A too-honest report on Nomadland’s Chloé Zhao, the most fascinating filmmaker of the moment

Director Chloé Zhao with Frances McDormand on the set of Nomadland.

Joshua Richards/20th Century Studios

Here is a dirty little secret from the world of film journalism: sometimes things change, and because of a long-established reporting practice called “banking,” writers cannot do much about it.

In media parlance, “banking” means conducting an interview with talent (actor, writer, director, etc.) during a publicity blitz weeks or sometimes months before a movie comes out, and embargoing that story until a release date is confirmed. It happens all the time – the Toronto International Film Festival is a prime hot-spot for banking – and often, it doesn’t mean much. Whatever an actor or director might say about their work doesn’t tend to change from the time they speak with junket reporters to the moment that their movie premieres. Ostensibly, banking benefits everyone: filmmakers, studios, reporters, and (ideally) readers, who receive a tiny window into the creative process that might not be so readily on offer once release time rolls around.

But then there are those instances that, as a writer, you regret agreeing to bank coverage in the first place. Or rather: moments when you really wish you could conduct a follow-up interview. Such as the time I spoke with Chloé Zhao, the 39-year-old director of the excellent new drama Nomadland, half a year ago.

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Nomadland, finally available in Canada this week, is one of the best films of the year[1]

When we spoke over the phone this past September, Nomadland had just enjoyed a simultaneous world premiere at the Toronto and Venice film festivals, where it knocked critics out[2] with its beauty, heart and devastating lead performance from Frances McDormand as a widow named Fern who travels across the U.S. looking for seasonal work.

There were many worthy subjects to discuss with Zhao at the time – her process adapting Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book of the same name, her relationship with McDormand, her trepidation showing the film to mentor Terrence Malick – and it seemed like an interview well worth banking for whenever.

There was this insightful nugget, for instance, about Zhao balancing her work on Nomadland at the same time that she was polishing her forthcoming Marvel Studios blockbuster Eternals: “It’s draining but also mentally healthy because I’m never lost in one or the other. Healthier people probably have a hobby, but I don’t. And when you’re editing two films, one big and one small, they go through the same post-production process, so it’s helpful for me to take what I learned from one side and put it to the other to solve problems.”

Fairly interesting, right?

Nomadland’s Academy Award nomination in Best Director category, makes Zhao the first woman of colour to ever be recognized in that category.

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Studios

But in the months following our conversation, Nomadland experienced a fascinating cycle of cultural discourse, which is what happens when your film becomes a Movie of the Moment.

There is Nomadland’s depiction of work inside an Amazon “fulfilment centre” (too charitable, argue some[3]). There are the questions about whether Zhao possibly grew up too privileged to fully appreciate Fern’s economic circumstances (”fake news[4],” the director said in February). There is the Beijing-born director’s up-and-down reputation in China, where she is now under fire[5] due to a resurfaced 2013 interview in which she discussed growing up in a country “where there are lies everywhere.” There are the details of Nomadland’s frustrating Canadian release[6], which is arriving a full two months after it became available to stream in the U.S. And, of course, there are Nomadland’s bevy of Academy Award nominations[7], including a Best Director nod that makes Zhao the first woman of colour to ever be recognized in that category.

There is now so much more to talk about when we talk about Nomadland that publishing a piece absent Zhao’s up-to-date thoughts on these new issues would be supremely strange – and poorly serve the film’s potential audience.

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Unfortunately, as can happen with “banked” material, reporters only get one chance to shoot their shot. And you take it, knowing that it’s highly unlikely the chance will come again as a film gains steam and a director’s availability becomes that much more elusive.

So, despite multiple requests for a new interview with Zhao – I get it; it’s a busy time – I’m left with worthy, but honestly kind of stale, insights from the year’s most fascinating filmmaker.

If you are still curious, then, here is Zhao on mixing McDormand with amateur actors playing versions of themselves: “Fran was attracted to the idea of Fern being more of a listener in this film – it’s her strong silent presence that allows us to sit with her and listen to these stories from people who we wouldn’t otherwise listen to or hear.”

And here is Zhao is on how the nomad lifestyle has changed from 2012, when her film is set, to today: “It has grown so much, and the younger generation has embraced it through the tiny-house, minimalism, and the van-life movements. It’s become much more mainstream.”

Still interesting, right?

Frances McDormand plays as a widow named Fern who travels across the U.S. looking for seasonal work.

20th Century Studios

I’d love, though, to present a more complete portrait of the director at this very moment. Something like Alison Willmore’s New York Magazine profile in February[8] (although perhaps with more details on her upbringing in China and boarding-school years in the U.K., which is glossed over). But because this is the daily print-media game, this is what I have to offer. It is a regret, of sorts.

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But this means I can neatly segue into one of Zhao’s own regrets. After saying once that she “has to be in love with my subject matter” to make a film, I asked her what it was about Marvel’s Eternals that she loved enough to make a feature?

“When I said that, I regret it a little bit, because all the filmmakers love what they want to make,” she told me with a gentle laugh. “I don’t suggest people do it for other reasons. I’m a bit [attention-deficit disorder] and extreme. I can’t hold my own interests long enough for one thing. I have to go deeper for something to sustain me for two years. With Eternals, [comic-book creator] Jack Kirby created such a beautiful, colourful, rich world. There’s a lot for me to explore.”

I look forward to talking with Zhao all about it, whenever.

Nomadland is available to stream on Disney+ add-on Star starting April 9, the same day it opens in select Canadian theatres, dependent on local health restrictions

Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.[9]

References

  1. ^ Nomadland, finally available in Canada this week, is one of the best films of the year (www.theglobeandmail.com)
  2. ^ where it knocked critics out (twitter.com)
  3. ^ too charitable, argue some (www.vulture.com)
  4. ^ fake news (theplaylist.net)
  5. ^ now under fire (www.nytimes.com)
  6. ^ frustrating Canadian release (www.theglobeandmail.com)
  7. ^ Academy Award nominations (www.theglobeandmail.com)
  8. ^ New York Magazine profile in February (www.vulture.com)
  9. ^ Sign up (www.theglobeandmail.com)