Best known for writing and directing the Academy Award-Winning film CODA and her work on the television series Orange Is the New Black—Siân Heder joins to talk about her remarkable career as a writer, producer, and filmmaker.
If you’re looking for something great to watch, just look for something Sian Heder has worked on, and you won’t go wrong. She’s written and directed two films, Tallulah, and more recently, CODA, which not only earned her an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, the film was also awarded the 2022 Oscar for Best Picture.
She’s won a Peabody Award for her work on the television show, Men of a Certain Age, and worked on three seasons of Orange is the New Black. Her most recent effort is as the showrunner and executive producer of the Apple TV show, Little America, which just started its second incredible season. Sian Heder, welcome to Design Matters.
I’m so happy to be here talking to you.
Sean. I was wondering if you could tell our listeners about the very special way you celebrated at your sixth birthday party.
It’s so funny. I was like, “You’ve done your research, Debbie.” I used to throw these birthday parties … I think I was a little older than six, but I would throw these birthday parties where I would basically write a full screenplay, almost.
I would write character descriptions for all the guests that were coming to my party, and everyone had to come in character, and I would get murdered at some point in the party, and I would go upstairs, and put on a bald cap and glasses, and come back as the detective, and interrogate all my guests, and solve my own murder at the party. And it was weeks of preparation.
I mean, I was probably more dedicated and focused about that, my birthday parties, than I’d ever been about anything, before and since. But it’s so funny, looking back, because both of my parents were artists, I came from a very artistic family, but I think I came to directing later.
Not later, I was in my twenties, but it was, I wanted to be an actor, and I was really pursuing that. And when you look back and you go, “Well, I was clearly a director from the moment I was able to plan a birthday party,” because that was where I chose to put my energy, was into these massive productions, and organizing and running the show. And I still have friends who joke and talk about that time.
Actually, for my fortieth birthday party, some writer friends of mine and my sister dug up an old script that I think was from my 10-year-old party, and they recreated the whole thing for my fortieth birthday party. So everyone was in character as these characters that I’d written when I was 10 years old, and they came, and reenacted the whole thing, and it was totally amazing.
That sounds wonderful. I can’t help but think, since I’ve read about this, it’s out there that someone else read about this, when you first put it out there, and stole the idea for Glass Onion. Just saying.
I mean, it’s possible. I do think, the murder mystery part, I actually probably think the idea for it had come from the fact that my parents probably attended some kind of murder mystery party, and I was like, “Oh I’m on this. This should be my thing.”
But the interrogating the guests part, there’s all these pictures of me truly wearing a bald cap, and being this very serious detective, and no one could break character. And yeah, I was a pretty bossy kid. I’m surprised that my friends put up with me.
Well, you were born and raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and you just mentioned your parents. Your dad escaped from Hungary as a refugee during the war, and came to the United States with nothing. Your mom is from Wales. How did they first meet?
They met on Friday the 13th, which I’ve always held as a lucky day, because my parents met on that day. They met at a gallery opening. My mom is an artist. She came to go to graduate school for art. And my father, yes, was a refugee who escaped during the Hungarian Revolution.
My dad was living in Cambridge, or in Boston, I think, at the time. My mom was teaching art at RISD, and they met at a gallery opening. And my mom came up to my dad, and told him a dirty joke that was going around the party, and they met and fell in love. And it was always this amazing intersection of two very different cultures, I think, my Welsh family and my Hungarian family.
Being a first generation kid, I mean, obviously, Little America, and my interest in that show and work on that show is very much driven by understanding all of the different immigrant experiences that exist, coming to this country, and how varied and specific and intimate those stories are. But yes, I had a wacky hippie artist upbringing, where we had a hammock in every room in my house.
That was cool.
As one does.
As one does.
When I got older, I was like, “You guys don’t have a hammock in your living room? What’s wrong with you? Aren’t there hammocks everywhere?”
But yeah. No, and I grew up in Cambridge, which was an amazing place to grow up in, too. I think, as a city, it was a really progressive, exciting, cool childhood.
Your parents have worked collaboratively to create major public art installations all over the United States. They’ve been doing that for well over 30 years. They’ve been married for 50.
You said that they’re an intense couple who fight like crazy, but are still madly in love. I’m wondering if you could share what you attribute to their longevity together.
I was actually just thinking about this question, because I was trying to articulate what I think makes a lasting marriage to somebody. My husband and I have been together for 18 years, which is not 50, but it feels long.
My parents have, and always have had, a very similar sense of adventure. And what excites them about living, and being alive, and what adventure means to them, what’s fulfilling. I think I was saying this, actually, to my husband the other day, because I was talking about, we never thought before we got married to get together and talk about our value systems.
It was, “I’m in love with you, you’re in love with me.” But I really do think lasting relationships feel like they are based on shared value systems of what brings happiness, or what it brings fulfillment. And I think my parents were both very adventurous people who love to travel, in a hardcore way, where I remember being a kid, and traipsing around Mexico, and finding random places to stay.
We never had organized trips, we never had. It was always renting a car, and then realizing that car had no brakes, and breaking down in some village, and finding a place to stay. That was a real sense of adventure and travel, but then, also, a commitment to creativity, and making things, and wanting to explore the world, and use experiences to make art, use your experience of a place, or experience of a culture.
I think what my mom does as a public artist has very much infiltrated the way that I work. Because a lot of her work is very site specific, and it’s finding a place, investigating the place and researching it, and digging up history, and finding interesting, embedded connections, and then, building a piece that almost makes the place more about itself. That kind of deep dive, or research, or way of falling down the rabbit hole of a story, and uncovering what it’s about is very much the way that I work. So it’s interesting to look back and think about, but it was always a part of my life.
My mom’s studio was a very alive space for me, and so much of my childhood was spent as she was working in her studio, and I was in a corner, messing around with clay, or whatever materials she wasn’t using at that point. And I always understood that her art was as important as me.
And I don’t mean that in any way of being, she loved her art more than me. I knew she loved me more than anything, but that art was a part of life. And that’s what you do is, you make things, and you figure out what you have to say, and you put it out there in the world.
That’s not diminishing to your relationships or your family. That’s something that actually helps your family thrive, and they can participate in. And I feel like I’m trying to give that to my kids, too.
