Nomadland – A sweeping panoramic portrait of the American nomadic spirit

With Nomadland, director Chloé Zhao and actor-producer Frances McDormand create an astounding portrait of a woman who has lost a husband and in fact her whole former life and finds herself in the nomad community, and “evolves – in the wilderness, in rocks, trees, stars, a hurricane, this is where she finds her independence,” as Zhao says.

In 2017, producers Frances McDormand and Peter Spears, who produced Nomadland alongside Mollye Asher, Dan Janvey and Chloé Zhao, optioned  the rights to the non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Centuryby Brooklyn-based writer Jessica Bruder.

“To research the book,” says Bruder. “I immersed myself in the daily lives of the people I wrote about, spending weeks in a tent, then months in a van. Experience is a great teacher. I went from knowing very little about nomads to marveling at the creativity, resilience and generosity I’d encountered on the road, often from people who’d faced tremendous challenges in their lives.”

The book is a work of investigative journalism,” says director-producer Zhao, who crafted the screenplay for Nomadland and edited the film.

The book is a work of investigative journalism,” says director-producer Zhao, who crafted the screenplay for Nomadland and edited the film.

Nomadland book author Jessica Bruder. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios

When McDormand saw Zhao’s film The Rider at the Toronto International Film Festival and she knew that she had found the perfect director for Noamdland.

“Not having preconceived ideas of the characters, the director or not having heard much about The Rider made McDormand feel like the movie was a personal discovery for her.  “As a producer, I was drawn to a female director that had used the classically male/Western genre tropes to tell a more universal story of triumph over adversity and the will to survive and adjust one’s dreams,” she says.

When McDormand and Spears gave Zhao Bruder’s book to read, she was actually in the process of building a van. “Just because of the amount of time I slept in my Subaru making my first two films, but I wasn’t really aware of the extent to which people gathered together and followed this life. Fran and Peter gave me the book, I read it and I thought, ‘Wow, I really didn’t know about this.’”

Director/Writer Chloé Zhao at the Telluride from Los Angeles Drive-In Premiere of NOMADLAND. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios

Zha, who lives in California and adores her two dogs and three chickens, was raised in Beijing, China,  and also in Brighton, England.  After moving to the US, she studied Politics at Mt Holyoke College and Film Production at NYU.  As a writer, director and producer, her first feature Songs My Brothers Taught Me premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2015.

“On Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” says producer Mollye Asher, “we went into it with a treatment instead of a script and Chloé would write scenes daily. On Nomadland, she worked the way she did on The Rider where there was a screenplay, but she would rewrite or adjust scenes, sometimes daily, based on what she was discovering as we were shooting.”

Nomadland stars real nomads Bob Wells, Linda May, and Swankie as Fern’s mentors and comrades in her exploration through the vast landscape of the American West.

“I was a homeless bum living in a van. It was a very, very bad time in my life. And then, a strange thing happened: as I solved all the problems and came to all the solutions: I fell in love with the road, with the freedom,” says Wells, who now commands a huge following with his YouTube videos and his book How To Live In a Car, Van or RV.

Bob Wells

“I had done everything society said: get a job, get married, have kids, buy a house… and I was never happy.  And here I’d done exactly the opposite of what society had told me, and for the first time I was happy.  And that made me question everything.”

“One of things I needed to do,” adds Wells, “was not just tell people how to go out and live in the desert or in the national forests. I needed to build a community. That was a commonality: people wanted to find other people.  I’d get a lot of emails asking, ‘How do I find someone?  I don’t want to just go out there and be all alone!’ Community was so important.”

He continues, “Look at the mountain men from the turn of the 19th century. They were fur trappers, they loved nature, they loved being alone, they loved exploring.  And yet they always came together once a year for a great big blow-out. So, I started the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in 2011. The first year we had 45 people. Last year, we had eight to ten thousand, minimum. Hard to count that many people in the desert.”

Lina May and Swankie with Frances Frances McDormand

As Zhao immersed herself in the project, she thought about what kind of film she wanted to make.

She decided to extend her customary method of working and at the same time to challenge it. “I’ve done one type of film before,” says Zhao, “and I know what I’ve learned to be somewhat good at it, and I didn’t want to let go of that, I wanted to keep building on that. At the same time, I was curious about what else could I do that hasn’t been done very often.”

“Fran came to me just as a producer, and from the very first day she asked me if she should even be a part of the project as an actress,” continues Zhao.

“The thing is, I felt that this wouldn’t be an easy sell to the audience. With The Rider, it was cowboys, it was a ‘western.’ But this is harder – there’s an ageism in this country, a prejudice against stories about older people and people on the periphery of society. So, I thought if Fran agrees we could bring attention to this seamlessly. So, from the beginning it was always for me a pragmatic decision. But at the same time, it was the creative challenge I was curious about.”

“I think almost immediately it became exciting for Frances to think about how to make this different sort of movie,” says Spears, “with this kind of filmmaker.”

“As Fern, I ‘worked’ alongside the actual workforce at an Amazon fulfillment center, a sugar beet harvesting plant, in the cafeteria of a tourist attraction and as a camp host in a National Park,” says McDormand.

