A nomad is a person who roams without a fixed residence. And the lifestyle is alive and well in the Western United States. In 2017, writer Jessica Bruder published her acclaimed non-fiction book “Nomadland: Surviving in the America in the 21st Century,” which looked at the phenomena of older Americans who because of financial difficulties take to the road in RV’s, vans and travel trailers and become a new style of migrant laborers. In fact, the call themselves “workampers.’
Chinese-born director/writer/editor Chloe Zhao has received great acclaim for “Nomadland,” her fictionalized adaptation of the book starring Frances McDormand as Fern, a 61-year-old widow who not only has lost her job and husband, she’s also lost her home-the entire mining town has become a ghost town. She sets out in a van and finds a new community among other nomads like real-life roamers Linda May and Swankie and develops a close-knit relationship with Dave (David Straithairn).
“Nomadland” is already considered one of the top contenders for Oscar consideration. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the People’s Choice Award (often a bellwether for Oscar gold) at the Toronto Film Festival. And Zhao (“The Rider”) recently won Best Director from both the New York Film Critics Circle and Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Recently, Zhao and producers Mollye Asher, Peter Spears and Dan Janvey joined the L.A. Times’ Mark Olsen for a Film Independent Zoom conversations.
Originally, McDormand (an Oscar-winner for 1996’s “Fargo” and 2017’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) was going to play Linda May. Spears explained that when he and McDormand, who is also a producer, optioned the book it would chronicle “her struggles and [how she ultimately] buys a bit of land and starts to build her earth ship.” But that all changed when McDormand was at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival with “Three Billboards.” “She slipped out of some publicity as she’s want to do,” noted Spears. “And she went to see ‘The Rider.’ She called me afterwards and said, ‘you got to see this movie. I think I found the person who should director our film.’ I got a link and saw it as well and knew immediately [McDormand was right].”
And then they all met up at the Spirit Awards. “Chloe was there for ‘The Rider,’ I was there for ‘Call Me by Your Name” and Frances was there for ‘Three Billboards,’ said Spears. We all got together at Frances’ apartment. That was when Chloe said ‘Well, perhaps it’s Linda’s story, but perhaps it’s something else.’ And she started pitching started to pitch on the ideas about this which were really born the more you got to know Frances’.” In fact, it was when McDormand told Zhao, who has worked with non-professional actor in “The Rider” and 2015’s “Songs My Brother Taught Me,” she wanted to play a character named Fern. “She was telling me about her alter ego, Fern. We went ‘Ok, well, that’s the main character I the movie.”’
Zhao noted that her goal, though simple, “was not an easy task. How do we how create a character inspired by Fran that can gel together with what Jessica already had in her book?” She knew it was going to be a road movie and wanted to include as “many interesting stories as possible in the oral storytelling tradition of the American road. We really liked that idea. And in the film, you see people just start talking about their lives. In order to make that into a fictional film, in my mind, you need a very, very strong listener. You need someone who has such a strong presence…they’re going to listen because Fern is listening. I don’t think there are many others that could be as strong as Frances McDormand when she looks at you in your eyes.”
The production team had to gain trust of the nomad community. They had an inroad thanks to Bruder. “We really piggybacked on a lot of the research we did,’” said Spears. “I think it was the day after the Independent Spirit Awards that Chloe was online doing some research and she typed in Rubber Tramp Rendezvous.” This is the largest gathering of nomads every January in Quartzsite, Arizona that was created by the nomadic life guru Bob Wells, who appeared in the film. “Nomadland” recreates the event in the movie. Zhao discovered that it was the last day of the event. “She jumps in her car that day,” said Spears. “We would have lost a year to meet Bob Wells.”
“Nomadland” was a traveling production that extended over many months. Zhao noted she was kept in a “very protective bubble by my amazing production team. I wake up in the morning and said, ‘These are the new pages and then ‘make it happen.’ Then I would go eat my food and then I’d go to the set. Sometimes we got there the night before and sometimes we got there the morning of. But magically when I got there things are ready for me. I’ve been kept very safe, but I’m sure the others have seen the less fun part of that, like having to be on the move the whole time. It’s like a caravan isn’t it?’
“One of my favorite memories of you, Chole, as directing the shots that we would get between locations. Truly not a moment was lost to filmmaking.” Asher, who previously worked with Zhao on “The Rider,” said that “Nomadland” was developed just as her first collaboration with the filmmaker, “This is the first one where it’s been traveling but it is similar in the sense of the small, nimble crew and working with non-professional actors and being able to be flexible, both with what Chloe is discovering with her actors and also what the place in the land is giving us.”
“Most of the planning has to be done ahead of time so me, Josh [DP Joshua James Richards], Fran and the actors can be as freer as we want to,” said Zhao. “Every time we make a decision that is not planned, they’ve planned every possible scenario that they have it ready to supply what we want.” One day, Zhao recalled, they were going to shoot a scene when they learn an enormous hurricane was coming, and they had to shut down. “I go, ‘we’re going to shoot in that hurricane.’ And literally in five minutes, the camera’s ready to go. There’s no question asked. I walk out to that cliff. Nobody can hear each other. Josh could barely stand, but the whole team is there. The reason why we could react to our weather God was because the team is ready at all times.”
In a lot of ways, working with non-professional actors, said Asher, is the same as with professionals. “There are still contracts and understanding the parameters of what a day shooting is. It was really fun to be with the non-professional actors and see them responding with Frances and David. At one point, I think we were looking for David and we were like ‘Where is he? Where did he go?’ And then realized that he was over with all of the other van dwellers at the RTR. He just melded in with them. It was great.”
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