilia and I were not using an interpreter generally, we were trying to be immersed within Deaf culture and be communicating in ASL. And it was interesting for Emilia, I think, to find her space in the family because I think she was intimidated coming in, she was the outsider. And there’s a line in the script where she says, ‘I’m always the one on the outside, it’s always the 3 of you and then me.’ And I think that was the dynamic for her as an actress coming in. Troy and Marlee (Matlin) knew each other, and so did Daniel - Troy and Daniel had done Spring Awakening on Broadway together. Marlee had worked with Daniel before. So they had a bond already coming in.
And it was just so wild to watch Emilia find her way into the family and then in a way, almost become a CODA on the set. Because when we were shooting, oftentimes if I’m directing and I don’t want to stop a shot or call cut, you’ll say, you’re shooting over an actor’s shoulder and they lean over a little bit and they’re blocking the frame and you need to scooch them back the other way. Well if I was doing that in the middle of the take, instead of having an interpreter come in I’d be like, ‘Emilia, Troy’s shoulder is blocking the frame.’ And then she would sign to him to have him move over a little bit. And so in a way she became the CODA within our shooting dynamic as well. And so I think that was an interesting thing to watch her find her place in the family but as actors as well.
Emerald Fennell: It’s a lot of responsibility for her.
Sian Heder: Yes.
Emerald Fennell: It’s so insightful. The scene with her mother where she says she wants to sing and her mother is like-
Sian Heder: ‘If I was blind would you want to paint.’
Emerald Fennell: The finely drawn co-dependent relationship. Where was the starting point of that for you?
Sian Heder: So it was based on a French film called La Famille Bélier, and when I saw it I thought there was a missed opportunity at the centre of the film. It was an amazing character and story and yet it felt like what you were talking about, the dynamics within this family and really exploring the deep intricacies of family dynamics. And how the same thing, yes, can feel like a burden but it can also feel empowering. And when I started talking to CODAs and researching, there were a lot of dualities: Yes, I felt like I had this incredible responsibility from a young age. At the same time I was in control and I was able to be disseminating information to adults and deciding who heard what. There was a weird power dynamic in being that important at a young age and feeling in control, and feeling a lot of self-worth based on that role. So I like when you said that everybody’s messy because I think even Ruby is pretty messy and she’s inserting herself all sorts of places that she doesn’t need to. I mean, I love the scene where Leo is at the auction house and he’s got his iPad out and he’s doing fine negotiating with the guy and Ruby comes in. Master of her own domain and takes charge of the situation. He says, ‘Get the fuck out of here.’ Leo is the character I think who can see the dysfunction in the family the clearest. I think Ruby and her parents, they’ve come to rely on her as a bit of a crutch and also the fact that accessibility is still so reliant on having resources, on being in a big city where you have access to interpreters where there would be an interpreter at the local health clinic. If you’re in New York or LA you’ll probably find that, but in a small town like Gloucester it’s hard to find.
I liked that there was no villain in the film, and that all of the dynamics and tension come from those familial strains that I just felt like were in my own family. A lot of these parents are taken from my parents. I had 2 artist parents who were way to open about their sex lives with my friends who were totally out of line at the dinner table. I would get in trouble at school for swearing and they would say, ‘What would your parents say if they heard you talk like this.’ And I said, ‘That is how my parents talk. That is why I talk like this.’ A lot of the things in the dynamic of the family I was taking into this story and trying to make it my own, it felt like I had to make it as personal as possible. So I think that dynamic where everyone who came over to my house when I was a kid said, ‘Oh my god your family is amazing. It’s like 4 best friends and you’re all on top of each other and you all love each other.’ And yes, but in a way that can be so suffocating and so hard to find your own identity within that. I still laugh that my husband comes home with me to visit my parents and my sister goes to walk the dog and my dad says, ‘Well I’ll go with you.’ And then my mom says, ‘Well I’ll go too.’ And then I say, ‘I’ll go.’ And David says, ‘Why does everyone have to go walk the dog together? One person can just walk the dog. You guys are the most codependent little unit.’ And so I think I was probably exploring a lot of the dynamics within my own family and the way humour is a buffer. I think a lot of times for the way that we relate or the way we can engage, there’s a lot of unspoken simmering underneath the humour. I think it was just finding my way into that. You talked about the mom-daughter relationship. It was important to me that these characters are flawed and messed up and not defined by their Deafness. So Jackie is a narcissist. She doesn’t say, ‘If I was blind, would you want to paint?’ Because she’s Deaf and she’s hurt. I think it’s coming out of pure narcissism of, well you are clearly a teenager who’s doing everything in reaction to me and the only reason you would be pursuing something is as a fuck you to me. So I think there’s an interesting coming of age for everyone in the movie, the parents have to evolve and grow up as well.
