'Nomadland' director Chloé Zhao finds balance in an unbalanced world

Adam Graham, The Detroit News
·6 min read

Feb. 23—For Chloé Zhao, opening day for "Nomadland" looked a lot different than an average movie premiere.

Last Friday, the writer and director of the acclaimed drama — the current frontrunner for Best Picture at April's Academy Awards, herself the current frontrunner for the Best Director trophy — was getting ready to fire up the movie on streaming and toast its online debut.

"We're having a watch party," says Zhao, on a Zoom call from her home in Los Angeles last week, her 3-year-old dog Rooster running around just outside the view of her webcam. "We're all going to turn on Hulu and watch it and order a lot of chicken wings" — the crew's diet while making the movie consisted of chicken wings and tequila, she jokes — "and talk through the whole movie."

It's certainly a fitting celebration for our times, during an ongoing pandemic that has flipped the world as we know it — Hollywood included — on its ear.

But for Zhao, the streaming experience is no match for seeing a movie on the big screen, and she worries about the effects the changing face of movie distribution will have on the future of her art form.

"There's no point in denying a tidal wave is coming, and it's impossible to reverse," says Zhao, whose next movie is the big budget Marvel entry "Eternals," which she's currently finishing post-production on and is due to be released in November. "Part of me wishes our industry leaders, all studios and streaming, could put their healthy competition aside and have more of a dialogue for the longevity of the industry.

"Because even for a streaming service, it's very important that the next generation of filmmakers come from a place where 500 people are in a dark room, strangers, sharing a human experience, and that ignites something in that person wanting to tell stories," she says. "That's important for providing content. So we should really think about longevity, instead of who has more subscribers now and which studio is No. 1."

It's a speech she may be repeating two months from now on the Oscar telecast, when all of Hollywood is listening.

Zhao was born and raised in Beijing to a factory manager father and a hospital worker mother. She doesn't remember going to the movies as a child in China, and when she attended boarding school in London as a teenager, she didn't speak English so Hollywood movies were lost on her. "I watched 'The Matrix' in theaters and I had no idea what was happening," she says with a laugh.

By 2005, however, she had a transformative experience watching "Brokeback Mountain" in a theater.

"I remember having these two guys in front of me with their families, big dudes with their baseball caps on, and I was sobbing, and one of them turned around and handed me some tissues," says Zhao, 38. "I really thought that was incredible, it was a really vivid memory for me."

Review: 'Nomadland' explores a different kind of American dream

After earning her bachelor's degree in political science at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, 90 miles west of Boston, Zhao attended film school at New York University where she had Spike Lee as a professor.

Her first film was 2015's "Songs My Brothers Taught Me," a drama set on a South Dakota Indian reservation, in which she introduced the world to her brand of intimate, naturalistic storytelling, with broad, widescreen landscapes (her partner, Joshua James Richards, is her cinematographer) and non-actors cast in roles where they played themselves, or slight variations of themselves.

Her follow-up, 2017's "The Rider" — the story of a rodeo star struggling with his station in life after a life-threatening injury — won across-the-board praise. It also earned the attention of two-time Academy Award-winning actress Frances McDormand, who approached Zhao with an idea of turning Jessica Bruder's 2017 book "Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century" into a film. The two got to work and filmed "Nomadland" in across South Dakota, Nevada and California in late 2018.

The film stars McDormand as Fern, a van dweller who goes from town to town across the American West and Midwest following seasonal work and living out of her vehicle. It's a deeply soulful work about community, connection and the human spirit, and after premiering on the film festival circuit in the fall it has garnered rave reviews and helped catapult Zhao to the top of her generation's class of filmmakers.

The leap to "Eternals" — which stars Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjiani and Salma Hayek, and is the next big piece of the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe — is rather sizable, both in terms of scope and budget ("Nomadland" had a reported budget of between $4-$6 million, while "Eternals" cost a reported $200 million), but Zhao says it will stay rooted in her core values as a storyteller.

"The thing that draws me is to explore these deep human emotions that are very universal, set against some backdrops that say something about our anxieties and who we are in the society we live in, where we're going, and ask these big questions that we all ask at different stages of our lives," she says.

"But also, film for me is a visual medium, so how it looks — the cinematic language of the film — is very, very important. Otherwise I would rather do theater. So that's as much to me as the story and character, is how it's made, and what it looks like."

How those movies are made and the ways they'll be exhibited in the future — in theaters or at home on streaming services — is uncertain, but Zhao says it's her job to adjust accordingly and to keep moving forward as an artist.

"This need for us to come together as strangers and to be told a story in a space together, that's something that's in our DNA, but it may have to take a different shape or form," says Zhao. "In this pandemic, we're all separated, and we're all using technology to try and be together, and that desire is going to push technology further. I cannot predict where it's going to take us, but as a filmmaker, it is my responsibility to not pretend it isn't happening and to just say, 'I have to make a film this way, or nothing.' I need to get with it and try to find that balance."

If she can balance the worlds of "Nomadland" and Marvel, then we're in pretty good hands.


Rated R: for some full nudity

Currently in theaters and on Hulu