Accepting the award, Zhao said she was “humbled” to be in the company of her fellow nominees — Lee Isaac Chung (Minari), Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman), Eliza Hittman (Never Rarely Sometimes Always), and Kelly Reichardt (First Cow). She also thanked the independent film community for its support, mentorship opportunities and community. “We wouldn’t be here with you,” Zhao said. “We get to do what we love and feel like we’re apart of a big family.”
The director’s win occurred during a year when an unprecedented four out of the five nominees in the best director category were women. (Lulu Wang presented the award with her and Barry Jenkins’ dog Chauncy Wang-Jenkins.) In the history of the Spirit Awards, only two other women have won in the category — Martha Coolidge in 1991 for Rambling Rose and Sofia Coppola in 2003 for Lost in Translation.
Nomadland led the way with wins during Thursday’s ceremony, nabbing best feature, cinematography, and editing along with Zhao’s director win. In his acceptance speech, producer Peter Spears noted that Zhao met star Frances McDormand at a previous Spirit Award ceremony. “It began an incredible journey,” he said of the annual awards show.
Speaking with press following her directorial win, Zhao shared, “I’m really lucky to be able to do what I love for a living and if these nominations means it could help more people like me to live their dreams then I think they’re wonderful.”
Zhao’s film has also racked up plenty of honors this awards season, including: best picture and director at the Golden Globes and best film, actress, director, and cinematography at the BAFTAs. It heads into this Sunday’s Academy Awards with nominations for best motion picture, directing, lead actress, screenplay, film editing and cinematography.
The ceremony took place in a virtual format instead of its traditional location in a tent on the beach in Santa Monica, and aired in a primetime ceremony on IFC and AMC+ three days before the Oscars. The event was hosted by Saturday Night Live castmember Melissa Villaseñor and Judas and the Black Messiah director Shaka King served as honorary chair.