I know your parents forbade you from watching television when you were a kid.
This is true.
Where and how did you develop your sense of storytelling? Was it from books, or just …
Sort of born with it?
It was all books, and I was an absolutely obsessive reader, and my daughter is too. My daughter just turned nine two weeks ago, but she is never without a book. I mean, I’ve become the father in Matilda.
I don’t know if you know that story, but I’m literally, like, “Put the book so away. Why can’t you watch telly a normal child?”
Being, it’s just an escape for her. I’m like, “Go brush your teeth.” And I turn around, and she’s standing in the middle of the living room with a book in her face. But I recognize that feeling that I see in her, because I was like that.
Books were such a complete world to me. Yes, an escape, but also, so exciting and fulfilling. I have a friend now who was friends with me, when I was six or seven, and she was joking recently with me of, she’s like, “I remember calling you up to hang out for a play date.”
And I said, “I can’t.” She said, “Why not?” And I said, “I’m reading.” And she was, “Why is reading … Who uses reading as an excuse to not meet up and hang out?” But that’s how it felt to me. And I wasn’t allowed to watch TV.
My parents ended up getting a television because they couldn’t get a babysitter. Everyone refused to babysit for us, because they were like, “I’m not going to your house. I can’t watch TV.”
They finally did get a TV that I think my mom found in someone’s trash. She fully trash picked somebody, and got their old TV, and then it just sat at the bottom of our stairs, on the floor, and there was no chair to watch it.
Basically, the TV was plugged in at the bottom of the stairs, and you kind of sat on the floor in front of the stairs, if you wanted to watch YV. I was like, “What a funny thing.”
I think I was allowed to watch two hours of TV a week, finally. I had to choose very wisely, because it was so limited.
What did you choose?
I think it was The Cosby Show and Family Ties. It was an hour. Oh, I think an hour was Dallas, actually, for a while.
Then, I was like, “Oh, if I can keep my parents engaged for long enough, they’ll get hooked on Falcon Crest, and then I can stay up another hour, and watch Falcon Crest.”
I can’t believe that I used an hour of my two hours on Dallas, but I do think that that was it for awhile. And I grew up in a four-family house, so it was a row house in Cambridge, with a shared backyard.
There were kids that lived next door, who were my friends, and I would sneak over to their house, and I would watch TV in their basement. I remember being 30, and I was over at their house and their mom, Jodi, was like, “Sian, do your parents know that you’re here?”
I’m like, “Jodi, I’m 30 years old. It’s okay that I’m at your house. I’m not sneaking TV.” But it was like, my mom would come over and bust me watching TV. Now, my parents watch a lot of TV, which I feel is hilarious, that now, they’ve fully embraced it.
Well, they have to. They have to be watching Little America.
Exactly, exactly. But I think, no, I loved movies, and I loved stories, and I did love television, I think, but my entree to storytelling was through books.
Now it’s like, I don’t see a lot of difference, even between TV and movies. It’s all storytelling to me. And it’s like, you find the medium to best tell your story, and then that’s where you do it.
You went to Carnegie Mellon, and studied film and acting, and while you were there, I understand people told you that you should be directing, because you had such an eye for performance and for people. What was so interesting to you about acting at that point?
I loved the theater experience of coming together with a group of people, having this very intense rehearsal process, and performance, and the connection between live audience and an immediate response, which I think, I still now, working in film, I’m always trying to recreate. How do you keep the audience in mind? How do you know how things are going to land?
Because I loved that in theater, that there was this immediate dialogue between the audience and the performers. I just loved it. So I was a total theater kid, and I went to Carnegie Mellon to study acting, and loved Shakespeare, and classical theater, and really wanted to do that.
It’s funny. Carnegie Mellon was a really intense place, and I don’t know if it still exists, but it was like, there was a cut system. I don’t remember how many kids started, but you knew that half your class would be cut by the end of the four years. It was very competitive and intense, and we would have these conferences at the end of every semester.
And there was always so much tension and anxiety around these conferences, because you thought, “Am I doing well enough to stay in the program?” And I remember, I had a teacher who said to me, “I really think you might be a director.” I was heartbroken, because I thought, “Oh, does this mean he doesn’t think I’m an actor?” And I don’t think he meant it that way.
I think he was watching me in class, giving notes on people’s scenes, and watching people perform, in the way that I watched my classmates, and responded to my classmates. I do think, in a way, even as an actor, I was always a little bit outside of myself, kind of watching the big picture, or wanting to be telling the story, as opposed to just participating in and living the story.
So it did feel like a very natural move for me, when I first started directing. I thought, “Oh, this is a better fit for me,” that you get to be a part of telling the whole story.
After you graduated, you moved to Manhattan and began to act in television shows, including The Sopranos, Law and Order SVU, which is one of my favorites.
I think I’ve seen every episode, including yours, about three times. What was the auditioning process like for you when you first started acting?
Auditioning is horrible. It’s just horrible. I think, because, what I loved about acting was being able to step into another person’s life or experience. It’s the same part of me that gets fulfilled by being a writer and director.
When I’m writing. I feel, “Oh, what a way to just, we only get this one life to live.” In a way, the scope of that life is always going to be limited by who you are, or how you grew up, or what your surroundings are.
So the idea that you could get to have all of these different experiences, you could step into being Hedda Gabler, and then you could step into being Lady Macbeth, and get to feel what that feels like, to have done all these things, or had all these experiences.
So I think, in a way, Carnegie Mellon was really like, “You can be anything, you can play anything.” And you pushed yourself in every direction, and you went through voice and speech, and you could do every accent.
Then you get out in the world, and you go to these auditions to play a 22-year-old girl on blah, blah, blah. And it was almost like, I didn’t know how to be myself.
I’d learned all these skills, and I was like, “Oh, I think now they want me to be me, but I almost haven’t been trained to do that. Or that’s been trained out of me, somehow.”
That’s what people respond to, especially on film, is people that just feel authentically themselves, in a way, unless you’re Daniel Day-Lewis, and then you get to be the person who disappears into roles.
But a lot of the time, when you’re starting out, it’s really the essence of you that the world is responding to. I think, when you’ve gone to drama school, and you’ve filled yourself with all these ideas of, “But I’m so malleable, and I can be all these things,” and it’s like, “But what is actually the thing that I have to offer?”
