Frances McDormand has earned raves for "Nomadland," which is now showing in theaters and on Hulu, and her mug is all over the posters. But one of director Chloé Zhao's first decisions was whether the star would be in the movie at all.
McDormand and co-producer Peter Spears, who bought the rights to Jessica Bruder's book of the same name, gave a copy to Zhao, whom they'd met on the film festival circuit. The nonfiction book tracks a loose community of people who live in their vehicles, finding work where they can. Many of those people are in "Nomadland," playing themselves. But there is no equivalent of McDormand's character, Fern, in the book.
"Fran wasn't always sure I would put her in the film," said Zhao (pronounced, roughly, "Jow") on a Zoom call from her Burbank, Calif., office. "She did ask me [that] if I made the film like I made 'The Rider,' should she be in it?"
"The Rider," from 2017, is about a rodeo performer who has to give up his sport. The people in the film play versions of themselves, as in "Nomadland." But in the new film, McDormand plays a widow forced to leave Empire, