Movies

What can a group of American nomads teach an Oscar-nominated director? A lot, says Chloé Zhao

Perhaps there’s no group of people better adapted to the challenges of the global pandemic than the van-dwelling migrants who play themselves in “Nomadland,” says the film’s Oscar-nominated director, Chloé Zhao.

Personal apocalypses and fallout from the 2008 financial meltdown already led these American boomers to adopt new ways of living and working. COVID-19 is just one more hurdle, the 38-year-old, Beijing-born Zhao said.

“Nomadland” opens April 9 in available theatres, also streaming on Disney Plus (including Star).

“You know, (COVID) is a whole new beast and, to so many of us, it’s a shock, you know. But for them, it’s just another bump in the road,” Zhao said from her Ojai, Calif., home in September as “Nomadland” screened at the digital Toronto International Film Festival.

“Nomadland” is nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture. The awards will be handed out April 25. Besides becoming the first woman of colour to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar, Zhao is among the nominees for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing. Zhao was named Best Director at the Golden Globes in March, where “Nomadland” won Best Drama.

Frances McDormand, nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for “Nomadland,” portrays 60-year-old widow Fern in the film. After losing everything in the economic collapse of her one-industry rural Nevada hometown, she moves into her van, calling herself houseless, not homeless, as she learns the ropes of nomadic life.

Based on journalist Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction book about those who choose the road, “Nomadland” follows a cast largely made up of real-life “workampers” who live in RVs, vans and cleverly kitted-out pickup trucks — even cars — while travelling place to place to work temporary jobs.

Fern finds a community among freedom-seeking neighbours with no permanent address. Real-life travellers Linda May, Charlene Swankie and dozens of others in the movie follow a trail of temporary and seasonal jobs across the American West and Midwest. They see themselves as adventurers, living a good life without ties.

Many are inspired by Bob Wells, another real-life character in “Nomadland.” His cheaprvliving.com website, meetups and YouTube videos detail the how and why of vehicle-dwelling life, from rigging makeshift bucket toilets to finding free campsites.

“Nomadland” started gathering honours as soon as it premiered last fall, winning TIFF’s People’s Choice Award and the Golden Lion, top prize at the Venice International Film Festival.

The Toronto Film Critics Association recognized “Nomadland” as Best Picture, along with Best Director for Zhao and Best Actress for McDormand.

McDormand lived the role, said Zhao. She moved into a van, cut her own hair and went to the Salvation Army in Rapid City, S.D., to buy the clothes she wears onscreen. She learned how to do the work Fern takes by cleaning campsite bathrooms and shovelling frozen beets.

“It’s basically letting go of Frances McDormand the Hollywood legend, all that stuff, and coming in basically as one of the actors,” said Zhao. “She is going to be somebody who is going to be able to get out of her van and start shooting right away. It doesn’t matter if your hair’s a mess, you know?”

McDormand is also a producer on the film, teaming with “Call Me by Your Name” actor/producer Peter Spears to option Bruder’s book. She chose Zhao to direct and write the screenplay after seeing her powerful fact-based drama “The Rider” at TIFF 2017, which also used real people instead of actors to tell the story.

There’s a temptation to see “Nomadland” as a modern-day “The Grapes of Wrath,” but it differs in a key way from John Steinbeck’s novel about displaced farmers who quit the Oklahoma dust bowl for farm work in California. Unlike Steinbeck’s characters, few yearn to eventually return to their homes and former lives, Zhao said. They prefer their new way of life on the road. Their future doesn’t involve what they left behind.

“There’s definitely van dwellers that I’ve met who are sort of going through a time so they can save up and they can go back, but not necessarily going back to a house in the suburbs,” said Zhao. “Like Linda May, her experience of living in a van made her realize that she doesn’t need to go back to that. She wants to build an Earthship (house).”

The movie also focuses on a group who don’t get a lot of starring-role screen time today: people in their 60s and 70s.

Loading…

Loading…Loading…Loading…Loading…Loading…

“Age is not a sexy topic to talk about,” said Zhao. “It’s not really trending on Twitter.”

Ageism goes hand-in-hand with capitalism, said Zhao. Those who aren’t seen as useful to the economy become less important in other areas. Elder wisdom is less valued in modern society, she observed. “The pandemic has showed that, how we treated our elders. And I think that’s a big issue that we don’t talk enough about.”

The western landscape also plays a role in “Nomadland.” Zhao has been praised for her use of natural light, especially the fiery glow of sunset skies. It’s a time of day filmmakers often call “magic hour.” Zhao has been photographed on movie sets wearing a ball cap with the term stitched on the front.

She did double duty in the edit suite, finishing “Nomadland” at the same time as her biggest-budget film to date as a director, “Eternals,” the latest chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise. The two films couldn’t be more different, although they do have one thing in common: Zhao’s trademark fondness for magic hour-shot scenes.

The “Eternals” release has been pushed back twice due to the pandemic. It’s now set to hit theatres on Nov. 5, 2021.

“There was no sleep, but a lot more mental health balance because I loved being able to step out ‘Nomandland’s’ world and go into ‘Eternals’ and vice versa,” said Zhao, who called it a “very fruitful lesson” to take what she learned while making one film and apply it to the other.

Zhao’s star continues to rise. She’s teaming with Universal Pictures to write and direct a futuristic, sci-fi Western version of classic monster movie “Dracula.”

She was thrilled to see many of the nomads again when they pulled up in their vans, RVs and trucks for the drive-in screening for the Telluride Film Festival of “Nomadland” at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., last fall.

She’s also taking a page from the real-life characters in “Nomadland.” Slowing down and focusing on what’s really important may be a pandemic-times reaction, but it’s a philosophy the workampers have lived a lot longer, she said. For Zhao, that means raising backyard chickens Cebe, Lucille and Red, and taking pride in smaller accomplishments.

“Today, I rearranged my furniture,” she said. “Just little things, the little victories I think, makes people’s understanding how those little victories are victories. I think maybe people may resonate with the film more in that way, as opposed to when they were just speeding to the next direction before the pandemic. I like to count my blessings instead of thinking about what we’ve lost.”


Source

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button