Emerald Fennell: It makes sense because I think the family feels so unbelievably real. Honestly I think this movie would be just as gripping even if nobody in the film was Deaf. It’s just not a family dynamic I’ve ever seen before. I want to talk a bit about casting. When you’re making a film like this, presumably the casting process is more complicated. Did you have an idea of who you wanted to go to? How did it work?
Sian Heder: I was an outsider coming into this world. It definitely felt like I needed a massive education even to begin writing this script, and so a lot of the inroads that I made were as I was trying to give myself an education. I remember reaching out and going, ‘I need Deaf consultants to read this script. I need people involved with me from a really early stage.’ Elliot Page introduced me to Hilary Bach who’s a Deaf actress who started teaching me ASL. And then Hilary was very tapped in to the acting community in LA and gave me a sense of, ‘Oh you really need to go to Deaf West and you need to reach out to that theater community.’ Which is an amazing theatre community in LA that Troy has been a member of for 30 years. There are these incredible productions where every character is dual cast with a hearing actor and a Deaf actor. So it’s ASL and spoken language together and it’s this really heightened experience of language when you go see these plays. And I saw Troy in an Edward Albee play at Deaf West.
Emerald Fennell: In what?
Sian Heder: At Home at the Zoo. And he was incredible. He’s very charismatic and he’s funny. It was a very different character. He was a neurotic intellectual. It wasn’t Frank, but he was so interesting. And then when I met with Marlee Matlin I said, ‘Who would you think of for Frank?’ And she said, ‘Oh my god you have to see this actor Troy Kotsur.’ And I said, ‘I’ve seen that actor. I’ve seen him on stage twice.’ I also saw him in Our Town where he was playing the stage manager. Deaf West was a huge resource because I realised going in, I just didn’t know how many Deaf actors there were out there. You don’t know what that talent pool is like and you’re going, ‘Are there going to be 2 options for each of these roles? Are there going to be 20 options for each of these roles?’ There are a lot of Deaf actors mostly working in theatre. I think because there just haven’t been roles on screen. There’s been some TV that’s come along but it’s really few and far between. DJ Curtis, he’s the artistic director of Deaf West, was really helpful for me in connecting me to people that he thought might be right. My casting directors did a very wide search. Daniel was living in Detroit and auditioned and I met him over Zoom. It was before Zoom actually, I think it was Skype. I was pretty set on Troy. Once I had seen Troy he was hard to beat and when he came in and auditioned he just was the guy. He wears these little fishermen caps. His name sign is this, Troy, because he wears a little brimmed cap all the time and it just felt very right for the character and he just looked like a guy who had been out at sea his whole life. There were a lot of guys who were great at that age for that Leo role and I just felt like Daniel got him. He got that character. He had understood that simmering sibling anger and rivalry and love at the same time. Amelia was the hardest person to find. I saw over 100 girls probably for that part and I don’t know how many my casting director saw. But it was so hard to find someone who was in almost every scene in the movie, who had to carry the film, who was 17 years old, who was going to sing and have a voice that was so impressive that it would catch the eye of a music teacher. And then also was going to have to learn to sign. So we looked for a real CODA, but we couldn’t find the singing voice combined with someone who already knew how to sign.