“In most cases, I was not recognized as anyone other than another worker.  Of course, I did not really work the hours that are required at these jobs.  But we did try to give the impression of real work and its consequences:  the physical challenges and discomfort for an older person but also the joy of working and living in nature as a camp host and the feeling of purpose and the income available from all these jobs.”

Zhao worked closely with McDormand. “Fran and I spent a lot of time together before we hit the road and I got to know so much about her. Fran is not the kind of actress that likes to just talk forever about the character. She likes physically doing things, she likes tangible things. So, we really hit it off in that sense,” says Zhao.

“Chloé immerses herself in her subjects’ life-narratives and looks for ‘the hook’ that gives her the dramatic arc for a film,” says McDormand. “Our process on Nomadland was a challenge for both of us because we were imposing the hybrid of non-professionals from the nomad community and David Strathairn and I as professionals acting our roles.  However, Chloé and Josh, our DP, spent time with David and I and our families in the small town we live. Chloé kept notes of our lives, our interaction with each other as friends and developed her idea of Fern and Dave from that.”

Zhao and McDormand worked together on building out Fern’s nomadic home on wheels, a Ford Econoline van that McDormand named Vanguard.

“We were thinking: how would Fern structure the living space?” says Zhao. “When you live in that small a space, what you take with you says a lot about who you are, more than when you live in a house.”

Director/Writer Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand at the Telluride from Los Angeles Drive-In Premiere of NOMADLAND. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios

“In collaborating with Chloé about the character of Fern,” says McDormand, “we talked a lot about how we were going to bring things from my life into Fern’s life, and a lot of that had to do with my background, but also just everyday activities. I suggested crafts, because it’s a way to spend your time when you’re on the road and it’s a way to make practical things that you need, things for bartering on the road. I brought along my bag of potholder loops, the loom and the hook—I probably made about 75 potholders that I gave to different people on the road and to members of our company. And they were props.”

“Another thing that I offered to the story from my life is a set of dishes in a pattern called Autumn Leaf,” says McDormand.

“When I graduated from college, my father collected a whole set of the dishes from different yard sales and gave it to me as my college graduation gift. I thought that was something I could bring to the story that gave it more personal depth. And I brought my silverware, which I think is pretty nifty.”

Says Zhao, “Because we wanted to incorporate non-actors into the film and have them be themselves in the moment, then Fran had to somehow be herself in the moment as well, because she couldn’t know what they were going to do. That’s why the film has so much of her in the character.”

“I think there’s been this promise made to the baby boomer generation,” says Spears, “that if they just did X, Y, and Z, it would all work out by the time they got to retirement age. Clearly that didn’t happen and isn’t happening. The safety net has ripped, and many people are now falling through it. As Bob Wells says, it’s like the Titanic’s going down.

“And yet,” continues Spears, “this situation dovetails with the tradition of rugged American individualism. Many of these people who are finding themselves forced into this sort of life are discovering an independence and a new sense of themselves. Beholden to only themselves for the first time in their lives. I think it’s inspiring—complicated, of course, in the way that so much in America is so layered and complicated right now.”

“These are people who are redefining the American dream,” says Asher. “It’s interesting because I think that in all of Chloé’s films, she’s grappling with this idea of the American dream, and seeing it from a fresh perspective—the perspective of an artist born and raised in a completely different culture.”

“The power of fiction filmmaking is what affected me so much and inspired me to make movies,” says Zhao, “and these days I think we’re in danger of forgetting what that power is. I didn’t want to just focus on someone who used the road as a means to an end in order to make a social commentary about how bad American capitalism is: that’s not interesting to me. I’d rather see a documentary on that by someone else. What I wanted to do was to enter this world, and to explore a unique American identity: the true nomad. That’s the ground on which I want to meet the audience—meet and, hopefully, connect, one viewer at a time.”

Director/Writer Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand on the set of NOMADLAND. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

“Chloé is using the cinema to touch upon the lives of real people who are completely overlooked—old people, homeless people,” says Richards. “It’s about exploring life from a certain perspective that doesn’t feel purely observational. There’s a poetry to it.”

Linda May describes her life on the road: “The people I met on the road were people I never would have mixed with because of our careers, lifestyles, and locations. Our paths were so different but when we crossed, we had such camaraderie, support, and caring for one another—immediately. A friendship that would have taken years to develop happened so quickly because of our common bond of living a nomad lifestyle.” 

“Some call it a ‘trip’ or an ‘adventure’. I do not,” sums up Swankie. “It is just living my best life to the fullest and pushing myself.  Originally, my goal in life was to be an important part of the lives of my children and grandchildren. That did not seem to be working out in a healthy way for me or for them—It was actually disheartening and depressing.  I had to redirect my energies to living a healthier lifestyle. For me, that was to become a nomad. I am not adventuring or sightseeing or taking trips and returning to a home area. I have no home base. I have been a Nomad now for over a decade and I am not tired of it.  Everything I own is with me. I do not have to go back anywhere to fetch anything. Being a Nomad is a choice, not a circumstance.”