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‘Nomadland’ director Chloé Zhao saw Frances McDormand as ‘a modern-day John Wayne’

"Except that this time the woman doesn’t stay in the homestead,” says the Golden Globe-winning director of the new "Nomadland.'

Frances McDormand and Chloe Zhao on the set of "Nomadland."
Frances McDormand and Chloe Zhao on the set of "Nomadland."Read moreCourtesy Searchlight Pictures

Chloé Zhao’s celebrated new movie, Nomadland, for which she was named Best Director at Sunday’s Golden Globe awards, grew directly from the success her 2017 film The Rider.

Frances McDormand, fresh off her Oscar for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, met Zhao at an awards show and pitched her on her latest passion project. McDormand wanted to adapt Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book Nomadland about older folks exiled from traditional homes and jobs without a nest egg — or even a nest — who travel the country in vans and campers scrounging for seasonal employment.

Zhao was on board, provided McDormand was willing to abide by the director’s offbeat method: unusually deep immersion in the culture of the people whose story is being told.

Zhao, 39, prefers to meet people where they live. She developed The Rider, a lightly fictionalized account of a Lakota cowboy, over years spent on a South Dakota Sioux reservation and filmed Nomadland on location across the West. And she likes to use as many real people as possible.

Both McDormand and costar David Strathairn were all in. “Fran and Dave, they stepped into [my] world. They stepped into the process of how to make those films,” Zhao said.

Not easy for an Oscar winner accustomed to call sheets and craft service and star trailers, but McDormand “did a lot of work to fit into the world of nomads,” Zhao said. “She had to adjust to how I work.”

For Nomadland, now in theaters and on Hulu, they followed the seasonal workers to encampments, truck stops, Amazon warehouses, Walmart parking lots, crop harvests — living the life in order to record it with honesty.

Zhao wants the people in her movies to be accorded dignity, she said, a word she uses often. “I feel like I’m in the business of recording time. And I’m always curious about how people would like to be remembered. It’s not about what I think. It’s not about my own point of view.”

It’s paid off with nominations and awards.

In addition to Zhao’s Golden Globe win, Nomadland won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, has been named best picture by several organizations, was nominated in four top categories for the Golden Globes (for best drama, director, screenplay, and actress), and is among the Oscar favorites. McDormand has been a named best actress by the National Society of Film Critics, becoming the first woman to do so in a movie that shows her relieving herself in a bait bucket.

McDormand plays Fern, a composite of the kind of people we meet in Bruder’s book. Fern hits the road after her husband dies, and after the drywall factory in her Iowa town abruptly shuts down, throwing hundreds out of work.

That was a real tragedy in a real town, called Empire, and you can readily see how that kind of loaded name would tempt a filmmaker to land hard on dashed American dreams and economic exploitation.

But Zhao is a step ahead of expectations. The houseless people we meet are kind, funny, resilient, complex — we see these attributes even in the story of a woman who forgoes chemotherapy to spend her remaining weeks in the most beautiful place she can find.

It’s even possible to be envious of some of them. Yes, they are one setback away from homelessness, but they are also mercifully detached from the hamster wheel of compulsive internet agitation and nonstop cable news outrage.

“Obviously, politically, I think [the nomad life] should be a choice for people of that age in one of the richest countries in the world,” Zhao said. “You shouldn’t be forced into that life.”

By telling their own stories in Zhao’s movie, the nomads get to choose how the world looks at them. “I know they don’t want to be remembered as an issue, as victims. They want to be remembered with dignity.”

Capturing America’s big spaces

Perhaps that’s why, for all of the hardships nomads face, Zhao often presents them in rapturously beautiful settings, enveloped in the magic-time hues of sunrises and sunsets. She has developed a knack for photographing big spaces, loves the American West, and has mastered low-light photography that somehow captures shadow and color with equal grace.

Nomadland occupies its own distinctive niche, but it has elements of both road movies and westerns.

“I think that for a country this young, the identity of what it means to be American is something that is constantly discussed,” said Zhao, who grew up in Beijing and moved to Los Angeles as a teenager, “more so than the country I come from, which is 5,000 years old.”

“There is something about people I meet on the road, searching for what’s beyond the horizon — you’re really searching for your sense of self,” she said. “Americans are attracted to this feeling of movement, because for them, it’s part of this search for identity.”

As for the western feel, Zhao opens the movie with a big, wide shot of Fern opening a storage garage door — you see her in silhouette with the desert as a backdrop. It echoes a very famous shot in John Ford’s The Searchers, wherein John Wayne first appears as a shadow in a doorway.

“We did consider Fern as a modern-day John Wayne, with that kind of vibe,” Zhao said.

McDormand as the most viable contemporary heir to the Wayne tradition? Anyone who saw her on a seething, remorseless campaign of revenge in Three Billboards would disagree at their own peril.

“Except that this time the woman doesn’t stay in the homestead,” Zhao said. “She is the one walking into the wilderness.”

As is Zhao herself, now in the thorniest thickets of Hollywood. She wrote and directed a new $200 million Marvel saga (now in postproduction) called The Eternals, about a group of alien immortals (Angelina Jolie, Gemma Chan, Kumail Nanjiani), who are summoned to save humanity from an existential threat.

It exists under the usual veil of Marvel secrecy, and Zhao is not keen to divulge details (it’s purported to feature the first LGBTQ superhero).

We do know that this time she’s working with a cast formed exclusively of Hollywood pros. So I asked Zhao, accustomed to working with “real people,” if she found it hard to work on a movie about aliens without using real aliens.

“How do you know,” she countered, “that they’re not real aliens? We keep things under wraps.”