Chloé Zhao used to say she sometimes forgot she was Asian. It wasn’t something she meant as a statement of racial renunciation or a “We’re all citizens of the world” platitude. Zhao, the filmmaker behind the Oscar-favored Nomadland, is fully cognizant of the fact that she’s 38 and five-foot-six (and a half), with what she impishly describes as the typical traits of northerners in China: “Loud, obnoxious, big bones—I love stereotyping my own people.” What she was trying to articulate was a reflection of her own slippery sense of self, made more elusive by her years spent moving around the globe. ¶ When she was growing up in Beijing in the 1980s and ’90s, being Chinese was simply the context in which she and everyone around her existed. A few border crossings and two decades later, she would find her way to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota—where she would eventually make her generation’s best film about the American West. Zhao wasn’t the first artist to come from outside an Indigenous community with the intention of telling a story set within it. But she was coming from far outside it, so far that she felt unconstrained by both American colonialist history and the legacy of guilt that comes with it. Zhao tried to make herself porous, immersing herself in life there and attempting to get past the familiar narratives offered up to expectant visitors. She filled her films with locals, guiding them through fictionalized performances that were informed by their own experiences. She found John Reddy, the lead in her 2015 debut, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, in a school yearbook and cast him as Johnny, a teenager who dreams of getting away from the reservation. She met Lakota cowboy Brady Jandreau when he was working at a ranch and cast him in The Rider as Brady Blackburn, an injured rodeo star who struggles to find a sense of purpose after being told he can’t ride anymore. Out there in the Badlands, she recalls being the only Chinese person around, and it made her origins feel incidental to her. What was the utility of thinking of yourself as part of a group when there was no group—when it was just you? Can feeling as if you’re from nowhere be an advantage?
For Zhao’s career, it undoubtedly has been. Over the past four years, she has become one of the most pursued directors in Hollywood thanks to a trio of devoutly noncommercial features. By the time she started shooting Nomadland in the fall of 2018, she had attracted the attention of a major star, Frances McDormand, who co-produced the film and plays its heroine. Nomadland is by no means a standard Oscar movie, but this hasn’t been a remotely standard Oscar cycle. The film has managed to become a likely Best Picture nominee and the current favorite to win. And it may well be the defining movie of the past tumultuous, terrible year. It follows a loose collection of nomads for whom “retirement” means traveling the country for seasonal work after losing their savings in the 2008 recession or never having any to begin with. It’s an exploration of tattered safety nets, stubborn individualism, and economic decay in the heartland, as seen through the eyes of Fern (McDormand), who starts living out of her van after the death of both her husband and the community in which they made their home.
And now, Zhao is making a Marvel movie, which will dwarf her previous work by many measures, an installment of the franchise’s next phase that is crammed with milestones of representation. Eternals will boast the MCU’s first gay superhero and its first deaf one. It features a diverse cast that includes Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Salma Hayek, and Gemma Chan as well as Angelina Jolie and Richard Madden. The film was pushed back because of covid, then pushed again, and Zhao is now in postproduction on a millennia-spanning blockbuster and making hour-and-a-half-long treks to Burbank while juggling the demands of a socially distanced awards campaign for Nomadland. Her career arc, from a microbudget drama set on a reservation to a saga about immortal aliens, may sound disorienting, but this is what success looks like for a modern director in Hollywood.
Chloé Zhao currently lives in Ojai, in the Topatopa Mountains outside Los Angeles, with her partner and cinematographer, Joshua James Richards, their two dogs, and some chickens in a house overlooking orange groves. It’s home, though that’s a concept that has always come with a lot of baggage. When doing research for Nomadland, Zhao found that some people who ended up on the road stayed there only until they could save up enough money to live in a fixed location again, while others discovered that the road was where they belonged. “I believe some people were just born to move. Others like to stay still,” she says. She understands both urges equally. “I’m a homebody. I’m the descendant of rice farmers. And sometimes, I want to run.”
Born Zhao Ting, she was a rebellious child and a poor student growing up. Her father rode the wave of China’s industrialization to great success, first as a top executive at one of the country’s largest steel companies, Shougang Group, and later in real-estate development and equity investment; her mother worked in a hospital. (They divorced, and when Zhao was in high school, her father married Song Dandan, a famous comic actress Zhao grew up watching on television.) Her parents largely let her be, and she sought out other things to relate to. She fell in love with manga and Michael Jackson and the movies of Wong Kar-wai— especially 1997’s unmoored Happy Together, in which Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung play lovers stranded in Buenos Aires. She still watches it before starting work on her own projects (“It’s like a ceremony,” she says). She jumped at a chance to go westward to boarding school in the U.K. at age 14, not yet speaking much English. It was the start of her life on the move.
In 2000, she came to Los Angeles to finish high school. That was the year she grew up, she says, attending a local public school and living alone in a studio apartment in Koreatown behind a Sizzler. “I had such a romanticized version of what America was.” Of her surroundings, she remembers thinking, “Well, this is not what I saw in the movies.” She wanted to learn more about the country than what had filtered through to her on screens, which is how she ended up majoring in political science at Mount Holyoke. Four years was enough to turn her off of politics; after a post-college stint bartending and doing odd jobs, she found herself drawn more to people than to policy.
Filmmaking was a career Zhao sidled up to. She wanted to tell stories for a living but wasn’t great at painting, photography, music, or any of her other interests. “You don’t have to be a master of anything, just a jack-of-all-trades, to be a director,” she says. “I hire people who are really good at their craft, then put them together.” She enrolled in film school at NYU. Her classmates were what she describes as a lot of people experiencing quarter-life crises. A sample conversation she offers: “‘Why did you go to film school?’ ‘I went to a liberal-arts college, and I don’t know what to do with my life.’ We had a lot in common.” She had Spike Lee as a professor, whom she could always count on to be hilariously and brutally honest. NYU is also where she met Richards, a student from Cornwall, England. The two started up a romantic and creative partnership, and he would go on to shoot her first three films. “She was gnarly and extreme—my idea of the collaborator I hoped to find at film school,” Richards says. “Most people I was spending time with were sitting around talking about their projects. Chloé was doing them. And so I jumped on that train.”
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