The fast-rising helmer talks about traversing the country in an RV with Frances McDormand, why she cast "misfits" in her Marvel debut and her uncompromising style: "I shot exactly the way I wanted to shoot."
Three months after she accepted the Oscar for best actress in a gold-hued gown, Frances McDormand was spending the night in an Econoline van in Chloé Zhao’s driveway in Ojai, regretting her decision to eat barbecue for dinner. McDormand and Zhao were testing out what would become the primary set for their next film, Nomadland — a van in which McDormand’s character Fern, a 60-something wanderer in search of employment, was to live.
That night in Zhao’s driveway, they had met up to figure out some practicalities of shooting in the confined space, where McDormand was going to sleep for character research. As her stomach rumbled, Zhao gently reminded the actor, "You wanted spicy chicken wings ..."
McDormand continues the story. "And so, I literally experienced the worst, not maybe the worst thing, but a not-very-pleasant thing that could happen," McDormand says. "I took a dump in the 5-gallon bucket. But it also was really great because we filmed some stuff."
What they filmed that day — and in four months traveling the American West together with real-life nomadic workers — is a movie that is about to debut with a film-world equivalent of winning the Triple Crown. All four major fall film festivals — Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York — invited Nomadland this year (Telluride was canceled due to the novel coronavirus but still plans a hosted drive-in screening of Nomadland in L.A. on Sept. 11). At a time when the film industry and the festivals that support it have been left bereft of product by the pandemic, this moment of mass exposure is a flex, and a signal of the ambitions of Nomadland’s distributor, Searchlight, which is planning a theatrical release in December. "These four film festivals have had to adjust the conversation,” says McDormand. "It’s not about what they can do for Chloé as a filmmaker, but what she can do for them."
In Zhao, a Beijing-born, NYU film school grad who broke out in 2017 with her poetic Western The Rider, McDormand found a filmmaker as game as she is, another woman who is in Hollywood, but not of it. "I always get this feeling I want to challenge the status quo,” says Zhao. "I just don’t want to be comfortable. Because when I feel comfortable, I’m not quite sure what motivates me or gets me up in the morning."
Nomadland is a movie about discarded older Americans. That McDormand, 63, chose Zhao, 38, to tell it reflects the kind of trust Zhao tends to inspire in people. She has won the faith of the cowboys she talked into acting in The Rider, real-world nomads who co-star opposite McDormand in Nomadland and executives at Marvel who are overseeing Zhao’s next, much more expensive film, Eternals.
Since the week of Aug. 10, Zhao has been ensconced in an editing room on the empty Disney lot, completing postproduction on both Nomadland and Eternals, which is due in February and which features Gemma Chan, Angelina Jolie and Marvel’s first LGBTQ relationship in a story about an immortal alien race who has secretly lived on Earth for 7,000 years. "Chloé will go toe to toe about Malick, or as esoteric and small a film as has ever been made, but also on Star Wars or on [Japanese superhero franchise] One-Punch Man in a way that is quite unique and quite spectacular," says Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. "She would finish some giant production meeting with us that involved the creation and approval of dozens of costumes, creature design, intergalactic designs. And then she would get into her half solar power, half corn oil or whatever it was van, and drive out to the Dakotas for Nomadland. That she can fit in in all of these environments is remarkable."
McDormand and Zhao have the easy rapport of co-conspirators. "I just love that she can pronounce my last name; it’s very rare," Zhao says in mid-August, with McDormand speaking from a friend’s home in Northern California and Zhao from her office on the Disney lot, both on Zoom. "She said it perfect. Very, very rare." (Zhao is pronounced "jaw.") The duo share a frankness in manner and an affinity for unfussy clothes like overalls. For her THR photo shoot, Zhao asked if she could wear her own clothes and brought a fleece jacket printed with dogs that she had purchased at an RV show in Arizona.
McDormand’s path to Zhao’s driveway began when the actress read Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, which tracks older American workers traveling the country via RVs in search of jobs. "When I was in my 40s, I said to my husband [director Joel Coen], 'When I turn 65, I’m going to change my name to Fern. I’m going to start smoking Lucky Strikes and drinking Wild Turkey and hit the road in an RV,' " says McDormand. "There was something about the freedom of the road, that kind of romantic spirit in people. But what was the revelation to me [in the book] was that it was a movement about economic hardship and that it was happening in a demographic that was my age. It was a group of people that were out there, taking things into their own hands."
