For this episode of the Directors UK Podcast we’re joined by the director of Nomadland, Chloé Zhao, and her collaborator and Director of Photography, Joshua James Richards.
They join Asif Kapadia for a fascinating discussion about creating a film that’s been generating critical raves and tearing up awards season. From blending fact and fiction, shooting with natural light and working with Frances McDormand, this talk is a celebration of filmmaking.
Listen to the Directors UK Podcast on this page or at the links below. You can also scroll below for a full transcript of the conversation.
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Asif Kapadia: Welcome Chloé, welcome Joshua. I’m going to be talking to you about your brilliant film Nomadland for Directors UK. So, welcome, thanks for doing this.
Joshua James Richards: Thank you, Asif.
Chloé Zhao: Thank you for having us.
Asif Kapadia: So, I’ve got loads of questions, hopefully we’re going to have enough time. I’m a director and I work in fiction and in non-fiction. So, your work really lands with me because of that kind of space that you’re working within. Can we start at the beginning, where did this idea come from, Chloé?
Chloé Zhao: Well I got an email from Frances McDormand, it just said “read this book”. At that time, actually, you know, both Josh and I were thinking about making something about young people living on the road. Just because, making the first two films, we had spent so much time being on the road. I just went, ‘oh wow, what a coincidence’. What I didn’t realise was the book was so much about people of the baby boomer generation. So, the idea of exploring the road from people who are in their 60s, 70s, 80s was really interesting to us, and that was the beginning.
Asif Kapadia: And Joshua, when did you become aware of the project, what is the working relationship between the two of you?
Joshua James Richards: Well like Chloé says, we were already kind of discussing future projects. One of which, I do remember, was a road movie. I think it was about a young girl originally, wasn’t it?
Asif Kapadia: It was called Bobcat.
Joshua James Richards: That’s right. By the end of The Rider, I think we were already talking about next projects. I’m sure we’re not the first filmmakers to say it, but it really does become about the work. As you know, Asif, you want to make sure you’ve got the next project lined up because that’s really what it’s all about for Chloé and I. Just keep generating ideas and coming up with new content.
Asif Kapadia: And so what was it about this particular book that landed with you, Chloé? What was it that was in there that you thought ‘okay, this is the next one’?
Chloé Zhao: You know, for us, we don’t talk enough about world building in small independent films - but it’s actually everything. You know, we really want the audience to feel immersed in whichever world we’re leading them into. And Jessica Bruder’s book really wasn’t just about the politics and a few people, but she captured a time in America. Everything from working at an Amazon warehouse to a town called Empire in Nevada, with one of the longest running mines in America, a company town. So, she was documenting a time where a way of life in America was disappearing and I was just so fascinated by it. And right away we thought, ‘oh hey, we need to figure out a way how to incorporate all these things into a film.’
Asif Kapadia: And it was a non-fiction book, is that right?
Chloé Zhao: Yes. Non-fiction. Fern’s character doesn’t exist in the book.
Joshua James Richards: I was going to mention, Chloé, there was a strange level of serendipity to it, wasn’t there? Leading up to before we got the book, Chloé was looking at van life and reading about more economical ways of living on the road in America. She was reading about that for probably a year before we ever got a call from Fran. So, it was quite amazing that it came along, it just seemed perfect.
Asif Kapadia: Can I just do a little flashback? How did you two both meet?
Joshua James Richards: Well Chloé and I were both at NYU together, she was a few years above me and just chatting about upcoming projects again at the bar - it’s called the Apple bar, which I spent much too much time in. And Chloé was in the very early stages of doing Songs My Brothers Taught Me, and so we really saw eye-to-eye on the kind of films we wanted to make, and the ambitions that we had for making films. Not everyone was travelling across the country to South Dakota to an Indian reservation to make their thesis! I guess I was drawn to Chloé’s boldness and her bravery as a filmmaker because I just wanted to be a part of that and it started there really.
Asif Kapadia: And how would you describe your style? What is it that you two do, how is it you collaborate, what is the tone that you’re looking for in your work, or the type of characters you’re looking for in your stories?
Chloé Zhao: Well, each film is different, and we happened to grow together through making these three films. Where we go from here, we don’t know. But in those three films we have learned that we enter into a world, and we populate the world with characters that are authentic to it. We also have a set of rules ahead of time, of how we want to make the film: how we want our crew to behave, how we treat unpredictable weather, what license we use. And then there’s lots of planning. Once we go into the actual days of filming, there is a lot of “allowing things to happen”, and Josh has a lot of freedom to move around and find those moments.
