Chloé Zhao: 7 Things To Know About The Nomadland Director

Frances McDormand in Nomadland

There are few names in the 2021 awards season that come up as much as Chloé Zhao, the visionary director behind Nomadland, the moving story of a widow who travels the American West for a better, freer life, which took home two Golden Globes in February 2021, with surely more accolades on the way. But, there may be some out there who aren’t familiar with Zhao’s previous work or the way in which her upbringing influenced the movies she makes today.

Below we will break down seven fascinating things to know about the Nomadland director, including the high praise she is receiving from the cast and crew of Eternals, the forthcoming title in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And judging by the comments shared by Kevin Feige and Salma Hayek, it sounds like we’re going to get a superhero movie unlike anything we’ve seen before…

Chloé Zhao at the Golden Globes 2021

Chloé Zhao Is The First Woman Of Asian Descent To Win A Golden Globe For Directing

The Best Director field at the 78th Golden Globe Awards made a lot of waves due to the fact that it was the first time in the history of the awards show where more than one nominee was female. Of the five filmmakers on the shortlist, three were female, including Chloé Zhao, who, according to the Los Angeles Times, was the first woman of Asian descent nominated in the category.

Chloé Zhao would end up winning the prize for her outstanding work on Nomadland, making her the first Asian female to be named best director by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and only the second female director to take home the award, the first since Barbra Streisand in 1984.

Brady Jandreau in The Rider

Chloé Zhao Has Long Considered Herself An Outsider, In Every Sense Of The Word

All three of Chloé Zhao’s feature films focus on people who live on the outskirts of mainstream society, who are often forgotten by the world around them. This isn’t a coincidence, as the award-winning director has dealt with the feeling of being an outsider her entire life. In a 2018 conversation with Interview Magazine, Zhao, who spent the first years of her life in China before moving to the west for schooling later in life, explained she was always somewhere in between the two cultures, stating:

I had this tsunami of influences from Western pop culture. I never formed a strong sense of national or cultural identity. My English has issues, my Chinese has issues. It’s a quite liquid form of identity.

These feelings of not fully belonging to one set culture and seeing herself as an outsider have allowed the Nomadland director to create three of the most inspiring and enchanting films of the past five years, and this is just the beginning.

Brad Pitt in Tree of Life

Chloé Zhao Has Said She Comes From The ‘Terrence Malick School Of Filmmaking’

Chloé Zhao studied film production at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts, where she received her MFA, but the filmmaker likes to say that she comes from the “Terrence Malick School of Filmmaking.” During a two-week residency at Oregon University in late 2018, Zhao sat down for a Q&A session (via the Daily Emerald) where she gave a nod to the iconic American filmmaker who has used a documentary-like style throughout his career, including in movies like Days of Heaven, The New World, and The Tree of Life.

After watching Chloé Zhao’s films (all of which included her boyfriend and longtime filmmaking partner Joshua James Richard as cinematographer), it’s easy to see how her filming techniques, especially her use of natural light and extreme closeups on her subjects, are inspired by the visionary director.

Frances McDormand in Nomadland

Zhao, Along With Frances McDormand, Spent Four Months Traveling The West To Film Nomadland

Nomadland has an extremely tight narrative centering on one central character (Frances McDormand), but takes place over the course of more than a year in a total of seven states. Chloé Zhao, McDormand (who also spearheaded the project), and the rest of the small crew spent four months of their lives traveling to places like the Badlands of South Dakota, the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, and the beet fields of Nebraska. In a September 2020 profile in The Hollywood Reporter, the director and star revealed they traveled with the real-life nomads featured throughout the movie to fully capture the essence of the story and bring Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century to life.

Bob Wells in Nomadland

The Nomadland Director Is Now The Most Awarded Person In A Single Award Season

There is still a good deal of time before the 2021 award season wraps up with the 93rd Academy Awards in April, but Chloé Zhao has already made history by becoming the most awarded person in a single season, with more than 50 trophies for her work on Nomadland. In February 2021, Variety published a report pointing out that Zhao had received a total of 54 awards in directing, screenplay, and editing categories, which exceeded Alexander Payne’s previous record of 42 wins for Sideways following the comedy’s 2004 release.

Amazingly enough, this 54 number doesn’t include the 23 additional trophies Chloé Zhao currently has for serving as a producer on Nomadland, nor does it include her wins at the Golden Globes, which would bring her directing/screenplay/editing total to 55, and the grand total to 79, with several awards shows still on the way.

Chris Evans in Avengers: Endgame

Kevin Feige Called Chloé Zhao’s Eternals Pitch The Best He’d Ever Heard

Chloé Zhao’s previous three films have been smaller, more intimate stories, but now the Nomadland director is preparing to release something on a much larger scale: Eternals from Marvel Studios. The highly anticipated MCU title will be bigger than anything she’s done up to this point, but studio head Kevin Feige has the utmost confidence in the filmmaker, even going so far as to tell RollingStone that her pitch was the best he’d ever heard.

In the profile, Feige explained that Zhao thinks in grand and cosmic terms, which is something that the studio really wanted from the person who would be leading one of the most ambitious Marvel titles to date. When discussing the massive story that takes place over multiple millennia, the Marvel guru said the director “just got it.”

Salma Hayek and Owen Wilson in Bliss

Eternals Star Salma Hayek Has Said Zhao’s Vision For The MCU Film Is ‘Completely Different’

Then there are the comments made by Eternals star Salma Hayek when the actress met with CinemaBlend to discuss Bliss, and a number of other topics, in February 2021. During that conversation, Hayek revealed that Chloé Zhao’s vision and approach goes beyond the superhero genre, which helped her get into character:

Well, the first time you try on the outfit, definitely. But I think the moment that blew my mind more was that I realized we’re not only doing a superhero movie, we were doing something completely different and special. [Chloe Zhao] is amazing. There was not that much green screen, we were actually in locations. A lot of the things that you mentioned, she does them in a different way. She is very organic, the camerawork is completely different, the way that we choreographed the scenes and construct the characters with this director, I think she is incredible. She’s incredible.

In the September 2020 profile in The Hollywood Reporter mentioned earlier, Chloé Zhao revealed she used the same camera, rigs, and filming techniques (shooting at the magic hour, 360-degree shots, etc.) on Eternals as she did on Nomadland, if that tells you anything about how the film will look.

The future is bright for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and even brighter for Chloé Zhao, who will surely receive even more praise for her work on Nomadland at the upcoming 93rd Academy Awards in April 2021.

Philip Sledge
Content Writer

Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop barking at the mailman, or chatting about professional wrestling to his wife. Writing gigs with school newspapers, multiple daily newspapers, and other varied job experiences led him to this point where he actually gets to write about movies, shows, wrestling, and documentaries (which is a huge win in his eyes). If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.