Chloé Zhao: ‘Nomadland’

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Director, Chloé Zhao. Photo by Jake Sigl.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes director Chloé Zhao, whose newest project is “Nomadland,” starring Frances McDormand and several nonprofessional actors. She also directed the films “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” and “The Rider.” Zhao tells the Treatment that one of things she loved about working with nonprofessional actors for “Nomadland” was the unique cadence of their speech. Zhao says her observations of McDormand in real life informed scenes she included in the film, and she talks about why she includes so many sunrises and sunsets in her work.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. My guest is Chloé Zhao, director of the adaption of "Nomadland," starring Frances McDormand. I was thinking about your trust immediately in your audiences, because so often you start a movie, and you let us wait before the lead character actually speaks.

Chloé Zhao: You're right. I make films of places that don't usually get a cinematic treatment, so it's always nice to ease people in, give them a moment and just step into the space and set the expectation of the film, the pacing of the film.

KCRW: I think you tend to create characters and leads who are kind of like you: they're observers, so we're taking the world in the way that they are, so you're introducing us to their point of view and letting us know they're going to be watching the world as much as they'll be participating in it.

Zhao: I think we don't listen enough these days. There's a lot of talking, not enough listening. And when I go into communities or lifestyles that aren't my own, for that research process, I had to do a lot of listening. It's just always felt quite natural to me to create characters that are listeners. The audience can step into these worlds that are foreign and strange to them.

KCRW: You also often use natural sound, rather than using music as a cue at the opening of a lot of these movies. You're basically saying to your audience: just take your time, take a deep breath, because that's what we're gonna do here. I'm not going to hit you over the head with this. I'm not gonna force you to do something; I'm going to let you relate to my character, because you're gonna have to give in to nature in the same way these characters give in to nature.

Zhao: Yes, I think that came out of the choice of whose perspective are we seeing this film from? And sometimes I worry about the danger of making a film about, say, the Badlands of South Dakota, about Brady, but through my perspective. I'm supposed to let the audience experience a sunrise in the Badlands through Brady's perspective. To do that, the film itself has to really get into the essence of how Brady feels, smells, hears and sees this landscape. So it's not just about studying them and putting them on screen for an anthropological reason, but to let the audience truly experience their life experiences.

KCRW: We're talking about this idea of trust, and you have to do a lot of trusting when you're bringing people who aren't professional actors into the stories. Each of them has a very different speaking rhythm; you give each of them time because the thing I would say about your movies, and especially this one, is they're about the pride that people take in their unconventional lives.

Zhao: I think there's an oral tradition in the culture of the road, where people sit around the fire with strangers and tell stories. When I was traveling for my first two films, and a stranger welcomes you, she tells you everything because they're never going to see you again. And sometimes that's easier than to tell something to someone who you're going to see in a coffee shop the next day. And I kind of wanted to have that feeling in the film where you sit across from someone. You cannot deny it at all. There are no tricks.  We aren't opening the van, so you can put the camera in different angles and try to make the scene more dynamic that way. You're just sitting there across from a fire and you're listening, and there is something very powerful about that. And then you move on; you never see that person again. 

Frances McDormand and Chloé Zhao. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

KCRW: You have somebody with the kind of presence that Frances McDormand has, just having her listen to somebody else automatically confers a kind of authority on that person in a really subconscious way.

Zhao: Well, what it is, is people have to trust that you're not coming into their lives, to tell them how they should live. I think that's a big one, especially for people from marginalized communities or on the periphery of society. And you have to go in with curiosity and some reverence as well, regardless of whether you think everything they do is right or wrong, and just connect with them. I know it's a cliche to say, but connect on a human level, and you will have a lot in common with that person because you are all children at one point and definitely have had a heartbreak before so I think that's the bottom line.

KCRW: So many of these characters that you are interested in, as a creator, are people who take pride and invest a lot of themselves in the immediate space around them.

Zhao: That's an interesting observation. I think this type of individualism, the sense of self, whether it is an illusion or it is real, that I find my characters hold on to: my cowboy outfit and my horse, my van and my father, the place my father left me. I think it's people who might not naturally have a strong sense of who they are, but they grab hold onto an identity that they think is literally a lifeline for them. I myself come from quite a lot of different versions of that. 

KCRW: You say you've kind of lived a life a lot like that yourself?

Zhao: Yeah, I've gone through different phases. Some years, I was a Rastafarian. People who know me for over a decade say: you've changed a lot. For people who are chasing the horizon, sometimes I think they're just chasing for themselves and trying to figure out who they are in this world. 