Joshua James Richards: Style’s a tricky question. Where does one’s style come from? I think for Chloé and I, in terms of finding one’s voice or finding one’s style, we definitely discovered it on our first film, Songs. It was a style that definitely came out of the limitations of that shoot actually. We were fresh out of film school, and I almost consider Songs my real education as a filmmaker, or my training, my first crash-course if you like. That was us getting thrown in at the deep end, and so looking back at that, I realise the style developed organically. It’s about the limitations: you know you’re going to have a very small crew, you’re going to have very little grip equipment, very little lighting. These are the things that you then learn to utilise, that find their way into the style. But we definitely had filmmakers in mind from the beginning. We were really into Chris Doyle and Wong Kar-wai, and definitely both interested in what Tak Fujimoto and Terrence Malick were doing. And we always found that quite progressive, new ways of getting closer to characters and having an audience feel more absorbed or whatever words you want to use.
Chloé Zhao: Yes, and philosophically, Werner. Werner Herzog.
Joshua James Richards: Of course.
Chloé Zhao: About holding the camera long enough on something that you can’t not flinch. To find these moments of truth really that audiences might not be able to deny. Stylistically Werner might be different to what we do, but philosophically we always think about him.
Asif Kapadia: Fantastic. I’m going to come back to your set of parameters and rules later. Can you tell me something about the adaptation process? How did that work on this, and did you know which characters from the book you were then going to try to incorporate in the script and the story?
Chloé Zhao: It was a mixture. There might be five characters that I loved in the book, and then there were maybe three I thought could act on camera once I met them. So, Jessica, again, did a great job because she intuitively was drawn to characters that really represent the spirit and the soul of the road that she loves. So, she already picked them for me. And for me, there were almost too many great characters, and I just had to see who can handle the camera. And then we were very lucky we ended up with three: Linda May, Bob Wells and Swankie. They were the key characters in the book and they just happened to be really good actors as well.
Asif Kapadia: So, can you tell me a little bit about that process, did you actually put them on camera? Did you do rehearsals? Was Joshua a part of that process? How did you decide, or was it without any technical equipment, you were just working with them to see if they could perform?
Chloé Zhao: With Bob Wells, because he has this lifestyle he teaches, we knew he was going to be great on camera. Swankie and Linda May, we met them on a big trip that we took, and then Josh filmed them with the iPhone while I asked them questions. And because we have done this so many times with Songs and The Rider, we almost knew right away if someone was going to be able to do it. And also, there’s another part of the process which is my involvement in the editing process, having done the first cut of my previous two films and then also a lot more later in the process, Josh knew what I’m looking for in terms of how I’m going to put things together. So, by looking at someone on an iPhone talking, we kind of knew if that’s going to be enough for us to put a scene together for them.
Asif Kapadia: So, was that process happening as you were writing? Or did you write it and then go off and meet people?
Chloé Zhao: No, as I was writing. So, that really long trip that we took, like too long, in our van, Akira, when we were living in it. I think towards the end of the trip we were in Oregon, and that’s when the treatment came about: okay, this is a movie.
Asif Kapadia: So, you’re writing and you’re shooting, you’re finding your locations and your cast all at the same time, is that part of that road trip process?
Chloé Zhao: Yes, I was shooting with a phone, an iPhone.
Asif Kapadia: Did you say your van is called Akira?
Chloé Zhao: Yes.
Asif Kapadia: So is our eldest son.
Chloé Zhao: Oh really, I was wondering, the painting behind you, that’s a beautiful. Oh great, because I named it after Akira Sendoh, which is my favourite manga character. It’s not the anime movie, which most people think I’ve named it after. I love that name.
Asif Kapadia: So, tell me a bit about the team. What is the core team that you guys work with, how many people, who is part of it, who has been part of the journey of the films that you have made together? How big is your camera crew, Josh, when you’re out there doing this?
Joshua James Richards: Weirdly, the camera team on Nomadland was me and two others, just me and my trusty AC Charles Bae who we’ve worked with mostly in commercials actually, this was our first feature together. And then in the grip department I just had one guy, Nick Longstrom, and then I had my gaffer, Matt Attwood. And it was exactly the right amount of people, I would say, for what we were trying to do. And then around that of course then, we have Chloé, we have the producing team. We have Mollye Asher, who has been our long term collaborator, Mollye was with us on The Rider and Songs. Dan Janvey and our producing team.
Asif Kapadia: So, did you do a scout of the whole trip, Chloé? Did you know exactly where you were going to be shooting and where you wanted to do certain sequences, and then have to set that up ahead of the time?
