Chloé Zhao is having a very busy 2021. She’s buried in postproduction on a Marvel movie, Eternals, due out this November. Her third feature film, Nomadland, will be released wide tomorrow, screening both on Hulu and in open theaters around the country. It’s a big, bold rollout for an ostensibly intimate drama. But Zhao’s films have always had a grand scale to them, even though they’re made on tiny budgets. Her first two films, Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, told granular stories of human perseverance in South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and relied on nonprofessional actors playing fictionalized versions of themselves.
Nomadland, based on Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book about older Americans living out of their cars and vans after the Great Recession, has that same mix of epic sweep and gritty humanism. It stars Frances McDormand as Fern, a woman who loses her husband and her job at a gypsum plant and hits the road. But most of the cast around her are real-life “nomads” playing themselves, telling stories of their struggle to survive in the aftermath of economic calamity. Zhao’s attention to detail, and her devotion to letting these narratives breathe, is part of what makes her such an exciting filmmaker.
Just as intriguing is that the follow-up to Zhao’s first three modestly budgeted movies is a celestial superhero epic starring Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjiani, Salma Hayek, and Richard Madden for an expansive new entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The director talked to The Atlantic about the Great Recession’s formative influence on her filmmaking, how Nomadland and Eternals are like her two dogs, and how she strategizes to tell authentic stories in Hollywood. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
David Sims: You have an Oscar front-runner coming out this week, but you’re in postproduction on a Marvel movie for this fall. What’s your work situation like?
Chloé Zhao: Half the time I’m at home, using the magical technology they have these days that was invented as the pandemic happened. The other half I’m in Burbank on a Disney lot.
Sims: Is it weird to be doing that while also talking about Nomadland?
Zhao: It’s not weird, except that there’s no time to sleep. These two films are hilarious; they’re like my two dogs, who are basically my life. They’re called Taco and Rooster. They’re very different speeds; it’s very overwhelming. You love them so much, but while you’re petting Rooster, you’ll look over at Taco and think, Oh no, I have to pet this one!
Sims: Is one project more high maintenance than the other?
Zhao: I’m still comparing them to my dogs. People who know me know [they’re] my greatest love. I think Eternals is a bit more high maintenance than Nomadland [laughs]. Taco is eight years old, Rooster is three, so there’s a bit of an energy difference.
Sims: You made Nomadland first, adapting it from a nonfiction book. How did that work?
Zhao: The book has such an incredible scale, capturing this time when a way of life was just disappearing, and such interesting characters. So our job was to create fictional characters that can incorporate that whole story.
Sims: That’s something you’ve done before on Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, mixing real life with fiction. Was this a similar approach?
Zhao: It was a different challenge in that [Nomadland] has this road-movie aspect. I used to make films about one place where people can’t really leave. The other challenge was that Fern [the main character of Nomadland, played by Frances McDormand] was very different from Fran. The other lead characters I’ve had, 70 to 80 percent [of their real selves] were onscreen; it was about where they live and what they do. Obviously, this was a bigger departure.
Sims: So is it part of a continuum on the way to Eternals, which is this big-scale production with all sorts of fictional characters? Or was it just a particular project that piqued your interest?
Zhao: If you asked me, ‘Did you get Taco so you could eventually get Rooster?’ I would banish you [laughs]. The love is real in each of them! No, I didn’t know Eternals was next. They called me and told me I had the job two days before I started shooting Nomadland. I was in South Dakota, ready to go. I think I pitched the project before I left for prep on Nomadland.
Sims: Did you come up with Fern in concert with Frances McDormand? I know she brought you the book, but did she come to you with the idea for a story centered on this character?
Zhao: She came to me with the book, I read the book, and then I met [with] her, spent a lot of time with her, and got to know her. After that, I took a really long trip with my director of photography [Joshua James Richards, who is also her partner] all over the American West. Somewhere on that trip, combined with having read the book, meeting a lot of people in the book, and spending a lot of time with Fran, I went to the producers and said, “I think this could be the story.”
Sims: At what point does the pandemic happen?
Zhao: Let me give you the timeline. Nomadland was shot from September 2018 to the beginning of February 2019. Immediately after we wrap, I jump into prep for Eternals, and I shot that [from] September 2019 to February 2020. And then we shut down. That’s when I start editing Nomadland.
Sims: So when you’re editing Nomadland, are you thinking about how this movie is about the last economic calamity, and here’s another one happening around us as we speak? Is that in your head at all?
Zhao: Not so much. Obviously, my life has changed. I can’t say it wouldn’t have been a little different if there was no pandemic. But editing for me is not intellectual at all.
