Chloé Zhao recently made history as the first woman of Asian descent to win a Golden Globe for Best Director at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s annual awards show for Nomadland.

She was not only the first woman of Asian descent to compete in a traditionally male-dominated category, but it was also the first time there was more than one woman nominated for the prize that year.  

Now Zhao has a shot at making history once again by winning the Best Director at the Oscars on April 26. Her awards-season darling Nomadland garnered six nominations, including Best Picture, Director, Editing, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, and Actress. 


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Nomadland is an eponymous adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book. The drama is a humanistic account of a post-recession singular life, lived without capitalism. 

Chloe Zhao's Attempt To Bring Authenticity To ‘Nomadland’

Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a 60-something widow who loses her job and drives away from her old life in Nevada and navigates life on the road, taking seasonal jobs, joining and befriending the community of nomads, and adjusting to her new normal.


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Zhao tried to present the authenticity of the nomadic life by including real-life nomads such as Linda May, Charlene Swankie, and Bob Wells into the cast to play fictionalized versions of themselves, who drift in and out of Fern’s life. All of the characters save for McDormand’s Fern and David Strathairn’s Dave, are played by non-actors as themselves.

One of the characters, Bob Wells, is actually a prominent nomad and environmentalist in the growing nomad community who runs a popular YouTube channel called CheapRVliving where he shares advice to people who are looking to transition to the lifestyle. 

The director explains she found that working with real nomads proved essential to shaping the film’s narrative and making her films believable, all while preserving the emotional arc of the storyline.

Zhao’s Filming Journey

Besides casting, the cinematography also plays a crucial role in developing ambiance and narrative in the movie. The windswept plains and dramatic rocky badlands of South Dakota form the backdrop for Nomadland.

Only the fittest can survive in the harsh and unforgiving conditions, but for Zhao, the wide-open landscapes are perfect for storytelling. 

The director believes that the world you place an actor in can help transform their performances, so she chooses particular places when making these films. “Something I learned in film school was that if you want the best car salesman, go get a car salesman,” says Zhao.


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The crew travelled from high desert to low desert to the plains to the ocean and even shot at an actual outdoor nomad gathering known as the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous to bring the nomadic life to fruition. Zhao also often uses natural sounds instead of music as a cue to capture a perspective. 

I am supposed to let the audience experience a sunrise in the Badlands through Brady's perspective and to do that, the film itself has to really get into the essence of how Brady feels, smells, hears and sees this landscape. 

Nomadland will premiere on Disney+ on April 30.