Chloé Zhao: I like to think looking back at it, that I divided it by three chunks. You know, there was a third that were in Jessica’s book, these places like Empire, Nebraska, Scotts Bluff, beet harvesting, places like that. And then there’s another third of places that Josh and I love, South Dakota, the Badlands. And there’s another third that came out of Frances, because Fern is very much a version of Fran - so the California coast and the redwoods, these places mean a lot to her, so we incorporated that into it as well. Back to the crew, what is the thing you draw a circle with in school, what’s that thing called?
Asif Kapadia: I should know that. It’s a compass.
Chloé Zhao: A compass, yes. You know, if you think about our crew, on the last three films, it’s like a compass in the sense that if the camera is in the middle, with me, Josh and Wolf, our amazing sound person. The three of us, it’s a dance with our actor. And it’s funny to see, usually everyone else disappears very far away on the peripheral. And then, when we move, they all move and dodge out of the way in a 360 setting. So, the only difference between Nomadland and the previous films is that whoever is on the outer skirt that was making things happen for us got a lot bigger. But, the core stays the same. And they knew very well that the core must remain small and very mobile.
Asif Kapadia: Again we’re kind of jumping around, but there’s loads that I want to come back to. So, tell me a little bit about the casting of the well-known actors, and how you did the process of mixing the professional actors with the non-professionals.
Chloé Zhao: Well there are two things that we knew that we had to do. We asked them if they were comfortable playing a version of themselves, as opposed to me creating a total character for them to transform themselves, which we know they can do - they’re some of the best actors we have today. But, because all the other non-professional actors are going to play a version of themselves, the only way for it to really gel is if I can create Fern based on Fran. And David Strathairn as well, I mean his name is Dave and even the young man that played his son is his real son in real life. So, they were very generous and they knew that was what the process needs. So, the writing is a back part of it. And then the other thing…I don’t remember what the other one was.
Asif Kapadia: I mean, how do you then incorporate the non-professional actors into the scenes. Do you rehearse a lot? Do you spend a lot of time with them all spending time together? What’s the working process before you’re on set?
Chloé Zhao: That process is the trip that Josh and I took, and also some other time that we’ve spent with them. They would tell us a lot of their stories about their lives. From those recordings, I would pick the parts which I think said a lot about who they are. And then there’s a spine which is Fern’s story. And then we even changed Fern’s story in a way, so certain things the non-professional actor did say could be incorporated. So, then those words were written into the script. Usually, traditionally, you’ve done this kind of research, you have an actor play those words. This time, the person we researched from is playing that. And on the day, obviously they could go off in any direction - but they have a blueprint.
Asif Kapadia: Do you actually get them in a room to get a preview or do you leave that to when you’re on set?
Chloé Zhao: On set. I don’t think we rehearsed once. Unless it’s on set, you know, they quickly run lines.
Asif Kapadia: Okay, fantastic. So, tell me a little bit about the other technical aspects in terms of costumes and production design and prop masters, all the other stuff. How do you create the look? Are there any sets in the film at all, or are they all real locations and real vans?
Joshua James Richards: They’re all really locations, yes. The only real build on the film, I would say, is the Vanguard itself - Fern’s van. The look of the film obviously has its naturalism, so it has to grow out of what’s actually there. But we would have thematic ideas and concepts about how we wanted it to feel inside the van, or colours that we felt needed to be omitted, or ways in which to take on this, sort of, Dogme 95 approach in a way. But then, bringing in the poetry and heightening it where it’s appropriate. But also you’re really following emotion aren’t you. I guess that’s the simplest answer. We always discuss emotion and let that lead the images, I suppose.
Chloé Zhao: Well Josh comes from a fine arts background. Painting. What’s the name of the painter, Andrew Wyeth?
Joshua James Richards: Wyeth.
Chloé Zhao: Yes. We definitely looked at his paintings a lot in terms of the inside of the Vanguard, the colours. And another things that Josh is so good at - which we have been collaborating on in the last two films - is costume. For example, that coat that Fern is wearing, the one that her husband left behind. Josh knows, in his mind, that colour, is going to stand out when it’s in a certain landscape. I think those things are always in his subconscious. So, then when he’s working with Hannah Peterson, our costume person, every little decision did end up making it on screen. These are very specific choices. And then, I think they create a very strong identity for Fern, visually.
