During awards season, there are multiple opportunities for filmmakers and journalists to engage in cinema dialogue. Usually, studios will offer talent connected to films that are being pitched for awards’ consideration. During the pandemic, these events (film junkets) have transitioned to a virtual model allowing more journalists from around the world to connect with film artists. On occasion, we will offer some of these interactions between Elements of Madness partners/contributors and the filmmakers in a new form, Q-Bits. Today we talk with Nomadland’s multi-award-winning director/writer Chloé Zhao, producers Peter Spears and Mollye Asher, and cinematographer Joshua James Richards.
Handpicked by Frances McDormand to lead this project, Chloé Zhao’s approach to directing Nomadland combined a fusion of documentary-style and feature narrative filmmaking that brought the world to life in a gritty and naturalistic way that seemed to breathe life onto the screen and characters.
Noel T. Manning II: Chloé, Joshua and Mollye, you have worked together on previous projects (including Songs My Brother Taught Me and The Rider) throughout the years, with that in mind, what do you feel you’ve learned from each other about filmmaking?
Chloé Zhao (writer/director) – I was a bit more relentless on (the film) Songs (My Brothers Taught Me); I was like here’s a ten-page treatment (laughs). Then later on I realized, no, that just stretches your producing team too thin if you don’t give them something more concrete to prepare, to work in, then they can’t give you the support you need. They obviously support me, but when I was editing that film, I realized we were stretched too thin, all of us. Because we didn’t have the focus on the most important thing in the treatment; there were so many (things); we wanted to do so much.
On The Rider, we knew what was the most important thing. The focus was on Brady and his own healing journey. That really helped us to honor the narrative.
For Nomadland, sure I wanted to feel spontaneous; I wanted to make something different, but I needed to make sure I worked with the producing team to have something concrete to start with. So that way we could have freedom to improvise, while also being prepared.
Mollye Asher (producer) – Producers love challenges and finding creative ways to solve them. Something I’ve learned from both Chloeé and Josh is a way to take an adaptability to these challenges to have something to build upon. Learning how to embrace the challenges and the restrictions. It’s part of, I think, what makes their work together so poignant and distinctive.
Joshua James Richards (cinematographer) – Chloés approach is unique to me, because it is about learning how to remove the ego quite frankly. Us men have trouble with it.
Chloé Zhao (laughs). Really??
Joshua James Richards (laughs) Yes, with filmmaking it’s a huge thing and it changes everything. For instance in Nomadland when we arrived in Empire (Nevada) and it’s covered in snow, we originally had in mind that it would be like Mad Max dust storms. I’ve seen it done (in other films) where they’d get rid of the snow. They’d bring in fans and bring in the dust storm. (Here’s the question) why is that better than the snow though? That’s just what you had in your mind before. Now you’ve spent loads of money bringing in the dust when you could have worked with the snow. You can really find yourself getting into your tunnel (focus), but if you just open up your thoughts, you can find freedom. Chloé is so good at that.
Peter Spears (producer) – I would agree Josh. I think that’s what’s so brilliant about the script (for Nomadland) that Chloé wrote. Yes there was a script with her (Frances McDormand) opening up a garage door at a storage unit and there’s the journey and her coming back to it … and the whole script there. Yet, it also allowed for the safety net of, yes we have a script and a story, but also, let’s be present to the people we meet on the road, and the moments we embrace, and the possible changes that may happen as a result (of that freedom).
Joshua James Richards: There’s room in the script for that. And Chloé knows that. The map (the planning) is clear, very clear, and it couldn’t be clearer, actually. But because it’s so clear, we know we can go off-map and easily get back on again.
Chloé Zhao: Josh had mentioned earlier about the snow. When we shot our first film, we didn’t have the money, or machines to move snow (laughs). So in that film we had to work with snow, and we were in the hotel room asking ‘what are we going to do with snow because it was supposed to be dust and dirt?’ It was like that every single day. Logistically, how do we work with snow, and also, how do we rewrite the scene? We had to rethink the movie (the story) to work within our limitations and environment around us. We were blessed with those experiences, even though they were difficult. Then, as we grow, we (look back) and realize, that’s not a bad thing. Now (with Nomadland) we have the resources, so how do we enhance this way of working that can appeal to a bigger audience? Moving forward, there’s opportunities to experiment. So, how do we bring more of that into a more conventional film?
