The Front-Runner: With Nomadland, Chloé Zhao is on the road to Oscars history
Like everyone, Chloé Zhao is feeling restless. "I want to go to Glacier National Park. That's a place I've always wanted to go," the 39-year-old filmmaker says, fantasizing about post-pandemic travel. "I think I will go north, [up] the coast, and then go east."
Montana might have to wait, though, because she's got a little ceremony to hit first. With her third feature, Nomadland, nominated for six Oscars — and prognosticators' current front-runner for not only Best Picture, but Best Director for Zhao (the first woman of color ever nominated in the category) — she'll be expected at the sure-to-be-unorthodox Academy Awards on April 25 to cap off the drama's astonishing journey. The film's solid-gold awards run began with its September premiere at Venice, where it won the Golden Lion, and hit its peak (thus far) at the Golden Globes at the end of February: Zhao made history as only the second woman ever, and first of Asian descent, to win the Globe for Best Director, and Nomadland became the first female-directed feature to win Best Drama.
The day before the Globes, Zhao walks briskly into a Los Angeles studio, apologizing for being a little late due to traffic from her home in Ojai, about 80 miles away. Conveniently, though, she's a low-prep cover star; she twists her long hair into braids and is promptly camera-ready in her own T-shirt, pushing up the sleeves to reveal a horse tattoo she got while making her second film, The Rider, and taking off her shoes to pose barefoot — her preferred mode, she says, sometimes even on set.
The film for which she's being recognized is no fussier than the woman who made it. Inspired by Jessica Bruder's 2017 nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, the drama is an understated chronicle of a singular kind of life, lived without artificial embellishment. Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a widow who loses her job in the Great Recession, buys a van, and embraces a transient existence across America, taking seasonal jobs and joining the community of nomads who find each other, here and there, down the road.
"When I read Jessica's book, there's a core thing that I felt on the pages," Zhao says over Zoom a week after the photo shoot, sitting outside with her two cattle dogs running around behind her. "The sense of loss, a collective sense of loss. The loss of a lifestyle, the loss of security, the loss of loved ones, the loss of sense of self." She and McDormand created Fern to embody that feeling, acting as their own invented avatar within the world portrayed in Bruder's book.
"Every story needs the right tool to tell it, the right genre to tell it," Zhao says of her decision to adapt Nomadland poetically rather than factually. "It has to be a fiction if it has to be." To ground it in an authentic environment, however, she recruited real-life van-dwellers (some featured in the book) to play fictionalized versions of themselves, sharing their stories with Fern. Zhao spent time with the nomads as she shaped the film's narrative, getting to know them and working their insights and experiences into her ever-evolving script. "I don't think I will ever say I locked my script until the morning of my last day of shooting," she says; she couldn't always be sure who might show up for the bonfire, nor plan for exactly when one of her nomad-actors would feel ready to open up to her camera.
With those moments of fleeting connection being some of the film's most impactful, "this stuff is scary, looking back at it," Zhao admits. "You just aren't completely sure you're going to have it. And it's only after those moments, I say 'cut,' and I walk away and go, 'Oh my God, we have a movie.' That's the risk you take." It was worth it, though, for the feeling of looseness and spontaneity it lent the film: "It's a road movie. You want it to [have] a sense of discovery."
When Zhao first approached one of the book's wanderers, Swankie, to appear in the movie, "I didn't trust her," Swankie, 76, remembers, calling in from the desert. She was contemplating a major shoulder surgery at the time and did not appreciate being bothered about a movie. "[Chloé] was being a pain in the butt and I wanted her to go away." With some persistence, however, Zhao eventually won her over, and Swankie looks back on the experience with fondness — if also astonishment. "Chloé has some kind of magic," she says. "She just kind of comes along and waves her magic wand over things and stuff happens."
Swankie delivers a wrenching monologue to Fern, in which she confesses that she's ill and reflects upon the beautiful things she's seen in her life lived among nature. In reality, she's not sick (her ex-husband died of cancer, which is what Zhao incorporated into Swankie's story for the film). As well as she sells it, though, "my acting [isn't] Oscar-worthy," she insists. "My nomad life is Oscar-worthy."As well as she sells it, "my acting [isn't] Oscar-worthy," she insists. "My nomad life is Oscar-worthy."
Academy voters might just be discovering it, but that life has always called out to Zhao, who had been "obsessed with mobile living" since before she read Bruder's book, and for whom it continues to resonate. "I feel very nomadic, as a filmmaker," she says. "Sometimes it can be quite lonely. You just feel very transient." Wrapping on Nomadland was especially "emotionally challenging," she says, recalling how she sobbed as she drove away from Empire, Nevada. "Five months of getting close to people, and leaving… it does take a toll on me."
But she looks ahead, as nomads must, and moves forward. She's spent much of the pandemic editing her Marvel Cinematic Universe entry Eternals, which counts Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, and Kumail Nanjiani among its starry ensemble cast; it pushed her to continue "trying to be a better filmmaker." After that, she'll dip her toes in Universal's classic-monsters library with a sci-fi Western take on Dracula, which she expects she'll start writing during her upcoming travels (so look out, Glacier).
Those projects seem galaxies away (in Eternals' case, rather literally) from the stark majesty of Nomadland or the grounded drama of her first two films, acclaimed indies Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017), both of which were filmed on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and starred first-time actors. "I like trilogies," Zhao says. "For my first three films, the sense of home and identity is such a big [theme]," explored first in greater depth and then broader scope. Now she's ready for a new era (especially, she says, having just learned so much about visual effects) with fresh central concepts: time and immortality. "These are modern anxieties I think we all have," she says. "People spend a lot of money and effort, throughout history, trying to figure out how to achieve immortality. We can explore a lot from there."
This first chapter in Zhao's career could have a momentous finale, and the seductive question of eternal life awaits her next. But with the world slowly reopening, one prospect on the horizon thrills her most. "I'm already outfitting my vehicle," she says, ever the nomad. "I'm so eager to hit the road again."
For more on the 2021 Oscars race, order the May issue of Entertainment Weekly — with covers featuring Chloé Zhao, Viola Davis, and Regina King — or find it on newsstands beginning April 16, and keep up with EW's Awardist online. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
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