It was hard to be a young woman, and suddenly faced with what that game was, of how you succeed as an actor when you’re a young woman. I recently saw the film Brainwashed, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s a documentary by Nina Menkes about, basically, how the male gaze has dictated all of cinematic language for a really long time. I had this kind of epiphany watching that film, that I was so uncomfortable with being objectified in the way that I knew I needed to be, as an actress at that age, that it was hard.
It’s like, “Yeah, I did Law and Order, and I got raped on Law and Order, and then, I got raped on Numbers, and then I did Sopranos.” But the original part I’d auditioned for on The Sopranos was a stripper in the club, who had to be topless, and then got killed with a brick. I remember auditioning for that part, and going, “Oh my God, I don’t think I can do this part.”
Then they gave me this other part, and that was my role on Sopranos. Not that stripper part, but that’s what I’d gone in for. It was hard to be like, “Oh, these are the stories that are out there, and this is what’s available to me, and isn’t there more to me than this? Don’t I have something else to offer, besides walking around with my tits out, in front of all the lead characters on this show?”
So yeah, I think it was a little heartbreaking, actually, to get out in the world and realize what the business was. That was part of my transition into, “Oh wait, what if I could tell these stories? And what if I could have some control over the narrative, and what’s going out in the world, and write great parts for women and create roles for women, based on the women that I knew, or my experience of being a woman that felt much more compelling and complicated than anything I was seeing or participating in?”
I love that your first foray into professional writing seems to have utilized your acting skills, in that you told this group of men that you were a screenplay writer, or that you had a treatment, while you were bartending. And I’m wondering if you can share a little bit of that story with our listeners, because I think it took a lot of balls to do something like that.
This is when you moved to Los Angeles, I believe, right? I wasn’t entirely sure if that had happened in LA or New York.
Where did you find that story? I’m like, “Why did I tell that story?” It’s so funny. Yes, I had moved out to LA.
I went to New York, I had been in this off-Broadway show for over a year, and I’d gone to New York with this kind of idealized, “I want to be a theater actor. I’m not moving to LA, because I want to do theater.”
I did this off-Broadway show, and it just ran, it was eight shows a week, for over a year. And I thought, “Well, maybe theater isn’t the thing I thought it was.”
I had moved out to LA, and I was already interested in writing. Because I think when I first moved out to LA, there was, I don’t know if you know the Naked Angels company, but it was a New York theater company that also had a presence in LA, and would do these nights called Tuesdays at Nine, where it was at a bar.
It was at St. Nick’s pub, and writers would come, and actors would come, and writers would bring in 10 pages of whatever they were working on, and actors would come and cold read the pages. And it was just a really fun way to hear your work out loud, and for everyone to socialize in a training ground, really, for everybody.
So I’d been going to Tuesdays at Nine as an actor, and I had been thinking about writing. Writing was always something that I loved and did for me, and it was my own outlet, but it was never something that I thought, “Oh, I should be a writer, or put this into the world.”
And then, yes, I was bartending at this place called [Leduc 00:21:34], and it was super scene-y. They had this Monday night party that was always very celebrity heavy, and hard to get into.
There was this thing, that would happen whenever I was bartending, and people would say, “Oh, what do you do?” I’d say, “I’m an actor.” And they’d kind of go, “Oh,” have a little pity on their face, and give me sad eyes, and be, “How’s that going for you?”
I got so tired of that look, that whole reaction. And yes, one night. There were these guys at the bar. And they say, “What do you do?” I just said, “I’m a writer.”
And they said, “Oh, what do you write?” I said, “Oh, I’m working on this movie.” And I told them the story of this crazy thing that had happened to my neighbor.
This was honestly just me entertaining myself, trying to get through my night. The guy was like, “Well, that’s actually really good. Do you have a treatment based on that? I’m actually a producer, I would love to take you out.”
And I’m thinking, “This guy is full of shit, and he’s hitting on me, or I don’t know what,” but I was like, “Yeah, yeah, I have a treatment.” He’s like, “Oh, well, you should call me.” So he gave me his card, and I threw it in my tip bucket.
And I remember, at the end of the night, I was counting my tips, and I came across his card, and I’m like, “This guy is probably a creep, and I should not call him,” and whatever.
But it got me thinking about that story, and I was like, “No, actually, I should, and I should write a treatment for that. And I should call this guy, and see if it’s legit.” So I did, and I wrote a treatment, and he was legit, and he took me out, and we pitched it around town, and no one ended up buying it.
But it really got me going, “Oh wait, this is a story.” And then I wrote, my first movie that I ever wrote was that film. Because I was like, “Wait, this is good.”
Oh, that was my question. Was that Mother?
No, it was not Mother.
I wrote this screenplay that never got made, but it was the first screenplay I wrote, and I didn’t know anything about writing a movie, but I just was like, “Well, I’ve come this far. Now I’ve written a treatment, and I’ve kind of pitched it, and I think I should write this.”
So I wrote this movie, and I was really good friends with Zach Quinto, I still am. He was my good friend from college, and I sent it to Zach, who by the way, at that time, was also working as a waiter at the 101 Cafe.
I said, “Will you read this? I wrote a movie.” And he’s like, “Okay.” And he read it, and he called me, and he’s like, “Sian, I think you’re a writer.” He was the first person to say, he’s like, “You don’t know anything about doing this, and this is the first thing that came out of you, and I really think you’re a writer.”
So I ended up writing some more screenplays. I ended up writing Mother, the short, and applied to AFI directing Workshop for Women and got into that program.
But it was really so funny that it all started off of me bullshitting someone in the bar, but then going, “Oh, wait a second. Maybe I should actually do this.” And then, really diving in, and teaching myself to write.
I never was trained to do that, but I was always part of writer’s groups. I did a lot of labs and workshops, and I was always trying to build my film school experience, because I didn’t have that kind of formal training. And I really was hungry to learn from everyone I knew who was actually doing it.
Your experience writing Mother was based on an encounter that you had, that actually inspired your writing that movie, from when you were a nanny. I’m wondering if you can share that experience, as well.
Yes, this is all around the same time. So, in my twenties, and I’ve just moved out to LA, and I’m working every job you can imagine, to try to make money.
So I’m driving a $500 Buick that I bought in New York, and drove across the country. I can’t even believe it made it.