I remember I had gotten to the end of that process and I had found someone that I liked and I said, ‘Okay I think this is Ruby.’ And I was ready to pull the trigger and then my casting director called me and said, ‘No, no. You need to watch one more tape. I really think this is Ruby. It’s this actress Amelia Jones and she’s British.’ And I said, ‘Oh my god. On top of everything else that I’m asking her to do she’s also going to be doing an American accent.’ This is a lot of things to ask. And then I saw her tape and she was Ruby from the moment that I saw her. She had such an amazing quality as an actress and every thought she thinks flickers across her face. She’s just so present and alive on screen and has such a deep well of subtext going on that you can feel. And it was amazing and she just worked so hard. She really dove in and just had voice lessons and sign lessons and then again with those guys was going out on the fishing boats and waking up at 3am to go out with local fishermen and learn how to gut cod and tell if a lobster was pregnant.
Emerald Fennell: Those are going to be useful skills for her for the future!
Sian Heder: I feel like you should know how to gut a fish in life.
Emerald Fennell: It’s more I want to know which lobsters are pregnant.
Sian Heder: It’s a weird trick. They used to flip them over and look under their tail and then you have to be able to throw the female ones back overboard if they’re of a breeding age. We learned a lot.
Emerald Fennell: We’re also taking questions from people who are watching. Please write your questions in the chat. How did you choose Both Sides Now?
Sian Heder: That was not the song I wrote in the script initially.
Emerald Fennell: Would you say it here or do you want to keep it a secret?
Sian Heder: It was Landslide by Stevie Nicks. Which has been used a lot so when I wrote it I thought, I don’t know. Lyrically it’s a little maybe on the nose for what she’s saying at the end, but it’s a beautiful song. I’ve always loved it. Once I heard 100 girls audition with Landslide. I can never hear this song again. Even my kids. I’d be playing my audition tapes and my kids said, ‘Please stop playing that song.’ But I also think we had trouble with the rights. The two really tricky songs in the film, one was the duet, you know that Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell song. You’re All I Need to Get By. Because you were going to hear it 5 times in the film and it had to serve all these narrative purposes. It needed to be a song that this teacher would assign. Then it needed to be a song where she could fall in love with this boy and have this romantic moment of young teenage tension. And then it had to evolve and be this moment with her dad where the lyrics took on this whole other meaning and meant something else. So that song I had written into the script, but I never thought we would get it. I had done a mass search to find a non-cheesy duet that would serve all these purposes and it’s really hard to find. So that was in the script and I remember my music supervisor, we made a deal with Sony for the music and she sent me a list of available songs that we could use within this package and I found Marvin Gaye on it immediately and then looked and saw that song and was so thrilled that I could keep that song. So then with the end song, we went through so many ideas and then I think it was Nick Baxter who was on my music time and Alex Patsavas my music supervisor and they said, ‘What about Both Sides Now Joni Mitchell?’ I’m such a Joni Mitchell fan and that is one of my favourite songs, and I never thought that we would get it - and also it was a very difficult song for Amelia to take on because I think she was new to singing. She had never had a voice lesson before this. Taking on Joni Mitchell felt intimidatin, but then the more we explored the lyrics, the more excited I felt about that song because it was so on point.
The whole song is about perspective. It’s about changing perspective. It’s about life evolving you as a person so you start to view the world through different eyes and I think the CODA position is all about perspective and having to see the world through the Deaf perspective and the hearing perspective at all times. And then when I started reading about Joni Mitchell and what she has said about that song. She called that song the end of her childhood. That that song was one of the first songs she ever wrote and it was at a point where she said, ‘I was letting go of childhood fantasy and facing adult reality.’ When I read that it was just, this is perfect. And so Joni Mitchell gave us the song and it was just a beautiful thing, and then I was very nervous to know if she had seen the movie and how she felt about the song. Apparently she has seen it and she was very happy with how the song was used.
Emerald Fennell: Were you conscious of how your visual choices would be influenced by having so much film and sign language, i.e. more limited in terms of close-ups and needing to see people’s hands, etc.