Joshua James Richards: For the costume, Asif, it was fun to work with the nomads, and we would just go into their van and look at what they have and see what works for the character. And for the most part I would say the approach to this film was that we didn’t make the things, they’re not artificially made. Other than that, the process is probably the same as on every other film. The only thing that really changed is where we took the things from the real world. But the way we chose to use them, I think, wasn’t really that different to other productions Chloé and I have worked on.
It was also about creating an iconography in the film. These images that you can’t quite explain why but they stick in your head, those were always part of my favourite movies. I remember scenes and images sometimes where I can rarely tell you what the movie was about. And that’s always mysterious to me, why we remember something. So on our travels, Chloé and I, it wasn’t about ticking the kind of typical postcard spots necessarily, but this sort of homespun America that we had come to know in places like South Dakota. So, you know you’re going to get things like the dinosaur at Wall Drug. I had this image of Fran holding this little lamp, and just her fragility in this sparse, open landscape. So you start with images like that and you’re constantly drawing from photography. I mean, there’s almost too many photographers to list on Nomadland, isn’t there, Chloé? I feel like we were looking at photographers more than we were taking film examples on this. It didn’t feel or look like any other film that I had in my head.
Chloé Zhao: We recently watched Fargo again, and we realised why some of these images in Fargo are framed in that outfit in the snow, with the car. These images stick in our head for so long. And then there’s that big sculpture as they go into town. It’s very specific, it’s not just a car, it’s whatever the make of the car is; it’s not just another place, but it’s Wall Drug, South Dakota. There’s something about capturing these specific places that actually makes them very universal and iconic.
Asif Kapadia: Yes, I think that’s one of the real strengths of the film. The places that you’re showing are not where tourists would go to. It’s the bit behind the scenes, off the road. You need to know the road to find that spot. I think that’s what really comes across.
Joshua James Richards: And anyone who’s spent enough time, and I do mean enough time, travelling around on the road in America, you start to realise that it’s about the discovery of these little hidden gems that you just can’t quite believe are there, and that you’ve never heard of. I guess that’s really come out of our personal experience of travelling for the other movies, finding these places that became dear to us.
Asif Kapadia: So, going into detail on this specific film, and if you want to refer to The Rider and previous films as well, tell me about the set of rules, your Dogme 5 rules that you created for shooting this film. Give me an example of a sequence where you may have a mixture of professional and non-professional actors on location. When does your day begin? How much time do you have to prep? How does it all work? For example, is it all single camera, do you have more than one camera?
Joshua James Richards: It was a single camera shoot, but what was absolutely vital was always having two cameras ready. So, by that I mean that Charles Bae had an Amira ready to go on my shoulder, or on the easy rig. We also had the mini on the Ronin 2 Gimbal that was ready to go at all times. Sounds simple, but it really made the shoot possible. So, you know, any particular situation comes up and as an operator I feel ready to handle it with no wait time whatsoever.
Asif Kapadia: And all of your equipment, is it all in just a truck somewhere? Have you got a van that’s following the crew around?
Joshua James Richards: We just have a small Sprinter and for the most part, that would blend in with the vans that were there, so it could even be in the shot at times. I’m pretty sure it is in the shot a few times. Yes, we would just close the door, throw a tarp over, and that’s where all the equipment is.
Asif Kapadia: How much lighting is there in the film?
Joshua James Richards: Lighting?
Asif Kapadia: Artificial lighting.
Joshua James Richards: I was just using available lighting mostly. I did have sky panels and a lot of light sticks, ribbons and things, maybe to compliment things here and there, or wrap things in the van. But, mostly one of the biggest rules of a shoot like this is to embrace natural light wherever possible. I really think cameras are allowing us to do that more and more. But also, it is to do with freedom. It’s to give Chloé the freedom she wants with the actors. But also aesthetically, it’s something that I’ve really enjoyed embracing in my career and, for me personally, the things that I get excited about are the constant changes in natural light.
Chloé Zhao: Because we wake up in the morning, right. I usually have new pages, because the night before we watch dailies. I watch dailies and I write based on what we got. Still following the script but changing things up. The first thing the poor producers see, before they have finished their breakfast, and they are “oh my god, okay, we need to make these things happen.” And then, we wait. Because we’ve decided because we only can only shoot certain hours - we realised chasing it is not as good as waiting for the light - and so then we shoot anything we can. I think we barely shot before eleven or twelve o’clock. And then we shoot the stuff that’s in interior in the van or outside. We knew we had only these four lenses that we would use, would you say Josh? And no more than that?
Asif Kapadia: Which lenses did you stick with then in the end?
Joshua James Richards: We were shooting on the ultra primes but mostly in terms of lengths, it was wides on the sixteen and then close-ups on the 35 or 32.
