‘Nomadland’: Frances McDormand & Chloe Zhao On Being Docents For The Van-Dwelling Community – Venice

Director Chloe Zhao’s third feature, Nomadland, landed on the Lido this morning as one of the final movies to screen in competition at the Venice Film Festival. Reviews are embargoed for another several hours on the exploration of modern-day, van-dwelling life on the road, but what I can say is that there was energetic and sustained applause at the press screening I attended.

Later in the day, Zhao and producer-star Frances McDormand appeared virtually to discuss the film from Seartchlight Pictures. (Nomadland will world-premiere simultaneously tonight in Venice and this afternoon in Toronto. Zhao and McDormand will intro the film from afar.)

Nomadland has been one of the most anticipated titles here. The film centers on Fern (McDormand), a woman who, after the economic collapse of a company town in rural Nevada, packs her van and sets off on the road exploring a life outside of conventional society as a modern-day nomad. The film also features Oscar nominee David Strathairn.

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Zhao, whose two previous features, (Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider) have run in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, was a Deadline One to Watch in 2017. She also has directed Disney/Marvel’s Eternals, currently set for release in early 2021.

On this film, she was director, editor, producer and writer, adapting from journalist Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.

McDormand explained that the project all “began with the book,” which Peter Spears (who also produces) sent to her. They optioned it and soon after, the Oscar-winning actress saw The Rider at Toronto. “I loved it and wanted to meet Chloe Zhao,” she said. “And then it all happened.”

A cast and crew of just 25 people spent five months traveling across seven states and became like “an organism,” McDormand said. “It worked really tight; everybody crossed department lines whenever something was needed, and the work got done. Because of that, we were able to move very swiftly and improvisationally when necessary and live in the community of the van dwellers in a way that wasn’t disruptive but cohesive.” Several real-life van dwellers appear in the film.

Zhao’s previous films also have featured non-pros. McDormand said she has “worked with other directors who worked with non-professionals, but not like Chloe. She’s probably more synthesized in her method. It was more about honoring the process of a person’s life rather than honoring the process of making a movie. We weren’t trying to disrupt — we were trying to penetrate the truth of their lives.”

And, McDormand said, “We played the game of ‘what if’: Wwhat if I was really one of them?” She noted that she’d visited a Target in Nebraska during the shoot and was handed an application form in case she was in the market for a job. “It’s working!,” she told Zhao.

McDormand said Zhao was not looking to make a political statement, even if the “choice of the van dwellers to live mobily has a lot to do with economic disparities in our country. We think of it like being docents, leading you to a community that has made very difficult decisions for themselves.”

One of the most evident realizations for McDormand was that “community is really important to them; there’s a certain self-sufficiency that has to be discovered by each. … But they do gather because they need community. Within that community, they have made a — dare I say? — socialist situation; all for one and one for all.”

The makeup of the film is largely baby boomers. Zhao said she finds the generation “really has a lot of values and believes in a lot of things, and society did sort of put them aside because of the ageism we have in our society. It’s really great to be around them. This was the first time I have people show up on set before me.”

Asked what her biggest take-away was from the experience, McDormand responded, “Are you trying to make me cry?” She  then added, “A deep humility.”

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