Sian Heder: Yes. Very good question. One of the things early on when I was talking with Deaf friends was what bugs you when you see ASL on screen, or you see Deaf characters portrayed on screen? And one of the biggest things was cutting off the frame so that you cannot see people’s hands. You see Sophie Allen (BSL interpreter for this conversation) right now. Her frame is big enough that you can see all of her signing and the moment you come in, even where you and I are in the frame, you’re cutting off the language. And yet you don’t want to shoot your whole movie in a medium shot because you want to still have cinematic language and be able to use a close up and be able to have an interesting visual element with your camera. So my DoP and I really watched a lot. We did a lot of rehearsal and were very cognisant of how can we use the camera, keep signs in frame and also making discoveries. If you’re over someone’s shoulder this way, but they’re signing high here, I might not have to cut to them for the thing. I can read their sign over their shoulder. Constructing a lot of blocking within the frame so that the movement of the scene, which you would normally do with the camera and camera movement, was coming from the actors as opposed to coming from the camera. So in a way it was a very organic shooting style where we were trying to stay out of the way. And then it really set up a lot of stuff rhythmically in the edit as well, because you might make a choice in a scene. If it’s you and I and we’re in a scene, maybe I just keep the camera on you the whole scene because you’re the important character and you’re hearing my voice off screen, but I’m really on your face. We couldn’t really do that because the visuals are the language. So it sets up a cutting pattern as well where you’re cutting to the person who’s talking, every time they’re talking.
There was a lot of experimenting for me in trying to figure out how to pace the film and let the ASL conversation guide the pace. And that was the reason that rehearsal was so important. I felt like that fight scene in the living room where it’s the 4 of them and they’re all fighting and the whole scene is in sign and it’s pinging. They’re interrupting each other. There’s a lot in ASL conversation and in Deaf culture which is really physical. So if you want someone’s attention you stomp on the floor or you wave in their face or you bang the table, and so there was a lot of using those moments to cut between the shots. But it was new for me and a lot of it was watching. So my actors rehearsing, the ASL masters who were the 2 women that I had on set who were my Deaf eyes behind the camera on the ASL and working with Thomas Eddy a lot to choreograph these scenes and make sure we were catching the signs within the choreography.
Emerald Fennell: What is your favourite part of the process? Where are you happiest? Or do you love it all?
Sian Heder: I think shooting is so exciting because you’re on set. My favourite part of the process is that relationship with the actors. I love that process. I love working with an actor and with actors to find a scene. The relationship with my DoP to figure out how to cover it. So I think that part is very exciting and it’s physical and there’s a rush that comes along with shooting as well, and the edit is a very different pace and experience, and it has an enormous amount of frustration as you’re facing all of your failures. You say, ‘Wow that scene really didn’t work.’ On this film I had the most extreme editorial experience I’ve ever had where we cut over 30 scenes from the movie. I think we cut 35 scenes from the movie.
Emerald Fennell: How did you do that?
Sian Heder: There’s a part of my process as writer where I really see everyone as the protagonist of the movie. this could be a whole movie about the teacher. This could be a whole movie just about Leo. So really arching out everybody’s journey in a way where they have a full and complete journey and sometimes I think that ends up in the writing and it shouldn’t. It was: do we really need to meet the teacher’s whole family and know why he’s teaching here and get to know his wife? There was a lot in the fishing community with the story line of what the fishermen were struggling with. There was a lot more miles in Ruby. I think that romance was a more intricate arc. There was a whole Leo, Gertie story of their courtship, which would be an awesome other movie. Everyone wants to see that movie.
Emerald Fennell: If you’re shooting for 30 days, that’s a scene a day that you’re having to lose.
Sian Heder: It’s so painful.
Emerald Fennell: I can imagine, emotionally, for you, devastating and difficult.
Sian Heder: I think I’m less precious. I think back on my first film and I don’t think I could have done that with Tallulah because you know what went into shooting and it’s very hard, I think, sometimes, as a director, to be, ‘Am I going to lose that fishing scene that had 7 boats out to sea, and we got that thing and there’s that beautiful shot?’ My editor Geraud Brisson was a great partner for me, in going, ‘No, you don’t need it. No, you don’t need it. No, get it out.’ I think it was freeing actually to come in with that, ‘Let me forget that I was the director on this. Let me forget that I was the writer on this. Let me come in almost like I’m new to the process. What is this story about? This is story about a family. It is about Ruby and her parents and her brother.’ Anything that’s not telling that story felt like it could be removed, to make that core story as emotional and strong as possible. I cut my own daughter out of the movie, and it is the second time I’ve done this because did it on my first movie too, which is brutal at this point. The first movie, she was 2, so she doesn’t really remember being in it, but this one, she had a whole little scene and she was great. I was, ‘I don’t need it. I’m going to cut my own kid out.’ Now she tells people, she’s, ‘My mum cut me out of her movie.’
