Chloé Zhao and Peter Spears Talk “Nomadland” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Chloé Zhao and Peter Spears Talk “Nomadland”

The Duo Explains the Film’s Creation, Production Process and COVID-19 Difficulties

Sep 30, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Amidst director Chloé Zhao’s sensational debut at the major fall film festivals where her film Nomadland scooped up Venice’s Golden Lion and Toronto’s People’s Choice Award, Zhao and the film’s producer Peter Spears, met on Zoom to chat about the film in a press conference. Part of this year’s New York Film Festival’s online programming, the short conversation was hosted by the festival’s lead programmer, Dennis Lim.

The initial plan for the film adaptation for Nomadland, based off of Jessica Bruder’s book of the same name, centered around Linda May’s journey as an American nomad. Things slowly began to change as the principal crew came on board.

“Almost immediately, Chloé had this spark,” Spears said of how the project evolved. “This idea that the adaptation would not necessarily just be this idea of turning Linda May’s life into a cinematic treatment. She wanted to explore something even deeper.”

Right from the start, lead actor Frances McDormand had a strong impact on the story’s direction. Zhao said, “So much is a collaboration with Fran. It was the first meeting, she said, ‘You know what? I’m going to change my name to Fern.’ And I said, ‘That’s what the character’s going to be called.’”

The director then went on to explain how McDormand’s life is sprinkled throughout Nomadland, through certain props and photographs used in the film, and even her character.

Zhao’s use of non-professional actors is a unique part of her work. When asked about the realism of the performers and their influence on her entire career, the director had a lot to say. “It came out of necessity, especially if you go to a place that hasn’t been shot a lot,” Zhao said regarding Songs My Brothers Taught Me, her striking debut film in 2015. “I went to Pine Ridge [South Dakota] and just couldn’t imagine that anybody could play the kids that ended up in the film. I didn’t know where to find them. I didn’t have the resources to do that wild range of casting, and I was going to communities that were not really my own. That collaboration with them is so important to bring authenticity to the characters, and I just thought, why not just cast the real thing.”

Zhao’s relationship with the non-actors she casts has also affected the way her filmmaking has evolved over time. When speaking about Nomadland, the director took some time to reflect on her growth. “I learned by most of the mistakes that I made, that you can’t just go out and shoot whatever you want and expect a movie. This is the third time, hopefully it’s gotten better, how to structure a movie that’s going to sustain people’s attention. There’s a journey and an arc, an emotional arc, that can hold people. That’s a constant challenge that I’m still learning.”

One of the most notable aspects of Nomadland is that Zhao edited the film herself, as well as adapting the screenplay and directing the feature. Many questions were asked about the film’s editing. To Zhao, the choice to take up that task just felt natural. She said, “[The production team] had the quarantine as well. So initially, I just thought that I’m just going to do it myself and if I do end up needing to branch out I would. The pandemic made it easier for me to just do it myself.”

Near the end of the press conference, Zhao was asked about the film’s connection to nature; a connection that runs through the heart of each scene and character. She said, “When you are forced out of your houses and your cities and you’re living in a vehicle, a lot of time, you might not be a nature person, but you get to understand a lot more of what nature does. It’s not just beauty or a beautiful sunset, but it’s also the storms and the harshness and the weather. It just tumbles you as a human being.

“When you see a huge lightning storm coming, you look at the person next to you and you realize that, ‘We’re human beings first, we’ve got to help each other out.’ It’s less about what you believe or the President you vote for. That, to me, that power of nature is so important, and we obviously should protect it.”


Nomadland is currently screening at fall film festivals. Searchlight Pictures is planning to release the film in theaters on December 4th, 2020.


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