With less than four years between the Cannes Director’s Fortnight premiere of “The Rider” and the release of “Eternals” (at this writing, opening in theaters February 12, 2021), Chloé Zhao’s filmmaking path looks not unlike those of Ryan Coogler, Cate Shortland, Jon Watts, or Taika Waititi: Acclaimed festival darling sails into the big-budget arms of Marvel Studios.
However, none of her peers pulled off what Zhao has done. With star Frances McDormand and a cast almost entirely comprised of nomads found on the fly, Zhao shot the delicate road movie “Nomadland” in secret even as she tackled Hollywood’s biggest franchise machine. With “Nomadland” now scheduled for theatrical release December 4, Searchlight has positioned the movie as a serious Oscar contender playing all the major fall festivals — Venice, TIFF, and NYFF (as well as a drive-in premiere September 11 at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl produced in conjunction with Telluride).
A sensitive and nuanced portrait of a transient life, “Nomadland” pulls from Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” and the project originated with its star. McDormand has long admired the liberation of the nomadic life, and optioned the book with producing partner Peter Spears. (Her fictional character’s name, Fern, may as well be McDormand’s road name.) But the 38-year-old Zhao, who wrote the screenplay, made the story her own: She has crafted a mesmerizing immersion into the American West, populating the canvas with its real inhabitants and capturing the ecosystem so well that McDormand’s own star power melts into her surroundings. “We put our heads together in this little bubble and didn’t really think about the outside world,” Zhao said.
Such narrative prowess would prove tricky for any filmmaker, but in Zhao’s hands it gels. “I’m not the kind of filmmaker who just makes films,” she said. “I have to be in love with my subject matter and want to learn more about it. Someone once said to me that passion doesn’t sustain, but curiosity does. I have to be excited by little things I discover along the way.”
For “Nomadland,” Zhao’s discovery started with McDormand. They met a day before the 2018 Independent Spirit Awards, where McDormand was nominated for Best Actress and Zhao received a $50,000 grant for women directors. At the show, their enthusiasm for the secret project couldn’t be restrained. “Thank you for being who you are,” Zhao addressed the actress from the stage. Winning her own Spirit Award for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” McDormand thanked “All my new friends who I hope I get to work with in the very near future — a couple of them, we already have a contract,” then looked out into the crowd, adding, “Chloé? Yes!”
Zhao laughed at the memory. “The excitement was there, so I don’t blame Fran for giving me a wink onstage,” she said. They rushed into production that fall, just as Marvel announced Zhao as director of “Eternals.” With that production scheduled for 2019, Zhao and McDormand got to work. Like others on the “Nomadland” team, they lived out of their own vans during the four-month shoot in the fall of 2018. (Zhao, a lifelong manga fan, named hers Akira.)
While the project marked Zhao’s first time directing a movie star, “Nomadland” represents familiar territory. With “Songs My Brother Taught Me” and “The Rider,” she made two celebrated dramas about marginalized people. Her third feature contains a familiar face, but it again explores an underrepresented side of American society from the inside out. “We had no idea who we’d come into contact with on a daily basis,” Zhao said.
“Nomadland” takes place in 2011, with Fern abandoning the town of Empire, Nevada after its sheetrock factory closes. (Even its zip code was discontinued.) The migratory widow lives out of her van, and Fern travels from a midwestern Amazon Fulfillment Center to a beet sugar harvesting plant, tourist attractions, desert campgrounds, to the Pacific Northwest. McDormand worked among actual employees at many locations.
“Everything happened very quickly because of what we wanted to capture, the seasons, and the scale of landscapes we were trying to get in the American west when it was actually doable,” Zhao said. “We went from high desert to low desert to the plains to the ocean.” (Part of the movie was shot at an actual outdoor nomad gathering known as the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous.)
Zhao works wonders with vast, open scenery and lost faces gazing out at the void, positioning her as a natural heir to Terrence Malick. She was floored when Malick agreed to take an early look at “Nomadland,” which includes ample footage from the Badlands of South Dakota, where Malick made his first feature almost 50 years ago. Malick offered some notes — and an encouraging reaction. (A rep for the press-shy director said, “He flipped for it.”)
The endorsement resonated. During a two-week guest-teaching stint at the University of Oregon, Zhao told students that she hailed from the “Terrence Malick school of filmmaking.” “He said very positive, encouraging things,” Zhao said, adding that she hoped to make “the pilgrimage” to meet him soon. Malick also had kind words for her cinematographer, Joshua James Richards, who happens to be Zhao’s boyfriend. “We were geeking out a lot,” Zhao said.
Indeed, “Nomadland” combines Malickian wonder while training a complex lens on people living on the margins. The movie roams alongside its character, pushing the story along in small, poignant encounters as it amplifies the constant solitude of Fern’s life. Some measure of conflict arises as she struggles through a hand-to-mouth existence and shrugs off the romantic overtures of another traveler she meets along the way (David Strathairn). Ultimately, it celebrates the liberating nature of Fern’s journey toward self-discovery. “I’m not homeless,” she says, “I’m just houseless.”
