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.
Read: ‘I expected a bidding war. We did not get that.’
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.