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Chloé Zhao on how 'Nomadland' shows the struggles of the working class and why Frances McDormand actually slept in a van

While the Oscars are still more than two months out, there’s been a clear frontrunner for the ceremony’s top prize ever since Chloé Zhao’s deeply poignant and beautifully shot drama Nomadland debuted at September’s mostly virtual Toronto International Film Festival. Based on the novel by Jessica Bruder, the film centers on Fern (Frances McDormand), an aging widow who works seasonal minimum-wage retail gigs while traversing the American West in the van in which she also lives.

Through Fern’s own struggles, as well as those of other nomadic seniors she encounters, emerges a dispiriting portrait of America’s aging working class in the years following the Great Recession.

“I think as [we’ve seen through the] last year during the pandemic, there’s a big problem with our societal value when it comes to how we view elders in this very capitalistic society,” says Zhao, the Bejing-born filmmaker whose drawn previous acclaim for Songs My Brother Taught Me (2016) and The Rider (2018), also quietly potent indies about human perseverance set in the American West (watch our interview above). “They are truly the most important part of a society because they have wisdom and they’ve lived lives and they have things to pass onto the younger generations. They’re very important as opposed to dispensable because they can’t contribute to the economy. How we treat our elders says a lot about our society.”

As downtrodden as Fern’s journey is at times, there’s a freedom to her lifestyle that she clearly relishes in — at times giving nomadism a romantic appeal, especially given the film’s stunning cinematography and picturesque shots of Western landscapes.


“I think that trend is already capturing the wave, even before I made the film,” Zhao says. “There’s a tiny home movement that’s happening. … There’s a minimalism movement happening in society, decluttering. I think people are feeling the weight of a consumerist society and economy and feeling like we don’t even know who we are anymore.”

Watch an exclusive clip from Nomadland:

Nomadland is also drawing high praise for yet another stellar and soulful performance from the two-time Oscar winner McDormand, 63, (Fargo, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), who at points went method for the role.

“We were in the hotel lobby [when Frances left] and I was like, ‘Where’s she going?,’” Zhao recalls. “[I found out] she was sleeping in the van that night in the parking lot.

“So she was living it. She was really living the life. And she’s in her 60s. It wasn’t easy.”

Nomadland, which officially opens this weekend, is the first of two high-profile films directed by Zhao this year. The second is Marvel’s Eternals, the highly anticipated, star-studded superhero team-up (Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, Richard Madden, Kit Harington) scheduled for release in November after being delayed from 2020.

“It was funny because I pitched Eternals the day before I packed up the van and left to shoot Nomadland,” Zhao says. “And as soon as I wrapped Nomadland I jumped into prep for Eternals. And as soon as I wrapped Nomadland I started editing Eternals. And as soon as I finished that I started editing Eternals. I felt like I had two children.”

Nomadland is now playing in theaters and streaming on Hulu.

Watch the trailer:

— Video edited by Jon San and edited by Jason Fitzpatrick

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