PASADENA – Sadly, the 2020 edition of the Telluride Film Festival was canceled in July, but a little slice of the annual cinephile retreat was brought back to life Friday night at the iconic Rose Bowl. The festival and Searchlight Pictures partnered for a drive-in screening of Chloe Zhao‘s acclaimed drama “Nomadland” which premiered earlier in the day at Venice and also screened virtually at the Toronto Film Festival. And no one seemed more enthusiastic about the event that star Frances McDormand who jumped up and down before the post-screening Q&A.
In a rare in-person Q&A for even a Drive-In event these days – 100% socially distanced and with masks on unless the person was speaking, mind you – McDormand explained why she, as a producer, went to Zhao to adapt Jessica Bruder’s 2017 novel for the screen. A book that details the lives of a number of “nomads” who shuttle across the country from job to job, state to state living out of campers, RVs, or vans. She notes, “Not being a writer or a director I couldn’t imagine it, but seeing ‘The Rider,’ I knew she could. What I have learned in my very short life as a producer is work with the right people.”
The material had a personal connection for the two-time Oscar winner who says she has long desired to live on the road.
“I told my husband when I was around 45, I told him, that when I turn 65 I was gonna change my name to Fern, start smoking Lucky Strikes, drinking Wild Turkey and hit the road in my RV,” McDormand recalls. ‘So, I got to do that four years earlier in a kind of a way. That’s kind of where that started and basically Chloe and I were invited into their world and listened and watched.”
For Zhao, who shot the film before production of her big-budget tentpole “Eternals” began in 2019, and began editing almost a year later, the subject matter was hard to resist.
“I think all of us have a great story to tell,” Zhao says. “And Jessica did a great job of introducing us to these characters in her book and through Jessica I was able to meet each of them, get to know them and hear a lot of their stories. And our challenge was how do we incorporate their stories into Fern’s journey. We choreographed first her journey in a way, so it could come organically. That was the challenge and the reward at the same time.”
Fern, McDormand’s character, spends time working as a holiday hire in an Amazon warehouse. Considering the increasing controversy over the company, McDormand was asked how they got Amazon’s permission to shoot on location.
“We called and asked,” McDormand said matter of factly. And then added, “Yeah, I’m not a good packager. What I have learned from our friends is exactly what Fern says in the unemployment office, ‘I need work. I like work.”
Zhao, a Chinese national who has to no doubt tread carefully on such matters, noted, “Well, I don’t make films about politics. I leave that to the politicians. I like to present you with the reality of the lives they live. I want you to take away your interpretations.”
The joy of the “Nomadland” Q&A however, was the fact that four of the real-life nomads who appear as characters in the film, Linda May, Charlene Swankie, Derek Endres and Bob Wells were also on hand for the LA premiere. Impressively, they were often more eloquent than the film’s director and star.
When asked what they hoped audiences took away from the film, May stated, “It’s O.K. to make another choice. It’s O.K. to be different. I find most of my interesting friends much different than myself which draws me to them and it doesn’t need to be scary. I know a lot of people are afraid when they see someone who likes to live in their car. And if you just stop and have a conversation with that person. Have a smile instead of walking by somebody that’s invisible it could mean the world to that person standing there just to have a smile.”
Endres, who is the youngest of the nomads depicted in the film, was even more poignant.
“Well, my own personal perspective on the matter is that we kind of do come with the dust and go with the wind,” Endres says. “Someone might walk by in a town and say something nasty, but that’s just kind of a grin under the bill of my hat knowing, ‘Shoot, I’ll be in Arizona tomorrow anyway. Doesn’t really matter. Heck, I’m kind of living exactly the way I want to live.’ We’ve all got thick skin. We’ve seen it all. The bottom line is people can always love each other more and they’ll save themselves the breath of saying anything nasty cause it ain’t gonna do anything to us anyway. But, y’know, this might be a little insight into our life and it might just save those couple of words from the mouths of those persons walking by which is more convenient for us because we don’t have to look in the other direction.”
On a night when ash was falling from the sky at the screening and all over California, McDormand added some perspective on what “Nomadland” could mean in a period of a global pandemic, social and economic injustice and an in-your-face climate crisis.
“Our world was still light we all met. It’s just since we’ve been apart that it got darker,” McDormand says. “I think it’s a great document of a very specific time in our world and these are our elders. These are our leaders. And the commitment to what they making living in the land, with the land is something we’re all going to have to practice a lot more. I know for a fact, and this isn’t necessarily connected. Like REI [Recreational Equipment, Inc.] is out of everything. Everyone is hitting the road. Everyone is hitting the road. So, watch out guys.”
*L to R, the two women alongside McDormand are the golf cart are Charlene Swankie and Linda May.
“Nomadland” should arrive in theaters on Dec. 4.