Chloé Zhao: And doing those harsher hours, we always blocked the scene away for light. Josh would always shoot actors against the sun, he would backlight them as much as possible. And then, everybody gets very anxious in the stomach around four o’clock because magic hour is about to happen and there’s a lot of planning that goes into it and then when the time hits, by the end of the shoot, it’s just a beautiful thing to watch, everyone knows exactly where they need to be. No one questions anything, everyone dives out of the way, risking their lives. I would literally like run and hide. We really value these beautiful half an hour to 45 minutes and then we all go back to the hotel and have a beer.
Asif Kapadia: And within that, how many takes are you doing, and is it all being shot chronologically?
Chloé Zhao: We schedule very carefully. We have learned, after two films in a row, that you can’t fight time. Sometimes a sequence goes in the right order in Nomadland. But then the sequence that happened in that beautiful blue will be shot in three days - that’s three days for the last ten minutes of the film. And so, there’s a few moments in Nomadland as well that were shot across two different days just so that we could get that. So, even within that magic hour, the variety of the magic hour we scheduled very carefully. Our scheduling is completely based on light.
Asif Kapadia: I’ve got to ask then about The Rider while we’re talking. The training of the horse, how long did you spend shooting that and how many days did that incredible moment in that film take. How did you do that?
Chloé Zhao: That was three days. The first time Brady got on that horse, everything happened in blue, right Josh?
Joshua James Richards: Asif, do you mean when he’s training the horse with the sun in the background?
Asif Kapadia: Yes. Well, he’s basically breaking the horse down, that incredible sequence. I don’t know how long it is in screen time but it’s beautiful. If anything for me, that film was when I first became aware of your work, both of you, and also seeing something that is just beautiful and moving and natural and the perfect mixture between light and nature and people and performance. Is it acting? It was sublime. So, how do you shoot that?
Chloé Zhao: Well, when you’re training a horse, you are acting. Brady will say ‘I’m performing to the horse to try to get the horse to open up,’ and we were shooting something else at that time actually. You know, Jack was rigging a car for a car shot. And then, at the place we were at, an actor from our film went to Brady and asked him to break the horse. He said ‘I have a horse here that no one can get on, can you give it a go?’ And then Brady said: ‘Am I allowed to, Chloé?’ ‘I guess so.’ And then he started doing it, and we were both looking at it going like: ‘I think we should shoot that.’ We just got lucky that wherever he was standing, the sun was going to set behind it and it was about 45 minutes, right Josh? Like two 25 minute takes, until we ran out of colour. Altogether it was about 45 minutes until he was able to go on that horse and then start riding.
Asif Kapadia: Was that done in one day then, that particular bit?
Chloé Zhao: It’s continuous. Another thing that’s a little less glamorous to talk about - and it’s actually quite painful for me - is something I’ve learned in writing and editing. In order to work this way, and to actually harvest the fruit of a production where everyone is discovering things, you have to come up with a narrative for a script that isn’t too strict. A leads to B, leads to C, for a first movie to work. That’s something I struggled intensely with on my first film. Unfortunately we lost money. I wrote 30 drafts of a script that even had a thriller element that things had to religiously stick to, like a traditional film. But the money was gone. It was breaking my heart because I knew spontaneously there were things going to happen, a lot of things I wanted to include. So, when the money was gone, that granted me the freedom to go ‘okay, well then I need a very simple story.’ And then, I knew it was almost guaranteed we would get interesting moments because we made the sacrifice of not having to stick to certain things, or build a set on a stage to control it. Whoever is out there is going to give us some other reward. And that reward can only be included if the story is going to work, or whether I get that on the day or not. Then in the edit room, you get the anxiety every day of going ‘is that enough, is there enough?’
Joshua James Richards: But it’s interesting though isn’t it, because when the moments show themselves, you have to be on your feet to know if you can use it or not - or where you can use it, right?
Chloé Zhao: Well I think that’s the blessing and the curse of being editor/director. You are constantly thinking about what coverage you need in a scene to make that moment work. It’s not always easy for your actors, because they don’t know what’s in your head. But again, having Josh as a partner and Frances as well, she is such a professional, you know. She knows exactly why we are asking her to do five different emotions in a row for no reason. Josh knows almost exactly how I’m going to edit things, so I always look at him and I go “do I have enough?” And he’s like “just about,” and then I go “okay, I think we’re going to be okay”.
Asif Kapadia: So, that’s a really important thing there, because you’re working with non-professional actors and you have to shoot them first. And then are you covering Fran later to cover all of the options? Do you shoot out one direction?
