Chloe Zhao is having a moment. She’s won almost every possible Best Director accolade for a film released over the past 14 months and “Nomadland,” the motion picture in question, is expected to be a major Oscar player when the nominations are announced next month. But in a scenario truly familiar to only the Steven Spielberg‘s of the world, Zhao has been juggling the release of “Nomadland” with production and final editing of the highly anticipated Marvel Studios tentpole, “Eternals.”
While “Nomadland” is a moving drama following Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman who lives out of her car traveling the Western states from one job to another, “Eternals” is an adaptation of a fantastical Marvel comic book that debuted over 40 years ago. It centers on a group of immortal superheros created by a race of omnipotent aliens to protect the earth. The projects could not be more different, but the share one thing in common besides Zhao, her love of a specific cinematic inspiration. If you ask Zhao what her inspiration for “Nomadland” was she’ll tell you, , Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together.” Until now, she hasn’t revealed the specific catalyst for “Eternals” and it may surprise you.
“Well, there’s multiple films for ‘Eternals.’ I had to assign a few because of the scale of the film. But I think for the action sequences, which I just had such a great time working on with such a great team, I wanted to reference ‘The Revenant‘ a lot,” Zhao says. “‘The Revenant’ is a film that I love so much. And I think we’ve watched ‘The Revenant’ so many times, every meeting when we come to our action sequences because most of those sequences are shot on location. And I love how immersive and the way how you feel the dash and sequences in ‘The Revenant.’ It’s definitely a film that we aspire to. And Marvel really, really supported that idea and really went for it.”
During our conversation, Zhao also touched on her joy of “Nomadland” finally arriving in theaters, her favorite part of the cinematic process, some advice for first-time directors working with non-professional actors and, oh yes, that recent “kind of funny” online rumor.
The Playlist: You shot “Nomadland” at the end of 2018 and it’s now February 2021 and the movie is finally coming out in theaters and on Hulu. Is it a sense of relief? Is it like, “Finally, people can see this,” or is it just part of the journey?
It’s definitely a relief. It’s, “Hey, this baby is ready to go to grade school. Come on, go, go, go. Go into the world and find yourself.” We have the crew watching party tonight. We’re going to order a lot of fried chicken and tequila, and we all going to watch it together on Hulu.
Oh, that’s freaking awesome.
I’m pretty much [inaudible 00:01:21] with the hall of fame.
You did something that’s sort of rare for a filmmaker, even in Hollywood. You shot in 2018, finished a bit into 2019, and then you stopped. You put it to the side and then started working on “Eternals.” Then, a year later, you came back to edit it. Is that correct? Did I get that timeline right?
Yes. Pretty much, yes.
Did you come back looking at the footage with a new perspective at all?
I mean, I was so fortunate, first of all, the two companies work together and to make sure that’s all a smooth transition. My team really, really trusted me, waited for me. And ultimately, that break was really invaluable because I don’t remember the footage. I don’t really quite remember why I made some of the decisions I did, which did take a minute to go, “Why did I shoot it this way?” But then I feel like I’m a different person when I started editing “Nomad” because I had shot “Eternals” and I’ve learned so much through that process. I think have a very different editor coming into “Nomad” a year later than I did before I shot “Eternals.”
Was there anything particular in the movie that maybe you caught or decided to include that you could have seen yourself including before?
Well, the pandemic happened, there’s a lot going on, a lot that happened while I was waiting to edit. So, not only when I started editing, “Nomadland” that I have changed so much as a filmmaker, the world has changed. And I think if it’s just purely in a kind of technical sense, I think I just grew more confident as a filmmaker. So, I would have probably had a less steady hand if I was editing before I experienced “Eternals.” And I think I was a bit more confident about lingering and holding on things and just let the film be what it’s supposed to be. Of course, when I’d done test screenings and stuff, and I freak out, “No, you need to go faster and to do this and search.” And my producer was so great at reminding me, “No, no, no. Slow down.” Which you don’t usually hear from execs, and so there’s a big props to them.
It’s been announced that you’re going to make a “Dracula” movie for Universal but you’ve now made these series of films chronicling the American West. Are there other stories that you want to tell in that vein? Or do you sort of feel like, “I’ve done this trilogy and I’m ready to move on to other things.”?
I think the feeling of moving on is definitely not like, “I don’t think there are more stories for me to tell there.” It’s more like, “I want to continue challenging myself as a filmmaker, in terms of not just the content of what I’m making, but how I’m making those films.” So, I don’t want to get comfortable. And I have two intimate projects that’s still set in the American West that I don’t know when they would happen and how, but I’m not letting them go yet. They’re still germinating.
This movie is so beautiful. When you think of it, is there one shot or one image that always comes to mind off the top of your head?
Oh, it’s got to be [Fern] holding the lantern on the grassland on the badlands behind it at sunset wearing a white dress. And I’m so glad Searchlight chosen that image to be our key image. Because to me, that image captured the film so well. Well, the love for the badlands and that time of the day. But there’s also something a little magical about her in a little white dress. There’s something innocent about it. And she’s holding a lantern that’s shining through her dress, wearing her late husband’s big jacket. And she’s feminine but she’s strong. And then there’s just something a little whimsical about it and sweet. So, I like that image, so much.