Peter Spears: Frances knew that Chloé was the director for this (Nomadland) from the moment she saw The Rider (at the Toronto Film Festival). She called me immediately afterwards and said ‘this is the person.’ In short order, we met Chloé, and decided to do this. Frances’ faith and belief in Chloé from the moment she saw Chloés work carried through the entire project and onto today.
Chloé : So in working with Fran (McDormand), we ask how do we blend her into this world of Nomandland in a form that may have been challenging to other actors. It’s a story that somehow we discovered by accident at times. Fran was a gift to the project; she’s one of the greatest actors of all time and we just took it for granted. She just shows up on set and just kills it. Fran is not afraid to get out of her comfort zone, and to not know what is happening around her character (in certain moments). She allows her vulnerability to show on camera. Not many actors will allow you in like that. The camera is so sensitive to things like that; the camera will not lie.
Joshua James Richards: I just want to say with the camera crew, and a film like this, it was such a joy. For us, if you come out of a day, and we felt we captured something we weren’t expecting, it’s going to be good for the movie. To me, that’s the most successful day. If that accident found its way in, that means all of us are doing something right. With Nomadland, that happened quite often.
Adapted from a book written by Jessica Bruder, Nomadland shows us real, honest stories about people simply being people. Depicted with candidness are the highs and lows, the pain and peace, and the turmoil and tranquility of everyday life. We see people absorbing the wholesome beauty of the natural world and pondering the very nature of their existence and purpose as members of the human race.
Frances McDormand portrays Fern, a woman from Nevada who loses her job during the economic turmoil of the Recession in the United States and begins a life of minimalism. Living out of a van and traveling across the country, Fern becomes detached from the materialistic nature of our society and has more opportunities to personally reflect on spirituality and faithfulness. This is not directly represented as “religion” in the traditional sense, Christianity or otherwise, but the perceived presence of the divine plays heavily into the lives of Fern and other nomads she meets along the way, like Linda May, Swankie, and her spiritual guide of sorts, Bob Wells. Fern also faces the unapologetic reality of our mortality, as a close friend passes away.
Yet, as Bob Wells says, “One of the things I love most about this life is that there’s no final goodbye. You know, I’ve met hundreds of people out here and I don’t ever say a final goodbye. I always just say, ‘I’ll see you down the road.’”
This is a relatively simple statement that contains an unbelievably powerful reminder that our legacy is defined by the people we touch along the way. We do not have to change the entire world single-handedly in order to carry out God’s will. Rather, it is the intentions we bring to each individual interaction and moment that reveal our ultimate essence. The compassion, empathy, and humanity that should drive our actions as we plainly exist and live in the Kingdom of God construct the core of our livelihoods. The contrast of the grace and rawness found in Nomadland make a lovely case for this organic, transparent outlook.
Searchlight Pictures, Nomadland was released on Feb. 19 in theatres and is available on-demand through Hulu. Nomadland has garnered more honors during awards season than any other film with over 125 combined wins (Best Picture, director, actress, screenplay, cinematography).
Elements of Madness appreciates the opportunity to engage with filmmakers and the films they create through interviews, critical analysis, and topical engagement and open observation.
Kathryn Manning served as a writing, editing and research assistant for this piece.
Noel T. Manning is a member of the CCA, SEFCA and the NCFCA and is also the host of the television program and radio show Meet Me at the Movies. He’s the founder of the Real to Reel Film Fest and is an adjunct professor of film studies. When he’s not embracing mainstream, indie, international, documentary or art films, he’s digging into the world of cinema by chatting with principle individuals involved in various aspects of the filmmaking industry.
Categories: Filmmaker Interviews