Chloé Zhao: Yes, poor Fran always get rushed at the very end.
Asif Kapadia: Right at the ending, the pro gets in last.
Chloé Zhao: If we have about an hour to do it, we will do like 50 minutes on the non-professional actor, and then go back to Fran who was like “I know you all lived the moment, but I need ten different expressions, go.”
Joshua James Richards: You feel bad a bit, because she got five minutes and you’re like “good job Fran. Anyway, next shot.”
Asif Kapadia: She’s done all this amazing stuff off camera to get the performance. And obviously she’s a producer as well, so she’s got so many hats on herself during the whole process.
Chloé Zhao: Yes, I think she understands. She saw the writer at Toronto and she said ‘I think that’s a filmmaker,’ because I think deep inside she knew there’s another way to make this film. She had read the book by then. And for us, she came into my world, so it was easier for me than her. And I think both as an actress with that much experience, and as a producer who sees the bigger picture, that made her able to give me that ten out of ten performance at the last minute like that.
Joshua James Richards: I did learn a lot in retrospect. Because it was the first time I had worked with an actor like Frances McDormand, of that calibre. I’ve barely worked with actors. She’s such a storyteller as well, that was really a privilege. I have to say that I learned a lot from that, watching her behind the camera and just… she’s more than an actor, you know? Those kind of actors are story tellers as much as the filmmakers are, the Daniel Day-Lewises and the Brandos and the Frances McDormands. I think it’s almost like she would have been good at anything she wanted to do, it just happened to be acting. Anyway, I was just really impressed with the storytelling she brought to it - the discussions Chloé and Fran would have were pretty fascinating.
Asif Kapadia: The film is about a community, an almost secret community - and filmmaking is all about the community. And you have found a way to put together the perfect team, in order to create that kind of film. You’ve got to be a part of the community or it’s not going to work, is it?
Joshua James Richards: That’s probably the biggest compliment you could give us. And that’s why you need directors like Chloé in charge because that’s what she starts with. It’s how to do this the right way.
Asif Kapadia: So, what I haven’t mentioned yet, is this is a studio film. So, traditionally there would be trailers and trucks and execs coming to visit you. So, as part of your process Chloé, did you have to at some point have to lay down some rules to the suits? To say ‘this is how I have to work, or else.’ I mean, how did you navigate that part of it? I’m assuming there was a leap from making The Rider to trying to make this.
Chloé Zhao: Well the suits did come to stay. They stayed at a Motel 6 as well. And they were not wearing suits. Five Gallon Bucket is our company’s name, we have a cap with a bucket on it, and they wear those. Very early on, I think Josh and I both felt we needed to be truthful to how we wanted to work, and how we want to treat other people and be treated, and the philosophy of how we want to tell stories. If we stick to that without compromise, we’re going to attract the right people. I think The Rider was a film that attracted a group of right people that are right for us. If we went ahead and made a different movie after Songs, or made Songs a different way, or made The Rider different, we would have attracted a different type of people. So, we never knew The Rider was going to have the success it did, but we knew it was going to bring the right people to us. So with Searchlight it was Fran, Peter, Mollye, Dan, our producers: the right people. They knew very early on they wanted the film to be how we wanted to make it. I go to them begging for more notes all the time. I say “I need more notes” because it’s a pandemic, I’m stuck at home and I’m editing, you know! They are extremely helpful in that process.
Joshua James Richards: We all know when we go into a film like this, the kind of criticism that’s going to be thrown at it. Hollywood doing poverty, you know. And you do walk that tricky line, you’re very aware of how badly that can go. But it can’t go badly if it’s done the right way.
Chloé Zhao: Yes, we almost don’t think about that, because we have only made films in a way we find to be truthful, and we can only go by that.
Joshua James Richards: Yes and if someone wants to interpret it that way, that’s absolutely fine and it’s their right to do so. But, we know the intention and we know the way in which it was done, and we know that we basically made a film with our friends who were nomads in the desert. So, if you have a problem with people of that economic situation being in movies, then it’s not for you. But, they wanted to be in a movie and they acted in a movie - and that’s pretty much it. But, that’s because of the spirit in which Chloé and the producers did it. I mean, they truly were not the suits in this. I mean, Peter Spears came, he’s the one who found the book, Chloé, wasn’t he?
Chloé Zhao: Yes.
Joshua James Richards: They were committed to doing this. That’s why they came to Chloé I think.
