– By Katherine Sanderson –
John Krasinski’s directorial debut, the horror film A Quiet Place, premiered over a week ago, and since its release, has been at the top of the box office. While many audiences are drawn in by the real-life husband and wife team of John Krasinski and Emily Blunt in the film, the standout role many walk away with is one of their onscreen children: the deaf daughter Regan. But what many might not know is that it was upon Krasinski’s instance that they cast a young deaf actress Millicent Simmonds to begin with. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, the screenwriters discussed how 15 year-old Millicent came to be in the film. “After we landed on the concept, we had to define how people interacted in that world. How do you survive without sound?” said co-screenwriter Bryan Woods. “We always had a deaf character in the script, but John really pushed for them to hire Millicent,” said other co-screenwriter Scott Beck. “She came to set and taught everyone sign language. It was really amazing and brought an extra depth to the film.”
This was a apt decision given the silent environment in which A Quiet Place is set. But this wasn’t even the first major film role for this young actress! You may have seen Millicent Simmonds last year when she starred in Amazon Studios’ feature film Wonderstruck, alongside Academy Award winner Julianne Moore. Simmonds herself had initially read the deaf-themed young adult novel Wonderstruck upon its first publication in 2011, and when she received news of open casting for the film adaptation she competed against over 250 other actresses. Upon winning the role, she moved to New York City with her mother and her younger siblings, and once on set, she used American Sign Language interpreters to communicate on set, something she then continued with A Quiet Place filming.
The NY Times ran a piece in November focusing specifically on Simmons, and discussing the challenges that both deaf audiences and performers face in the film industry. And the conclusion it came to was that Hollywood has indeed made progress in the last few years, but still has a long way to go in addressing accessibility in casting, as well as accessibility in theaters to blind and deaf audiences.
Accessibility in Casting
Deaf and blind actors face many barriers in the world of casting. Often suffering from prejudice, many production companies and studios fear accessibility issues, afraid of what additional services a blind or deaf actor may need on set.
In an op-ed piece for Teen Vogue, Simmonds talked more about her experience as a deaf actress in the past few years, and specifically why deaf characters, like the ones she has portrayed, really matter. “To really understand a deaf person’s experience, you need someone that is deaf to be able to tell you what their experience is…[John Krasinski] was always asking me what I thought, or what my experience was. For a director, I think it’s important to understand everyone’s perspective… I hope seeing people like me on screen inspires more people to chase their own dreams, and shows deaf kids anything is a possibility for them because I really don’t feel like my deafness was an obstacle or should be a big deal. ” Simmonds is completely right about not only her ability to thrive and contribute on set, but about bringing awareness to audiences about the stories of the impaired, like the deaf and the blind. In this (the content, characters, and actors cast) both A Quiet Place and Wonderstruck have been successful.
And the US is not the only one making efforts to be more inclusive with talent.
In 2015, a Ukrainian film called The Tribe had no dialogue, but rather was filmed entirely in Ukrainian Sign Language, with a cast of deaf actors, and included no subtitles or voice-overs. In an interview with IndieWire, director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, said the following about the film: “When I was a kid, my school was next to a deaf boarding school. I saw how deaf people communicated there. When I decided to make a film about it, I was just making a short film… From there, I met a lot of deaf people, including some with criminal stories, and I used some of that for the script… I wrote the script with conventional dialogue and it was translated. It was interesting because deaf people speak dialogue differently since they can’t hear. The interpreter had to observe the actors to make sure they signed the right stuff.”
But much of Hollywood still has to work on this.
Last July, Alec Baldwin received criticism for portraying a blind man in the film Blind. The Ruderman Family Foundation, an advocacy group for those with disabilities, had their chairman Jay Ruderman elaborate in a piece for the Los Angeles Times, saying: “We no longer find it acceptable for white actors to portray black characters. Disability as a costume needs to also become universally unacceptable.” Similarly, in 2016, Warner Bros received backlash from the disabled community about their film Me Before You, for allowing the casting of able-bodied actor Sam Claflin in the role of a quadriplegic.
But is it right to deprive actors of the chance to play complex disabled characters?
In response to Blind criticisms, director Michael Mailler wrote a response for Deadline, saying “such a statement [from the advocacy groups] are unhelpful to disabled advocacy, it also in effect discredits Academy Award-winning performances over decades by the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, Jamie Foxx in Ray, Jon Voight in Coming Home, Al Pacino in Scent Of A Woman, and Eddie Redmayne in The Theory Of Everything to name just a few.” Mailler also brought up the difficulties of financing independent films, which often focus on impaired individuals, saying “In order to greenlight an independent film, one must attract a “name” actor for a fraction of a studio paycheck if there is to be any chance at getting the film financed. And while I’m sure there are many talented, vision-impaired actors out there, I do not currently know of any who have the marquee appeal needed to get even a modestly budgeted film made.”
While Mailler makes a strong counter-argument, it seems that Simmonds is making a name for herself. Just as past campaigns to get more racial diversity in mainstream films, we may soon see more deaf and blind actors integrated into Hollywood films.
Accessibility in Theaters
Aside from blind and deaf characters, and more importantly casting blind and deaf actors, Hollywood still has much to do in making their films accessible to blind and deaf audiences.
Closed captioning and audio description is available in theaters, but not at all uniform. This should improve by next summer, at least in the US, when all theaters showing digital movies must comply with a new federal rule under the Americans With Disabilities Act. The new rule will require that “all movie theater auditoriums provide closed movie captioning and audio description when showing a digital movie… unless doing so would result in an undue burden or a fundamental alteration.” The rule also requires movie theaters to have a specified number of captioning devices and audio description devices based on the number of auditoriums in the movie theater that show digital movies.
But the theaters can’t be at blame. What will be of great help is if studios and production companies will do this for each of the films they produce or distribute.
Last year at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) in Canada, one of the largest film festivals in the world, advocates put pressure on the festival to force studios and production companies to include closed captioning for the deaf and descriptive audio for the blind, after only one film, out of 255 feature films at that year’s festival, offered closed captioning. Within a longer emailed response, a TIFF spokesperson wrote: “The decision to close-caption a film remains at the discretion of the film’s studio and/or production team.”
And there are new technological advancements in exhibition that are allowing new opportunities for making content specifically for impaired audiences. The leading 4D company CJ 4DPLEX recently premiered a special presentation at a California theatre, titled “Titanic: An Icy Adventure” which was a project made with blind and visually impaired children in mind. Over 50 children and their families attended the first-ever showing of this audio-only experience, which was supplemented by the innovative cinema technology of 4DX, which may have included seat motion, wind, rain, fog, lights, and scents. These types of programs could create an entirely new market for content makers, and finally provide substantial entertainment to the blind population.
There are still more advancements to be made in theater technology and advocacy movements for the blind and deaf population in world of feature films. With all the talk of ‘diversity’, studios and production companies now need to recognize that impaired people are part of that equation. But it is hopeful as we see more actions to include visually or auditory-impaired audiences and actors, who have long been neglected.
About the Author
Katherine Sanderson is a graduate of John Paul the Great Catholic University’s MBA in Film Producing (Class of 2016).