After becoming the first Asian Woman to win best director at the Golden Globes for "Nomadland", her tenderhearted portrait of modern American life, Chloé Zhao trains her lens on … alien superheroes?
The dusty red Badlands of South Dakota form a harsh and unforgiving landscape that supports only the hardiest of lifeforms. But for the director Chloé Zhao, those same windswept plains and dramatic rock formations offer fertile ground for rich stories and vivid characters.
In the autumn of 2018, Zhao, who was born in Beijing but has lived most of her adult life in America, drove into the heart of Badlands National Park with a skeleton crew and a cast led by Frances McDormand, plus four individuals she describes as real-life, van-dwelling, modern-day nomads. For four months, this somewhat unconventional band rode on bumpy terrain and slept beneath the stars while filming Nomadland.
After premiering last September, Nomadland would go on to become the first film to win the top prize at both the Venice and Toronto international film festivals in the same year. And last month, Zhao became the first woman of Asian descent (and only the second woman ever) to win best director at the Golden Globe Awards, where the film was also awarded best drama.
“Nomadland at its core is a pilgrimage through grief and healing,” said Zhao, accepting her award via video. “So for everyone who has gone through this difficult journey at some point in their lives, this is for you.”
She was, in a way, speaking to those who would aspire to follow in the footsteps of her own journey. Zhao’s win at the Golden Globes was largely depicted as a victory for filmmakers from China, where realistic depictions of modern life are a rarity and even Zhao has got into hot water for comments viewed as critical of her homeland. The news was viewed more than 280 million times on Weibo by the following morning and Zhao was being described in state-affiliated media as “the pride of China”. Born Zhao Ting in 1982 to a father who was the general manager of a Chinese state-owned steel company, the filmmaker recalls how her early life in Beijing gave her a hunger for wilder landscapes and, in fact, would form a strong parallel to her life’s work. Her stepmother, Song Dandan, is a well-known comedic actress who has long supported her cinematic ambitions, but even she is surprised by the extent of Zhao’s success.
“I remember running around backstreets with my friends at a time before smartphones and the internet and feeling very safe,” Zhao says. “I miss the innocence of that time. That might have drawn me to a place like South Dakota, which feels old, because China has changed so much in such a short amount of time.”
Your stories aren't only a reflection of all the people you’re working with but also a big part of your own makeup. What are we, really, but those memories that shape us?
Based on American journalist Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, the film follows the journey of Fern (McDormand), a recent widow who loses her job at a Nevada gypsum plant. Fern sells most of her possessions in return for a van and a new life on the road, where other campers teach her how to survive in the wild west and, more so, to process her grief and loss.
Nomadland is the 39-year-old director’s third feature film after Songs My Brothers Taught Me in 2015 and 2017’s The Rider. All defiantly non-commercial and low-budget, these stories of the American Midwest are linked by the existential quandaries their characters face. “The dilemma the characters are struggling with in the first film was: do I leave home or do I stay? The second one is: if I lose my dream overnight, what am I? Can I, should I, fight for my dreams? And the third one is: if I lose everything that defines who I am, then who am I?” Zhao says in a video interview from Los Angeles.
Some of the hardships depicted in Nomadland are true stories told by the real-life nomads and lend a relatability Zhao hopes resonates beyond rural America. “I’m naturally drawn to stories [like theirs],” she says. “Because I think about my family back home in China a lot, I didn’t want to make a film where they’d go, ‘That’s their problem. That has nothing to do with me.’
“As a storyteller, your stories, if you’re truthful, are [not only] a reflection of all the people you’re working with but also a big part of your own makeup. What are we, really, but those memories that shape us?”
The director, who also produced and wrote the script for Nomadland, discovered an instinct for storytelling, especially through images, at a young age when she first dreamt of being a manga artist. “I just wanted to tell stories,” she recalls. As a teenager living in Beijing, Zhao was constantly aware of the adventure that beckoned from the steppes and desert that lay beyond the city’s sprawl in Inner Mongolia. “In our culture, [there is] the idea of the journey to the west, to go to the horizon: get on a horse and just go.”
Instead, she went east. She was sent to boarding school in London, then Los Angeles for secondary school, before studying social politics in Massachusetts and, after some soul-searching, moving to New York to study film. But the pull of the west remained, only now she was dreaming about the middle of America. “Once I got into a car and cruised down these empty roads, I fell in love with country music and the people in the heartland. That got me started making films,” she says.
“I grew up mostly in concrete jungles cut off from nature, but when you’re out there in the middle of nowhere on the plains and you’re alone looking at this vast landscape, and the storm is coming, you feel like you’re a little speck of a long history of our planet.”
