We often hear about actors spending months, even years getting into character. What we don’t often get a chance to see, however, is how some directors use similar methods to research and live the stories they tell on camera.
In order to give the critically-acclaimed Nomadland its docudrama feel, Chinese director Chloé Zhao did just that. Along with the film’s star, two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand, and a few crew members, Zhao lived out of a van in order to get a firsthand experience of life as a modern day nomad.
In this clip premiering exclusively on Refinery29, we go behind the scenes of Nomadland to see how Zhao approached this narrative from the inside out, instead of the other way around. “To tell the story of the road and nomadic living, we have to understand why this lifestyle draws all these colourful characters to it,” Zhao says in the featurette.
Based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, the film centres on Fern (McDormand), a 60-something woman who moves into an van and drives across the beautiful American West after her hometown literally drops off the map. On the way, she meets a motley crew of similarly nomadic individuals who have developed into a supportive community. Besides McDormand and David Strathairn, Zhao mainly cast real-life nomads like Linda May, Charlene Swankie, and Bob Wells to ground the film in as much authenticity as possible.
“Chloé’s approach to storytelling and her use of non-actors — just seeing them grow into this narrative that she’s working with, and seeing them take the story to a new place is incredibly exciting,” says Bruder in the clip.
Since premiering at the Venice Film Festival in 2020 and winning The Golden Lion, Nomadland went on to also won the top prize at the Toronto Film Festival, and was nominated for four 2021 Golden Globes, including Best Director. The film's transportive quality seems to have moved its audience — a feat considering that many people at the moment are undoubtedly feeling physically and emotionally stuck. Zhao's vision is far-reaching.
“As an artist, I like to see what’s beyond the horizon," Zhao says. "So for someone coming from the city, like New York and Los Angeles, I would like to go beyond that horizon and see who else is out there that I can connect to.”
Watch the exclusive clip below: