The Wanderlust of Chloe Zhao

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The clouds have parted over Ojai, California, on November 7th, and Chloe Zhao can’t stop smiling. She’d planned to spend the dismal Saturday hunkered down inside, in postproduction on Marvel’s Eternals, due out later this year. But when the sun broke through, right after the news that Joe Biden had emerged as the winner of the presidential election that took place five agonizing days (or was it centuries?) prior, plans changed. Now, it was time for celebratory pizza and tiramisu from her favorite Italian restaurant — lactose intolerance be damned.

“For some reason,” she says with comic emphasis, “the sun came out, and it’s beautiful outside. So, I’m probably gonna spend the day ordering a lot of food I told myself I’d never eat, and just enjoy the sun.” 

It would prove to be a short-lived respite. Elation over Biden’s victory gave way to Trump supporters’ denialism and violent insurrection, and the Covid crisis has raged on unchecked. The severity of the ongoing pandemic delayed not only the release of Eternals, now set for this coming November, but also of Zhao’s third independent feature, Nomadland, a major Oscars contender. Originally scheduled to bow in December, it is finally seeing the light of day next month, with a February 19th release in theaters and on Hulu. 

It’s been a long road for Zhao, 38, who worked on both films more or less concurrently for the better part of two years, starting in the fall of 2018. Just as Marvel Studios hired her for Eternals that September, she launched into a four-month, guerilla-style production on Nomadland, a stirring portrait of an American underclass of older, itinerant workers who live out of vans and chase seasonal jobs to survive. With its breathtaking views of the American West and nuanced depictions of men and women left behind by the global economy — all of them real-life nomads besides Frances McDormand and David Strathairn — the film is a uniquely poignant diagnosis of, and antidote to, the current cultural moment. 

“It’s a vitamin shot,” McDormand says of the movie. “This period of time has cracked open people’s empathic natures, because everyone needs society so badly, we’re so desperate for connection. People who’ve seen it [tell me] it’s been cathartic. It’s taken them outside of their tiny selves, and made them wonder what the whole world’s doing.”

Though Nomadland lives at the bruising intersection of policy and its human fallout, it is a distinctly apolitical film. Zhao respects her characters too much to reduce them to tropes or make them avatars of an idea. Their stories are paramount; their voting habits are besides the point. They’re poor and need government services — are they liberals? They’re older and white — are they Trump supporters? Not only are those questions never touched on, they’ll never even cross your mind. 

This neutrality is endemic to Zhao’s work. Despite its insistent focus on overlooked populations — both her 2015 debut, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, and award-winning follow-up, The Rider, center Lakota Sioux teens living on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation — there’s no agenda being shoved down your throat. Aaron Sorkin she ain’t. Zhao may openly lean left in life, but onscreen, her only goal seems to be introducing you, human being, to a world of other human beings, where every detail is so finely rendered you can almost breathe their air and feel your chest rise and fall with theirs. She makes movies that feel like a heartbeat.

“I have my own political opinions — strong opinions,” Zhao says. “But as a storyteller, it’s not really my place to convince other people of what my opinions are. I would do that over the dinner table. But when I become interested in a world and the people in it, I’m more interested in creating an experience as authentic and truthful to that character as possible.”

For all of her budget-restricted independent films, that’s meant embedding in a community until she finds someone who captures her interest — and is ready for their close-up. She hangs out at bars, local events, even the gas station, chatting people up, searching for compelling stories that she might be able to shape into a movie. While making Songs, she zeroed in on a young horse whisperer named Brady Jandreau. After he suffered a devastating fall at the rodeo, she called him regularly to check in. The Rider, in which Jandreau stars as Brady Blackburn, came out of his painful recovery and adjustment to a new reality where, as a result of his injuries, he might never get on another horse. His father and sister are played by his father and sister; his buddy Lane, paralyzed in his own rodeo fall, is played by his buddy Lane. The script, while not a note-for-note recreation of their lives, plays to their personalities and pulls in essential details of their experience. 

“She’s basically like a journalist,” McDormand says. “In the casting, she asked to meet people in my life. She asks questions, she gets to know your story, and she creates a character from that. It brings depth to her storytelling, and she trusts that the alchemy of those stories being put in the same pot is going to create something extraordinary.”

Zhao says it’s surprisingly easy to strike up conversations with strangers, all the more so the farther inland you move from America’s crowded and hectic coastal cities. (“On Pine Ridge, I got to the point where, if the door was not locked, I would literally just walk into people’s homes,” she says.) But to get personal takes a little bit of effort, especially in remote places where the media might swoop in once or twice a year to cover some ongoing plight and then disappear. Zhao pokes around for the story under the story. And she knows how to build trust. 

“Especially in marginalized communities, people have a set of things to say to you, because they think that’s what you want to hear,” she says. “So I have to usually sit there and listen to them give their spiel. And then I say, ‘Hey, well, what football team do you support?’ I’d always get into the human stuff. And then once you get to that point — about dinner, about high-school sweetheart, about things that we all understand, that we all share — that’s when they go, ‘OK, maybe there’s something more.’ And that’s when I make my investment.”

