Chloé Zhao has made three feature films to date, each of them blending narrative storytelling with non-fiction. Her debut, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, told the story of Native American siblings struggling to find their place in a changing world. The Rider cast cowboy Brady Jandreau as a version of himself, reliving the true story of his near-fatal head injury. And while her new film, Nomadland, casts professional actors like Frances McDormand and David Strathairn for the first time, it rounds out its ensemble with real ‘Nomads’; people who have taken to living in camper vans in what would be their retirement, forced instead to seek itinerant labor around the country to make ends meet.
All three films deal with survival and identity, and each of them pack an emotional punch that hits with greater fervor because of the lines Zhao blurs between fact and fiction. Based on Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book about the Nomads, and the changing face of the America that they inhabit, Nomadland confirms Zhao as one of modern cinema’s most exciting new voices.
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DEADLINE: At the Indie Spirits a few years ago, you and Frances McDormand referenced one another in your speeches; how deep into this process were you at that point?
CHLOÉ ZHAO: We’d met right before that. We knew we wanted to work together, and emotions were high, so we just decided to give one another a shout-out [laughs]. I’d read the book by then.
DEADLINE: What grabbed you about it?
ZHAO: Initially it was the world that Jessica had captured. It was a time in America where a way of life was fast disappearing, and she had captured that with a chapter on Empire, Nevada, a chapter on quartzite, a chapter on the Amazon warehouse. She really managed to capture a time. So, the worldbuilding of her book was attractive to me. Thinking about these unique characters within that visual world, I realized I had never really explored the world through an older person’s perspective. And I felt the urgency of it, too. It said a lot about a time in this country that I felt I wanted to capture before it was gone. Before it was too late.
DEADLINE: That sense of a disappearing way of life has run through your work. You balance a real melancholic truth, though, with a certain sense of romance for the worlds you capture. It strikes me that you feel simpatico with the kind of resolve it takes for people to persevere with their way of life while the odds get stacked against them. Is that a fair assessment?
ZHAO: I think so. I think it comes instinctually to all of us who want to tell stories for a living. I think there’s a gut feeling towards the kind of stories that draw us. I’ll pass through a small town in Nebraska that has a population of 18 people, which used to be a popular railroad town until the railroad stopped, and all I want to do is try to figure out from those people how they would want to be remembered, if their town were to disappear entirely. That impulse still drives me.
As storytellers, we’re in the business, anyway, of recording things; of recording time and recording people. And, for me, I’m interested in those things that are about to go away, like the town of Empire. Maybe that’s where the romanticism comes in, because I don’t go in thinking I want to examine an issue or make a statement; I’m always trying to look through the perspective of someone who loves a place like this, and this way of life. It was the same with Brady with the horses and being a cowboy in The Rider.
DEADLINE: Your films blend narrative fiction with real people, real worlds, in a fascinating way. How does the script come together when you’re folding in so many of these real elements?
ZHAO: At the same time that I’m trying to figure out who Fern is, based on the stories in the book, we’re also trying to work out which of the Nomads can be in the film, who wants to be in the film, and what that will do for the locations. Everything happens simultaneously, because once we meet someone like Swankie, we realize she has to be in the film, and that informs the journey that Fern is going to take. Eventually I drew a map of Fern’s journey, which the producers could use to work on the film; the locations we’ll travel to, the towns Fern will visit. So, we knew we wanted to cover almost all of the landscapes in the American West. The only ones that we didn’t really cover were the canyons and maybe the Rockies.
DEADLINE: You’ve made three feature films that all explore aspects of Americana. What did America mean to you, growing up in China?
ZHAO: I moved to America for senior year of high school, and when I arrived, it was the pop culture, because that’s what I was exposed to in China. It was music more than movies, really. It was musicians. I landed in Downtown LA in 1999 with very little understanding of how America worked, and I definitely got a handful; more than I could handle [laughs]. I just didn’t understand the relationships between people, race, identity, class. So many things. So, then I dived in real hard for my senior year of high school, and then four years in college studying American politics. That was my focus.
I come from a people that were very stationary and built a nation that only opened its doors recently because it was so very self-sustaining. I always joke that I’m a descendent of rice farmers—and in rice farming, you cultivate the land over and over in one place—and then I found myself making films about people that prefer to be hunter-gatherers or ranchers and move a lot. In America, thanks to the highway system, the society is built on movement. And I think it’s just something that you didn’t experience when you were young that you want to try to understand. It’s a curiosity.
DEADLINE: As an outsider in America myself, I wonder if you feel that coming to America from a different culture gives you a particular viewpoint that allows you to examine it in a fresh way.
