More deaf creators are getting behind the camera and changing the industry

In Siân Heder’s award-winning coming-of-age film “CODA,” the Rossi family living room is a place the foursome gathers for big conversations — from the difficult and awkward to the celebratory.

The cozy sea-green space is where teenage Ruby, the sole hearing member of a deaf family, chides her parents for engaging in cacophonous intercourse while a crush is visiting. (Her position in the family gives the film its title — it’s the acronym for “child of deaf adults.”) It’s where the family argues over the fate of their fishing business. And at the film’s end, it’s where Ruby and her eager family gather to learn whether she’s been accepted into music school.

When Alexandria Wailes and Anne Tomasetti, the film’s directors of Artistic Sign Language (that is, deaf experts of American Sign Language who choreograph signing for screen and stage performances), and actress Marlee Matlin walked on set to shoot those scenes, they immediately started rearranging the room’s furniture, Heder remembered.

Heder, the film’s director and screenwriter, said she and her production set designer initially placed the furniture “where it seemed to fit” in the characters’ coastal Massachusetts home, “kind of ignoring the fact that this was a deaf family.”

Wailes, Tomasetti and Matlin swiftly corrected that. They turned one of the seats so it would face the door and arranged the furniture in a circle so the Rossi family could easily sign to each other. The family room’s layout is one of the grounding details in a film full of them — moments that may not have been possible without the constant collaboration of deaf crew members.

“CODA” is one of several projects released this year to star deaf actors and skirt stereotypical deaf stories — Lauren Ridloff stole scenes as a speedster superhero in Marvel’s “Eternals” Millicent Simmonds helped defeat monsters in “A Quiet Place Part II,” while Matlin and her family fought to save their business in “CODA.” Their deafness isn’t always central to the plot, but when it is, those storylines are handled with care and nuance — because, in most cases, they were developed with the help of deaf consultants and experts of American Sign Language (ASL).

Douglas Ridloff, who served as an ASL coach on “Eternals” (in which his wife Lauren starred) and “A Quiet Place” (parts I and II), said in a conversation with CNN and interpreter Ramon Norrod that more productions are incorporating deaf crew members into the filmmaking process from the very beginning — steps that even five years ago were rarely taken.

“They start to realize the value of the deaf person’s perspective and the input into their film production,” Ridloff said of filmmakers and production crews. “It just shows that they value the deaf person’s perspective and they want more of that.”

How deaf creatives make films better

Involving deaf creators at every step of the production process — from ASL coaches for actors to consultants on story elements and blocking– improves both the story the production is telling and the set atmosphere for deaf cast and crew, said Ridloff, who also worked on Marvel’s “Hawkeye” series and Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building.”

Deaf consultants, directors of Artistic Sign Language and coaches of ASL all bring their experiences to their work, Ridloff said, something that would be impossible for a hearing person to replicate.

“A director, if they’re hearing and they don’t know sign language — how would they be able to capture those little nuances, the facial expressions, the signing, the pausing?” he said. “That’s where we as deaf people come in.”

Ridloff said he likes to be involved in a film’s creation from the very beginning. He’ll translate lines in a script from spoken English to ASL, choosing the signs and techniques that correlate to a character’s development, and will recommend actors who can pick up signing quickly. On set, he’ll watch a scene through a monitor, taking note of how the camera picks up an actor’s signing and whether the actor is signing correctly. And then, once a film has wrapped, he’ll assist its editors in selecting shots that keep an actor’s signed lines in the frame in a way that preserves the nuance of what they’re signing. He’ll correct subtitles, too, in case the changes he made to the script before production began don’t make it to the editing bay.

Not all productions are that collaborative, but Wailes, in a conversation with CNN and interpreter Heather Rossi, said that Heder’s willingness to cooperate on “CODA” while adhering to her original vision was what made the film so strong in its portrayal of deaf characters — and such a trusting atmosphere for its deaf actors and crew.

Wailes went through Heder’s script line by line before production started, choosing how protagonist Ruby, a high school senior who’s withdrawn at school but free with her family, might sign to her parents when she’s in a sour mood. Not every line in spoken English had an ASL equivalent, so Heder, Wailes and Tomasetti would rework a line that kept the character’s intent and translated easily to ASL.

“We were just gardening,” Wailes said of the pre-production experience. “We laid the seeds and we were letting it all grow.”

Knowing there were deaf collaborators behind the camera was steadying for actors in “CODA,” too, she said.

“That gave everybody the space to breathe and to really be free, and not worry too much about what was captured on camera,” Wailes said. “Oftentimes, deaf actors have to worry about all of these things because they’re the only person in the room.”

Deaf audiences’ take on deaf actors in mainstream film and TV

Recent films and TV series that incorporate deaf characters, played by deaf actors, have been received warmly by many deaf and hearing audiences.

Three of the central roles in “CODA” went to deaf actors — Matlin, an Oscar winner and perhaps the most famous working deaf actor in the US, Troy Kotsur as her gruff fisherman husband and Daniel Durant, who plays her son. “Eternals” cast Lauren Ridloff, a mixed-race actress, as a character who in the comics was a hearing white man. One crucial episode of Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building” was nearly silent, told from the perspective of a deaf resident.

