Three Oscars for Nomadland, an interview with Chloé Zhao

Nomadland won the Oscar for best film, while the film director, Chloé Zhao, made history as the first woman of colour to win the Academy Award for best director. Frances McDormand also won the Oscar for best actress in this film based on the book by Jessica Bruder. The story: Following the economic collapse of a company town in rural Nevada, Fern - Frances McDormand - packs her van and sets off on the road exploring a life outside of conventional society as a modern-day nomad. The third feature film from director Chloé Zhao, NOMADLAND features real nomads Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells as Fern's mentors and comrades in her exploration through the vast landscape of the American West. 

What is NOMADLAND about at its core?

It’s a film about one woman, who after losing her way of life living in a community, in a town, is forced to venture into the world alone. We set out to tell the story of her journey through different landscapes, how she meets all kinds of interesting people along the way.

What drew you to the story told in Jessica Bruder's book?

I loved Jessica's colorful, interesting characters and the rich world that she presented to us through her years of research. I heard about it when Frances McDormand contacted me with her producing partner Peter Spears. They had optioned the book and came to me with it. I read it, met with Peter and it was a 'yes' right away.

Frances gives a remarkable performance. What does she bring to the role of Fern?

Frances brings a sense of humor and a personality to Fern that I wanted. She brings humor and warmth to the role as well as being a docent, or guide for the other characters. She was able to be there and be with these people — the nomads we were working with.

Where did you draw your inspiration from for the character of Fern?

A big part of the creation of Fern’s character is who Fran is in real life. Fran herself was a big inspiration for me.

How much of Fern would you say is in Frances?

You’d have to ask her - laughs ! I can't tell. For me it's very hard because I would stare at Fern in the edit and I'd see Fran. I don’t even know who I know anymore. Is it Fern or is it Fran? There are definitely differences, obviously she's an actor portraying a character, but I like to think there's a lot in common between them. Fran had also talked to me about the 'what if?' game. What if she hadn't become an actress? This nomadic life could have been her life.

Fern has a wonderful child-like character in some ways, doesn't she?

Yes, and what attracted Fern to Fran is that is how she  is in real life. I compare Fran to the legendary comic Buster Keaton because she has that quality in her body language. I think that humor is important for the character so that the piece doesn't become too heavy and melancholy. Frances snaps us out of that with her own essence.

What's extraordinary about the film is that alongside Frances and David, there are non-actors playing themselves, who are real van dwellers and nomads. What was behind that decision?

For me it was about setting up an ecosystem. It was about getting Fran to blend in with the others and the film not looking like a big Hollywood production. It was challenging because that also meant working with the nomads and their schedule and they're not always stationary. So, in the producing stage we set up an ecosystem that worked and once we got on the road things actually happened very organically.

Was it a given that Frances would take the leading role?

The reality was that I needed Fran and I needed Fern to tell this story, I needed someone to be the 'listener' who was iconic enough that the audience could go, 'if that lady can sit there and listen with that expression on her face, I will listen to Swankie's story as well,' and to the other nomads’ stories. And that's something Frances McDormand can do so well. Without many words or actions, she can just sit there and command the kind of attention that is needed for this film. So she was perfect for the role.

How did you gain the trust of this community of van dwellers?

What helped was that Jessica Bruder had done extensive research and spent a lot of time on the road where she had met some really incredible people and got to know them. So once we had Jessica's blessing, that was definitely a way in for me to get to know them. Some people were surprised we wanted to tell their story. For me, though, it was all about going into their worlds, learning about their lives and listening to their stories. Actually, most of the people who we meet in the film are just like most non-actors I've worked with before. And then there's Fran, who made it easier — who wouldn't want to work with Fran? That helped! Fran treated the nomads like big movie stars!

Was it challenging getting them to open up for the film?

It's my third time as a filmmaker going to a community that's not my own and trying to convince people to share very personal details of their lives for us. I find it involves talking about the things that can connect us instead of things that can potentially divide us.

You appear to take a naturalistic approach. The non-actors are seamlessly woven into the fabric of the film. How did you achieve that documentary-like authenticity in a fictional film?

From the start, the question was: How do we incorporate these characters into this film and at the same time, allow Fern's journey to take the audience through the movie? We're pragmatic in the sense that to shine light on the lives of these people, and get the audience's attention, we needed a performance like Fran's as the anchor. But we did not want her journey to overtake the colors and the brightness of the other characters. We needed them to coexist harmoniously, and that was the challenge and what we hoped to achieve.

Can you talk about the majesty of the landscapes and what they offer you as a filmmaker?