Sims: This is a fairly small movie; you’re working on a very big movie right now. Have you ever talked to Hollywood about making a medium-size movie? Could Nomadland exist at that scale?
Zhao: You’re talking to a generation of filmmakers that’s traumatized. I started film school when the financial crisis happened; I got out in 2010. Wherever you went, there was nobody giving you money to make There Will Be Blood again. Remember There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men? That was the year!
Zhao: Suddenly, everything’s bankrupt. And then everyone says the phrase elevated genre. [Rolls eyes] I mean, Jesus Christ.
Sims: Which just means, Can you make it for less than $10 million? But it’ll be “elevated” somehow.
Zhao: Yeah! It’s going to be elevated! I don’t know; nobody taught me that in school! So then I end up with a hundred grand, making my first film. The question is, what do you have that people with $10 million don’t have? Then make that as big onscreen as possible. Because that’s your only chance to stand out. I’m very grateful for those years.
Sims: I love those movies, but it feels like a unique challenge.
Zhao: You’re either gonna be challenged [then], or you’d be challenged now. Early in your career, if you went with the flow and took the easy path, you wouldn’t be standing out now, so you’d have to find a way to reinvent yourself anyway!
Sims: What would the easier path have been?
Zhao: Elevated genre. [Laughs] I still don’t know what that is. I was writing an “elevated genre” film, but I couldn’t get any money for it! To get it “elevated,” you need money to make it happen, unless you’re doing The Blair Witch Project, which was genius.
Sims: It feels like an “elevated genre” movie really just means a good horror movie. There aren’t a lot of “elevated” romantic dramas or crime movies.
Zhao: Yes, it has to be extreme. After Songs or The Rider, there were some director-for-hire jobs I could have taken. They were bigger projects. But it’s not who I am, and in this industry, if you’re not honest about who you are, you’re going to attract people that you don’t want to be working with anyways. By being authentically who you are, you might be a little slower in becoming successful, but you’re going to be slowly gathering people who are your tribe, your kinda folks.
Sims: So with Nomadland, you had people you trusted, people you’ve worked with before, who knew how to mount a production like this.
Zhao: If I didn’t make The Rider, if I made a film that wasn’t me, this wouldn’t have happened. Fran is looking at The Rider and saying “That, I’m up for that!” Searchlight is looking at it going, “I want the film to be that!” So we’re on the same page from the beginning. When I’m editing and giving my director’s cuts to them, for them to give me notes, I didn’t look at the notes and then decide to go kill them all! On the contrary, after we did test screenings, I’m very brutal with my own work, so I started cutting scenes out of the movie. And the studio came back to me saying, “No, no, no, slow down!” That’s how much I can trust them, because we were brought together by The Rider.
Sims: Does the same thing apply to Eternals, on such a big scale? Can you say to [Marvel President] Kevin Feige, “Well, you’ve seen The Rider; you know what I want to do.” Or is it a whole different landscape?
Zhao: It 100 percent applies. When we’re going in to pitch the movie, it’s about being as honest as possible, and being willing to walk away from a great opportunity if you’re not on the same page. You do hear horror stories from bigger films, and that’s because people were not on the same page from the beginning. They all wanted to work together, or they wanted the job, and they keep going and going until they can’t anymore, and then it gets really bad.
Sims: Then you’re off the movie, or it’s getting reedited out of your hands.
Zhao: We were all very honest and clear from the beginning, and it just so happened that we wanted to make the same movie. From then on, it’s fun. Then your disagreements and friction are going to be generating sparks.
Sims: It’s like you said. You’ve got Taco, you’ve got Rooster, and it’s the same emotional experience even if it’s a different approach.
Zhao: Yes. Rooster has longer hair that does need a little more brushing. He needs more of my attention than Taco, yes.
Sims: When you’re editing [Nomadland], are you worrying about what it’s going to look like come the release date, whether people would be able to see it in theaters? It’s such a gorgeous movie.
Zhao: It’s a more immediate version of a bigger question about streaming. More people are watching films at home; you feel like you’re part of a tide that’s pushing in a certain direction. You can be unhappy about it, or you can save as much as you can. For us, to partner with IMAX and make the film available though it might not be a big moneymaker—just to have it available for people who feel safe to do it, at least it’s something. I don’t think we can completely change the tide, but I would love to have this film seen [in any format]. I do miss the festival circuit, because my favorite moment there is after the last frame goes black, before the Q&A, before the cast goes out, you feel this energy in a room, people having a shared experience, whether they loved or hated it. We can’t not have that as a species; we can’t lose that.