Before Nomadland was a movie, it was a book by Jessica Bruder. In 2017, she wrote Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, which explored the “nomad” movement; ageing Americans hit hard by the economic downturn who cross the country in RVs or vans looking for work. Director Chloé Zhao, who is known for her hybrid filmmaking, which combines documentary and narrative film and uses non-actors for lead roles, found inspiration in the true stories of Nomadland. And while her movie is not a documentary, in many ways Nomadland is more fact, than fiction.
The fictional Fern, played by Frances McDormand, is a widower who lost her husband and then the community she called home. She is houseless, not homeless, a distinction she makes early on in the film. Her home is now her souped-up van that takes her from job to job. “Like blood cells through the veins of the country,” as Bruder writes in her book, which shows, according to The New York Times, how “the golden years are the wander years.”
In the span of three years and five states, Bruder spoke with more than 50 nomads. They were retirees or those of retirement age who had lost either their homes, their jobs, or their savings in the 2008 recession — in too many cases, all three. In her book, she dedicates a chapter to the closing of a gypsum mine in Empire, Nevada, a modern-day ghost town that, in the film, Fern calls home. The struggling economy led low and middle-income people to drive around the country searching for a paycheck. They worked at Amazon warehouses, picked fruit or cleaned up campgrounds during the summer rush — all of which Fern also does to keep herself afloat.
Bruder’s portrayal of the nomad life is heartbreaking, but also full of humanity. It helps that Bruder, much like Fern, decided to give the lifestyle a try for herself. (The author’s van was named Halen for all those classic rock fans out there.) In the book, Bruder takes a job at a beet processing plant — Fern also works at a sugar beet harvest in Nebraska — and describes using the processing machine as “catching bowling balls in a pillowcase.” It’s no surprise that her book also talks of the injuries the ageing nomads suffer while doing hard labour for little money.
The tales in her book, which started as a Harper’s Magazine cover story, aren’t the inspiring stories of those who left their 9 to 5’s to work on a farm, but tragic tales of ageing boomers who have no choice but to keep working because the government has left them no other choice. It’s a tragedy, but Bruder allows for joy and hope in these stories of later in life Americans setting off on necessary adventures, often by themselves.
Unfortunately, in 2021 when Americans are waiting for pandemic assistance, the stories in Bruder’s book of those forgotten by their government don’t seem all that far-fetched. Bruder didn’t write the script, but she told Time that she offered Zhao source material that wasn’t used in the book, as well as access to nomads she had met on her journey. Zhao, like Bruder, uses the real stories to get at something very broken about America and its treatment of its ageing citizens but does this without turning Fern’s story into a melodrama.
She lets Fern live her life, free of judgement from her lens. She lets her be her restless, stubborn, and independent self, never asking her to explain why it is she has taken up this life — even if everyone else from her former life does. There is beauty in Fern trying to carve out her own path, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t larger political themes at play here. “If you look deeply, the issue of eldercare as a casualty of capitalism is on every frame,” Zhao told Vulture. “It’s just, yes, there’s the beautiful sunset behind it.”
Fern’s journey is so natural that sometimes you may forget that the woman you’re following is not actually a nomad, but a two-time Oscar winner. Maybe, that’s because to help McDormand with her portrayal of this fictional woman, the actress told Vogue that Zhao incorporated a lot of “my truth into Fern’s truth,” including her character’s name.
In the magazine’s cover story, McDormand said that when she was in her 40’s she told her husband, the director Joel Coen, “When I’m 65, I’m changing my name to Fern, I’m smoking Lucky Strikes, drinking Wild Turkey, I’m getting an RV, and hitting the road.” With this film, McDormand got to live out that life a little earlier than expected. (She’s 63.)
In her interview with Vulture, Zhao said she “realised I’m not the kind of writer-director that can create this character on my own in a dark room.” Bruder’s book offered complete portraits of real people, real nomads, some of whom pop up in the film.
Charlene Swankie, Bob Wells, and Linda May’s lives are on full display in Bruder's book. May, who acts as Bruder’s protagonist, is a grey-haired grandma who is travelling around in her Jeep hoping to save up enough money to build a sustainable home on a nice plot of land. “One of the things that made Linda such a pleasure to document as a journalist was that she has a certain unselfconsciousness about her,” Bruder recently told Time. “Whether she was talking to me and being recorded or talking to somebody in a restaurant or some random people she just met because she always strikes up a conversation, she was always the same person.”
Zhao agreed, casting May, along with Swankie and Wells, to play versions of themselves in her film. Linda's onscreen journey also has her saving up to build a home. Each help guide Fern who is still trying to find her bearings just as they helped Bruder become acclimated to the nomad lifestyle. “Once we meet someone like Swankie, we realize she has to be in the film,” Zhao told Deadline. “And that informs the journey that Fern is going to take.”
It so informed Fern’s journey that Wells, a 64-year-old YouTube personality and a long-time voice for van dwellers who pre-date #vanlife, told Vogue that Nomadland “felt so much like my real life that I couldn’t even relate to it as a film.”
In many ways, the film doesn’t just work off the book, but expands upon it. “The filmmakers refer to Frances as a docent, which I really love,” Bruder told Time. “She guides us down this road, and we meet all these people. We follow her narrative, but she’s also this backbone, and all these other things spoke off of her story.” In many ways, that’s how you could explain Bruder’s connection to Zhao's film: She is its backbone.