Chloé Zhao
Photo by Jeff Vespa

Chloé Zhao: “I call it the age of innocence”

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Short Profile

Name: Zhào Ting
DOB: 31 March 1982
Place of birth: Beijing, China
Occupation: Film director

Chloé Zhao's film Nomadland is streaming now on Hulu.

Ms. Zhao, how would you describe your identity as a filmmaker?

Wherever I go, I am drawn to outsiders because I am one myself. And I feel like an outsider almost wherever I go. Loneliness is a big word for me. There is a difference between loneliness and solitude, for me personally. I’ve also done a lot of traveling alone in my car when I was making my first two films.

Really? How was that?

Well, if you ever travel in America, you will realize it’s designed in a way for you to move. Because it’s such a young country; you go off the highway and you have everything you need and you get back on the highway. I love road movies as well: Vagabond by Agnes Varda is one that means a lot to me. Easy Rider, you can’t not love Easy Rider. My Own Private Idaho means a lot to me — it might not seem like a road movie, but it’s about two people that are exploring a loss in a city that they are not familiar with. When you are in a van in the middle of nowhere, it gives me the feeling from my childhood that I do miss.

“I am yearning for that kind of connection to the world, to nature, not be bogged down by all these identities, these responsibilities.”

In what way does it remind you of your childhood?

A lot of people don’t really know too much about modern Chinese history. When I was growing up, I call it age of innocence: we didn’t have cell phones, we didn’t have Internet. We even didn’t have a lot of cars around. As kids we were running around on the street, climbing trees, there were not too many telephone wires. Forget about highways and high rises… That time is just gone, just like that, it’s like a switch. The world has changed. So coming to America, and going to a place like South Dakota in the Badlands, I feel that same way in places because it’s sort of a different time. I miss it. I am in front of a computer now, that’s my life 24/7, but I am yearning for that kind of connection to the world, to nature, not be bogged down by all these identities, these responsibilities.

This has all really seeped into the kinds of films you’re making: telling the stories of people living off the grid or on the fringes of society, especially in America.

If I were living in China or the UK, I would be drawn to the people who live in the peripheral society in those places, too. But in America, there has definitely been a trend of minimalism living, decluttering and the tiny home… All of us are feeling not as enamored with the pressure of a capitalist economy or consumer-driven economy. We all felt a bit tired because we realized it doesn’t necessarily make us happy. We are more miserable because our expectations for happiness come from when your expectations and reality meet each other, but a capitalist society has to keep consuming if it wants to survive.

Otherwise it will all collapse.

Right, it has to keep raising our expectations so that we want more. As a result we can never be truly happy. I have been seeing that myself for a few years. So with a film like Nomadland, it kind of came to me at a perfect time. The most meaningful thing that came out of this is that because the pandemic had put everything on hold for a lot of people, everyone slowed down and reevaluated things. And this film, I have heard, has provided some solace for some folks. And to us, this is something we did not expect. It’s really, really gratifying, and everything else is icing on the cake. And that’s something that Frances McDormand feels quite strongly as well. We connected in that way.

How did that connection come about?

When I pitched it to Fran, we really wanted to explore how she finds herself in solitude and how she learns to live with herself without other voices that can keep her comfortable — but truly be at peace with herself. Maybe she is not 100 percent, but she is working on it. That is a very important theme we wanted to explore. Everything you think can distract yourself away from your self could be gone overnight, including your most loved ones. So to be at peace in your life is to be at peace with oneself, and the character was created around that.

Do you see something of yourself in the heart of that story?

That’s a very deep question. The desire to not be defined by something, like when she is forced out of her home… For me when I am forced to make a film somewhere in a certain way, when I don’t have choices. I don’t want to make the same kind of film all the time and just be comfortable with what I do. I want each film to push me to a new place and a new direction so that I can grow as a person, but also grow in terms of the understanding of the medium of cinema, the technology, the tools, and how to tell stories; what to say and how to say it. We always want to challenge in terms of the content.

“Through poetry we can understand a shared human experience that allows us to connect with each other.”

Is that why for Nomadland you chose to have real life nomads play themselves rather than hire actors?

Well, when I read Jessica Bruder’s book that the film was based on, I was so amazed by the character development and all these great back stories of these people… So this was just about finding the right method for the kind of story that you are telling. We need both facts and poetry in our lives. Sometimes facts can tell truth better than poetry, and sometimes poetry can tell truth better than facts. The documentaries that I love combine them both, you know, the documentary filmmaker will use poetry to capture an emotional truth that can be hard to convey with numbers and facts. The emotional truth for me is where the power of fiction lies. Through poetry we can understand a shared human experience that allows us to connect with each other.

It’s something so unique to this film, and definitely a risk that paid off — the film is an Oscar frontrunner and two Golden Globes. Did you expect that Nomadland would have this kind of effect when you were making it?

No, it’s a cliché to say that we don’t think about that when we go in, but I really, really don’t. It’s for your own society. When you think about that, then you are allowing the world, things that you can’t control, to define how you want to live and make things. You never know when you put your baby out into the world, how people are going to react. It’s scary every time, but it is exciting! It’s always about not letting one thing define you, but to keep going so you can rediscover yourself.

Next you’re making a Marvel film, which seems like a different direction for you. How has it been rediscovering yourself within that genre?

It’s not so much about rediscovering myself, it’s just getting to know myself as a kid, who loved Manga and wanted to be a Manga artist. I love telling stories both on an intimate level through realism but also through allegories on a fantastical level. There are great movies made that way that I love. As long as you work with people that you can trust, that’s very important, because then you can be vulnerable enough to allow yourself to make mistakes and take advice and be open — otherwise you can’t learn when you hold too tight.