Shortly after McDormand and her producing partner, Peter Spears, optioned Bruder’s book, the actress was at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival settling in for a screening of Zhao’s The Rider, which stars nonprofessional Lakota Sioux actors in a story about a rising rodeo star who suffers a tragic riding accident. Stunned by the movie, when the credits rolled, says McDormand, "I said out loud, 'Who the fuck is Chloé Zhao?' " Much of Hollywood was asking the same question — The Rider would go on to collect glowing reviews and four Independent Spirit Award nominations and get Zhao’s foot in the door at Marvel.
Zhao and McDormand finally met six months later, the week of the March 2018 Independent Spirit Awards, where Zhao won a $50,000 grant for female filmmakers and McDormand won best actress for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The next day, when McDormand was onstage at the Dolby Theatre collecting the second Oscar of her career, she delivered an inadvertently industry-shaping acceptance speech, saying, "I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider." At the time, few people in the room at the Dolby or watching at home knew what McDormand was talking about, a clause that actors can ask to have inserted into their contracts that would require a certain level of diversity among a film’s cast and crew. Within days, studios and agents were fielding new questions about how to draft and implement inclusion riders. While praising industry efforts at inclusion, McDormand has some regrets about how she handled the moment. "I wish I’d never fucking said it now," she says. "I was not educated enough, I didn’t have enough information about it. ... I forgot what I was going to say at the end of a very prepared speech. I wanted to say, 'Just give me a tequila now.' I had met someone at a dinner party the night before, an agent at UTA, and she had told me, 'Did you know about this?' We had had a long conversation about it, and I found it really fascinating. 'Inclusion rider' was something that was like, 'Maybe we should discuss this.' Having said that, the work that [USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative] has done on inclusion in the workplace is very, very important, and it is complicated, and it has to be almost customized for every single event."
In recruiting Zhao as her writer-director on Nomadland, McDormand was fulfilling her own expressed desire for more inclusion in Hollywood, but she also was signing on to the filmmaker’s highly unconventional process. "I didn’t step into Fran’s world," says Zhao. "She allowed herself to step into mine." On Zhao’s two previous films, Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, she directed non-actors, a technique she originally adopted out of economic necessity after film school but one she has come to prize for its realism. "Non-actors are just always going to be a version of themselves, and that’s what you want them to be," says Zhao. "Especially coming from a Chinese woman’s imagination of a cowboy. You know I can’t do that. It’s never going to be as authentic."
For Zhao, McDormand was the first real Hollywood actor she ever directed, which is something akin to taking your first drive in a '63 Corvette Stingray — there’s a reason she’s a classic, but you’d better be able to handle the power. "I always thought after The Rider, if I were to work with a Hollywood actor, who would they be?" says Zhao. "I didn’t want someone who was going to come into the world of [real-world nomads] Swankie and Linda May and Bob Wells and be completely set in their craft. And just go, 'This is what I know how to do and I’m going to deliver it.' Fran has such a deep human side of her; she responded to them."
On Nomadland, McDormand is surrounded by real nomads — with the exception of a key role played by David Strathairn — and the actress threw herself into adopting their lifestyle. Over four months of filming in seven states, including the Badlands of South Dakota, the Black Rock Desert of Nevada and the beet fields of Nebraska, McDormand performed several of the jobs a typical nomadic older American worker does, often slipping into the scenery unnoticed. In order to gain Zhao’s crew access to shoot the actress working in an Amazon fulfillment center, McDormand wrote a letter to Jeff Blackburn, Amazon’s senior vp business and corporate development. "I explained that we were telling the story about a woman who did migrant work and one of the jobs that she did was CamperForce with Amazon," says McDormand, referring to a kind of traveling retiree army that takes seasonal work for the online retailer during the holidays. "It was right before they started giving people $15 an hour. This was a really smart move for them because ... we are telling a story about a person who is benefiting from hard work, and working at the Amazon fulfillment center is hard work, but it pays a wage." One downside for the retailer, notes McDormand, is that "some people got some packages that I packaged that were pretty bad."
