In a time of deep political divides, it made sense to Chloé Zhao to avoid over-political messages in her new film, Nomadland, about a woman in her sixties who travels across the American West as a van-dwelling nomad, after losing it all in the Great Recession.
‘I didn’t want to give anyone an excuse not to relate to this,’ says Zhao, who directed, wrote, edited and co-produced the film. ‘Everyone has experienced moments of loss, moments where you have to get to know yourself or need to be a part of nature. As humans, these are things we can understand.’
But that’s not to say the film doesn’t have things to say. Based on Jessica Bruder’s investigative book of the same name, it tells the tale of a largely neglected generation, with a cast largely in their sixties or older.
‘We live in a culture that celebrates youth; we’ve forgotten how important our elders are,’ says Zhao. ‘Instead of emphasising their wisdom, as many indigenous cultures do, the older people get, the more disposable they are.’
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Oscar-winner Frances McDormand plays lead character Fern, and was the one who first approached Zhao about the project.
‘Frances’ every move has an interesting dynamic that makes you unable to keep your eyes off her,’ says Zhao, who spent five months filming with McDormand, travelling through the wastelands of South Dakota to Arizona in campervans. ‘She doesn’t overthink.’
Zhao is known for her use of non-actors. Many characters in Nomadland, such as Linda May, Charlene Swankie and Bob Wells, are real-life nomads playing versions of themselves. Found during months of infiltrating nomad communities with the help of Bruder, the script was written around their individual characteristics. How did she earn their trust?
‘The most important thing is to get past the political stuff, the stuff that society has told us makes us different from each other,’ says Zhao. ‘Once you get to the thing that is human, like asking about their first kiss, you truly get to know someone and they trust you in a different way.’
Zhao didn’t always want to be a filmmaker. She grew up in Beijing with dreams of being a Manga artist.
‘I didn’t do well in school,’ she says. ‘I spent most of my time putting the covers of school text books over Manga and reading that.’
Watching Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together made her fall in love with cinema, but she didn’t properly pick up a camera until much later. After completing her schooling in the UK and LA, and studying politics in Massachusetts, she moved to New York to do a film production course at NYU. It was there that her interest in the desolate American West began.
‘I’ve always been interested in those on the periphery of society, maybe because I felt like an outsider who didn’t belong my whole life,’ says Zhao. ‘Living in New York, I craved to be close to nature and decided to explore a reservation in South Dakota that reminded me of Mongolia, where I spent time growing up.’
It was in South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation she found a rebellious teen who would later take the lead in her first film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, and real-life cowboy Brady Jandreau, who was the star of career-defining The Rider. In this second film, Zhao reinvented the Western and her use of non-actors became her signature. Though she’s quick to note that the tactic was borne out of not being able to afford or attract good enough actors.
‘When making films in these very specific places, it’s very hard for actors to completely transform themselves, unless they are literally the best in the world,’ says Zhao. ‘Something I learned in film school was that if you want the best car salesman, go get a car salesman.’
Next, Zhao sails into the big-budget arms of Marvel Studios with Eternals. Starring Angelina Jolie and Gemma Chan, it features the first superhero LGBTQ+ storyline and truly representative cast, including deaf actor Lauren Ridloff.
‘It feels like more pressure, mainly because more people’s jobs are at stake, but the creative process isn’t that different,’ says Zhao. ‘To me, being a film director is about problem-solving, whether on a reservation with three cowboys or working with CGI.’
Nomadland will premiere on Disney+ on April 30 and will be in cinemas in May.
This article appears in the February 2021 issue of ELLE UK.
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