Discover the life and work of the award-winning director, writer, and editor of Nomadland who made history in 2021
Chloé Zhao is the name on everyone’s lips after making Oscar history as the first woman of color to take home the Best Director prize.
Having already won a number of awards for Nomadland, including the top prizes at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals and both the BAFTA and Golden Globe for Best Director, the world was poised to see if her poetic drama starring Frances McDormand would triumph at the 93rd Academy Awards. It did. Not only was Zhao awarded Best Director, Nomadland also picked up Best Picture and Frances McDormand took home Best Actress in a Leading Role for her performance in the film.
Despite Zhao being well and truly in the spotlight right now, until recently, she was relatively unknown outside of the arthouse indie scene. What do we know about the Chinese-born US-based filmmaker, and how did she get to where she is now?
In this blog post, we take a look at the life and work of Zhao and highlight what makes her such a unique filmmaker.
China → the UK → the USA
Born Zhao Ting in Beijing, Chloé Zhao grew up in China until her mid-teens, when she moved to the UK to attend boarding school. Her father was the manager of a Beijing steel company, and her mother, a hospital worker, was in a performance troupe for the People’s Liberation Army. From the UK, Zhao moved to the USA aged 18, and finished high school in Los Angeles.
She studied political science for four years at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, graduating without really knowing what she would do next. It has been reported that Zhao tried her hand at party promoting and real estate, but it was through bartending that she ended up realizing that people were her true passion.
Convinced that she was destined to tell stories, Zhao enrolled on the graduate film program at New York University Tisch School of the Arts. It was at NYU that she made her first short, Daughters, and met cinematographer Joshua James Richards. Zhao would work with him on her following three feature films, including Nomadland, for which Richards was also nominated for an Oscar.
Debut Feature Film: Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015)
As a thesis student at NYU, Zhao completed her debut feature film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Set in the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, the film tells the story of two Lakota siblings, Johnny and Jashaun, who have to deal with the death of their absentee bronc rider father.
This film is an example of Zhao’s documentary approach to filmmaking. Like much of her Nomadland casting, for Songs My Brothers Taught Me, Zhao hired non-professional actors to play characters similar to themselves. The film has a loose plot, which is inspired by the life of lead actor John Reddy: it features the house he grew up in and appearances from various family members. It is an observational portrait of life on the reservation, which touches on societal issues affecting the community.
In the film, Johnny illegally distributes alcohol to make ends meet, hoping to save up enough money so he can leave the “rez” and move to Los Angeles and live with his girlfriend. One critic describes the film as having “Malickian touches,” referring to director Terrence Malick. In this video, we learn that Malick, in particular his film New World, has had a big influence on Zhao and how she captures nature on screen.
The Rider (2015)
For her 2017 follow-up, The Rider, Zhao employed a similar documentary-style approach to creating another observational film that inspires reflection. Shot in the Badlands of South Dakota, The Rider, like Songs, draws on the real-life experiences of its lead actor, Brady Jandreau, who is joined on screen by family members who also play versions of themselves.
After teaching Zhao to ride horses during the production of Songs, Jandreau had a rodeo accident that resulted in a brain injury that limited his ability to ride again. The Rider is Zhao’s fictionalized telling of that story and received four nominations at the Independent Spirit Awards.
Nomadland follows Frances McDormand’s character Fern as she drives around the USA in the van that she also sleeps in, working different temporary jobs. The script is Zhao’s adaptation of journalist Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” and the film features many of the real-life people from the book: Bob Wells, the bearded mentor to a community of nomads who shares self-help resources online; Swankie, who’s been on the road for over ten years; and Linda May, a central figure in Bruder’s book who appears in the movie as Fern’s best friend.
It is a story about a community living on the margins of American society who choose to live in RVs instead of having permanent addresses. McDormand and her producing partner, Peter Spears, had optioned Bruder’s book shortly before the 2017 Toronto Film Festival, where the actress attended a screening of The Rider. Six months later, McDormand and Zhao met, and the actress recruited her writer-director-editor. The film was shot over four months across five states.
The Eternals (2021)
Zhao is currently in post-production for the upcoming Marvel epic, The Eternals, which is about a group of superhero misfits. While Zhao’s venture into the Marvel universe marks a significant departure from her previous work, she has said that she always imagined being a manga artist, “having such deep, strong manga roots.”
Marvel reportedly gave Zhao the freedom to bring her vision and shoot exactly the way she wanted to shoot. “On location. A lot of magic hour. Three-hundred-sixty degrees on the same camera as I did on Nomadland. Same rigs. It’s a bit surreal. I’m still waiting for the shoe to drop. It hasn’t. I think I got lucky in that Marvel wants to take risks and do something different,” says Zhao. The Eternals is set for release in November 2021.
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