Wow. Wow. I can’t, either.
No, it’s insane. It was such a hilarious, velour bench seats, and it was like a drug dealing uncle car. So I moved out to LA, and I was working as a babysitter at all the four star hotels, and I was bartending at night at all these places, and waiting tables, and doing whatever, and I started, I was a babysitter at all of these really fancy hotels in LA.
I’d be going to the Bel-Air Hotel, and the Four Seasons, and glimpsing the wealth in LA, and coming in, and kind of having this little window into this whole world and culture, that I’d never been a part of before. And also, that very Upstairs, Downstairs thing, of being the help and being a fly on the wall for so many strange things that people assumed you weren’t paying attention to, because you were there as the nanny.
I had a really, really weird experience at the Four Seasons, actually, in the penthouse of the Four Seasons, where this mother had come to the hotel to have an affair, and she couldn’t bring her nanny, because the nanny would tell the husband and rat her out.
She’d never been alone with her toddler before. And she was having this meltdown, and it became very clear that she’d hired me to be her confidante and friend more than I was even there to watch the kid.
I mean, by the end of the night, she came home, was wasted, passed out on the ground drunk, and the baby was just wandering the room, with no crib in the room, and I didn’t know what to do with this toddler. And the hotel would not intervene in the situation.
They were like, “Well, this woman is a paying customer, and we can’t do anything, and if you want to call CPS, you can call Child Protective Services. We can’t do anything about it.”
I thought, “I’m only in this woman’s life for the night. I don’t know her story. I know what that can do, once you start that cycle of getting someone’s kid taken away.”
So I ended up having them send up a crib, and I put the baby in the crib, and I just left, and I cried the whole way home, because I just thought, “This is so bizarre.” And I wrote this scene, which to me felt like a horrible, tragic scene.
And I brought it into Tuesdays at Nine, this group that I was a part of, and actors read it out loud. And it was so funny.
Once we heard it out loud, it was so dark and so funny, and yet so tragic, and the fact that I’d been crying when I wrote it, but that then, it was so comedic, I was like, “Oh, there’s something really interesting here.” So that was the film that I applied to AFI with, and that became Mother.
Eventually, Mother did really well, and ended up going to Cannes, and then that blossomed out into the feature of Tallulah. But yes, it was all based on this kind of weird experience that I had.
What I thought was really interesting about the transition, from Mother to Tallulah, was the name. The only one of the three main characters in Tallulah is not the mom. I’m wondering what sort of transition that was psychologically, for you to call the film Tallulah, and not a version of Mother, given that Tallulah was the only character not a mother.
It’s interesting. I mean, Tallulah was such a journey, in terms of uncovering what that film was about, and that story, what I was writing about.
Because, as I tell you this story, I was in my early twenties. I was living in LA. I had this tiny studio apartment, and this crap car, and I was so judgmental of these moms that I was encountering.
I really thought, “Oh, they don’t know what they’re doing.” And yes, there were bad moms, but there were also moms that were probably harried and overwhelmed and dealing with stuff. And it’s really easy when you’re young to come from a place of knowing better.
I definitely wrote Mother from this place, and then I wrote, Tallulah, I’d say the first draft of it was a very judgmental indictment of this mother character, Carolyn. It was, “Some women should not be mothers,” I would say” would be my thesis, when I started writing that film.
The movie took me nine years to get made. And over the course of that time, I was growing up, and I was having experiences, and not only growing up as a writer and director.
I was writing on Orange is the New Black, and I was at a certain age. But also, during the time it took me to get the film made, I became a mother.
I was someone who always loved kids, was great with kids, had that magical babysitter energy of coming in and being able to charm children immediately, and be super fun, and was so cocky going into being a mom. Because I knew it was something that I kind of was, inherently had in me.
And then, my daughter had colic, and never slept, and completely rocked my world. And I was so lost, and I felt like I didn’t know how to do it, and I was failing.
I was really an underslept, complete basket case, I’d say, for the first year of my daughter’s life. And also, juggling working, driving to the writers room, and feeling like I had to pretend like I wasn’t functioning on 40 minutes of sleep from the night before.
And I completely rewrote the film. I was like, “This movie is not about indicting this mother. This movie is about the complexities of motherhood, and the dark secret feelings that nobody can share about being a mom.”
So it is interesting, in a way, I think you’re calling out the name, and I do think that the movie was named in that early stage, and I do think it ended up being a film about all these secret motherhood conversations, that I think weren’t being had, and that it’s in all of us to be a mother, and we find different ways to do it. And yet, no one knows how to do it, and it’s an imperfect journey, and all of that.
And it’s interesting, I don’t know, I haven’t really thought about that till you said it, but why that title feels like the movie was named early on. And then, the film evolved so much over the time that I was rewriting it and rewriting it. So when I finally made it, it really was a movie about motherhood, but I don’t know if it started that way.
My favorite dialogue in Tallulah is when Tammy Blanchard’s character asks Allison Janny’s character, if she’s a horrible person, and Allison’s character responds, “We’re all horrible, we’re all people.”
There’s so much unconditional compassion in that response. Wondering if you can talk a little bit about the notion of what horrible really means in our evaluation of being people.
I love that line, too, and I think that line sums up so much about the characters that interest me, and the stories that interest me. I really love good people making bad choices. I think we all contain multitudes, and have potential to be horrible, and have potential to be empathetic and beautiful, and I love the unconditional love of that moment.
Because I think, particularly with women, and around motherhood, and around all of it, I wrote a whole article about mom shaming after I made Tallulah, because it was something, especially when you have young children, it just seems so present in the world.
And I think there’s so much self-doubt that comes along with being a mother, where you’re constantly, “Oh, am I supposed to do that? Am I supposed to …”
It just happened to me the other day. My daughter had been lying a lot. All of a sudden, I’m like, “Oh, this is interesting, the lying, and how do you respond to the lying?”
I had a friend say, “Oh, you’re never supposed to call out the lying. You’re never supposed to say that’s a lie. That’s part of them evolving kind of their higher level thinking, and figuring out how to be a functioning human.”
I was like, “Oh, you’re never supposed to call out the lying?” It sent me into this spiral of, “Should I have not said something about that?”