These works don’t satisfy all deaf audiences, though: In the case of “CODA,” some deaf viewers took issue with the film’s focus on music — in one scene, Ruby’s family attends her concert and the sound drops from the film to show their perspective — plus the seeming burden it is for Ruby to interpret for her family. The casting of Riz Ahmed as the lead in the Oscar-winning “Sound of Metal,” as a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing throughout the film, also offended some viewers, though some deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences who, like Ahmed’s character, lost their hearing later in life, were moved by his performance.

Some works starring deaf characters aren’t always accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences: Lauren Ridloff in an interview bemoaned the lack of accessibility at movie theaters. (AMC is one theatrical chain that has recently announced plans to add more open-caption screenings for deaf audiences.)

But productions made with the input of deaf collaborators, preferably starring deaf actors, do move the needle for representation and what’s possible for future works of art about the experiences of deaf people, wrote Jenna Fischtrom Beacom, a deaf activist and writer who often covers the way deaf people are portrayed in the media. At the end of a blog post in which she outlined the parts of “CODA” that she felt were inauthentic, she wrote, “May CODA pave the way for the many talented deaf writers, directors, editors, cinematographers, and more to have their chance to tell stories that are even more authentic.”

Not all film sets have been accommodating to deaf creatives

Ridloff and Wailes believe that the first mistake a production can make when telling stories about deaf characters is casting hearing actors in deaf roles.

“Someone else trying to wear that language — you can’t,” Wailes said. “It’s in our bones. It’s who we are … they’re trying to imitate, and that’s not going to work.”

“La Famille Bélier,” the French film “CODA” was loosely based on, notably cast hearing actors as the protagonist’s deaf parents, a decision that was widely condemned by critics. Heder knew to avoid missing the same opportunities of honestly portraying a deaf family and child of deaf adults, she needed to involve deaf creators from the beginning.

“I have a lot of faith in my abilities as a storyteller,” she told CNN. “But I knew in order to get it right that I was amplifying the voices of my actors and my collaborators who knew what it was like to live and move through the world [as a deaf person].”

Ridloff said he’s been a part of projects where ASL consultants are more of an afterthought, where there aren’t enough interpreters for him to communicate efficiently with directors and actors, or a deaf character’s storyline wasn’t as true as it could have been had it been written by a deaf person, he said.

Wailes chalks up those challenges to a lack of funding, little research, short production time frames and, perhaps most prohibitive, fear — the fear of not being able to communicate with a deaf person. That fear often keeps storytellers from even attempting to produce films or TV series about deaf characters, she said.

Overcoming that fear or emphasizing just how much a production can improve if deaf crew members are involved “can be a dance,” she said, but it’s a process that’s steadily improving.

“Right now, there is absolutely more of a presence of different deaf creatives, deaf artists — they’ve been around forever, but you’re just all seeing them now!” she said. There are so many stories, so many intricacies, so many worldly perspectives that we have that people don’t know about.”

Where the future of deaf-led films is headed

Heder was drawn to the story of “CODA” because there were so few films that had focused on a deaf family in that way.

“It was important to me to show how free and comfortable deaf spaces can be, and then how different that is once you introduce the barrier that the hearing world puts up,” she said.

And with “CODA’s” success — it was acquired by Apple TV+ out of the Sundance Film Festival, where it won awards including the US Grand Jury Prize — and the success of “Eternals,” “A Quiet Place” and more, the trend of deaf-starring films continues.

But to continue to improve a production’s portrayal of deaf characters, Ridloff has a few guidelines that begin with hiring deaf people — actors, crew members, writers, producers — in the first place, and making sure deaf people are involved at every level of the production process. Hiring at least two to three deaf consultants and ASL coaches is key, too, he said, as is employing enough interpreters so everyone is able to communicate efficiently. All of these guidelines come from a place of wanting a story to be the best, truest version of what it could be, he said, and if hearing and deaf collaborators keep that spirit in mind, they’ll be set up for success.

The future of deaf representation in entertainment is bright: Ridloff will serve as consulting producer on “Echo,” an upcoming Disney+ series that spotlights a deaf Indigenous superhero, his most involved role yet and his third time working with Marvel. Wailes has a few projects still under wraps but, she’s excited to share more soon. And one of the deaf stars of “CODA,” Troy Kotsur, just won the Gotham Independent Film Award for Outstanding Supporting Performance, an honor Heder tweeted about while “crying with joy.”

But most rewarding, Ridloff and Wailes said, is when they see their experiences, their language, portrayed on screen with all of its beauty. In “CODA,” there’s a moment when Ruby, asked how she feels when she sings, can only express herself in sign language — balling up the tightness in her stomach and letting it go. Words wouldn’t do that feeling justice.

That’s how Ridloff and Wailes said they feel when they perform — Ridloff is also the founder of ASL SLAM, a poetry organization, and Wailes is a dancer who’s appeared in Broadway productions with Deaf West Theatre. To them, ASL is a theatrical language on its own, so helping to incorporate it into film and TV is a chance to share that beauty with a wider audience.

“I breathe American Sign Language,” Ridloff said. “When ASL stops, then I will stop breathing.”

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