Director Chloe Zhao attends the otherwise cancelled Telluride
Film Festival at Los Angeles drive-in screening of Nomadland
on Friday, September 11, 2020, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena,
California. (Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
With quiet humanity, Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland makes
By Jake Coyle
The Associated Press
September 17, 2020
NEW YORK (AP) — What’s it like to be an international film
festival sensation without hardly leaving your home? Like most
things during the pandemic, it’s surreal.
Except for trips to the editing room, director Chloe Zhao has
mostly stayed at the Ojai, California, home she shares with
three chickens and two dogs, even as her film, Nomadland,
has won raves around the globe. At the Venice Film Festival, it
won the top prize, the Golden Lion. At the Toronto International
Film Festival, it was hailed by many critics as the best movie
of the year and a leading Oscar contender.
Yet the only in-person feedback Zhao has received was at a
drive-in screening in Los Angeles put on by the otherwise
cancelled Telluride Film Festival. There, beneath ashen skies
reddened by nearby forest fires, she took the stage, spaced six
feet apart from her cast, while people enthusiastically honked
their horns and flashed their headlights — the nearest thing
possible this year to a standing ovation.
"You could see the smoke from the fire in the headlights,"
Zhao says. "It was like Mad Max or something. It was a
very fitting experience for the film."
Fitting because Nomadland deals with solitude and
community, grief, and perseverance. In the film, which
Searchlight Pictures will release December 4, Frances McDormand
stars as Fern, a 60-year-old widow living in her van. She takes
to the road after her Nevada town’s very zip code is erased when
the gypsum mine that employed most of its inhabitants closed.
Tired of the disappointments of more conventional and
materialistic life, Fern meanders the American West while taking
odd jobs (including a stint at an Amazon fulfillment center in
South Dakota) and meeting fellow wanderers. The film comes from
Jessica Bruder’s book Nomadland: Surviving America in
the 21st Century, and many of the drifters encountered by
Fern are the real people from Bruder’s pages or those Zhao met
along the way. Nomadland is a portrait of modern-day
independence on the American frontier.
"America is as diverse as its landscape," Zhao said in an
interview by Zoom. "One thing nice to see is just how much a
conversation about how to poop in a bucket can bring together
people from all walks of life. If you’re going to have a
discussion about how a human being can use a bathroom in a van,
none of that stuff matters."
"There is a way for us to connect," she continued. "Making
the film gave me that hope. I know it’s tough these days, but I
have that hope."
Like Zhao’s previous films, Nomadland is naturalistic,
rough-hewn, and soulful. Her acclaimed 2018 breakout, The
Rider, about a Lakota cowboy, was made with non-professional
actors on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Nomadland is
a modest increase in scale for Zhao, introducing Hollywood stars
into her western neo-realism. But a much bigger leap is coming;
she’s currently in post-production on The Eternals, a
$200-million Marvel movie scheduled for release in February.
Featuring the franchise’s first lesbian, gay, bisexual,
transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) character, the cast
includes Gemma Chan, Brian Tyree Henry, Kumail Nanjiani, and
Zhao, 38, has quickly covered a lot of ground. Born in
Beijing, she attended boarding school in England, then college
in Massachusetts, and film school in New York before moving to
Pine Ridge and later to California. The romance of the road in
Nomadland is something she knows from experience.
"Every year or so I feel the urge to hit the road," Zhao
says. "There is something about taking a shower at 5:30 in the
morning at a truck stop. You walk outside and you see the big
trucks coming in and you see the sun rising over the mountains.
I forget about all the problems. I forget about all the things
that I think define who I am, and just feel that transience,
people coming in and out and existing."
During the filming, Zhao and McDormand often lived in their
own vans. Zhao named hers Akira. Many of the nomads of
Nomadland were able to drive to the drive-in premiere. The
amount of honking, Zhao chuckles, made her worry for the
neighbors around Pasadena’s Rose Bowl.
The response to Nomadland is owed in part to the
excitement around Zhao as a filmmaker — a rise that could have
historic reverberations in an unusual awards season. Just the
fifth woman to direct a Golden Lion winner, she could become the
first Asian woman nominated for best director at the Academy
But Nomadland has also resonated for how it speaks to
the moment. The film, much of it shot at golden hour on high
plains, is lyrically tender about mortality and making the most
of life when you can. Taking a line spoken in the film by the
itinerant evangelist Bob Wells, Nomadland is dedicated
"to the ones who had to depart."
To Zhao, that’s a tribute not just to the deceased but to
anyone we’re separated from.
"One of the last things we filmed was Bob Wells’ final
conversation with Fern. The way he articulated this lifestyle,
that there’s no final goodbye, that I’ll see you down the road,
that really stuck with me," says Zhao, whose own life as a
filmmaker means assembling communities and then moving on. "We
all had to walk away and compose ourselves."
"It’s speaking to: We’re all connected," she adds. "We’ll all
see each other again someday."