Because I think, it’s so vulnerable to be a parent, and you’re constantly questioning, “What am I doing that’s going to screw up my kid, and put them in therapy later in life?”
So I guess I just love the compassion, particularly between women, in that moment of just, “It’s okay to be shitty sometimes, it’s okay to make mistakes, it’s okay to fail. It’s okay. That is part of the ride that we’re on, being human,” and it’s about recognizing it, and acknowledging it, and changing it if you need to change it.
But it’s a part of the human experience. And I think the stories I’m most drawn to involve very messy people, and massy families, and a certain kind of dysfunction that still contains warmth.
Like you said, I mean, you were talking about my parents at the beginning of this. It’s like, those two things can exist together, the dysfunction and the love, and the messiness and the connection, in the middle of all of it.
I have to just talk briefly about your time on Orange is the New Black. You wrote for the show from 2013 to 2016, and wrote my all-time favorite episode, titled Lesbian Request Denied, which was the third episode of Season One. And Episode One and Episode Two were great. They sort of set the stage for what the whole show was going to be about, in so many ways.
But I remember seeing Episode Three, and thinking, “Okay, okay, this show is really going to make a difference.” It’s so layered, in so many ways, that episode.
And the actresses, Laverne Cox and Uzo Aduba, featured prominently in this episode, and I think many people, including myself, were introduced to them for the first time at that moment. They were both nominated for Emmys for their roles.
Laverne Cox was the first transgender actor to be nominated for an acting award at the Emmys. What was it like writing for these characters? What gave you the sense that, for example, in order to really see Uzo Adubo’s character, she needed to pee on the ground, in front of Taylor Schilling’s character? One of the great moments in television time.
Oh my God, I have to tell you about that moment. I want to get to this larger point. But that was so funny, because we built a pee rig for Uzo, and the first time she did it, I will never forget that.
She sort of crouched down, and I remember shooting it, and the pee rig just exploded in the gushiest way ever. And we, the whole set, fell over, dying laughing, and Uzo just died laughing too. It was a massive horse pee coming out of this little woman.
That episode was amazing, and that show was amazing. I think, first of all, we didn’t really know what we were working on. Netflix wasn’t even a thing.
I remember getting that job and being, “What is Netflix? Is this an internet show? What is this thing?” Streaming was not a thing. They had us and House of Cards. We didn’t know what it was.
Obviously, I knew Jenji’s work. I was a big admirer of her and fan of her, and she is wonderful. One of the things Jenji did, which was so beautiful, which now, I try to embody as a showrunner, was just giving so much ownership of the show to her writers.
I think we all felt so invested, and so creatively involved, and to feel that kind of ownership when it is not your show that you’ve created, but you feel like you’ve been given the freedom to, “Hey, go create this character,” especially with Laverne’s character, Sophia, there wasn’t any trans representation on TV at that time.
Transparent had not come out. There was nothing to go and look at as an example of this. I felt huge responsibility to get it right.
Because I thought, “Oh my God, this is going to be this trans character on TV. And I’m not trans. I don’t have that experience. For me to write this, I need to majorly research this character.” And so I did.
I talked to so many trans women, and went to the trans support group in LA, and just really interviewed so many people, and talked to them. And then, it was so important to me, both with that character and with Suzanne, who was initially Crazy Eyes, and there was this kind of one note element to the ideas of both of those characters.
It’s like, “Okay, there’s kind of the, ‘Oh, it’s a trans character in prison, so it’s a former man in a woman’s prison. There’s so much scandal that can happen around that.'” And I was really invested in, I need this to be a central character that we’re following, and to understand her as a complex human on every level.
I remember having this conversation with the leader of the trans support group in LA, and she said, “Does this character have to be in prison?” I was like, “Well, she does have to be in prison, because they’re all in prison. It’s a show about prison.” And she said, “Oh, it’s just such a, whenever trans people are represented, they’re represented as criminals.”
She said, “I don’t love that she’s in prison, so can she be innocent? She should be innocent of her crime.” And I remember entertaining that idea, and thinking, “No,” and in fact, understanding her, and why she made the choices she made, and this idea that she has to be pure, to somehow counter trans representation that had existed, that she has to be this angel who’s all good, and I’m like, “This isn’t what this is. This is about making this character really complex, and understanding why she made the choices she made, and giving her many dimensions and aspects.”
So that was just a really interesting journey. And I remember being very fearful, putting that episode out in the world, and thinking, that I hoped that people could feel the work, and the intention behind it. And then, it was so beautiful, to watch what happened with Laverne, and with Uzo, but especially, watching Laverne.
And I remember a year later, seeing her on the cover of Time magazine, and going, “Oh my God, how beautiful.” I remember watching her audition tape, and being, “Oh my God, look at her. This is who Sophia is.” So I don’t know.
It’s really beautiful when, as a storyteller, you get to feel like a cog in the wheels of change, that you set the pebble rolling somehow, at the top of the hill, and it picked up more pebbles, And it became an avalanche. And then there was this massive sea change. It’s not because of what you did, but you are a part of that, and that is so fulfilling.
And I definitely had that, I think, in relation to that episode, and certainly with CODA, of feeling, “Oh, there’s a cultural shift happening. And my story got to be a part of that cultural shift.”
So CODA won last year’s Best Film Oscar. I was so happy when that happened. You also won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
When you were first approached to Direct Coda, you hadn’t seen the original 2014 French film, La Famille Béliere, the story Coda is based on. What made you interested in this particular story?
I think it’s always striking when you’re presented with something and you think, “Oh, I can’t think of a film with a deaf family at the center of it.” The fact that that doesn’t exist in the world felt like a driving force to put it in the world.
When I did watch La Famille Bélier, the character at the center, was a very interesting CODA, as a child of deaf adults. And it’s very interesting to me that most deaf people have hearing children, and most deaf people are born to hearing parents.
There’s this cultural divide that happens, where a lot of times, CODAs, who are growing up with deaf parents, in a way, grow up more embedded in deaf culture than a lot of deaf people did as kids. Because they had hearing parents that maybe didn’t sign, or live within the deaf community.
So that idea of someone who was part of these two worlds, and also, part of neither, and living in this limbo, where they culturally felt connected to a community that they actually aren’t a part of, which is the deaf community.