Chloé Zhao: I think the thing is to be honest upfront. I hear a lot of these horrifying stories of directors being treated badly and vice versa. I think a lot of that is because initially people aren’t honest with each other. And even from the very beginning, I’m always upfront. For example as editor. I’m all about test screenings. I love them, doesn’t matter how big the film is or how small it is, I love doing audience screenings. Because a film, to me, is a sharing process. When the audience screening happened for Nomadland, I took notes. And then the people from Searchlight were going “it might be too fast, Chloé, you need to slow it down”. You usually don’t get that from the studio. They were like “Chloé, you’re listening too much to the notes. Slow down, the film needs to breathe.” So, then you know you’ve got the right partners and you can trust them. Therefore you can allow your baby to be tested. Because you know they’re not going to take advantage of the saturation, to try to do something to it that’s for profit or anything else. And that trust needs to be established from the very beginning.
Asif Kapadia: I think that also comes down to your confidence as a filmmaker, to know what you believe in and what you want to do, and how you work - which you’ve done because you’ve made these films in the same way with the same family, same community. That’s the integrity that I think comes across so well. I wanted to ask, where does the pandemic start affecting this project? When were you aware of this thing and when did it hit you?
Chloé Zhao: Well the timeline is a bit off because we wrapped in February 2019, and then we started shooting in September 2018, and then I jumped straight into prep for Eternals and Josh worked on Eternals as well. So, we were in London all the way until February 2020. We got home and immediately everything was quarantined. Eternals was shut down and I started editing Nomadland in March.
Asif Kapadia: Was that always the plan, you shot it and you put it away while you did the other studio film?
Chloé Zhao: No, I think I literally heard I got the job two days before we started shooting Nomadland! So, I think it’s just great that it happened to be in the same company, everyone just worked it out. I think in retrospect, people might be relating to Nomadland in a way they never would have if the pandemic hadn’t hit. I think it worked out, thankfully. And then starting from somewhere mid-March to September, when we premiered the film, that was the editing and the post production period - and doing that during the pandemic was an interesting experience. But, again, everyone was very supportive.
Asif Kapadia: And just going back to you, Josh, I had a little technical question from earlier on. There are lots of car scenes, so how did you decide to shoot all of the car scenes? How were they done?
Joshua James Richards: That was another one of those rules, Asif. I think you can get really carried away easily as a cinematographer with car stuff, and finding angles that become very arbitrary. So we just liked sticking to that singular approach, when you come in there’s this familiarity. Because we jump around to so many locations in Nomadland, Chloé and I talked a lot about a very simple tapestry. So, if there’s a close up in this kind of scene, where they’re talking about their past or something personal, it’s like this. If Fran’s driving, it’s probably going to be a profile with the landscape outside and we would set how much you want to see the landscape. And so it was really about giving the audience an anchor every time they arrive somewhere. You know, visually, it’s like, ‘okay, here we are,’ and I think that’s really important to the storytelling. Very specific framing tapestry for each given situation, I think that was really important.
Asif Kapadia: Fantastic. Chloé, do you want to talk a little bit about music and how you came about the soundtrack, the score and the sound design as well? Do you know the music before you’ve shot the film, or when you’re shooting it, or does that all come into post?
Chloé Zhao: It was one of those things that I put off as late as possible because I was so anxious, because I knew music was everything. For a film like this that is that empathetic and moves in time, you need the right music. And the edit didn’t really come together until I found Ludovico Einaudi’s music, and I did that by Googling ‘beautiful music inspired by nature.’ When you’re in need, you know. Safest place is the internet! He is a musician and artist that is so inspired by nature. The music that I pulled the most is from Seven Days Walking. Which is something that he wrote by walking in the Alps. And when you listen to that music, it fits while Fern is walking through the badlands. This music is universal because it has a connection to nature. The sound design then comes into the conversation, and it was very much about how much can we stick to the realism of the sound that’s there, an immersive experience. Because when you’re out there by yourself for a long time, your ears adjust to silence more, and you hear things more. So the idea of hearing wind, hearing snow, sometimes when you’re inside it’s through the crinkling of the vent, then there’s the identity of this van: as well as being a home it’s still exposed to nature all the time. So, Sergio, who did an amazing soundscape, he sound-designed so many beautiful elements. And Zack did an incredible job also, both of them mixing it together. The area that’s the most creative part was these montages. With those there was a conversation to be had, because if you’re in a car, all you hear is the sound of the engine. And we’re trying to create an emotional soundscape with both the piano music, the strings and also, sometimes it’s just one car passing by, and sometimes it’s wind, and it’s whatever Fern is actually feeling in that moment.