I look at a young kid like Derek, who has been hopping trains since he was like 17 or 18 years-old. He's talking about the western wind and the horizon he's chasing. I look at him, and I feel like he's also trying to figure out who he is. That's why I think the road is usually a story of a young person. That's why this book was very interesting to me, because I didn't think from the perspective of someone in the twilight of their years, who has had everything society has put on them and they have found themselves about who they are both physically and in terms of relationships, and spirituality, emotionally. And to take that all away, whether it's by force, or they gave that up and then go find themselves again beyond the horizon at a time of their life is a very interesting thing that drew me to the project.

KCRW: The visual cues we get, when there are younger people around as long as you're talking about Rastafarians, we can see visually that they're different, you know, that they have dreads, and their worldview, we can see, just in the way that they look. That's fascinating to me that you can really draw that kind of generational line, just by seeing the way people dress themselves and then the way they do their hair.

Zhao: That's a generational thing. You know, that's the baby boomer generation. They were all told to fit in. They're the most hard working, responsible generation of Americans. That's why they're such popular recruits, to work in these seasonal jobs. The young folks, the millenials are not showing up the next day, but Swankie, Linda May, Bob Wells and Fern are extremely responsible. They're very humble, and they're very hardworking, and they don't always ask questions, so that generation: to see their dreams, the kind of trust they have for their country and the system and the government, and to see that taken away from them, it's a really heartbreaking thing.

KCRW: Your films are often about people in recovery, from physical or emotional trauma. And I wonder if that's one of the things that attracted you to "Nomadland" because the whole book is about people in one way or another, telling us about how they're dealing with this and using the road as a way to connect with something bigger. 

Zhao: I think I'm really interested in capturing human resilience. How do we overcome? Because life is hard. Maybe because I come from the Buddhist tradition from my country that says yes, you were born to the world to suffer. Whether it's someone as young as Brady, or as old as Swankie and Bob Wells, there's something they're dealing with, that they're trying to overcome and to show the audience that journey, whether they resolve, they completely heal or not, but to show the actual doing of healing of perseverance, I think is a really good thing to capture that on screen.

Also, I think this country is so young. It has always been a struggle between man and nature and with this nation, especially about conquering the land but at the same time, being part of it. And I think about how much we're trying to fight against the natural rhythm of things. That kind of resistance, sometimes is quite painful, and nature doesn't resist. It goes into the rhythm it's supposed to be, so I always feel like these characters will find the inspiration of healing in nature. 

KCRW: There's a point where, in your movies, it seems like anything can happen both good and bad, that the whole world opens up, and so often about the way the sun hits the landscape that feels like sunrise, and I just wonder what it is about sunrises that you respond to so much.

Zhao: You have to follow rules. You know how many hours we can work, so you either choose sunrise or sunset. It's better to wait than chase. And who can get up in the morning? Whether it's sunrise or sunset, those 40 minutes, especially the last 20, you see the world blend together because of the way the light is. At 12 noon, things have their own identity more; the true colors are revealed. There's sharp edges, and yet [at sunset], everything blends together, and it's almost like a moment of union because we're all in agreement that this day is going to end and then we are just going to give our best in that moment. Sunrise is the same. It's saying goodbye to night. 

Those transitional moments; it could be literally one of the most profound moments in a person's life. If we don't capture those moments, then the audience could be like: what's so great about this? Why do I want to be on the road? It's because the folks that are on the road have experienced this moment. That's what gave them so much strength, and it's very important our audience experiences that, to understand why Fern chooses this lifestyle in the end.

On the set of "Nomadland." Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

KCRW: What was your first day of shooting with Fran McDormand like?

Zhao: The first thing we ever shot for "Nomadland" was the reptile garden in South Dakota. So the first day really consists of Fred and Dave running around a reptile garden, petting turtles and playing with snakes. And just looking at crocodiles.

KCRW: Was that her actual reaction, reacting to the snake?

I think so. Look, when the camera is on you, everyone will perform, and I think there's authentically herself in it, but I think Fran knows what she's doing. [Actors] are so good at finding that nice balance between what appears to be them being themselves and what they're giving the camera. And that's why those two actors are so perfect for this project. 

Fran and I spent a lot of time together, before figuring out who Fern is. I remember leaving a supermarket, and there was a free pile, like in the little open area where there's all these free things. And so Fran immediately went there to rummage to see if she could find anything. I was watching her in those piles and piles of stuff. And I thought of Buster Keaton. I thought of Chaplin when I was looking at the way she would move. I just thought this has to be in the film somehow. She always felt like her characters would become part of who she is after all these years. She takes a little bit of them with her. 

KCRW: It's so interesting to see her, just surrounded by all this snow at the beginning and standing by the side of a road and to not be reminded of "Fargo."

Zhao: I didn't think about how similar that opening image of her peeing by the side of the barbed wire fence, how that may evoke a very popular image. You know that might just be exactly where they buried the money. I'm going to tell Joel [Coen] that.



Rebecca Mooney