“One of the things I love most about this life is that there’s no final goodbye. I’ve met hundreds of people out here, and they don’t ever say a final goodbye. They’ll just say, ‘I’ll see you down the road.’ And I do. I see them again. And I can be certain in my heart, ‘I’ll see you again.’”
In Chloe Zhao’s transcendent “Nomadland” (2020) we follow Fern – a widow whose Nevada town – Empire – was home to generations of gypsum miners before it was obliterated by the Great Recession and everyone got evicted. Even the zip code was erased. Our 61 year old protagonist who worked as a substitute teacher is now on the road in her van – finding jobs in places as varied as an Amazon Fulfillment Center and a beet-sugar harvesting plant. The film has been racking awards since early last fall, and deservedly, it is certain to be celebrated come Oscar time. It’s a movie that speaks to this moment when we find the ground on which we stand shifting underneath us – and we’re constantly having to redefine ourselves. It’s quite inspiring to follow the journey of indomitable Fern at this juncture in our lives where we have lost our sense of connection and have to reevaluate what home means. Seeing the grandeur of the American west, from the Badlands of South Dakota to the Nevada desert, to the Pacific Northwest, through her eyes – and witnessing her regain her footing and forge a new life is one of the best cinematic experiences – and one that I guarantee you will find deeply nourishing. Chinese born Chloe Zhao has not only made a film that perfectly seizes the zeitgeist, but one that ultimately encapsulates the deeply embedded essence of the roaming American soul. This is a road movie for the now – an unsentimental mediation of what being untethered is – with the good and the bad – without judgement. It’s a lyrical masterpiece – and a most important work of art. There have only been five women nominated for best director in the Academy’s history – and only one has won. She will expand that elite group come March 15th.
One of cinema’s fearless actors – two-time Oscar Best Actress winner Frances McDormand and her producing partner Peter Spears (“Call Me By Your Name”) optioned the rights to the non-fiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century,” by Brooklyn-based writer Jessica Bruder. Half of the book focuses on nomadic living, and the other half is actually undercover reporting—Bruder went incognito at Amazon and worked at the beet harvest. Zhao – who also wrote the screenplay and edited – had previously created narratives with non-actors. This time around she blended McDormand and actor David Strathairn, who plays a character Fern encounters several times throughout her journey and with whom she develops a close relationship – with real nomads like Swankie and Linda May. The director and her cinematographer Joshua James Reynolds spent time with David and Frances and kept notes of their lives and their interactions with each other as real life friends – and advanced her ideas for Fern and Dave’s trajectory from that. The set of dishes that you see in the film are a replica of a set McDormand’s father gave to her on her graduation day from college. Because Zhao wanted to incorporate non-actors into the film and have them be themselves in the moment, McDormand had to somehow be herself in the moment as well.
The actress does so much listening and is constantly reacting to her environment. Zhao, her crew and McDormand set out on a six month journey in vans. As the director said in a recent interview I did with her “…in nature, as she evolves – in the wilderness, in rocks, trees, stars, a hurricane, this is where she finds her independence.” McDormand worked among actual employees at Amazon and at a campground and spent time with those whom she encountered. “No, I’m not homeless,” Fern states. “I’m just houseless. Not the same thing, right?” There will be some memorable exchanges including one with a young drifter – Derek – whom she will give a lighter to – and will cross paths with again – and to whom she will recite Shakespeare sonnet 18. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” she tells him. In one of the most poignant moments, she will float naked on a creek – alone – and comfortably in her own skin and in the universe. Should McDormand win a third Best Actress award? She certainly deserves it. This is unparalleled work.
Am I being vague about what transpires? Intentionally. I feel that this film should be seen and felt without much prior knowledge. Reynolds is able to create such poetic realism with his camera. One long uninterrupted shot that tracks Fern walking in the campgrounds early in the morning greeting people and watching the sunrise is one that will remain seared in my memory for a long time. He will also recall the work of Terrence Malick – as well as hark back to the iconic closing scene in John Ford’s “The Searchers” in the final shot of this film – fittingly since this is a new Western – redefining the way we see America. Zhao uses the music of Ludovico Einaudi – whose work is appropriately inspired by nature. The sound design is very important to the film and was tailored to the very different specific landscapes Fern travels through. For this Zhao and her team worked with Mexican born Sergio Diaz, who has collaborated with Alfonso Cuarón (“Roma”), and he partnered with Los Angeles-based Zach Seivers who also served as re-recording mixer.
Fern makes a choice to live outside conventional society. She’s not a victim of circumstances. She takes control of her life. Director Zhao changes cinema as we know it.
Woman: “You are one of those lucky people that can travel anywhere.”
Fern: “Yes, ma’am. I am.”