Asif Kapadia: Fantastic. And all of the post was done during lockdown. So, you were doing it all virtually you didn’t meet anyone. Did you colour tone it all virtually as well?
Chloé Zhao: We did sound design at Disney, and that was very safe, only certain people were allowed in the room and we did colour safely as well. You can’t do those things remotely.
Asif Kapadia: Anything I haven’t asked you? Anything specific, Josh, that you want to say about the process of working with Chloé and the way you like to work?
Chloé Zhao: Josh, I think you should mention production design. I don’t think we ever went into it about why we didn’t build an inside of Vanguard on stage. That speaks for the whole idea of “the rules”.
Joshua James Richards: Yes, one of the rules that you stick to no matter what is the decision to shoot real locations, real light, natural light. If we’re able to squeeze into Linda May’s, which is about nine feet by nine feet, that’s what we’re shooting. And there’s definitely an authenticity that comes out. From a design point of view, it’s fun as well. It’s mostly just removing things that might be hurdles or barriers visually. But you also discover things that you just would never think of in production design, and that was fun. We had a really great team as a total collaboration, the art department with Elizabeth Goddard and again a really small crew, who would always be a few steps ahead of us and prepping.
Chloé Zhao: That also affects sound design and cinematography. Because, if a person can’t get somewhere inside that van, inside that trailer, the camera shouldn’t. And that affects sound design, inside that small space when two people interact, that intimacy. If we put the camera somewhere, maybe there’s a shot that Josh can play around with more - but I think he was humble enough to understand that it’s more important for an audience to believe this is a real moment than to do whatever he wants with cinematography.
Asif Kapadia: There’s no point where I felt the camera was suddenly inside a fridge or in the microwave. I’m not a fan of that kind of stuff.
Joshua James Richards: I mean that’s about grounding it always in Fern’s perspective. We had a break half way, and after weeks of climbing over each other in a tiny van, Fran was like “why don’t we just build the thing”. But there’s another aspect to it, which is like, we’re making a film about these people in this exact time in America. What a shame not to document that. You know, why fake that? We take some liberties with Vanguard, but it’s all very carefully based on other vans we have seen. Things that I bought to put in that van are even from other vans, so it’s really like a Frankenstein’s monster of other vans that we found on the road. But then when you’re going into Swankie’s van, how wonderful to film the real thing! And the film then becomes a document of a very particular time in America.
Asif Kapadia: Are there many FX shots in there? Anything, sort of, “yes, just clean that up, we’ll do that in post.”
Chloé Zhao: Oh yes, totally.
Asif Kapadia: We’ll put the sky in.
Joshua James Richards: CGI?
Chloé Zhao: Actually the supervisor is my supervisor on Eternals. We didn’t shoot the shot of Jupiter. No, there’s sky replacement. There are stars.
Joshua James Richards: Hang on Chloé. Very little sky replacement.
Chloé Zhao: No, like two.
Joshua James Richards: Do you know what? We won’t tell you where it is, but it’s in a night sky.
Chloé Zhao: We added some picture. But we added stars into the sky. We moved a lot of things. Usually it’s probably my shoulder, sometimes that happens.
Asif Kapadia: I think it’s fine. We’re talking to directors, we all know it. To create naturalism, you sometimes have to use the palette, you use the tricks of the trade.
Chloé Zhao: I love CGI. We have learned so much. You know, I’m thinking next time I don’t have to rush somebody out, just brush them out later, the light is perfect, just stand there, don’t move.
Asif Kapadia: It’s going to be really interesting to see how your career develops, it’s going to be fascinating to see how the next films go. Tell me about Venice, how was that? And congratulations!
Chloé Zhao: That was a special day, wasn’t it? You know, because it was a day we premiered in three places at the same time, so it was actually the last day of Venice and we just, it was the same day we found out we won the Golden Lion as well. That evening, we were driving to the Rose Bowl to meet all the nomads, because we hadn’t seen them for the first time in two years, and people were honking and flashing their lights at Swankie, Bob Wells, Linda May and Derek on the stage. I mean, you just look around and you go ‘this is why we want to make films.’ With all of our friends and the people that inspire us and the country and the place that inspires us. It was one of the most beautiful moments in our lives, wouldn’t you say, Josh?
Joshua James Richards: Absolutely.
Asif Kapadia: Fantastic. I think we may be running out of time. Thank you so much. Good luck with the movie, and good luck with everything that comes up. I really enjoyed talking to you.
Chloé Zhao: Thank you so much.
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