Emerald Fennell: It feels like something Jackie might do.
Sian Heder: Jackie might do it.
Emerald Fennell: When you finish shooting, do you leave the editor for a couple of weeks, to let them assemble or do you go straight in?
Sian Heder: I let the editor do an assembly because I want to see someone’s instincts outside of me. I think it’s fresh eyes on the story. I think watching that assembly is often painful, right, because you’re, ‘No, no,’ but I think there can be discoveries in that as well, where it’s like, ‘Oh, okay, that is a different way into that scene.’ On this, Geraud was cutting while we were shooting, so he was assembling, and actually, that was really helpful because, like I was saying with the pacing of some of the ASL scenes and how those conversations would work, for him to be assembling a quick cut of those scenes and sending it to me, if we had other stuff coming up, I could take that. If there were things that I needed to adjust, I was able to, and I’ve never done that before and that was amazing. Then, yes, he put together a cut of the film and I came in and watched, and that partnership was amazing. I think editorial can be really painful. I think, in this case, it was exciting because I had this new ruthless attitude towards my film. I don’t know where that had come from. I honestly think it came from show-running because I’m one of the co-show-runners on Litter America, and oftentimes, as a show-runner, you’re coming in and you’re re-cutting other directors. The director comes in and does their cut and then you, as a producer, come in and you re-cut the cut. It’s just how TV works. In a way, I think having worn that hat a bit and having come in and cut someone else’s thing, I could bring a little bit of that energy to my own project, which I had never done before.
Emerald Fennell: Final question, what was the most challenging scene to direct?
Sian Heder: The first scene I thought of, but that was, honestly, cutting, was the concert scene was really hard to cut and we re-cut it many, many times to try to get it right.
Emerald Fennell: The silence in that scene, was that scripted?
Sian Heder: Yes, it was scripted and I knew that I wanted to be in the Deaf perspective and there were a couple of places in the movie where I wanted to do that. I’d actually had amazing conversations, and Anne Tomasetti, one of my ASL Masters, wrote me this beautiful essay about what it’s like to be following a hearing conversation when you’re Deaf and at a table with a bunch of hearing people that are having a rapid-fire conversation. She wrote me this beautiful essay that I feel like she should publish, which is just that you catch someone’s lips, you lip-read half a line and then someone across the table laughs and you look over and you realise you missed a joke over there. There’s a lot of being a detective going into that. In a way, the concert scene, I think, both shooting it and trying to break form with the traditional big concert scene in a movie, where you have this choir on-stage and they’re amazing. We had a real choir from Berklee. We were doing all the music live, so your instincts were to want to film the stage and cover that, and yet the real story was happening in the audience, with Frank and Jackie and Leo, and with them watching the audience. That was a challenge, I think, just to think about how to make that real perspective shift and make it feel powerful. The hardest scene was the coastguard, the coastguard boarding, that was wild.
Emerald Fennell: It felt so real.
Sian Heder: It was real. The guy who boarded the boat was on our marine crew and he’s actually the Harbour Master in Gloucester, his name’s TJ.
Emerald Fennell: He could be a movie star.
Sian Heder: TJ was amazing and he was, ‘Let me just do this boarding.’ He was in the coastguard for so many years. He said, ‘I’ve done hundreds of these, let’s just get it in one.’ I don’t know, being at sea was just incredibly hard. We were out on these little boats. We were in 3 to 5-foot waves. I was so nauseous the whole time and I was just trying to keep it together because ‘The director cannot be puking over the side of the boat. This is not okay’. I was determined not to be that person, and yet a lot of our crew was. A lot of those days at sea were the crew betting on who was going to be the first to puke. It was always a makeup or hair person. I feel like it was always that department that got sick first. Those days were really challenging, but I think, in terms of thinking about perspective, the concert was also a big challenge.