Available to stream on Hulu
Written and Directed by Chloé Zhao
Based on the book by Jessica Bruder
Starring Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Gay DeForest, Patricia Grier, and Angela Reyes
Bringing “Nomadland” to the Screen
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’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.”…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.” (hollywoodreporter.com)
The Making of “Nomadland”
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.” (hollywoodreporter.com)
Cinematographer Joshua James Richards on the Landscape of “Nomadland”
“…The biggest thing with ‘Nomadland’ was the sort of shifting landscape. The film is about identity, but kind of identity connected to a specific place. A Lakota boy who’s struggling with whether he stays home or leaves for college, a young cowboy who wonders who he is if he can’t do the thing he was born to do, and suddenly that landscape becomes a prison. Whereas in ‘Nomadland,’ the earliest discussions were about, “How do we move an audience through this landscape that’s constantly shifting and changing? How do we anchor them in this film, how do we come up with the language that punctuates these moments, and you can track them geographically very clearly but also emotionally very clearly?” And that’s how we were using the landscape.” (collider.com)
Cinematographer Joshua James Richards on Francis McDormand
“…It’s not about her finding her angles, it was learning from her as a storyteller. Again, it’s not cosmetic with Fran, she’s cutting her own hair, no makeup team on the horizon, and I worked quite closely with her and Chloe with the costume as well, and also in the building of Vanguard from a production design point of view. Just to start with that, Fran had lots to say, because Vanguard truly is a character in the film, I mean it really is. And she helped us build that, it was her idea for example to bring in her father’s plates, little props like that. But yeah, and it was incredibly intimate in there with Fran and I, you know? A critic she likes to quote once described her face as a national park, and it’s very true, I can attest to that. And I feel like I got to know that part very well, and there’s a complexity to Fran’s face, there’s a complexity to her as a person and her performances that, since I saw ‘Fargo’ as a kid, I identified her as one of the giants of cinematic acting. And also, I just think she brings a humor and a relatability to characters that you just rarely see.
We came up with her look based on a Carl Dreyer film, ‘Joan of Arc,’ which also influenced the close-ups and the way we shot the film. If you want to talk about empathy, I mean that film, that’s it. If I had to describe to someone what empathy is, I’d probably show them ‘Joan of Arc.’ And we talked about Buster Keaton as well, and Charlie Chaplin. I think, like that scene where she’s wandering in the badlands — I kind of fell in love with Fran’s body language as well. And so these wider shots of her walking, I was constantly wanting to pull back from Fran sometimes as well, because of just her physical acting. And yes, it really felt at times like she was channeling something of… I mean, that sequence, man, in the badlands when she’s lost, dude, it’s not easy to do that as an actor. “Go, look lost.” And to do it to hit these beats, and I would just kind of be reacting to her, really. I would generally tell her, “Look, I’ve got to be looking that way, Fran, because obviously the light and stuff. But go for it, I’ll adjust, don’t worry.” And that was where the Ronin 2 really came in handy, it was about adjusting to what was happening rather than giving people very specific marks and things to hit. We really needed to allow freedom to be felt all the time. (collider.com)
About Author Jessica Bruder
Jessica Bruder is a journalist and New America fellow who writes about subcultures and social issues. For her book “Nomadland,” she spent months living in a camper van, documenting itinerant Americans who gave up traditional housing and hit the road full time, enabling them to travel from job to job and carve out a place for themselves in a precarious economy. The project spanned three years and more than 15,000 miles of driving — from coast to coast and from Mexico to the Canadian border. Named a New York Times Notable Book and Editors’ Choice, “Nomadland” won the 2017 Discover Award and was a finalist for the J. Anthony Lukas Prize and the Helen Bernstein Book Award. She is also the author of “Burning Book” and, with co-author Dale Maharidge, “Snowden’s Box: Trust in the Age of Surveillance.” Jessica has been teaching narrative storytelling at Columbia Journalism School and contributing to The New York Times for more than a decade. She has also written for New York Magazine, WIRED, Harper’s Magazine, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, The International Herald Tribune, The New York Times Magazine and The Guardian. She was a staff reporter at The Oregonian. Her photography appears in “Nomadland” and “Burning Book” and has been published by The New York Times, The New York Observer and Blender magazine. Jessica has a B.A. in English and French from Amherst College and an M.S. in magazine writing from Columbia Journalism School. Support for her work has come from fellowships at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center, Logan Nonfiction Program, MacDowell and Yaddo. Going back further, she was a Starbucks barista, a snowboarder, an electric guitar nerd, a music store clerk, a junior camp counselor and a really lousy waitress. She is, eternally, a proud and patch-wearing member of the Madagascar Institute and the Flaming Lotus Girls. She lives in Brooklyn with a dog named Max and more plants than you can shake a leafy stick at. (jessicabruder.com)
About Writer and Director Chloé Zhao
A director, screenwriter and producer, Chloé Zhao has quickly become one of the industry’s leading filmmakers. Having held a fascination with the Old West since her childhood in Beijing, Zhao boasts an acclaimed slate of work that reflects this interest, with Vogue writing that she “reinvented the Western.” Zhao moved to New York City in 2010 and began studying in the Graduate Film program, where she developed her short film, “Daughters.” The film premiered at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival and won numerous awards, including Best Student Live Action Short at the 2010 Palm Springs International ShortFest and the Special Jury Prize at the 2010 Cinequest Film Festival. During her time as a thesis student, she went on to finish her debut feature film, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me.” The Native American drama, which was shot by fellow Grad Film alum Joshua James Richards, premiered in the 2015 Sundance Film Festival’s US Dramatic Competition and was screened as part of the Director’s Fortnight selection at Cannes Film Festival. Additionally, the film gave Zhao an Independent Spirit Awards nomination for Best First Feature. In 2017, Zhao directed, wrote and produced her most celebrated work to date, “The Rider.” The Western film premiered in the 2017 Cannes Film Festival’s Director’s Fortnight selection and proceeded to win the Art Cinema Award. She was nominated for Best Director and Best Feature at the 33rd Independent Spirit Awards and became the first-ever recipient of the Bonnie Award, which recognizes “the innovative vision and breakthrough work of female directors.” Sony Pictures Classics released the film for theatrical distribution, and the National Society of Film Critics honored it as the Best Film of 2018….Marvel Studios has appointed her to direct its upcoming title, “Eternals.” (tisch.nyu.edu) “Nomadland” won four awards at this year’s National Society of Film Critics awards, including best picture, best cinematography, best director and best actress. “Nomadland” received four Golden Globe nominations including Best Picture Drama, Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama and Best Screenplay Motion Picture among numerous other awards.