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Multihyphenate Chloé Zhao wrote, directed, edited and produced Nomadland, but she notes, “I’m happier in the editing room than I am anywhere else in the process.
“I grew up with manga. I wanted to be a manga artist. So before I knew I could tell stories in words, I was telling stories in pictures, in edited pictures,” she says, explaining her process. “When I’m writing a script, I’m editing it in my head. On set I will be thinking about how I’m going to edit it.” During a shoot, she watches dailies every night and continues to write. “The script doesn’t finish until the morning of the last day [of the shoot],” she says.
Searchlight’s Nomadland, which has collected a string of honors including the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion, is set in the American West and based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. Zhao offers a look at modern-day nomads, exposing the viewer to this world through the eyes of Fern, played by Frances McDormand, a woman adjusting to the itinerant life. The cast also includes David Strathairn and real nomads Linda May, Bob Wells and Charlene Swankie.
“We knew Fern is going to be a listener. [Those moments are] very crucial for the film. She gives you gold,” Zhao says of McDormand, who also served as a producer. “There was also a choice of everything in the film being Fern’s perspective, even if it’s a shot that’s looking at the redwoods. There is also a delicate balance [in the edit] of how much you go with landscapes without checking back to Fern. Because the moment you lose that perspective, you’re out of it. It becomes a travel video.”
Zhao also incorporated moments during which the castmembers who are real-life nomads shared their experiences. “It might seem a bit more like it’s unscripted because that is a goal: You want the performer to feel in the moment,” she says, adding that she knew their stories from previous conversations. “When they get to set, they are not going to deliver exactly the same thing, but they know how to tell their story.”
She found that the imperfections of the nonprofessional performances made the stories all the more emotional. “It’s that uncomfortable, almost too-real feeling of just holding on someone’s face long enough and having them stumble on their lines, when they’re speaking something so personal and real,” Zhao says. “That’s something almost impossible to re-create in a staged situation.”
In the editing of those sequences, she often stayed on the shot of the speaker, whereas she gave a more “traditional” edit to scenes between McDormand and Strathairn.
“It’s interesting to always think how many mistakes you want to leave in there,” Zhao says of the more improvised stories. “It’s a hard one for me. At what point does it become, people feel like, ‘Oh, that’s wrong?’ At what point do you go, ‘That’s real?’ And that’s a very delicate thing. Because being human is being slightly off. That to me was exciting about editing these performances; you can play around a lot.”
This story first appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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