Covid-19 has turned the film world topsy-turvy, but awards season rumbles on—with Oscar hopefuls filling the schedules of festivals that have had to adjust to a worldwide pandemic. Near the top of the list in terms of awards buzz is Searchlight Pictures release Nomadland, in theaters December 4. The film’s director Chloé Zhao—an indie favorite whose 2017 drama The Rider received four nominations at the 2018 Independent Spirit Awards—has already been tapped by Disney to direct their 2021 MCU installment The Eternals. For the moment, though, she remains firmly associated with smaller, more intimate stories about people yearning for meaning and purpose in the American West.
Born in Beijing, Zhao subsequently moved to LA, New York, and London—but “I think it’s when I hit my late 20s [that] I felt something was missing, And that got me to go West to South Dakota, from New York,” she recalled in a press conference at the New York Film Festival, where Nomadland was a Centerpiece Selection. “It’s this feeling of, ‘Why are we here? What’s the meaning of it all?’ I didn’t really think about that when I was younger.” The enormity and age of the landscapes impressed upon Zhao a sense of the profound: “You look up [and] see that lightning storm coming, [and] you understand where the Lakotas’ thunder god, the Great Spirit, [might have] come from. That’s something I didn’t understand when I was growing up…. It made me who I am as a filmmaker today.”
In Nomadland, Zhao and her small crew roved around much of America to tell the story of Fern (Frances McDormand), a modern-day nomad who takes to van living after the Great Recession leaves her jobless and her small town wiped from the map—it literally loses its zip code. The odd recognizable face peppers the cast—McDormand, David Strathairn—blending seamlessly with the real-life van-dwellers playing themselves.
Producer Peter Spears, upon reading the non-fiction book Nomadland is based on (by Jessica Bruder, who co-wrote the script with Zhao), initially envisioned the movie as something more like a biopic, with McDormand playing Linda May, one of the main subjects of Bruder’s book. “About that time, Frances was at the Toronto Film Festival with Three Billboards. And she sort of slipped away from press responsibilities. She saw The Rider. And she texted me… ‘I think I may have just seen the person who’s going to be perfect for this movie.’” It was Zhao who had the “spark,” recalls Spears, that Nomadland “would not necessarily be just this idea of turning Linda May’s life into a cinematic treatment, but that she wants to do explore something even deeper and larger, and the landscape of that.”
Fern, traveling through vistas that cry out for the big screen, finds new friends and mentors in the tight-knit community of American nomads—people like Linda May, Bob Wells, and Swankie, playing themselves. The casting fits perfectly in the filmography of Zhao, who in her previous two features worked primarily with non-professional actors; all the same, the successful integration of non-actors with their A-list leading lady required some threading-the-needle from McDormand, also a producer on the film. “The most important thing” Frances could do in working with non-professional actors, Zhao says, “ is truly be present and be able to listen to them and guide them in a way [that isn’t] necessarily, ‘Hey, you should act this way. Let me tell you about what I’ve learned [about] acting.’ No. She’s pulling [her scene partner] in with her ability to engage and her facial expressions. She’s being sympathetic. She knows what I want in the scene. She knows where her character should be. So she’s really reacting.”
The crew, too, integrated themselves into the van-dwelling community —“Sharing our lives and eating together and staying together,” says Spears. “Frances would also stay sometimes in her van, and Chloe as well. Camping with the folks we were working with. We really were embedded amongst them.” The tables turned some time later, when Nomadland had its Los Angeles premiere at the Telluride Film Festival. A typical stop on the film festival calendar for award hopefuls, Telluride cancelled its 2020 film festival but hosted a special “Telluride from Los Angeles” screening for Nomadland, with several of its subjects/stars in attendance. “I think they were very moved by the experience,” says Spears. “They came up on-stage and spoke afterwards to the people there.” Getting the theatrical experience from their cars, the festival goers honked their horns and flashed their lights in a show of support for the film and its co-stars, who “spoke very eloquently about their experiences both in the movie and [outside] of the movie. It’s an experience all of us there won’t ever forget.”