Emerald Fennell: It never felt, ‘Look, we’ve all learnt to fish.’ All of the learning that had been done on this movie felt very lightly done. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been, to make it look so real and easy. For your next project, did you like making things difficult and complicated, would you want to do that again?
Sian Heder: I don’t know. My first film, we had a baby through the entire movie and we had eight babies playing one baby, and that was hell on that movie. I was seven months pregnant while we were shooting. I was just covered in babies and had this enormous belly. It felt like, ‘Oh, nothing could be harder than that.’ Then I was, ‘No, I want to shoot on real fishing boats, and I want a real live choir and I want all the music to be recorded live on-set, and we’re going to set up a new way of communicating on the set.’ I actually think all of movie-making is a challenge, right? I think the things you think are going to be huge issues often aren’t, and then giant problems arise from things that seem like they shouldn’t be giant problems. I think that creative problem solving is just a part of movie-making. Some of my favourite scenes have come out of being under intense pressure and having to make decisions. The scene on the beach with Leo and Ruby, we had lost our location and we’d remembered that beach because we’d been scouting something else there, so we just went down to that beach and shot. I love that location and I love what happened performance-wise there.
The scene on the back of the truck, I think I had two takes of that with Amelia and Troy, and one of the things I loved that happened, because we had such a short amount of time to shoot it and because I knew something emotional would happen between them, we rolled two cameras at the same time. We were really intimate. We were minimal with our lighting. We just got in there and this experience happened, and what happened on-screen was intensely emotional. I don’t know if it would have happened in the same way had we spent an hour lighting and had the actors do it, 6 different setups in all different ways, or had some big shot design. It was like we could jump in there with 2 cameras, and they did it twice, I think, and it was beautiful and we had it. Again, in Tallulah, my favourite shot in Tallulah, we’d lost the subway and Elliot Page and I had to steal that shot with my DoP and run down another subway platform, with a live train coming in and real people getting off the train, and completely grab this shot in the moment. At the time, I remember wanting to cry because I felt like, ‘This is such an important moment in the movie and maybe we’ve blown it.’ Sometimes those moments actually create a resourceful creativity that lead to something really beautiful.
Emerald Fennell: You’re given $200 million and 6 months to make your next movie, does it fill you with dread or are you, ‘Yes, finally, I can do what I want’?
Sian Heder: It’s an interesting to think about. How do you hold onto the things that you hold true or find important as the stakes get higher, as the budget gets bigger, as the pressures of opinions coming in become more intense and there are more voices in the mix? I think I was really left alone to make this movie. The movie that you see is the movie I wanted to make and I was left alone. My director’s cut was pretty much what you see. There is something intense about thinking about, ‘How do you hold on to yourself?’ How do you choose your battles? How do you know when to stand your ground and say, ‘No, this is compromising something so major in what I feel in gut, even though you’re all telling me this.’ Yes, it would be amazing to have a bucket-load of money to go make a movie, at the same time, what that comes along with is a lot of voices and a lot of pressures and things pulling you and steering you maybe away from your own voice. I don’t know, that’s an interesting proposition. I think you just have to find a way to stay super-centred, right, and remain yourself and hold true to what you stand for in terms of your story. You can tell me all about it because I feel like you’re further down the road.
Emerald Fennell: I’m the same as you, ‘It would be great but also is it impossible to keep that tension that I think you need to make something really personal an interesting?’
Sian Heder: I’ll gush about your movie for a second, but what I loved about your film is I felt like I was watching the emergence of a true voice. It felt uncompromised and it felt like an auteur movie, where it was, ‘Whatever you think is the tone of this, I’m defining the tone. I’m defining the story. I’m defining the rules.’ It was so powerful in that way, where it wasn’t trying to be anything that had come before. It was setting a new path. Yes, I don’t know, once you start to end up in systems, where it’s, ‘This is how we do things,’ and it’s, ‘Well, maybe the way that you’ve done things is not the only way.’ How do you stick to that very pure expression of who you are within the higher stakes, higher budget situation? I don’t know, but people do it!