ZHAO: I think it’s how you make films. You can make films from inside yourself and put that out there or go out into the world and bring it to you. So, out of necessity, yes, I’m coming into a community that’s not my own. And you have to try harder to put yourself in their shoes and figure out… how do they see a sunset? Because how I see a sunset is very different. The choices you make—in the script, in the editing, in the music—have to be informed by trying to capture an authentic, emotional truth that these people feel in these moments in their lives. And I think you’re right; because it’s not my own truth, maybe just instinctually I start with more of a reverence for understanding a person in that world, that rather than imposing myself on what a character should be.
Identity fascinates me. When you look at young people in America, you see them taking up these cultural identities. A cowboy. A gang member. And especially with kids in the heartland, I think there’s a fishbowl situation there that I felt when I was young as well, growing up in China. I knew what was outside, but I couldn’t quite leave. So, when the fishbowl is covered, that’s one story, but when you lift it up—when the internet and social media move in—something happens to the younger generation where they have to define themselves beyond, “I’m a coal miner’s son.” It’s not enough anymore, and they start questioning who they are.
I also think all countries around the world are becoming more nationalistic as the world shrinks. It’s important to hold onto some kind of identity, especially for a young country like America. That need to feel American is very strong for a lot of folks.
DEADLINE: What’s the future for towns like Empire?
ZHAO: Well, actually, Empire is coming back. Even when we were shooting there it was tough because everything was back up and running. A more innovative company, doing a different kind of mining, took over. And it’s not a big national like United States Gypsum.
You see that in small towns all over. A lot of business died. I travel to tiny little towns in Colorado, and all of a sudden there’s like a hipster gluten-free artisan bakery that pops up in the middle of nowhere. Or a little gallery or something. It’s really interesting.
DEADLINE: Even after everything that has happened since 2008, it’s hard to completely kill off a way of life. People do persevere. It’s interesting to wonder how they fit into a world that seems determined to reject them.
ZHAO: I think, actually, the even bigger question is, what are they trying to fit into? If the thing they’re trying to fit into is us—how we live in the big cities—is there some problem with what we’re doing?
I think we all need to come back into the middle, and not just politically, because we’ve been going way too fast, with what we’re doing to animals, to our planet, and to ourselves. There are more suicides in big cities than there have ever been in the history of humanity. The most technologically developed countries usually have the least happy people. And I think the answer might not be them just fitting into this speed we’re all going at, but for us all to slow down a bit. Now, because I’m pessimistic about it, I don’t think we can slow down. But we should try to think about that at least.
DEADLINE: Perhaps the Nomads know what’s up.
ZHAO: Right. And young people are turning to this life, too. Millennials.
I read that Warren Buffett still lives in the house he bought for $31,500 in 1958. The reason I mention it is because I don’t believe the capitalist economy can slow down, because if it goes the way it is, it needs people to want things to keep going. And the moment that people stop wanting things it’s going to collapse, and then everyone’s going to freak out. “I’m going to starve to death,” right?
But the truth is, you can never really be happy, because happiness is not an ultimate thing. Happiness is when your expectations are met with reality. If your expectation is constantly fed by the capitalist economy for its own survival, that you always need more, then you can never be as satisfied as the medieval farmer was satisfied with his piece of bread.
So, what these young kids and the Nomads are exploring is the idea of making their satisfaction level with their expectation of what they need to be happy at a minimal level. So that no matter what happens with the outside world, or how much gets taken from them, they will be happy with that piece of bread.
We went so far, so quick, that I think it did make everyone go, “Wait, we’re not happy. We’re killing ourselves.” So, people are starting to drop out and go, “That doesn’t work, what if I…” Warren Buffett lives like that; it doesn’t matter if he loses everything tomorrow, he is already happy with that $31,500 house. And this may be a bit stoic or Buddist, but that’s kind of the way it is now. The people who define their happiness based on things that aren’t really real are lost in the middle of this pandemic, as opposed to the people who are happy with what they have.
DEADLINE: In Nomadland, you have a scene where Fern and the Nomads look at those ultra-luxury RVs. So, even for them, those capitalist norms are still buried somewhere.
ZHAO: Well, that’s the thing about the capitalist economy, is that it’ll always find a way into your ideologies. Look, with minimalism, and van life, that lifestyle can very easily go from trying to have less—to be frugal—to ultimately purchasing the most expensive minimalistic thing you can because you think it’s going to last longer. You can go online and find minimalist living shopping websites. It becomes a trend; the eco trend. Capitalism’s arms just reach into everything.
That’s the same in van life. You don’t even need a big trailer for half a million dollars. You can find a small Mercedes van that’s still got everything packed inside. Tesla’s probably making them right now; self-driving vans. But what do you do when it breaks down?
It really is about trying to train our minds to want less. That’s the only way to happiness. I know it’s such a paradox, and it’s depressing to acknowledge it. But it’s the same with success in any industry. You have to train your mind not to enjoy success, because if you start enjoying it, it’s over for you. I’m training myself every day as we speak [laughs].