Mountainous South Dakota forms the backdrop of each of her films, which are shot in a distinctive, quasi-documentary style that favours nuanced expressions captured in close-ups over dramatic dialogue and climactic plotlines. Zhao’s decision to work with amateur actors, including Native Americans and cowboys in her first two features, caught the eye of Frances McDormand, who herself swept the 2018 awards season for her steely turn in dark drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. After the 63-year-old performer saw The Rider at Toronto the previous year, she and her producing partner Peter Spears contacted Zhao with Bruder’s book. “I knew it was a yes for me, even just having read the book and knowing Frances as an actress,” Zhao says. “Right away, we just hit it off.”
They adapted the book, which centres on older Americans who took to the road in search of work after the 2008 financial crisis, by adding more characters and expanding its focus to include the stories of more real-life nomads. Zhao explains the decision was practical, as her production budgets are extremely low. Her earlier films were each made for less than US$100,000. However, she found that working with real people proved essential to making her films believable and sustaining the emotional arc of an uneventful storyline punctuated with moments of drama, such as in Nomadland when David Strathairn’s character breaks a set of beloved plates Fern was given by her father, one of the few things important enough to pack for her journey.
We’re all heroes in our own reality. The hardest thing is staying true to yourself in a world that’s bombarding you with influences.
“I’m a fictional filmmaker. To me, Nomadland is fictional,” Zhao says. “It actually takes a lot of planning to create that illusion of naturalism. A big part was them opening up to me, not just as actors, but as people, about their childhood and their lives and everything down to the details of this place.” Making a perhaps inadvertent allusion to Chekov’s gun, when she thought of Fern’s father’s plates, “at that moment, I immediately thought one of those plates had to be broken at some point. I think, who’s going to break the plates? When was the first time you saw the plates? And what’s the story behind the plates?”
Though life on the road in a van was far cry from Zhao’s own upbringing, it indulged her spirit of adventure and suited her rather well. “You would always have the greatest backyard view that money couldn’t buy,” Zhao says. “Also, spiritually, to know that everything you owned, needed to survive and live were in this one place, and you could move at any second. If everything is mobile, you have no excuse not to live.” She adds with a laugh: “Also, a lot of the motels we stayed at weren’t as comfortable as the van.”
Nomadland has received almost unanimous acclaim, with praise focusing on its maker giving “attention to where the cinematic gaze is usually fleeting”, as Adrian Horton wrote in a Guardian review that lauded a “stunning Oscar frontrunner [that] unusually centres a single woman over 60 to illuminate an America that rarely garners mainstream attention”. Nomadland may have made Zhao a critical darling, but it is her next project that stands to make her a household name. In another history-making turn in an extraordinary year, the 39-year-old will be the first Asian woman to direct a Marvel Studios film with The Eternals, slated for November. The awards season buzz of Nomadland will lend artistic cachet to the blockbuster during a period when the Walt Disney Company looks beyond big names to niche indie filmmakers for its flagship franchises, including the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars.
The film’s budget is US$200 million—40 times what Nomadland reportedly cost—but Zhao will use the same cameras that followed McDormand down dusty roads, albeit trained on entirely different settings and a star-studded cast. Following from Avengers: Endgame in 2019, The Eternals follows an immortal alien race called the Eternals who, having lived on earth for more than 7,000 years, come together to save humanity from impending genocide wrought by the evil Deviants.
While plot specifics are scant, there’s much anticipation for Zhao to shake up the traditional superhero formula, starting with the film’s depiction of an openly gay character—a first for a Marvel film and an encouragingly progressive turn for usually conservative Disney execs. It has also been hinted by Zhao and her cast, which includes Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek and Richard Madden, that the film will examine the notion of heroism on a philosophical level.
“We’re all heroes in our own reality,” Zhao says. “The hardest thing is staying true to yourself in a world that’s bombarding you with influences. In the past, you would hear about somebody doing something heroic in a myth; we probably notice more now with social media.
“By the way, my superpower would be to fly, so when the flood comes in, I can just fly above the water.”
Her own spotlight comes with great responsibility, something that hasn’t been lost on Zhao, who recognises the potential influence of her pioneering strides into cinema and unusual career trajectory. “I’ve been quite truthful to the choices I’ve made. Hopefully, that will show young filmmakers, especially Asian women, not to change themselves to fit in. You think that’s your only way to get to the mainstream, but where you’re from and who you are is good enough. We need a yin and yang, a balance in the perspective we take to tell stories. Then they will be heard.”