The need for more diversity in Hollywood is a popular topic of conversation these days. But at least one group tends to get left out of the discussion.
He said it with his hands. Sitting in a mellow cafe on a dilapidated strip of Melrose Avenue, he and his writing partner, Shoshannah Stern, carved shapes in the air to tell animated stories, volleys of sign language zinging across the table between them and their two interpreters.
It was at this cafe that the pair first conceived a comic web series about two deaf best friends like themselves living in Los Angeles. On a warm winter morning three years later, they returned to discuss the television show that resulted from it: “This Close,” debuting Wednesday, Feb. 14, on SundanceTV’s streaming platform, Sundance Now.
Created, written by and starring Stern and Feldman, the show follows the adventures of two deaf pals in Los Angeles. But the characters’ deafness figures as just one sliver of an effervescent dramedy about friendship, romance, sex and ambition, its sweet but gritty tone inspired by series like “Looking,” “Girls”and “Transparent.”
Kate (Stern) is an exuberant entertainment publicist determined to make her way in the world without any special accommodations; neither her boss (Cheryl Hines) nor her fiancé (Zach Gilford) make much effort to use sign language, expecting Kate to keep up with their conversation. Michael (Feldman) is a melancholy gay graphic novelist tortured by writer’s block and trying to blot out the pain of a broken relationship with liquor and sex.
The six-episode show is adapted from “Fridays,” Stern’s and Feldman’s rom-comish web series that so impressed Sundance the channel decided to make “This Close” the debut offering for its new digital streaming service.
“I thought to myself, have I ever seen a show where the characters are deaf but it doesn’t define them?” said Jan Diedrichsen, Sundance Now’s general manager. “This felt like a fully realized vision of a life where deafness was just one part of it.”
Stern grew up in the Bay Area dreaming of becoming an actor, even though there were few deaf role models on screen. For her seventh birthday she asked her mother for an agent. (The answer was no.) Later, during her senior year at Gallaudet University, a liberal arts college for the deaf in Washington D.C., she flew to Los Angeles for an audition and decided to stay.
“I thought, I will just convince people that it would be interesting to see me on screen and that it won’t matter that I’m deaf,” she recalled, signing emphatically.
Stern’s first major role came as an anti-terrorism expert in the short-lived 2003 ABC series “Threat Matrix,” and she has since become one of the most visible deaf actresses in Hollywood, appearing in series like “Weeds, “Lie to Me” and “Supernatural.” “I was always the sole deaf person on set,” she said.
She met Feldman, an aspiring novelist and screenwriter, through mutual friends and tried to help him get a foothold in Hollywood as a writer’s assistant. But people were generally unwilling to meet with him.
“They would ask, ‘How would we communicate with him?’ and ‘How can he write dialogue if he doesn’t speak?'” Stern said. She decided that one way to change ideas about deafness, on screen and off, was for the duo to collaborate on a script.
Feldman had never tried to write a deaf character, he said, because “I thought no one would want to pay for anything that had deaf people in it.” But Stern inspired him to try, and the result was “Fridays.” After shooting a pilot for $250 with themselves in the lead roles, the duo put it on Kickstarter, hoping to raise enough cash to produce four episodes for YouTube.
Pledges quickly shot past their $6,000 goal, much of the money donated by people who weren’t deaf, Stern said. Also intrigued was Super Deluxe, a digital content studio owned by Turner. Super Deluxe produced five polished web episodes and screened them at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, where Diedrichsen saw in the show’s “singular vision” an ideal original series for Sundance Now.
Stern and Feldman revamped the concept to delve into pricklier emotional territory, with the help of director Andrew Ahn (“Spa Night”).
Much of the material in “This Close” feels universal: Love affairs blossom and shatter, family members create emotional turmoil. But some of the stories naturally hinge on deaf-specific experiences, like a harrowing scene — based on something that actually happened to Stern’s brother — in which a drunk Michael is yanked off an airplane, utterly confused and unable to communicate with airport police.
At the center of the show is Kate and Michael’s co-dependent friendship, which sometimes leaves hearing characters feeling left out. “We did a lot of two shots so that you could see both Josh and Shoshannah signing together,” Ahn said. “It makes it feel like they are in a bubble of their own.”
Making television from the perspective of deaf characters forced everyone involved to rethink the usual ways of doing things. “So much of narrative filmmaking convention is based in a hearing world, but if you have a super tight close-up, you won’t see the hands,” Ahn said.
The director shot from low angles in order to capture both the characters’ faces and their signing hands. Offscreen dialogue was mostly eliminated because “to understand a line, you need to see it,” he said.
The production also hired many deaf crew members and actors (among them Marlee Matlin, who plays Michael’s mother).
“It changed the rhythm of shooting a little bit, because you have interpreters at all times,” Hines said. “But it’s like when you shoot in Montreal and the crew speaks French — it feels different but becomes normal very quickly.”
One of the elements Stern was most interested in experimenting with was, perhaps surprisingly, sound. Movies and TV shows often portray the deaf perspective in terms of dead silence. But even when Stern turns her hearing aids off, she said, “I am always feeling the blood pulsing through my veins and I am aware of what is happening inside of myself. That is my sound, and it is not a lack. It feels full to me, and I want to represent that through the soundscape of the show.”
In one episode, viewers get a hint of how ordinary conversation filters through to Kate’s ears: as a confusing muddle of staticky noise. However Michael, like Feldman, is profoundly deaf — his relationship to sound comes via its physical vibrations. This is expressed most strongly in a scene in a gay club, where he shimmies ecstatically, immersed in the sensuality of thumping bass all around him.
A novice actor, Feldman flinched when he realized that he would have to strip for a graphic group sex scene. He had only himself to blame — after all, he was a co-writer in the episode in question. “I knew that I had to do it, and I didn’t want it to be inspirational sex or sweet, tender sex,” he said, explaining that he “wanted it to be dark” to help ensure that the characters would not be mistaken for idealized role models.
“We don’t want to feel we have to educate people or represent our community well,” he said. “We just want to tell a story about two people who are deaf.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.