Nomadland filmmaker Chloé Zhao on casting non-actors and making films for people who don't agree with her

Chloé Zhao has made history as the first Chinese woman and woman of colour to be nominated for best director at the Oscars. She’s also nominated in the best adapted screenplay and best picture categories for Nomadland.
Chloé Zhao attends the Telluride from Los Angeles drive-in screening of Nomadland on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. (Richard Shotwell/Invision/The Associated Press)

Nomadland keeps getting bigger and bigger. 

After an award-studded run at film festivals and the Golden Globes, Nomadland picked up six Academy Award nominations.

Chloé Zhao made history as the first Chinese woman and woman of colour to be nominated for best director at the Oscars. She's also nominated in the best adapted screenplay, best film editing and best picture categories.

The film stars Frances McDormand as a middle-aged woman named Fern who is forced to live in a van. She travels to find work wherever she can — in truck stops, farms and Amazon warehouses. 

Like Zhao's film The Rider, which stars real cowboys, Nomadland turns the lens on non-actors. Many of the people featured in the film are living nomadic lives, and not by choice.

Frances McDormand plays Fern, a woman who lives in her vehicle and travels through the American west to find work, in the Oscar-nominated film Nomadland. (Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

"Many of them were forced into it," said Zhao, who based the screenplay on Jessica Bruder's nonfiction book Nomadland.

"Once they gained some financial security, [some] went back to living in more of a conventional household. Others, having lost all the things that defined them, had rediscovered themselves on the road and realized that is more where they belonged."

Zhao also managed to film scenes in a real Amazon warehouse. She said that a friend simply wrote a letter to the online shopping giant and asked for permission.

"I kind of was given the freedom to do whatever I wanted," said Zhao, in a conversation with Q host Tom Power.

"I shot it the same way I shot the beet harvest in Nebraska, or the camp hosting job she had to do in South Dakota. For me, none of those jobs are suitable for someone Fern's age; they shouldn't be forced to do those jobs at that age, just so they can put food on the table."

I like the idea of sowing seeds in the minds of people who might not agree with me...- Chloé Zhao

Nomadland is about ageing and solitude, freedom and class in the U.S. But is it a political film?

"I think some folks are gonna think it's very political. Some folks are gonna think it's apolitical," said Zhao. 

"For me, I like the idea of sowing seeds in the minds of people who might not agree with me… as opposed to preaching to the choir, which is making very sort of surface level, trendy statements to people that already agree with me anyways."

Zhao's next project is a Marvel film. She's working on The Eternals with stars like Kit Harrington, Angelina Jolie and Kumail Nanjiani.

Written by Jane van Koeverden. Interview produced by Chris Trowbridge.


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