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The Multitalented Chloé Zhao Rides Again

Chloé Zhao is receiving critical acclaim for Nomadland which stars Frances McDormand and nabbed top honors at the Venice Film Festival. She has just wrapped shooting Eternals, a Marvel super-hero movie starring Angelina Jolie slated for 2021, and was the only woman featured on the Chinese GQ Man-of-the-Year cover. Even so,  she doesn’t consider herself an insider. “I will always be an outsider. Every organism has an inside and outside. I may have moved to a different organ but I’m still on the outside of that organism.”

It was only 2017 that the Beijing-born Zhao was the whispered secret of the Cannes Film Festival for The Rider. She went on to receive critical accolades for that film, back when men still ruled decisions, and women, particularly minority women, were almost invisible in their lack of traction at the big boys’ table where money is doled out to carbon copies of the decision makers. Harvey Weinstein was still a powerhouse. The #metoo movement was just beginning to take hold and the social justice movement had yet to leave a mark on the industry.

Now it is 2020 and, as the Queen of England once described 1992, an annus horribilis. While that may be true, the world is woke. Talent and stories that express alternate points of view are making their way to the big screen – and when we say the big screen, no one makes movies for the big screen like Chloe Zhao. Watching a film of hers makes you lean in. You crane your neck to see what’s left out of the shot. The vistas are as much a character, as the almost silent leads. The story unfolds on actors’ faces, on what is unsaid, on the pain of life and the indomitable spirits who suffer, rise, fall but are never broken.

Zhao’s last two films have involved non-actors. The Rider’s Native American lead came from the hard-knocks-school of bronco breaking. In Nomadland, Zhao has an expert partner -Frances McDormand, who delivers the kind of performance that is rare in Hollywood, though more reflected in this age. She epitomizes a protagonist who is equal to a man without it ever being questioned by the audience – we know that she is often the smartest person in the room. Here the film makers tell the tale of Fern (McDormand) who chooses to live out of her van, working seasonal jobs and exploring the stark beauty of the great vastness of America, after the economic collapse of a company town in rural Nevada. The film says a lot about Chloe Zhao.

You are a director, writer, producer, editor – how important is the control in getting your vision on screen?

I’ve never done a film where I am not a writer. I don’t know what that struggle is like, because I’ve always written the film I’ve directed. The delicate balance of control is that even if you have the freedom to control – and that’s something I’m learning a lot in my career – how do you let go of that control at the right time, at the right place. You have to have control. Many times you’re the only person who knows the bigger picture. (But) if you hold on too tight, you are going to kill it, so it’s a very delicate balance that I don’t think I will ever perfect but each day is improving.

You used to get the word ‘no’ 95% of the time, do you still?

No. (Laughs.) I don’t think it gets easier. When you make a film on a smaller scale; you get a ‘yes’ in certain areas, but you get a lot of ‘no’s.’ When you make a film on a bigger scale you get a lot of ‘yes’ to a point where you have to be careful. ‘No’ is your best friend. You have to know when to not say, ‘yes’. You have to learn some control and when to set limitations for yourself. So ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are different on different kinds of films.

A theme in your films is the vastness captured by the camera lens. What are you trying to convey with the huge visuals that are often an extra character in your films?

It’s the one thing we all have in common, that connects us, which is this gorgeous, beautiful and unforgiving planet we live on. The people who live the nomadic life (as they do in Nomadland), and those who live close to the land, will tell you the power of humbling yourself to nature. Some of my favorite filmmakers, (like Terrence Malick), have always explored that in their cinema, and we are trying to do that in this film as well. Nature heals itself. I almost feel like Frances’ character, a little bit; I almost feel the earth beneath my feet. If you think about it, the things that used to bother you seem like they are very far away. For my team the second most consistent character, after Fern, is nature. One of the themes through the movie is nature and the road in America. It’s important for us.

We see Fern fixing her car, enduring hardship, isolation. Was it a choice to follow a woman?

No. I followed a mixture of the book, ‘Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century’ written by Jessica Bruder. What Jessica found on the road is that a lot of women are choosing this lifestyle for varied reasons. The women of Fern’s generation, the baby boomers, because there was such a discrimination in pay, even if they had a job and weren’t housewives, they ended up with very little social security – especially after a divorce or when their husband’s died. They lost everything they had, their house, job, community, husband, sometimes their children – and they hit the road. Women of that generation were able to adapt better than the men of that generation, some of it is about the image of how a man of that generation should behave. The women were much more independent, resourceful. They were able to figure out how to make a new life for themselves better than men. Maybe I’m generalizing, but that’s what I thought when I was out there.

Do you have advice and encouragement for other women and minorities?

Encouragement is different than advice. Encouragement, maybe because of the culture I come from I believe in the middle, the balance, the yin and the yang. It’s undeniable. We seek balance. We cannot always see things from one perspective. It has been a struggle, but I believe (alternate) voices will be heard. Advice…. You have to create the space to know what you want to do. Film making is my life and film making determines how I live my life. If there is a film that you want to be part of your life for two or three years. I always wanted to make a road movie and Nomadland came around. I put the word out there that I wanted to make a Marvel movie and the right story came around – Eternals. I knew what I wanted to do. There were a lot of opportunities along the way, that were very tempting, but you had to know what would make you happy at the end of the day.