I had a beautiful thing that a CODA friend said to me the other day, when she was trying to talk about being a hearing person, growing up in a deaf family.” She said, “I lived in the oppressor’s body. So even though I was their child, and I was this, I also represented the world that had been oppressive and horrible and exclusionary. And holding those things, and holding that duality, was a really complicated thing to grow up with.”
That was very intriguing to me in that character, and exploring what that was, and having a teenage girl at the center, where her feelings were not marginalized, her feelings were actually the stakes of the movie, was exciting to me. So, all of those things, and then, really, the deep dive that I got to do with the deaf community, and it’s changed my life.
It’s changed my life, not just as an artist, but it really has changed my life, period. There is this idea of who should be writing what, which I think is very real, and those conversations need to be happening. And I was fully aware that I was a hearing person coming to this deaf story about a culture that was not mine.
But what that meant is, I had to come in as this very pure listener, and know what I didn’t know, and really put a team around me of deaf collaborators, both in front of and behind the camera. But these moments that are almost embarrassing, when you have them, and I set up the living room of this family, and I remember Anne walking onto set and going, “No deaf family would ever set up their living room this way. Deaf spaces are circular. Everybody needs to see everybody else.”
The living room’s not centered on the TV in the same way. It’s centered on having a conversation with each other. The couch would be facing where they could see the door. They would want to know who was coming in and out. So there were all these moments where you went, “Oh, I’m such a dumb ass. What was I thinking with the furniture?” But I had that push and pull.
I had the people there as a team, to kind of go, “Hey, no.” It was a really powerful, amazing experience to make that film, not just in the writing of it, but in the way we reimagined what a set could be, the way we shot it, put it together, even the year-long press tour. I think it was a very transformative experience for everyone involved in the film, and especially me.
One of the really remarkable things about CODA was the way in which deafness was portrayed. In the past, hearing characters spoke out loud the entire time. And you talked about Marlee Matlin in the 1986 film, Children of a Lesser God, a movie that she won an Oscar for, playing the role she played.William Hertz’s character speaks all the lines out loud.
And you look back at a movie like that, or even other movies that are much more recent, where the hearing character becomes the dominant character, just because they are reciting or sharing the reality that the non-speaking person is having. Instead, in CODA, you provide the audience with the experience of what it’s like to really watch an ASL conversation taking place, with the various sounds that you hear, the clothing, the fingers moving, slapping.
I know that you put a mic on Marlee Matlin, who was surprised, because she’s usually not mic’d. Because you specifically wanted that physical experience.
I think sound is very important to hearing people. And you watch people who haven’t encountered an interpreter and a deaf person together before, and you will watch hearing people look at the interpreter, as they’re talking. As the deaf person is signing, they will look at the interpreter, and then they will address their question or their answer to the interpreter, because they’re sort of drawn to the sound.
It’s like, “Well, this is the person who’s talking,” as opposed to, “This is the person that actually should be, the interpreter’s there to voice the deaf person.” I’m watching it, and I think it’s almost like, it’s a process people have to go through to go, “Okay, let me become comfortable in this moment, giving my attention to the person who might not be actually speaking.”
So I knew that if Ruby voiced her parents, or if Ruby talked too much in the movie, hearing people would glom onto that. Or it’s almost like a safety net, like, “Oh, I feel safer in this scene, because I have this touchstone of this person speaking.”
So silence was a really big part of the movie for me, and figuring out, yes, an audience will be uncomfortable for the first couple scenes, a hearing audience will be, and they are going to have to get into a different rhythm, and a different way of watching and listening visually, as opposed to actually listening. And that’s cool. And let me force the audience into that experience gradually.
I was careful in the early parts of the movie to make sure that there would be an ASL scene, and then there would be a music scene, or a dialogue scene, and then, towards the back half of the movie, I think there’s six scenes in a row which are all silent ASL scenes, because at that point, I think the audience is fully immersed in this family, and you don’t even notice.
I loved that audience members came up to me after the movie, and was like, “I didn’t even notice that I was watching ASL.” Someone even said to me, “I felt like I was hearing Frank’s Boston accent.” I’m like, “Yeah, you do. He does have a Boston accent, but he has it through sign.”
Sound was so important in the intimacy of an ASL conversation where, if you’re angry, and you say, “Stop,” and you hit your hand really hard with the side of your other hand, which is the sign for “Stop,” it makes a noise. And I really wanted the sound mix to allow the audience to really participate in the intimacy of the language, and the physicality, and the sound your hands make when they brush up against your clothes, when you’re saying “excited,” or the little verbalizations that come out, or sounds that come out, which are so important.
So yeah, I really worked, not only to mic, and my sound department on set, but then, as we were working on the sound design, to elevate and bring up all those small intimate sounds, to fill those scenes, so you really didn’t have to fill them with music. You got to be in the silence, that wasn’t actually silence.
Well, speaking of silence and sound, I want to talk to you about one of the episodes you wrote of Little America. So your latest effort is the Apple TV show, Little America. You co-showrun the show with Lee Eisenberg, who created the concept for the show with Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon.
The first of the two episodes that you wrote in Season One, it’s an episode called The Silence, which changed rather dramatically from the first cut. It’s a really surprising episode. It was actually the first episode I watched. At first, I was a little bit like, “Wait, what? What’s happening here?”
“What is this show?” It’s the weird one from first season, so it’s funny to start with that one.
Yeah, yeah, I did, but because you wrote it, and I wanted to get the whole experience of it. I have since read that it dramatically changed from that first cut, and I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how the episode evolved.
I’m aware that we might be putting up some spoilers for those that might not have seen the episode. So if you are about to see it, you might not want to listen to the next five minutes.
Yeah, that episode. So it’s called The Silence. It’s about a woman who comes to a silent retreat, and the whole episode is basically in silence for the first 10 minutes or so of the episode, and falls in love with this man, and has this silent love affair that unfolds.
But when I first wrote the episode, there are these dharma talks that happen at these silent retreats, sometimes, where they’re the leader will take you through a spiritual talk every day. Zach Quinto was playing that leader, who’s an old friend of mine, and I talked him into coming to do an episode of Little America. I’m like, “Come and do this.”
And he gave these Buddhist kind of speeches through the episode. So when we shot it, there was a fair amount of using these talks to do this sort of narration throughout.
