Chloé Zhao’s Journey From Independent Films To Big-Budget Marvel Blockbusters

The chaotic 2021 Academy Awards made Chloé Zhao an Oscar-winning director – but her meteoric rise is only just beginning.

With just two feature films under her belt, the successful indie director became only the second woman in history – and the first woman of color – to win Best Director at the Oscars. Now she’s ready for another challenge: big budget superhero blockbusters.

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A Long Road to Film

Zhao’s goal wasn’t always to be a director. She was born in Beijing, went to school in England, then finally moved to the US in her teens. She attended Mount Holyoke College, and got a degree in political science.

After college , Zhou found herself disenchanted with politics. Instead she was working as a bartender, “meeting people and learning about their histories.” After four years, she enrolled in NYU Graduate Film Program.

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While there, she developed her critically acclaimed short film Daughters. Her thesis project would go on to be her first feature film.

Songs My Brother Taught Me

Songs My Brother Taught Me is set on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakotah. A teen and his younger sister’s lives are turned upside down when their absentee dad dies unexpectedly in a fire, and the two meet their many half-siblings at the funeral.

The film premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2015. It then went on to the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Caméra d’Or Prize.

The Rider

The Rider premiered at Cannes Film Festival in 2017.

The Western was also set within the Lakota Sioux tribe Pine Ridge Reservation. It follows rodeo rider Brady Blackburn, who has to give up the rodeo after a head injury.

The film caught the attention of star Frances McDormand, who had optioned to film rights to Jessica Bruder’s book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. 


Frances McDormand and producer Peter Spears approached Zhou about adapting Nomadland into a screenplay. The story follows a woman in her sixties who, after losing everything in the Great Recession, embarks on a journey through the American West, living as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad. Zhou had already been working on a project with similar themes, and was excited to take the project on:

“It felt like fate,” Zhao told Vulture, “I didn’t feel like I was jumping to something else, but a deeper version of what I wanted to do.”

Nomadland would go on to get Oscar nominations for best adapted screenplay, best cinematography, and best film editing, and win the awards for best actress (Frances McDormand,) best director (Zhou herself,) and best picture.

The Eternals

The Eternals were pushed back due to COVID-19 restrictions, but it finally has a release date – November 5th 2021.

Zhou will be directing the film, which has a massive budget and a superstar cast, including Angelina Jolie, Kit Harington, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Byree Henry, and Selma Hayek.The Eternals are the next superhero team to join the MCU. The film follows the story of ancient aliens who have been living on Earth in secret for thousands of years.

Chloé Zhao Translating her Indie Skills to Big Budget

Zhao says that she is bringing “deep, strong, manga roots” to the film: “I look forward to pushing more of that marriage of East and West…How much further and bigger can we go after Endgame?”

For her first film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, Zhao campaigned hard for her budget, getting support from indie film organizations and winning grants, including IFP, Film Independent, and NYU’s Chris Columbus/Richard Vague Film Production Fund grant. On Nomadland she had a budget of $5 million. Now, on Eternals, she’s working with a budget of $200 million.

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Eternals is a major departure from her indie films in other ways, too. Zhao is known for a hyper-realistic approach to filmmaking. She frequently casts “non-actors” or people with no prior acting experience, who are playing characters with experiences very close to their real lives. For instance, in the film Nomadland, three of the characters are played by their real-life counterparts from the book. Obviously this exact approach is not going to be possible for Eternals, but that doesn’t mean that she won’t bring this passion for character to Marvel.

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Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige told Rolling Stone: “Not only does Chloe make remarkable, small, personal movies in a remarkable, small, personal way, but she thinks in grand, cosmic, gigantic terms, which fit perfectly with what we wanted to do … Eternals is a very big, sweeping, multimillennial-spanning story. And she just got it.”

Coming Soon from Chloé Zhao

This won’t be the last blockbuster that we see from Zhao, either. Universal Pictures has hired her to write, direct, and produce a new Dracula project, which has been described as a sci-fi Western.

“Chloé’s singular lens shines a light on stories of the overlooked and misunderstood,” said Universal Pictures president Peter Cramer. “We are thrilled to be working with her as she reimagines one of the most iconic outsider characters ever created.”

Sources: Bustle, Filmmaker Magazine, People, The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Hollywood Reporter

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