Sian Heder’s heartwarming family film “CODA” not only scored a historic Oscar for Deaf actor Troy Kotsur, it’s also the first English-language remake of a French film to win the best picture Academy Award.
Acquired by Apple Studios at the 2021 Sundance in a record-breaking $25 million deal, “CODA” is based on the 2014 French box office hit “La Famille Bélier,” about a teenage girl with a singing talent who is the only hearing member of a Deaf family. Like most remakes, the underdog movie could have died off after sitting on a shelf for too long had it not been for the all-star team of French producers with U.S. ties who shepherded the project.
Besides Jérôme Seydoux at Pathé Films, which fully financed the movie, “CODA’s” lead producers are Philippe Rousselet, who worked for many years at Warner Bros. in L.A. and produced “Lord of War” and “Source Code” via his banner Vendôme Group, and Patrick Wachsberger, the former co-chairman of Summit and Lionsgate who now runs Picture Perfect Federation.
“If you look at other remakes of French movies that have been made, they were often backed by U.S. studios, whereas ‘CODA’ was made like an authentic U.S. indie,” says Rousselet, who added that Heder’s creative vision played a crucial part in the film’s success.
“At first, [Heder] was only involved as a screenwriter but we quickly realized she was the only person who could direct it with such sincerity and precision, and she did it masterfully even if she had only made one movie before, ‘Tallulah,’” says Rousselet.
It was Heder’s idea of setting the film in a blue-collar coastal village in Gloucester, Mass., where she spent her youth. The producer says Heder also gave the film a more pronounced social edge and fleshed out the characters with more depth.
“The stars aligned on this film in a surprising way,” says the French producer. The project was initially set up at Lionsgate, where Wachsberger had acquired rights to the French film and remake, and was planning to produce the adaptation with Rousselet and Fabrice Gianfermi. Wachsberger’s exit from the studio in 2018 could have ended the remake, especially because Lionsgate and Heder didn’t seem to be on the same page about certain decisions, including having an ensemble of Deaf actors play Deaf roles. Luckily, Wachsberger was able to buy back rights to the remake from Lionsgate, and Rousselet managed to get Seydoux and his deep-pocketed French powerhouse Pathé on board to fully finance.
“Jérôme Seydoux and Ardavan Safaee at Pathé loved the script and they didn’t view the fact that we wanted to shoot with Deaf actors on location in Gloucester as an issue; instead, they understood that we had to make the film as genuine as possible and have it socially and culturally grounded for it to work,” explains Rousselet, who won a PGA award for the movie, along with Seydoux, Gianfermi and Wachsberger.
Apart from Marlee Matlin, who was attached early on, the other actors, including Kotsur and Daniel Durant, auditioned for their roles, along with Emilia Jones. Rousselet says the role of Ruby, which went to Jones, was the “toughest role to cast” because they had to find “a very good actress who could also sing.” Jones also studied American Sign Language for eight months for the movie.
As for the film’s best picture Oscar win, Rousselet says, “No one could have anticipated such an outcome for this Sundance movie, because the competition was so steep this year, with movies from Steven Spielberg, Guillermo Del Toro and Paul Thomas Anderson.” He praised Apple for “campaigning for it with a lot of creativity, intelligence and integrity — they didn’t oversell the film and built an enduring word of mouth.”
Next up in the “CODA” adventure, Vendôme Pictures and Pathé have partnered with Tony Award-winning Deaf West Theatre to develop a stage musical adaptation.
“We would love to reunite the cast of ‘CODA’ for this stage musical but it will take us about two years to put together so it’s a long shot,” says Rousselet. “My wish is that the critical laurels that our wonderful cast deservedly earned with ‘CODA’ will allow them to access a wider range of roles going forward.”
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