'Nomadland': How director Chloe Zhao intertwined real-life 'human experiences' into Oscar-nominated film

The Chinese filmmaker and star Frances McDormand embraced the nomadic lifestyle to create the award-winning drama

FILE - Chloe Zhao poses for a portrait to promote her film "Nomadland" during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah on Jan. 22, 2018.  (Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP, File)
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For a film about one woman travelling the Great American Outdoors alone in her campervan, Nomadland has been enjoying an incredible ride.

At the wheel is Chloe Zhao, the Chinese writer-director who was educated in England and has spent much of her adult life living in America, where she developed a fascination for the landscape and people who populate it. Her work may be fictional, but it blends closely with reality. “So far, I haven’t really made films where I didn’t feel like it’s a part of my life,” she says.

Last month, Zhao made history becoming the first Asian woman to win a Golden Globe for Best Director, while the film also claimed Best Motion Picture in the drama category, beating out glitzier productions such as Mank and The Trial of the Chicago 7. This month, she was nominated for four Baftas and four Oscars, and she remains the hot favourite at next month's Academy Awards.

If Zhao wins Best Director, she will be the second woman to do so after Kathryn Bigelow in 2010 for The Hurt Locker.

It's not only awards season where Nomadland has triumphed. When it bowed at the Venice Film Festival last September, it took the prestigious Golden Lion. "I think in China, that's a big deal," says Beijing-born Zhao. "China has a big love affair with Venice." Juries have previously awarded Chinese directors Zhang Yimou and Jia Zhang-ke the festival's top prize. Nomadland also took the Audience Award at Toronto – further evidence that it might rule the Oscars.

Nomadland tells the story of Fern (Frances McDormand), a sixty-something woman who loses her livelihood and home after the 2008 financial crash and takes to the road, travelling across South Dakota, Nebraska and Arizona.

The inspiration was non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, for which author Jessica Bruder embedded herself with the growing community of nomads in America. Many of them were Fern's age – the so-called baby boomer generation – who were forced to reset their lives when the world was thrown into the Great Recession.

With banks repossessing houses from the newly unemployed, Zhao concedes this instinct to pack up your possessions in a van “definitely was amplified because of the housing crisis”, but it’s always been part of the American mindset.

“Even before the crash, there were a lot of people … once they retire, when they let go of that job title and that responsibility, they don’t just buy a farm somewhere, they hit the road. So I think it’s always been there.”

This image released by Searchlight Pictures shows writer-director Chloé Zhao, from left, director of photography Joshua James Richards and actress Frances McDormand on the set of "Nomadland."  Zhao has made cinema of rugged authenticity, relying frequently on non-professional actors and moments of serendipity while filming. She is nominated for a Golden Globe for best director. (Searchlight Pictures via AP)
Frances McDormand, right, as Fern on the set of 'Nomadland' with Oscar-nominated director Chloe Zhao, left. AP

Zhao, 38, is no stranger to travelling this way. "I spent a lot of time on the road," she says, whether in her Subaru Outback or her campervan, which she named Akira after the character in her favourite manga series, Slam Dunk. Once she decided to adapt Bruder's book, she bonded with the real-life nomads. "I have lived on the periphery of this world. So it was very easy for me to quickly enter."

This immersive way of working is a huge part of her methodology. Her 2015 debut, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, took her to South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where she told the story of two Native American Lakota Sioux siblings. On the reservation she met real-life Sioux cowboy Brady Jandreau, the star of her second film, 2017's The Rider – the breakout movie that drew McDormand, who had the rights to Bruder's book, to offer Zhao the chance to make Nomadland.

I haven't really made films where I didn't feel like it's a part of my life

Like Zhao, McDormand slipped into the nomad community almost unnoticed – even working the jobs that Fern does, such as packaging in an Amazon warehouse.

“You can imagine what Fran was like. There is no entourage,” says the director. A two-time Oscar-winner, the modest McDormand went unrecognised during the four-month shoot. Much of what she and Zhao heard found its way into the script. “A lot of these folks, they’re on the road alone a lot,” says Zhao. “And then they don’t have a lot of people that really sit down and say, ‘Tell me your story.’”

Much like her earlier work, Zhao was keen to include non-professionals in Nomadland. Several real-life nomads feature in the film, including the irrepressible travellers Charlene Swankie and Linda May and Bob Wells, the founder of the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, an annual gathering of van-dwellers in Quartzsite, Arizona. What began as a niche event now attracts thousands every year – from artists and writers to scientists and business graduates.

Zhao says despite the diverse array of political and religious beliefs of those she met, there was a shared unity.

“You don’t know who is coming into this gathering … you just don’t know. It doesn’t matter what they believe in, who they vote for. The reason people get on the road is something that people all share: one is losing their homes, their traditional house, and the other is trying to look for something else that they couldn’t find in their homes. And these are very human experiences.”

This might explain why Nomadland has touched a nerve during the pandemic, a time when people are isolated and left to reflect on their lives. Suddenly, it's not only the baby boomers who are taking to the road, but the millennial generation, too – many of whom are unable to afford property in the first place. Environmental concerns have also led to the boom in the tiny-house movement and so-called minimalist living. "That's happening [now] on a much grander scale," says Zhao.

Talking of grand scale, Zhao recently completed work on her fourth movie – an adaptation of Marvel Comics' superhero tale Eternals. Shot just before the pandemic began, she worked with A-list actresses Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek, with a huge budget far outstripping her work to date. But Zhao has not forgotten the friends she made on Nomadland, and still feels an enormous responsibility for those in the film.

“You have to take care of these people who have shared their very personal thing,” she says. “That’s going to be on screen for ever.”

Nomadland is in UAE cinemas from Thursday, March 25