Before her Marvel spotlight, Chloé Zhao made her masterpiece

Devan Coggan
·8 min read

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Chloé Zhao's stark, intimate drama Nomadland — starring Frances McDormand as a widow traveling America by van — has been applauded as one of the best films of the year, playing around the world at the Toronto International Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, and the Venice Film Festival (where it won the coveted Golden Lion, making Zhao the first woman in a decade to win the fest's top prize).

But when EW spoke with Zhao in September, she was at her home in Ojai, Calif., miles from the usual glitzy festival circuit. (Before the interview, she apologized for any loud background noise: She was sitting in her backyard, and her chickens were being particularly chatty.) Thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the only time she's been able to watch her film with an audience was at Nomadland's socially-distanced drive-in premiere in Los Angeles.

"I'm really excited to see people coming together, safely of course, and it's great to see how much that experience is rejuvenating people," the 38-year-old director says. "That has been really, really nice, having been isolated for so long."

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In some ways, Nomadland (hitting select theaters on Dec. 4) seems strangely suited for this moment: Based on Jessica Bruder's book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, the film is a portrait of struggle and solitude, following various drifters — many of them women, and many of them older — who've taken to wandering around the American West. These modern-day nomads are solitary and spend most of their time traveling alone by van, but they've also formed a tight-knit community, working together at the same seasonal jobs and swapping van organization tips.

McDormand stars as Fern, a widow who hits the road after her husband dies and a gypsum plant closure turns her home base of Empire, Nevada, into a ghost town. She picks up work where she can — a shift at an Amazon warehouse here, a janitorial gig at a campsite there — but mostly she just meanders, meeting fellow wanderers and taking in the beauty of the American frontier. McDormand is also one of the film's only professional actors: Zhao chose to cast real-life nomads, just as she cast non-professional actors in her previous films. Some of the figures profiled in Bruder's book, including Linda May, Charlene Swankie, and Bob Wells, play versions of themselves in Nomadland, crossing paths with Fern and advising her on her journey.

Nomadland may be Zhao's largest and most ambitious film yet, but she completed it while also juggling one of the biggest jobs in Hollywood: Eternals, a century-spanning Marvel Cinematic Universe epic about immortal beings. Marvel tapped Zhao to direct its next blockbuster after seeing her acclaimed previous film The Rider, and Eternals' starry cast includes Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, and Kumail Nanjiani. The two films couldn't be more different in terms of size, star power, or budget, but Zhao says that she's always been less concerned about scale than she has about story.

"I think the thing that’s most in common between these two films is I’m telling stories that I really want to tell about characters I love and with people I love working with," she explains. "I consider myself very lucky that has not changed."

Here, Zhao opens up about traveling by van with McDormand and what she learned from hitting the road.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you think back to those initial meetings with Frances McDormand, what was it that initially got you excited about this movie?

CHLOÉ ZHAO: I have always wanted to make a road movie because of the amount of time I’ve spent on the road in my life. Having a book that is so rich in research of a world that is so interesting, it was a world I wanted to step in and live in. And then I met [McDormand] as a human being and saw, “Wow, there’s a lot of who she is that I would love to be part of this character.” For the way I love to work, I couldn’t ask for a better combination.

In addition to Frances McDormand, you cast actual nomads to play themselves. How did you want to tell their stories?

It’s a very similar process as in my previous films: Sit down with them and get to know them. Hearing their stories, there might be elements where I go, “Oh, I think I could naturally incorporate that into the film.” Then on the day, they would have a script as a blueprint, and they would change things to how they would say it. They’re very good at telling their own stories. I think a lot of us are.

It’s interesting because a lot of times, you hear about directors who can be very rigid about their vision. Are you someone who more prefers to go with the flow?

I sometimes feel like if I say that, someone who I work with will say, “No, you’re a control freak.” [Laughs] The identity of the film itself, I feel like I can’t help but sometimes overcontrol it. But when that is solidified, it allows the details to be spontaneous. The language of the film is very strict: We’re only using these lenses, we’re only shooting this way, we’re only shooting this light. Things like that give the consistency, while little details are what make the film rich.

What was difficult about the shoot?

We would have so many nomads come into our lives, and then everyone [would] leave. We’d go to the beet harvest and meet people, and then leave after a couple of days. That kind of transience that Fern’s character experiences, we experienced making the film.

Your films often center on the modern American West, and you shoot them in such a gorgeous way. What is it about that part of the country that fascinates you?

I always used to make that joke that when you feel a bit lost, you go west. That’s sort of a historic movement that people do. There’s that pioneer spirit of that land, and it’s also full of tension in a way. It feels both new and old because it’s now predominantly farmland. It’s ranching land, and it’s too rugged to build and to grow, so there are things that are there, lying around from a hundred years ago. There’s something about that piece of landscape in a country that’s so young, and the things we talk about are so of today. To escape into the heartland and the American West is a very rejuvenating experience for me every time I go. I just feel like I’m part of something bigger.

You filmed this a little while ago, but watching this movie in 2020, I was struck by how relevant it seems for right now. These themes of unemployment and the rise of Amazon and people losing their jobs feel very timely. Is that something you’ve been thinking about, as you’ve been talking about this movie and promoting it?

We definitely didn’t plan it. [Laughs] We had no idea, to be honest. I started editing when the pandemic first started, when we first shut down in the U.S. around March. Even before the film went out, we didn’t know how people were going to react to it. We didn’t know if people were going to have the patience to watch a film like this right now. And the response has been overwhelming.

To me, my mind goes to something that feels a bit more universal, which is: In solitude, we can find ourself. In nature, we can heal. And in the community, we can find support. Those are the things we take for granted when things are going okay. And when things fall apart, we have to go back to some of the basic stuff that humanity has had since the very beginning to support itself — and to then find a new balance in our lives.

This is a film about community, but it’s also about solitude. It’s so interesting that so many of these nomads are solitary and travel by themselves, but they also gravitate toward that community and each other.

Yeah, they find a balance. You need that support system, so you feel free to be out there and travel, knowing that you have someone to call if your car breaks down. And then at the same time, you don’t ever completely feel alone when you’re out there in nature. I think that’s the transition a lot us [face]. It’s not an easy one because you don’t feel alone when you’re bombarded by text messages and news and people in our lives. We feel like, you’re alone if you sit by a river. That’s alone. But for many people, Swankie would tell you she feels less alone [there] than she probably does in a crowd.

You and Frances actually traveled by van. Did anything about the nomad life surprise you?

How much we can be brought together by discussion of how to use a bucket to use the bathroom! [Laughs] Everyone’s gotta poop! All the things that are so divisive these days don’t matter. When you’re on the road, when you don’t have a bathroom and you’re going to have to poop in a bucket, you realize you’re not that different from each other.

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