The actress also worked at a beet harvest, took reservations at a Badlands campground and cleaned campground toilets. When a man walked out of one campground restroom and asked if she was Frances McDormand, McDormand answered, "No, I’m Fern." While they traveled between locations, Zhao and her crew of roughly 25 people filmed McDormand as she drove the van, which she had nicknamed Vanguard and outfitted with some of her own belongings, including some china. Eventually, McDormand came to realize that she needn’t do everything the nomads do and opted to stay in Best Westerns and Days Inns with the crew rather than live in Vanguard. "I was 61," says McDormand. "At 61, it’s much better for me to pretend to be exhausted than to actually be exhausted. I figured that out."
In shooting the mythic American West in her first three films, Zhao joins a long tradition of immigrant filmmakers who have told quintessentially American stories, from Charlie Chaplin to Ang Lee. "Being an outsider sometimes gives you the sane and necessary distance to observe things clearly and objectively," says Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the Mexican director who met Zhao at the Telluride Film Festival in 2017 and subsequently gave her notes on a cut of Nomadland. "No matter how clearly you look at yourself in the mirror, it will always be a reflection. The Rider and Nomadland are strong and truthful American films because she can observe without filters or veil." Zhao says working in the West is liberating. "I always feel like I’m protected in a way to make films here," she says. "There’s a bit more freedom, at least psychologically, for me. If I were to go back home, make a film in China, there might be heavier things. I’m not ready to go there."
Zhao was born Zhao Ting, her father the manager of a Beijing steel company, her mother a hospital worker who was in a performance troupe for the People’s Liberation Army. "I have interesting parents," says Zhao. "They’re just a bit different than your typical parents from Beijing. They’re rebellious. They’re weird. They never stopped letting me be who I am. When my grades were so bad and I was just drawing weird manga [Japanese-style comics], I was a wild child and they just let me be. And that’s very rare."
She grew up watching American films on TV — Ghost, Sister Act and The Terminator are among her earliest recollections — and writing fan fiction, which she still does, though she declines to reveal for which properties. "When I was in China, all I read and dreamt about was in the West," says Zhao. "You want to go west, always go west." At 14, speaking little English, she left home to enroll in boarding school in London, an experience she describes as akin to attending Hogwarts. But still, the real West pulled at her, and when she was able to get a visa, at 18, she moved to Los Angeles, to a studio apartment in Koreatown, intending to attend college. After her parents dropped her off in L.A., Zhao realized she actually needed to finish high school first and enrolled in nearby L.A. High. "Back home, the best high school is usually named after the place," says Zhao. "So I went in the phone book, and I saw L.A. High. I thought, 'I’m going to L.A. High.' I just walked in one day. As I go through the metal detector and I look around, I’m like, 'This is not what I thought America is.' I definitely didn’t know America. This was not in the movies I saw or the music videos or books I read." Zhao adapted quickly, a talent she has relied on for life experiences as varied as going home for the holidays with a British boarding school classmate tending bar in New York City and shooting movies on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. When an L.A. bus driver strike prevented her from getting around the city, she bought a skateboard to get to school. "I’m used to being out here on my own in different situations and always wanting to fit in and playing different roles," says Zhao. "Being a bartender in New York — your tip is all you’ve got. So you want to make your customers feel comfortable that they can talk to you. A lot of times it’s a bit like that when you go out there and meet people while making a film. People ask me how do you get [non-actors] to feel comfortable with you. Really you just listen to their stories."
Zhao earned a bachelor’s degree in political science at Mount Holyoke and attended film school at NYU, where Spike Lee was one of her teachers. Her first feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, which follows a rebellious teen on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, premiered at Sundance and Cannes in 2015 and secured a tiny theatrical release. "Maybe it’s an only child thing and I wanted attention," says Zhao. "When everyone was making films in New York, I went, 'No, I just want to go somewhere that nobody goes. And to see what’s there.' " Zhao found the inspiration for her second film on Pine Ridge as well in real-life cowboy Brady Jandreau, whose story she thinly fictionalized for The Rider.
