The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Nomadland.
Your films feel so naturalistic— as though you just took your crew to a location and filmed what was going on there. But the reality is quite different, isn’t it?
Chloé Zhao: Well, the trick is to make the audience feel like we just showed up. That we have not planned or manipulated the situation… but of course we did! And, you know, it’s not that different from a more traditional film: we start with a script, and the script gives us the parameters, so it’s a road movie… So the locations come first. And then we go from there.
Mollye Asher: After Chloé finalizes the script, we’ll know exactly what she needs. By that I mean, there will be specific places that Chloé knows for sure that she wants. For example, Wall Drug in South Dakota is a very famous place, and so we’ll go through that process of getting those locations. But then there are other things that Chloé and Josh, through their travels, are going to find as they’re location scouting. For instance, for the mechanic, Chloé and Josh drove around to a lot of different places until they found one that was interesting looking. And when they did that, they found this amazing character, Ken, who is in the film. So a lot of times the casting of locations is also casting the actors.
I don’t believe in “locking” the script until the morning of the last day of the shoot
It’s fascinating that Fern was not in the book, and is so central to the film. How did you create her?
CZ: We divided the whole story by three: There’s a third from the book, a third from the lives of our previous films and our travels, and another third from Fran, really. Including locations as well— for instance, the redwoods, and the Pacific coast… those places were very dear to Fran. We knew from the start that Jessica Bruder [the author of the book] had captured such a unique time in America. Everything from Empire Nevada to work camping at Amazon to Bee Harvest Nebraska. It’s a very rich, rich world that she built. We needed to create a character that had a strong enough of an emotional arc to be able to take us through that kind of territory. And for us, to be able to very greedily include as much as we could from her book. And so we collaborated with Fran to create a character that’s sort of a version of Fran — the same way that the non-professional actors were going to play versions of themselves. So that’s sort of how Fern was created.
How did you crew this film? It must be a delicate task, given that you are placing non-actors alongside a master like Frances McDormand.
MA: We brought them with us on the road. And, you know, casting crew is something we’ve done on all of Chloé’s movies. It’s very important, because we’re going into communities that are not our own. We try to find crew that can, in a way, become invisible. And that they will be OK with that idea, too. We took a long time looking for what I kind of call “unicorns,” because they are able to do many different jobs and that’s key to these small crews. I think we had twenty three people in total. And then of course, you know, finding personalities that all work together. Because you’re all living together for so long.
Can you talk about the scene between Fern and the young boy? It was absolutely amazing.
CZ: Basically, the character was in the script, but… the thing about the script is, it’s sometimes more of a placeholder. And I don’t believe in “locking” the script until the morning of the last day of the shoot. That’s when the script locks for me. Like, before I met Derek [Endres], the character was supposed to be a young girl named Echo who was pregnant and on the road. And then we went out to look for Echo. And Hannah Peterson, who helped us with casting, filmed a bunch of young people she met who were living in tents in the dessert. And from those videos, there was Derek. And as soon as he started speaking, we were like, “there’s our character!” What era is this guy from?! It was like he had just walked out of a Walt Whitman poem. So we found him… and then we had to re-find him, right Mollye? He took a bus somewhere and you had to track him down. But you did, and then we got to know him… and just incorporated him into the film. We rewrote the scene for him, very similarly to how we wrote the scenes for the other main characters of the RTR, and rewrote the scenes based on some of the stuff they said, so we didn’t have to hire actors to play them— we had them play themselves. So the process isn’t really that different, they just have to memorize a few lines (which they’ve basically already said), and that’s it.
Fern is so natural in her body. It’s both beautiful and surprising, for the audience.
CZ: Well, I think for much of that I have to give credit to Fran. From early on, we wanted to celebrate aging. To celebrate the full arc of life. Because you know, sunsets are beautiful — and yes, it’s towards the end, but it depends on how you look at it. And I think unfortunately in our culture, in this country where the cosmetic industry is so enormous, and also in the film business itself, we’re quite focused on appearing a certain way. Even in cinematography, Josh has talked about this— we don’t want to put too much between the lens and the audience. We want you to see Fran as she sees her own face and her own body, without all the filters and lighting to help. We want to truly believe in our audience and have faith in our audience, and trust that they will find that being human is beautiful. And I think we feel pretty good about that so far with the responses we’ve gotten to the film.