You’ve worked with non-professional actors for three of your films now. If I was a young filmmaker coming out of film school and I was about to make a film with non-professional actors, is there one piece of advice you would give me?
I will say half of [it comes] down to casting the right person. It’s the same with professional actors, but even more so with non-professional actors. You got to have to ask yourself, “Does this person has the essence that you’re looking for?” You’re not asking them to do method acting, right? And then the other 30% is to write for them. You have to take the stories from their lives and write that for them. And so then they have a blueprint when they’re on set to know if they were to go off script and they would be themselves. I’m not sure how can we ever be ourselves on camera completely. There’s always a performative aspect to that, but they know where their sandboxes are, and you know where the sandboxes are. So, I still think, make sure you write them into scenes, even though you’re not going to follow it beat by beat. Going in without the written scene, just winging it, I’ve done that for my first film. It was a big mistake.
Well, I did the first cut of my first film and boy, is it tough because I shot it without a script. It’s not a good idea. It’s missing scenes. You know like, you can get away with it sometimes. It reads pretty good in the treatment, but it’s missing important connecting beats. You only find out that when you’re in the edit. [Laughs.]
For every movie that’s part of awards season, there’s often something weird that pops up. People want to tear everything down. There’s been this strange story going around that your dad is a billionaire in China and that you making this movie in the context of people who are struggling, is sort of unfair and hypocritical, I guess, in some way. Do you have anything to say about that? Or is it just a crazy rumor or something?
It’s fake news. It’s not true. My dad is not a billionaire, never has been. None of my family members are billionaires. I would have loved for them to pay off my student loan and my mortgage if that’s the case. You know, I think the last time I heard some rumors like that was probably at some Chinese tabloid because my dad married my stepmother, who is a comic actress in China. So, I think tabloids like to write stuff like that, but it’s so far from the reality of our lives. It’s kind of funny.
I know that you’re still sort of working on”Eternals.” You’ve said in the past that your inspiration for Nomadland was Wong Kar-wai’s “Happy Together.” What was your inspiration for “Eternals”?
Well, there’s multiple films for “Eternals.” I had to assign a few because of the scale of the film. But I think for the action sequences, which I just had such a great time working on with such a great team, I wanted to reference “The Revenant” a lot. “The Revenant” is a film that I love so much. And I think we’ve watched “The Revenant” so many times, every meeting when we come to our action sequences because most of those sequences are shot on location. And I love how immersive and the way how you feel the dash and sequences in “The Revenant.” It’s definitely a film that we aspire to. And Marvel really, really supported that idea and really went for it.
I’ve seen other interviews where you’ve said how you really appreciate the creative freedom that Marvel has given you. Your movie isn’t coming out until the end of the year and “WandaVision” has come out before it – not the original plan – and it’s markedly different than anything Marvel has done before. Do you think that will help fans adjust to the style you’re going with for “Eternals”?
Oh, I mean, the only experience that I had with Marvel, with everyone there, is all about doing the right film, adopting the right style for the right story. And then I think it’s about the filmmaker and what they bring in and the kind of story that they want to tell, how they want to tell it. They’re very, very, director-driven in my experience. And I think they have a very small intimate team that really helps foster those voices. And I am very happy for “WandaVision.” To have them before “Eternals,” that’s pressure for us. And I’m so glad they’re doing well. And it’s really, really, really exciting.
Going back to “Nomadland,”you worked and cast people who are actual “nomads” that spend their lives on the road, going across the country. Was important to you that you got their stamp of approval for the film?
Yes. I would be quite devastated if Swankie hated the movie or Linda May. I don’t think I can recover from that. I think every step of the way, you develop relationships with these people and you work in a way that is truthful. And I think being honest, being truthful is the most important thing. Because then you will know whether you want to be in the same room and do this together. And I think we’ve all been like that with each other. And so right now, it’s just about celebrating. Swankie managed our little secret Facebook group. She goes [to an] IMAX [theater and] she’s reporting back how many people are here today watching. And I just got a message from Linda May, we’re going to talk today. And it’s never, “Oh my God, are they going to be okay with what we did?” We don’t feel that way because of how we made it, we made it together. It was a collaboration. It really is us. It’s really us coming in and say, “Can we do this? Tell the story together.”
My last question for you is, you’re a writer, you’re a producer, you’re a director, you’re an editor. What is your favorite part of the process?
Really? Many filmmakers say, “I hate being an editing room. I just want to shoot.”
No, no. I mean, I’m sad “Nomadland” edit is over. I’m really sad “Eternals” is going to be over because editing is my favorite place to be. I love being with my editors on “Eternals” and I loved editing “Nomadland” by myself. Maybe because it’s finally in a place where you have some sense of control. Filmmaking is not like you’re painting [or] you’re writing a novel. You’re running a script, you don’t know where’s it going to be. And you’re shooting, every day, you don’t know what’s going to be. And finally, in the edit room, you go, “This is what I have. That problems solved.” Every day. And every day, you solve some problem. And then you go, “Oh, that’s what I did today.” To me, it’s a very meditative process and I really would love to have the opportunity to do more of that and also to work with the great editors and learn from them.
[This interview was condensed from a longer conversation]
“Nomadland” is now playing in theaters nationwide and is available to stream on Hulu.