That's what inspired me to make films! I come from the charismatic school of filmmaking, I always make that joke! Filmmaker Wong Kar-wai has been a huge inspiration for me even though he makes films in the city. HAPPY TOGETHER - 1997 - was the first film I saw that made me want to make films. It's the same with the director Terrence Malick; his landscapes make his characters feel like they're part of something bigger, so you feel like we're all interconnected through this nature that's around us. For this film, I drew inspiration from the landscapes of the American West.

What was it like actually hitting the road?

When you make a road movie, anything can happen, you can do anything you want. Having a bigger budget than the films that I have done in the past allowed me to get a production designer. I could build the inside of a van on a stage and that allowed me many more choices as a director, to do interesting shots in the van. We set some rules: that we were not going to shoot things that were not real. We were going to travel to all the places you see in the film - van dweller gatherings like the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, in Quartzite, Arizona - for real at the right time of year. So there were a lot of limitations we set for ourselves. As a result, the movement of the camera feels real. It feels like you're entering these people's world, so there's an authenticity to it.

How did you write all these characters? Can you discuss the process?

We always go in with some kind of preparation and that allowed us to be spontaneous and spend time with people, listening to their stories. My writing is more like the skeleton, the structure, and then I ask: 'how can I bring the story and characters in naturally?' Then on the day we are shooting there's also a bit of writing and rewriting I do. And in the edit there's another layer when we see how things can fit in through the language of editing. It's a continuous effort.

Do you think it worked so well because of your multiple roles: you wrote the film, directed, produced, and edited it?

I like that! I like to take credit for all of that - laughs. In our case, it was just something that we decided to do because there were so many different challenges. For one thing, we knew we had very little time for filming, because we had to hit all the seasons to film everything authentically, like the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, and we don't know where all these nomads are going to be when they are not at the gatherings. Sometimes it is easier to just do it all yourself!

What was the biggest challenge while shooting the film?

Just trying to keep up. Literally someone sent me a video of us pulling out of a parking lot in a caravan to get to another motel and another gas station. You just get in a van and you go and you leave behind all of these people you've connected to and that is repeated again and again. You do this every week and it's emotionally exhausting.

The music is beautiful, can you talk about the score and why you chose the lyrical music of the Italian composer, Ludovico Einaudi?

The filmmakers I really love, who I mentioned earlier, have always worked with preexisting scores, for example in popular music.  I wanted to go in that direction and I didn't want the music to upset the delicate balance we were aiming to achieve. So, I literally googled beautiful classical music inspired by nature. I'm not kidding! Then I saw a YouTube video of Ludovico Einaudi's "Elegy for the Arctic". He basically played the piano on a floating platform in the Arctic sea while the mountains were collapsing behind him. I discovered his Seven Days Walking album which he composed while walking in the Alps. So in our film you almost feel what he's experiencing, when Fern walks through the Badlands in South Dakota. Even though Ludovico and the fictional Fern are so different as individuals and in two different parts of the world, they share a commonality with the connection of nature. That's why using his music was a no-brainer for me.

Do you think this story could indeed be told in any part of the world or is it intrinsically American?

I think the themes and spirit of the story are relevant in any part of the world, and in any walk of life. The story looks at the question: When you lose everything that defines who you are, can you find yourself again? However at the same time, there's also something quintessentially American about the film, which I love: the American road itself and the  landscapes and people that you encounter in the movie — they are part of the pioneer culture of the American West.

Can you explain what you've discovered about the nomads, at least the individuals you met?

Some people belong to the road and they belong to that kind of lifestyle, that is the case for example with nomadic tribes. Then there are others who need to be on the road because mainstream society has tossed them aside and they have to figure out another way to live and to find a level of comfort. I like to think Fern is a nomad at heart and there's nothing romantic about it. Most of her life, she's lived one way and she's lived happily and when she loses everything, it could turn into a tragedy, but she has a chance to rediscover herself. And she chooses life on the road. It doesn't mean it's easy, but that's where her heart belongs.

There is sadness in Fern's story, but her journey is hopeful and optimistic isn't it?

Yes, Fern finds community in nature as she evolves, in the wilderness, in rocks, trees, stars, a hurricane, she's very much okay on her own. It's important not to give people who are interested in this lifestyle false hope; the road is not for the faint of heart. But it shows that if we find peace in solitude, we can still lead a fulfilling life.

What do you think audiences will discover about this world and take away?

People can take away what they want to take away from the film. We see the hardship these people face, but also the strength and the joy. I hope that they feel loss because there is sadness and that they also get excited about the adventures Fern and these people have, like kayaking, building a home. Any political and social messages there may be are peripheral. Whenever I make a film I always think that I want my family back in China who don't speak much English, and don't particularly care about what's happening here in America, to watch and relate to the characters. And to do that I focus on human stories that are universal. Essentially, NOMADLAND is about all those things that unite us as people, it's about friendship and love.

Photos: Disney 2021 © Trailer: Searchlight Pictures