NEW YORK (AP) – What’s it like to be an international film festival sensation without barely leaving your home? Like most things during the pandemic, it is unreal.
Aside from forays into the editing room, director Chloe Zhao has mainly resided in the Ojai, California, home she shares with three chickens and two dogs, even as her film, “Nomadland”, has won critical acclaim around the world. It won the top prize, the Golden Lion, at the Venice Film Festival. At the Toronto International Film Festival, it was hailed by many critics as the best film of the year and a leading Oscar contender. Next week it will play at the New York Film Festival.
But the only personal feedback Zhao has received was at a drive-in screening in Los Angeles hosted by the otherwise canceled Telluride Film Festival. There, beneath an ashen sky turned red from nearby forest fires, she took the stage six feet from her plaster as people honked enthusiastically and flashed their headlights – the closest to a standing ovation this year .
“You could see the smoke from the fire in the headlights,” says Zhao. It was like ‘Mad Max’ or something. It was a very fitting experience for the movie. “
Appropriate because “Nomandland” has to do with loneliness and fellowship, sadness and perseverance. The film, which Fox Searchlight will release on December 4, stars Frances McDormand as Fern, a 60-year-old widow who lives in her van. She takes to the road after her Nevada town zip code is cleared when the gypsum mine in which most of the residents worked was closed.
Fed up with the disappointments of more conventional and materialistic life, Fern winds through the American West as he takes on odd jobs (including a stint at an Amazon fulfillment center in South Dakota) and meets another drifter. The film is from Jessica Bruder’s book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century,” and many of the bums Fern encountered are the real people from Bruder’s pages or those Zhao met along the way. “Nomadland” is a portrait of contemporary independence on the American border.
“America is as diverse as its landscape,” Zhao said in an interview with Zoom. “One nice thing to see is how much a conversation about pooping in a bucket can bring people from all walks of life together. If you’re going to have a discussion about how a human can use a bathroom in a van, none of that matters. “
“There is a way we can connect,” she continued. “Making the film gave me that hope. I know it’s difficult these days, but I have that hope. “
Like Zhao’s previous films, “Nomadland” is naturalistic, rugged and soulful. Her acclaimed 2018 getaway, “The Rider,” about a Lakota cowboy, was shot with nonprofessional actors in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. “Nomadland” is a modest increase in scale for Zhao, who introduces Hollywood stars to her western neo-realism. But a much bigger leap is coming; she is currently in the post-production of “The Eternals,” a $ 200 million Marvel movie due out in February. Featuring the franchise’s first LGBTQ character, the cast includes Gemma Chan, Brian Tyree Henry, Kumail Nanjiani, and Angelina Jolie.
Zhao, 38, has quickly covered a lot of ground. Born in Beijing, she attended boarding school in England, then college in Massachusetts and film school in New York before moving to Pine Ridge and later to California. She knows the romance of the road in “Nomadland” from experience.
“About every year I feel the urge to hit the road,” says Zhao. “There is something about taking a shower at a truck stop at 4:30 in the morning. You walk out and you see the big trucks coming in and you see the sun rise over the mountains. I forget all problems. I forget all the things that I think define who I am, and just feel that impermanence, people come in and out and exist. “
During filming, Zhao and McDormand often lived in their own vans. Zhao called her Akira. Many of the nomads of “Nomadland” were able to drive to the drive-in premiere. The honking, Zhao chuckles, worried her about the neighbors around Pasadena’s Rose Bowl.
The response to “Nomadland” is due in part to the excitement around Zhao as a filmmaker – an increase that could have historical reflections in an unusual pricing season. She was only the fifth woman to direct a Golden Lion winner and could become the first Asian woman to be nominated for best director at the Academy Awards.
But “Nomadland” has also found resonance in the way it speaks to the moment. The film, much of which was shot during the golden hour on high plains, is lyrically tender about mortality and making the most of life when you can. According to a line spoken in the film by the itinerant evangelist Bob Wells, “Nomadland” is dedicated to “those who had to leave.”
For Zhao, this is not only a tribute to the deceased, but also to everyone from whom we are separated.
“One of the last things we filmed was Bob Wells’s last conversation with Fern. The way he expressed this lifestyle, that there is no final goodbye, that I see you on the road, that really stayed with me, ”says Zhao, whose own life as a filmmaker involves bringing communities together and then moves on. “We all had to walk away and relax.”
“It speaks to: we are all connected,” she adds. “We will meet again someday.”
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP