It’s no secret that Nomadland is already one of the darlings of the 2021 awards season. The film stars Frances McDormand as a woman named Fern who loses everything and rebuilds her life as a modern American nomad. It’s on many a list of much-watch movies for 2021, and it’s up for four Golden Globes at tonight’s ceremony.
McDormand, 63, is no stranger to Hollywood and has two Oscars and two Emmys. In fact, she’s just a Grammy shy of being an EGOT (the much-coveted title of someone who’s won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscars, and a Tony), and she’s been in the industry for nearly 40 years. But the real star of this film is McDormand’s director, Chloé Zhao, a 38-year-old Chinese filmmaker who made her feature-film debut with Songs My Brother Taught Me at Sundance Film Festival in 2015.
“I feel like I’m in the business of recording time,” Zhao said in a recent interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer. “And I’m always curious about how people would like to be remembered. It’s not about what I think. It’s not about my own point of view.”
Zhao added that, with Nomadland, she wants to make the point that people living in a country as wealthy as America shouldn’t have to see nomad life as their only option.
“Obviously, politically, I think [the nomad life] should be a choice for people of that age in one of the richest countries in the world,” Zhao said. “You shouldn’t be forced into that life.”
Zhao seems to be a director who wants to tell a very specific and moving message with her stories. How did she become such an empathetic, dedicated storyteller? Here’s what we know.
She grew up in Beijing, the U.K., and Los Angeles.
Zhao was born in Beijing as Zhao Ting. Per Vulture, she grew up as “a rebellious child and a poor student,” but her father become a top executive at successful steel company Shougang Group. He later worked in real-estate development and equity investment. Her mother worked at a hospital. At 14, Zhao went to boarding school in the U.K., where she learned English.
She finished high school in L.A., where she lived alone in a studio apartment behind a Sizzler in Koreatown. Zhao moved east for undergraduate studies, where she majored in political science at Mount Holyoke. Vulture reports, “Four years was enough to turn her off of politics; after a post-college stint bartending and doing odd jobs, she found herself drawn more to people than to policy.”
She went to NYU for her film education.
Per her NYU alumna bio, Zhao enrolled in the Graduate Studies film program at NYU in 2010. There, she made her short film Daughters, which won Best Student Live Action Short at the 2010 Palm Springs International ShortFest and the Special Jury Prize at the 2010 Cinequest Film Festival. According to her IMDB page, she made two short films prior to Daughters: Post (2008) and The Atlas Mountains (2009).
As a thesis student, Zhao debuted Songs My Brothers Taught Me, a Native American drama shot by her fellow NYU film student and partner, Joshua James Richards. Songs earned Zhao an Independent Spirit Awards nomination for Best First Feature.
“[Zhao] was gnarly and extreme—my idea of the collaborator I hoped to find at film school,” Richards told Vulture. “Most people I was spending time with were sitting around talking about their projects. Chloé was doing them. And so I jumped on that train.”
She’s long been fascinated with the western U.S.
Per her film school bio, Zhao had a fascination with the Old West as a child in Beijing. Once she was living in the U.S. as an adult, she wanted to tell stories about that part of the country.
“It’s really hard to explain, but I can rationalize it if I dig a little deeper,” she told director Alfonso Cuarón during an Interview magazine Q&A. “Growing up in Beijing, I always loved going to Mongolia. From the big city to the plains, that was my childhood. Spending a lot of time in New York in my mid-20s, I was feeling a bit lost. I always joke that historically, when you feel lost, you go west. And for me, going west is west of New York. It’s just a part of America that I don’t think I knew anything about. South Dakota, for example, is mostly a ranching state. The dirt on the ground hasn’t been touched. It feels ancient and static. And my life has been so transient and fast-moving that it’s just such a nice feeling when I’m there, almost like time stops.”
Her second feature film, The Rider, took place on a Dakota prairie and features, as The New York Times put it, actors who are “nonprofessionals playing versions of themselves—members of a Native American family that has seen its share of hardship.” Main character Brady is a rodeo rider who fractured his skull in the ring and was warned not to ride again.
The Rider premiered in the 2017 Cannes Film Festival’s Director’s Fortnight selection and won the Art Cinema Award. Zhao was also nominated for Best Director and Best Feature at the 33rd Independent Spirit Awards. She was the first recipient of the The Independent Spirit Bonnie Award.
She and Richards live together in Ojai, California.
Zhao and Richards live in the Topatopa Mountains in Ojai, outside of L.A. They have two dogs, Taco and Rooster, and chickens, Red, Cebe, and Lucille. Although she directed a movie about nomads, she does not currently consider herself to be among them.
“I’m a homebody,” she told Vulture. “I’m the descendant of rice farmers. And sometimes, I want to run.” But as Vanity Fair reported, Zhao spent “five months in her Ford Transit van shooting Nomadland across five states.”
VF also writes that when Zhao met Richards, who grew up in a small fishing town Cornwall, England, Zhao wanted to know everything about his childhood.
“She has a way of making your story feel important and special,” Richards told VF.
She sees herself as a facilitator of stories that are much bigger than her
She told Cuarón, “that just by pointing the camera at something, you’re already making a statement of some kind. It’s inevitable, because you’re adding a perspective to it. I find that sometimes when I go into a community that’s not my own, or a community that has a lot of issues attached to it, I have to resist wanting to say something about how I think they could be better, or how I think the government has wronged them. A lot of times, they tell me what they think I want to hear because they’ve been interviewed many times by journalists.”
She’s making a major Marvel movie.
Zhao directed Eternals, which is set to release in November and is based on the Marvel comic series of the same name.
“Well, I do think, this is so boring you are going to roll your eyes, but I think Marvel, I think this film is very—I think they took a big risk with this one,” she said in an interview with SiriusXM’s Jess Cagle, adding that this isn’t necessarily a surprise project for her: “I always imagined I want to be a manga artist.”
In her interview with VF, she named Cuarón as a director with the range she’d also like to have. And she’s not necessarily planning to jump to the lucrative Marvel Cinematic Universe and never return to indie films.
“Do I want to go back and make a film with even less budget than The Rider? A hundred percent,” she said. “If the right story presents itself.”
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