As we were editing, Lee and I were in the editing room, Lee was like, “It’s a silent episode. It’s about silence. Should we just cut all this?”
And I, of course, had a moment of, “Oh my God, I’m going to cut all my friends’ lines. I’ve talked him into coming and doing this episode, and then, I’m going to cut every single one of his line? That’s a phone call that I have to make.”
But it was such an exciting idea, to then go, “Oh yeah, we can make this work. The whole point of the episode is living in the silence.”
It was interesting that I was making that episode in the lead up to COA. I was starting to prep CODA, as I was working on that episode. As I had started auditioning deaf actors for CODA, a lot of what I was hearing is, “Deaf actors never get to play hearing.”
Not only is it wrong in so many ways when hearing actors go and play deaf roles, but it doesn’t go the other way, like deaf actors don’t get to go and just play a hearing role. But when I was directing The Silence, I thought, “Oh, this is a perfect opportunity for deaf actors to get to come and play hearing.”
I actually cast two deaf actresses in the whole retreat as part of the ensemble, because nobody was speaking, and it was all kind of physical, but it was really such an amazing lesson to see something evolve so much in the edit, really take the footage we had shot, and get to come in, and kind of completely reinvent the episode in the edit, and realize how much is possible editorially, in terms of getting to rediscover your story, and make a big swing on how you’re going to do it.
That experience, working on The Silence, was so valuable to me when I went into the edit on CODA, because I think it had freed me up from a lot of ideas about, “Oh, well, when I shot this scene, this is what I thought.” It’s like, “Well, I could steal that from that scene, and that shot from that scene, I could build a whole new scene that never even existed.”
So it was very exciting, I think, creatively, with my editor, Geraud, who also worked on Little America, to get to go into the edit on CODA, and feel really free, in terms of, “Now I have all this footage, I had all these ideas when I wrote it, I had all these ideas when I shot it. I get to come in fresh now, almost like I’m just discovering raw material that’s here, and what are we going to make with this?”
So my experience on The Silence felt very connected to, I think, a freedom that I had editorially, once I went into working on CODA.
Little America is an anthology series, and it’s based on true stories that go beyond the headlines, to look at real and unexpected lives of immigrants in America. How did you find all of these true stories?
It’s an amazing process. I think the way Little America is made is so unique, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it, or been a part.
It’s somewhere between journalism and narrative writing, and we find people from all places. The show is made in partnership with Epic Magazine. So we have journalists at Epic, who are doing a lot of footwork, to go out and find interesting people. Most of the stories are not, these are not famous people, generally. They’re not people who you would know.
They’re small stories that are interesting, that might have been in a local paper, if they were anywhere, or they’re not. They’re just somebody’s life, that we find, there’s some small nugget of something captivating in there.
So sometimes, they come from a friend of a friend, or one of our writers has a friend. Sometimes, our writers, it’s their own experience. Tze Chun, first season, and Darya Zhuk, second season, both told their own stories. Really, what we’re looking for, I think is, they’re kind of funny and quirky, and odd, a lot of them, and together, I think, create a tapestry of the immigrant experience.
And what I said early on is, I had immigrant parents that both came here for such different reasons. My dad was escaping war, and my mom was coming because she felt like she couldn’t be fully expressed as an artist in Wales. She had to be a good little Welsh girl, and couldn’t become the kind of creative person she needed to be.
Both of those are valid reasons to come to this country. And both of those things have challenges and hardship involved in them. The stakes might be different, but they’re both interesting and worthy of being told. So that’s really our process is, we find someone we think is interesting. We do a series of interviews. It could be up to six or seven interviews, sometimes, where we’re going back.
I find that often, what people think is the story of their lives is not the actual interesting story. So oftentimes, with our subjects, they’ll put this thing forward, that they think is the most fascinating thing, about their story or their lives, and then you continue to talk to them.
And then, somewhere in the conversation, it’s like, “Yeah, but actually, I had this really weird relationship with my brother,” and they sort of brush over this thing. But you, as the interviewer, kind of go, “Oh, wait.” You do it well, so you know.
You go, “What was that thing that you said about your brother? There seemed there was something there,” and then, you go down that rabbit hole for awhile. So the journey of finding what the story we’re telling is such a long, interesting process.
And then, we take all these interviews that we’ve had with this person, and we go into a writers room. And most of our writers are either children of immigrants, or have that background themselves.
So we’re talking about the stories, and dissecting them, and kind of going, “Is this it?” Then we go back and we re-interview the people, to try to dig down that channel. It’s such a cool, evolving, amazing process, and I love where we get to.
It’s so intense when we show our subjects. The episode, which, I just had that experience on Little America, Season two, is finishing the season before it came out. We screened the episode individually for people, so they could kind of watch it in private and have a reaction to it.
And it’s so intense. It’s so intense, because you feel, as a writer and showrunner and creative, you’ve been trusted with people’s lives. These are not people that are Hollywood people, that are used to putting themselves out there.
So it’s a very vulnerable act for them to talk to us, and share some of the stuff they do. And they don’t know what we’re going to end up telling a story about. So I think there’s always this element sup of surprise, “that that’s what you saw, or that’s what you heard in my story.”
It was so beautiful to show these episodes to the subjects. It was one of the most powerful parts of making the show was just having these little private screenings, with just me and one person, and showing the episode, and talking to them afterwards about it.
It’s very beautiful, because they’re normal people who haven’t been recognized in that way. And I think there’s often a feeling of, “Oh, is my story worthy? Is my life a life that is worthy of being told?”
That’s such a cool aspect to the show. I feel like it’s very raw, because we just went through it, and I just had all these screenings for the subjects. It was very cool.
Well, that’s what makes, I think, this whole anthology so special. You could be watching somebody from Belize or Sri Lanka, or Japan or El Salvador, and you can relate so much to the experiences, because it’s not just about being an immigrant, although that’s certainly a part of it, but it’s also about being so human, and how we all struggle with our relationships with our parents, or connect with our children.
And I’m wondering if the commonalities surprised you. I mean, I do visual storytelling workshops all over the world, and I find that no matter where I go, I could be in Dubai, I could be in Mexico, I could be in Japan. And everybody’s telling the same stories, love, loss, longing.
Well, we’re all horrible, and we’re all people.
