Chloe Zhao on fangirling, storytelling and how ‘Nomadland’ came to be

Director/Producer Chloe Zhao, winner of the award for best picture for "Nomadland," poses at the press room of the Oscars, in the 93rd Academy Awards in Los Angeles, California, U.S., April 25, 2021. Chris Pizzello/Pool via Reuters

Chloé Zhao is all anyone can talk about right now. The filmmaker from China just made history as the first Asian woman to win best director at the Oscars for her work on Nomadland – among other awards for the film – and she is keen to credit her peers at the momentous occasion.

“For Asian filmmakers, for all filmmakers, we have to stay true to who we are, and we have to tell the stories that we feel connected to,” she says in the post-award interview. “We shouldn’t feel like there is only a certain type of story we have to tell. It’s a way for us to connect with other people. That is why I love filmmaking. And hopefully a lot of the stories, brilliant stories we tell tonight, like Tyler Perry said … [will help] stop hate, hate for anybody.”

In addition to being the first woman of colour to win best director, she is also only the second woman to win the Oscar – the first was Kathryn Bigelow in 2010 for her work on The Hurt Locker. Zhao acknowledges that “it’s pretty fabulous to be a woman in 2021”, and also recounts her recent experience dining with Bigelow.

“I have had a group dinner with Kathryn Bigelow, and definitely fangirled big time. And, yeah, I would love to talk to her if you have her e‑mail,” she jokes. “I’m extremely fortunate to be able to do what I love for a living, and if this win helps more people like me get to live their dreams, I’m so grateful for this.”

In her acceptance speech, she mentions how a game she used to play with her father, in which they would “memorise classic Chinese poems and texts … recite them together and try to finish each other’s sentences”, would help her keep going when things got hard. One phrase in particular is about how people at birth are inherently good, and it had a significant impact on her when she was young.

“I still truly believe [those words] today. Even though sometimes it might seem like the opposite is true,” she says. “But I have always found goodness in the people I met, everywhere I went in the world. So this [Oscar] is for anyone who had the faith and the courage to hold on to the goodness in themselves, and to hold on to the goodness in each other, no matter how difficult it is to do that. This is for you. You inspire me to keep going.”

In the pressroom after the show, she also mentions the support that she received from her family. “I feel I’m very lucky to have parents who have always told me that who you are is enough, that who you are is your art,” she says. “So I always try to stay true to myself and be surrounded by really great, supportive, talented people, so I share this moment with them.”

The past few weeks of awards season has been a whirlwind of activity for Zhao, but this wasn’t always the case. While the 39-year-old Chinese director had spent her life in motion, relocating from Beijing to a Brighton boarding school at 15, then zigzagging across the United States in her 20s and 30s, it finally took the combined might of Marvel and a global pandemic to bring her to a halt.

Just before Covid struck, Zhao was splitting her time between the UK and the Canary Islands to film Eternals, one of the next linchpins of the Marvel blockbuster franchise. Since then, she’s barely moved beyond the home in rural California that she shares with three chickens, two dogs and a cinematographer – her partner Joshua James Richards, who hails from Cornwall – and an editing suite on the otherwise deserted Disney campus an hour down the road.

Yet during this uncharacteristic standstill, Zhao’s reputation has gone on an epic voyage of its own – from rising star of world cinema to one of the most talked-about filmmakers on the planet. In addition to the recent Oscars 2021 win, she was also the second woman in the Golden Globes’ 78-year history to be named best director, not to mention the win she scooped up at the BAFTAs soon after. Meanwhile in China, she has been feted by state media as a national treasure, and has become the subject of a social media hullabaloo after an eight-year-old interview was exhumed in which she’d made some mildly unpatriotic remarks.

Nomadland, Zhao’s third feature, is touted as one of the best American films in years. Spun out of a 2017 non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder about America’s growing army of middle-aged migrant workers, it centres on Fern – a widow (played by Frances McDormand) who criss-crosses the country in search of employment, and possibly also a renewed sense of identity and purpose. Nomadland was shot over five months in 2018 in the wild expanses of midwestern and southwestern America; almost everyone on screen apart from McDormand is a real-world migrant, playing a scripted version of themselves.

It was McDormand, the star of Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, who initially bought the rights to Bruder’s book with the producer Peter Spears – and who thought of Zhao to adapt it. A few months earlier, she’d been wowed by Zhao’s second film, The Rider, a modern-day Western about a Lakota Sioux cowboy coming to terms with a life-changing accident.

Both director and actress were taken with the way Bruder’s book “captured not just one person’s story, but a time in the United States where an entire generation’s way of life was changing”. Nevertheless, a film would require a central character – so together, Zhao and McDormand came up with Fern, a former English teacher from a defunct Nevada mining town whose own life on the move would intersect with those of her real-world counterparts.