It was on the strength of The Rider that Zhao booked Nomadland and Eternals and saw major life changes. She paid off her student loans and joined the DGA, securing health insurance for the first time. She and her boyfriend, cinematographer Joshua James Richards, who has worked on all of her films, moved from Denver, where they had lived because of its proximity to Pine Ridge, to Ojai, bringing the two cattle dogs, Taco and Rooster, she had adopted from the reservation. She since has acquired three chickens after what she calls a "pandemic freakout." After a childhood spent in cities, Zhao decided Ojai was as close as she wanted to be to Hollywood. "I spent so much time in South Dakota, I realized, actually I can think better if there’s a lot of silence," she says. "And I find the industry is quite noisy. So when I go back to that very David Lynch-like [suburban] street I live on, very Blue Velvet street, I feel weirdly very grounded."
In a moment when studios are releasing some highly anticipated, once-theater-bound films like Disney’s Mulan and Lionsgate’s Antebellum on streaming services and VOD, it’s noteworthy that Zhao’s two movies remain slated for theatrical release. Searchlight, which Disney acquired as part of its $71.3 billion Fox deal in 2019, is one of the few Fox divisions that has been allowed to operate much as it did before the merger, with an emphasis on prestige awards-worthy fare headed to art house theaters. With a mid-seven-figure budget, Nomadland cost a pittance compared with one of Disney’s $200 million-plus Marvel or Pixar movies like Eternals, and it gives the media giant a toehold in the Oscar race. Though Nomadland is dated for December, Searchlight could move the release date up if public health conditions allow for more widespread theater openings in the U.S. As Searchlight president Nancy Utley notes, "Disney are big Chloé fans too, so it’s kind of all in the family." (Taika Waititi is another filmmaker who has worked for both Marvel and Searchlight.)
When Zhao met with Disney-owned Marvel about the Eternals job, says Feige, she brought reams of visuals to deliver a compelling pitch about 10 little-known immortal Marvel characters in a story set after the events of the last Avengers movie. "Her initial pitch to us was fascinating," says Feige. "And frankly one of the reasons we moved forward on the movie was because of the vision that she brought to it." One of the ideas Zhao embedded in Eternals was stylistic and rooted in her childhood. "I have such deep, strong, manga roots," says Zhao. “I brought some of that into Eternals. And I look forward to pushing more of that marriage of East and West." Zhao also was pushing big thematic ideas — Eternals is literally about the history of humanity. "How much further and bigger can we go after [Avengers:] Endgame?" asks Zhao. "Because I’m not just making the film as a director. I’m making the film as a fan."
Despite working with a much bigger budget than she ever had before, Zhao says she was allowed the same creative freedom on Eternals that she had grown used to on her smaller films. "I shot exactly the way I wanted to shoot," she says. "On location. A lot of magic hour. Three-hundred-sixty degrees on the same camera as I did on Nomadland. Same rigs. It’s a bit surreal. I’m still waiting for the shoe to drop. It hasn’t. I think I got lucky in that Marvel wants to take risks and do something different."
An LGBTQ relationship in the film "was always sort of inherent in the story and the makeup of the different types of Eternals," says Feige. "I think it is extremely well done, and I look forward to that level of inclusion in our future movies being less of a topic."
Among the movie’s unexpected set pieces is a Bollywood dance sequence, with some 50 dancers. "When I walked onto the set and saw a huge group of brown people who were going to be in a Marvel movie, I felt such gratitude towards Chloé for creating the situation," says Pakistani-American actor Kumail Nanjiani, who plays an Eternal who also happens to be a Bollywood star. "The scene was full of joy."
With her multicultural cast, which also includes Brian Tyree Henry, Salma Hayek and a deaf actress named Lauren Ridloff, Zhao describes a vision of an outsider’s superhero movie. "I wanted it to reflect the world we live in," she says. "But also I wanted to put a cast together that feels like a group of misfits. I didn’t want the jocks. I want you to walk away at the end of the movie not thinking, 'This person is this ethnicity, that person is that nationality.' No. I want you to walk away thinking, 'That’s a family.’ You don’t think about what they represent. You see them as individuals."
This story first appeared in the Sept. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.