Yeah, there we go.
But I think it’s really teaches you that specificity leads to universality. When you are so specific, and you are able to create authenticity, with everything surrounding a theme, or an emotion, in a way, that theme or emotion is allowed to fully reveal itself as being powerful, because maybe you’re watching someone from another culture than you, speaking another language than you.
So it feels like there should be this distance. Or you feel like there should be this sense of other, and yet you’re like, “I know that feeling.”
In all of these conversations about diversity, I feel like there’s this idea, “Oh, it’s important to learn about people from another culture. Because that’s a good thing to do, is learn about people that are different from you.”
And I think what diverse storytelling does is show us that we’re all the same, is show us that we all care about love, that we all care about getting approval from our parents, that we all care. Because those things transcend culture, and language, and all those things.
So yes, I love that part of Little America that you are watching an episode about a Sri Lankan girl and a Kiss a Car contest. And it seems like, “What a silly contest, to kiss a car for as long as you possibly can,” And I’ll say, “What is that about?”
She did it for 50 hours.
50 hours. She made it.
This is what I mean as a writer, too. You are drawn to that story, because you’re like, “Oh, this is quirky, right? It’s a girl in a Kiss a Car contest, and she kisses a car for 50 hours, to win the car.”
The more we talked to the subject, the more it became clear that her parents had come to this country from Sri Lanka, with incredible expectations for her. Her father was an engineer in Sri Lanka, and was working as a janitor in the US, so …
I know. That broke my heart.
All his expectations, hopes, dreams of what this country was going to fulfill, got placed onto his daughter, who was kind of wayward, and feeling like a loser, and couldn’t keep a job. The weight of those expectations was actually paralyzing.
And then, this Kiss a Car contest, which should have been this silly thing that she chose to participate in, took on huge emotional stakes, because it felt like her chance for redemption. And it felt like her chance to suddenly be something in her father’s eyes.
So I love that, that we unlock it, as a writer’s room. We kind of go, “What is this about? What is this about?” You talk a lot, and you go, “Oh my God, I think this is about redemption. This is about this woman who feels like a failure, seeing a path to her father’s approval.
Once you have that, you can kind of have all the silly characters. You can have the characters that participate in these kind of endurance contests, but you’ve unlocked the thing at the center, which is that very universal feeling. Each one of the episodes really feels that way to me, that we spend a lot of time going, “Okay, this happened, but what did it mean? What did it mean to this person?”
Generally, the episodes end up being very moving, because they do resonate. They hit some inherent universal human emotion, I think, that we’ve all gone through at some point, be they family, whatever it is, the essence of what it is to be human, and try to make it through this weird, messed up world.
There’s so much more I want to talk to you about Little America. I’ll just leave it as saying that the first three episodes of Season Two are just required watching for all humans, Mr. Song, ninth caller, bra Whisperer, some of the best television I’ve seen in a very long time.
But speaking of being human, I read that a possible next project for you, is adapting disability activist Judith Heumann’s memoir, Being Heumann. And I read that Ali Stroker, the first actress to appear on Broadway using a wheelchair, who won a Tony for her role in Oklahoma, might be starring in it. Is any of that true?
All of this is true, all of this is true.
I found Judy … Yes. I mean, I think it’s like what I was saying. I think I had such a massive education on CODA. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it, which is just the massive lack of representation that exists, regarding characters with disabilities, and centering that story. And also, that the disability rights movement was a massive civil rights movement that nobody knows about. We didn’t learn it in school.
And when I saw Crip Camp, I remember being, “Why didn’t we know about this?” You’re sort of aware that there’s more ramps than there used to be, or that there’s curb cuts now, and there didn’t used to be, but you don’t understand that there was a very forceful and driven and ferocious group of activists, that were working to make that happen. And Judy was kind of at the center of that.
She has such an amazing story, and it’s been so much fun to, I’m in the process of writing it right now, but just talk to, not only Judy, but everybody who is there. The 504 sit-in was the longest sit-in in history, where a group of about 100 disabled people took over a federal building, and held it for 30 days. And it’s a wild story.
I’ve been deep in talking to people, and researching, and figuring out what went down. It happened in 1977, so of course, everyone I’m talking to has a different memory of the event.
So it’s been really funny, to talk to all these people and be like, “Oh, really? That’s what you think happened? Because that’s not the story that I heard this morning.”
It’s quite exciting. And so yes, I’ve been working with Judy on that, and it’s a project that I feel very excited about. And also, in terms of, once I saw the experience on CODA, and that we could transform the set, and our way of working, and it’s very important to me that the stories that I tell continue to center people who haven’t been centered, and push the envelope, in terms of what conversations we’re having as a culture, and who we’re including, and who we’re leaving out, and I think, can also be very entertaining and funny as well.
It doesn’t need to be, “Take your medicine, eat your spinach, this is something you that would be good to know about, or good to watch.” I think these stories can be really fun and exciting. So yes, I’m very excited about that one.
I can’t wait to see it, I can’t wait. Sian, I want to close the show today with a quote of yours. I found in my research, that I think everyone in the world should hear.
You’ve said that, “The day when you start having no self-doubt, you’re fucked. You should always be pushing yourself to be better, than you are to have people challenge your choices. That’s what makes great work.”
I’m happy to hear that quote from you, because I need that right now, honestly. I’m at the point where I want to roll up my Oscar in bags, and stick it under my couch, because I can’t look at it.
Because it’s like, you’re writing a horrible scene. And you’re looking at the Oscar, like, “Oh, my gosh. Do you know that I don’t know how to do this?”
But I think living in that place of fear actually means you’re making good work. Because you’re pushing yourself into uncharted territory, and that’s a good place to live as an artist.
Yeah, that’s what my therapist has been telling me. So I’m glad to hear it from you too.
Sian Heder, thank you so much for making so much work that matters. And thank you for joining me today on Design Matters.
Thank you for having me, this was so much fun. It was truly one of the best conversations I’ve had in a long time.
Thank you. You can see Sian Heder’s films, CODA and Tallulah, on streaming services. Also, listeners look up Dog Eat Dog on YouTube. You will not be unhappy about that one. And you can watch Little America on Apple TV.
This is the eighteenth year we’ve been podcasting Design Matters, and I’d like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference.
We could make a difference, or we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.