She applied the methodology to profoundly moving effect in Nomadland. Some of the characters were featured in journalist Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book of the same name, upon which the movie is based. The others are people Zhao and McDormand, who optioned the book and is also a producer of the film, encountered on the road. Over four months, Zhao cast and scripted on the fly as they traveled in their own vans through South Dakota, Nebraska, Arizona, Nevada, and California, layering the film with the stories of those they met. McDormand worked side by side with her nomadic counterparts, packing boxes at an Amazon warehouse, harvesting beets for sugar processing, cleaning toilets at a desert campground. There is no pity or manipulation in their portrayal. As McDormand puts it, Zhao “draws a razor-sharp line between sentiment and sentimentality.”

“We all go through our own personal apocalypse at some point,” Zhao says of the film’s subjects. “We’re forced to fight and sometimes to redefine ourselves, because everything that defined who we are is gone. . . . The ability for perseverance, to find a new life and sense of self — that, to me, is the human spirit.”

McDormand’s character, Fern, is finding her way after her husband’s death and the shuttering of a manufacturing plant that propped up the economy of her entire town. Jobless and unable to afford her home, she takes to the road alone. She is stoic and stubbornly independent, but also a warm and gentle presence — an amalgam of qualities Zhao pulled from actual road warriors, McDormand, and even herself.

“Ever since I started prepping for my first film, I’ve been living on the road, in my cars and campgrounds and motels,” says Zhao. “I’ve spent a lot of time on my own. And I kind of loved it. To find a sense of peace and solitude is one of the hardest things to do, but it’s also an incredible thing to have, because it allows you to get through almost anything.” 

Zhao has been a wanderer since she was a kid. Growing up an only child in Beijing, she was a “troublemaker” in school, ripping the covers off textbooks so she could conceal manga in class. She was obsessed with Western culture, gorging on MTV and movies like Terminator and Sister Act. (Ever the movie geek, her Zoom background during our chat is a still from 2001: A Space Odyssey.) Her parents indulged her restless spirit, sending her to boarding school in London when she was 14. But by the time she was 17, just shy of finishing, her itch for America was too strong. She told her parents she wanted to go “where the Hollywood sign is,” and transferred to L.A. High.

“I knew so little,” Zhao says, laughing. “Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince — that’s all I really cared about. I was pretty sheltered and ignorant. But when you drop me in downtown L.A. in 1999, there’s a lot to discover.” She grins. “A lot to discover.”

Recognizing that Zhao was clueless about the complexities of her new home, a high school government teacher (shoutout to Mr. Feinstein) tutored her in American history every day after school, which sparked a fascination with politics. Zhao went on to study political science at Mount Holyoke University in Massachusetts, and, after a bartending stint in Manhattan, film at NYU. That her movies are so quintessentially American — her lens cast lovingly on our plains and mountains, our frontier archetypes — is a function of her natural curiosity and wanderlust. But there is also “less weight” on her shoulders being from China, Zhao says, “of history, of what everything means, because I wasn’t a part of it. That might give me more freedom.” 

One project Zhao has had in the pipeline for a few years is a biopic of Bass Reeves, a former slave who became the first black U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi, in late-1800s Oklahoma Territory. His story played a pivotal role in Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen series, inspiring the genre-subverting notion that the original superhero was a black man. But Zhao says she’s not upset that Lindelof beat her to the punch — and there’s still plenty of story to tell.

I hope more films and TV shows are made about this person,” she says. “He’s long overdue. And there’s not a lot of concrete [stories about] his early life. At that time, Indian territory, which is present-day Oklahoma, was considered ‘lawless.’ So people from all walks of life had gone there; it was a true melting pot. And it was harsh. So, there was a lot of tension, but also a lot of collaboration between people, before institutions come in and define them. It’s a beautiful thing about America, and something we shouldn’t forget. There’s something about that time — it’s really the end of the Old West — that I would love to explore and capture.”

But first, we’ll get to see the realization of Zhao’s vision for Eternals, a linchpin of the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film has already made news with the promise that it will feature Marvel’s first openly gay superhero. And if a big-budget, rock ’em-sock ’em, ensemble-cast extravaganza (Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry) seems light-years removed from the intimate, naturalistic pictures Zhao has crafted on her own, think again.

“Not only does Chloe make remarkable, small, personal movies in a remarkable, small, personal way, but she thinks in grand, cosmic, gigantic terms, which fit perfectly with what we wanted to do,” says Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige, who calls Zhao’s pitch for the movie the best he’d ever heard. “Eternals is a very big, sweeping, multimillennial-spanning story. And she just got it.”

These heroes may be immortal aliens, but Zhao says she wants the film to feel grounded and experiential, “like you’re right there in this space with these characters.” She actually shot it with the same rig she used for Nomadland. And though her cast this time is filled with A-list talent, her tried-and-true approach — drawing on conversations with her actors, imbuing her movies with their humanity — was the same.

“I always fight really hard to have as much of whoever’s playing that role in it,” she says. “And I want to continue to work that way in the future, whether it’s a bigger film or a smaller film. Because I always find, people are just so interesting. Y’know?”