It was also McDormand who made possible one of Nomadland’s most striking sequences, in which Fern finds seasonal work in an Amazon warehouse. The actress emailed the company’s senior vice-president to ask if they could film inside one of its vast fulfilment centres, and they became the first independent crew to be granted permission to do so.

Some early viewers took umbrage at the apparent innocuousness of these scenes: Fern is seen contentedly working away on the packing line and chatting to fellow employees about their lot, while at one point she even describes the job to a friend as offering “great money”. “It would be very easy for me to have said ‘Amazon’s evil’,” Zhao explains.

“But while going after it could make me popular on Twitter, I’d rather look deeply at the structural issues that mean people Fern’s age have to work there – or shovelling beets in the frozen winter at night, which is far physically harder than working at Amazon. When you narrow it down to [Amazon], it’s only relevant to now. I wanted to look more timelessly at how older citizens are treated by a capitalist economy, how we see them as disposable unless they contribute. I’d far rather draw people in and plant a seed in their subconscious. To me, that’s the power of storytelling.”

All three of Zhao’s films to date have been shaped by the lives of her non-professional cast members, although this technique took a while to refine. For her 2015 debut, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, filmed on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, “I naively thought that being spontaneous was the same thing as not planning. So I had this attitude that I should just go in there and see what happens, and I think the film suffered because of it”. The Rider, also filmed at Pine Ridge, was far more tightly controlled. In fact, she’d wanted to make a film with its star, Brady Jandreau, ever since watching him train horses years before, but it was only when he suffered a traumatic fall at a rodeo in 2016 that the right plot emerged.

For Nomadland, she talked to travellers throughout the meandering shoot, and asked those with interesting stories if they’d like to be woven into the plot – paid, of course. Some turned out to be naturals: one of the film’s biggest characters, Charlene Swankie, had played an 18th-century carpenter’s wife at a living history museum in Indiana, and was comfortable with the full 25-person crew. But for those sharing deeply personal and sometimes painful experiences, Zhao used a more intimate set-up: just herself, Richards operating the camera, and an assistant.

One man, Bob Wells, the avuncular leader of a nomad community network, talks tenderly and frankly about the death of his son – a loss he revealed to Zhao only a few days before the scene was shot. “I suggested that I could write that into his next scene, and though it took him a while to feel comfortable doing that, on the day he came to me and said ‘I think I’m ready’,” she recalls. “So I showed him the pages of script that I’d written for him, which were effectively his own words from the evening we’d spoken.”

Doesn’t this feel exploitative? “At the end of the day, these aren’t documentaries or even docudramas, but fictional films,” she says. “It’s not like we just show up and interview people, and they might say something they regret. Most of the time, I’ve known them for a while, and they trust me, and they’ve seen how we work. And at the end you show them the film, and ask them if they want to cut anything, or if they want to change their name, and I haven’t yet had anyone say they don’t like it.” (In a recent interview, Wells described his role as “very, very healing … a gift to my son’s life and of my life to the movie”.)

Zhao herself had a comfortable upbringing: her father was an executive at a steel company and her mother a hospital worker (they divorced in her teens). But she sees the nomads – financially precarious and culturally unmoored – as kindred spirits. “Wherever I’ve gone in life, I’ve always felt like an outsider,” she says. “So I’m naturally drawn towards other people who live on the periphery, or don’t live mainstream lifestyles.”

As a child in Beijing, she lost herself in Japanese comic books, or manga. “It was my best friend,” she says, “and all I did until I was 14 years old.” These became harder to obtain while boarding at Brighton College in the 1990s, but there was much local culture to absorb in its stead: Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde in the school library, and gigs by the Britpop band Suede after hours.

But she’s been able to indulge her childhood fondness for fantasy in Eternals, an all-star sci-fi epic with Angelina Jolie, Kit Harington, Richard Madden and Salma Hayek. (In fact, she’d been trying to get a foot in Marvel’s door for years when they invited her in 2018 to pitch for the gig.) Unusually for a superhero project, it was largely filmed far from the green-screened confines of the studio – locations include Hampstead Heath and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History – with the same stabilised handheld camera set-up used on Nomadland.

This is how she wants to work in future, she explains: “Like Alfonso Cuarón, or Ang Lee, shifting between allegorical, fantastical stories and small, intimate dramas, and applying the same techniques and technologies to each.”

To her, cinema still feels like a young medium – as unfixed as she was in her Brighton days, soaking up new influences in an unfamiliar halfway zone between where she was from and where she was headed. “I was that perfect emo age, and it was a very creative time,” she laughs. “I fitted in on that grey beach very well.”

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