The naturalistic approach meant Zhao’s script evolved with the workers they cast. Producers would arrive on location in advance of the shoot to record iPhone videos with possible characters, then send them to Zhao so she could work on her revisions.
“You could watch her script adapt to the personalities and stories that came from those conversations,” said Zhao’s directing assistant, actress and filmmaker Hannah Peterson, who said her work on “The Florida Project” helped prepare for the assignment. “You could see her listening to these individuals telling their stories, and then collaborating with them to fold their own narratives into the script. Chloé really allows people to choose how they want to represent themselves. The safety of fiction filmmaking, in my opinion, actually pulls out a level of honesty and authenticity that I think would be impossible if this was a documentary purporting to truth.”
Mollye Asher, Zhao’s longtime producer, said she got used to watching nomads process the idea that someone might want to put them on camera. “There’s sometimes a perspective shift or the question of, ‘Really? Why me?’ when we’re asking people to be themselves and not play a part,” Ashe said. “Sometimes people feel like they are not important enough to be in a movie. Once they meet Chloé, they open up. She makes people feel special. Chloé truly wants to hear their story and she wants them to tell it.” (The project was made in accordance with SAG guidelines, and Zhao said all non-actors were paid for their work.)
The shoot moved so quickly from place to place that Zhao had to squeeze in prep work wherever she could — she recalled holding one meeting in a Planet Fitness parking lot — and the work cycle was constant. “They’d find 50 people and film them, then show me the videos the night before and I’d choose the people,” Zhao said. “It was very spontaneous because a lot of time we couldn’t really cast those people until we got there.”
The faces drifting through “Nomadland” tend to share a few qualities beyond their itinerant lives. Like Fern, they’re largely older white men and women, a demographic that might seem far removed from the indigenous subjects of her previous features. But Zhao saw a throughline in this homogeneity. “When I was in college, I spent a lot of time studying American politics, because I wanted to understand why Chinese people don’t blend in like everybody else,” she said. “Why do they all live together?”
It didn’t take long to find some answers. “When you live in a house, you are able to choose the neighborhood you live in, and sometimes you protect yourself with people who look like you and like how you look,” she said. (She acknowledged that the younger generation of nomads were more diverse: “If you go online and search #vanlife, it’s a very different demographic, but that’s not what the film is about.”)
Zhao also made a deliberate effort to depoliticize the story, much of which takes place in Trump country. “I tried to focus on the human experience and things that I feel go beyond political statements to be more universal — the loss of a loved one, searching for home,” she said. “I keep thinking about my family back in China — how would they feel about a cowboy in South Dakota, or a woman in her 60s living in America?” she said. “If I make it too specific to any issues, I know it’s going to create a barrier. They’d go, ‘That’s their problem.’”
Zhao said she didn’t encounter “any kind of racism or bias during the time I spent on the road.” In the last few months, however, that’s changed. “Now, during the pandemic — and coming from China — I feel for the first time since I started living in America that I’m not sure want to hit the road for a while.”
The production predated Disney’s acquisition of Fox, but she said the high-stakes merger worked in her favor. The two projects no longer involved rival distributors and she edited them at the same time. “Sometimes, on Zoom, the exec on each side will make a joke about the other film, like, ‘Oh, I saw some of it!’,” she said. “Other than that, as a filmmaker, it hasn’t really affected me.”
While her methods were organic, “Nomadland” was still her first studio production and she received studio notes. This was particularly true in the editing process as she wove a roving story from footage that traversed the nation. “It was a mixture of stuff about character, balance, tone, pacing,” she said. “If you shoot unconventionally, you edit unconventionally, and it’s helpful to remain grounded so you don’t get lost.”
While Phase 4 of the MCU remains shrouded in secrecy, “Eternals” is already known as a boundary-breaking film with the series’ first LGBT character and an Indian hero played by Kumail Nanjiani. Zhao, who has the kind of gentle, muted presence embodied by her movies, shrugged off the pressure of the commercial enterprise. “I’ve been a fan of the MCU for over a decade, so it makes sense for me to jump into a Marvel movie,” she said. “I want to make films that last, that have a timeless feel to them, that aren’t just a flash in the pan with whatever topic is trending on Twitter right now. I’m not interested in that stuff.”
Despite this, Zhao captured the zeitgeist with “Nomadland” with a story about the ability to push forward even as the world as we know it fades to dust. “The world is trying to divide us,” she said. “In the past several months, we’ve all gone through a version of what Fern has felt — this feeling of great loss to a life that you used to have. It’s just this void you feel, the need to go back to normal, which leads to acceptance and how you can grow to ultimately feel OK with your place in the world. That’s what a lot of people need right now.”
Searchlight Pictures releases “Nomadland” in theaters on Friday, December 4. Watch the latest teaser for the film below.