DEADLINE: Speaking of feeding the capitalist beast, you open the film with Fern going to work inside the Amazon factory. And while it’s not a hyper-critical view, you do acknowledge that it’s hard work. How did you get them on board to allow you inside?
ZHAO: Well, two things. One, we got in because Fran wrote a letter and asked, and they said yes. And it’s pretty shocking they said yes, because they didn’t really stop me from doing anything when I was there. I was shooting it and I could have edited it in whichever way I chose; included a voiceover and some scary music. I could have done whatever I wanted. But I shot and treated the scenes at Amazon no differently from how I shot and treated the scenes when she’s shoveling beets in Nebraska. In fact, she’d have been making less money, working longer hours, in considerably more dangerous and cold conditions than she does at Amazon.
The other thing, and it’s very interesting how we don’t talk about it, is the real problem is elder care. Why are people of Fern’s generation going to work at Amazon, or shoveling beets, or scrubbing toilets in national parks? This is working class, manual labor. Back then it was agricultural, and now it’s manufacturing. And for younger people, you get it; it’s the modern reality of working-class life. But the bigger question is why an elder has to be doing something like that. To me, that’s something less sexy to talk about.
It’s so simplistic to say, “Amazon is the ultimate evil. If we get rid of Amazon, it will be great.” But if you get rid of Amazon, then they’ll have to shovel beets. They still don’t have enough social security. Their pensions are gone. And we still throw them away during the pandemic and think their lives don’t matter. It’s not a sexy topic to talk about.
So, that’s really what I wanted to focus on. And also, so many of them got started in this lifestyle, after 2008, because of that Amazon opportunity. Without it, they couldn’t have got going. There are just no job options for them.
DEADLINE: Since it clearly needs stating, time and again, what do you think the solutions are?
ZHAO: Well, look at other countries. It’s not impossible. Capitalist culture emphasizes the importance of youth, of excessive spending, of productivity. And if you focus on that, then you will think older people are less important than young people, even though in many societies, elders are considered the most important members because they carry wisdom. They carry life lessons on how to be with others, on the mistakes they’ve learned from, that they teach and pass down to younger people.
How you treat elders shows how your society is. Culturally, that has to change. There’ll be fewer people getting plastic surgery if we stop thinking of growing older as a problem. It’s actually a path to wisdom that will make us human. In our own industry, we need to look at how we contribute to that. And in a country that lives and breathes this kind of capitalistic individualism, we really need to look at that.
DEADLINE: Frances McDormand has bucked those trends. As a woman in an industry that, as you say, emphasizes the pursuit of youth to an unhealthy extreme, she has led by example and been unapologetic about growing older and wearing her wisdom on screen. This is the first time you’ve worked with professional actors. How would you describe the collaboration with her, as an actress and a producer?
ZHAO: There are two parts to that answer. The first is, you mentioned women. I think where Fran and I connected was on what I love about her, which is that she doesn’t just talk, she does the work. She does lead by example, and that, to me, is so important. She doesn’t let the talk influence her work. She’s true to her work as a person, and not just a woman, and that, to me, is important. She’s a true artist in that way. So, as producers, she and I have that understanding.
As an actress, I feel incredibly lucky that my first experience with a professional actor was with someone who was willing—whether it was difficult for her or not—to step out of her comfort zone and be completely open and vulnerable in those moments you see on screen. It doesn’t matter how much training you have, or how exceptionally talented you are, or how much you buy into the method. All that stuff is incredible, and I respect the craft. But the cinema that really draws me is the type where, in that moment on screen, none of that matters; that all has to go. Are you truthful in that moment of connecting with another human being on camera?
And Fran, aided by everything that she has experienced and learned, is able to throw it all away in the moment and just react. It sounds so obvious, but it’s so incredibly difficult to be vulnerable enough for it to be real, and to allow a side of yourself to come out, because there are people that will hold themselves in so much. They don’t want to give you themselves. They will give you their craft, but not themselves. And I can’t make films that way, I’ve learned. I need to work with actors who will give themselves in front of the camera in the same way non-professional actors give themselves. And that’s what Fran did.
DEADLINE: How does that manifest on set? Given the emotion of some of the moments that go very, very deep in this film, when you’re asking for such personal truth, does that bleed offscreen sometimes?
ZHAO: It can be hard when we call cut. It is hard. I think for Fran it was very hard, because when you open yourself up like that, even when you call cut, life is still happening. She wasn’t even protected on Nomadland by trailers and assistants and all of that. She was absorbing life at all times. That’s why we drank a lot of tequila and played boardgames in motel lobbies every night [laughs].
But again, and I think it’s why we connected in that way, that’s how she wants to live. She wants to live her art. It isn’t just about going out there and pretending. She wants to live it, to feel it. She’s just that kind of actress. And they’re exactly the kind I want to work with, because they live life with this vigor. They want to feel, they want to connect with others. I really hope I get a chance to work with more actors like that.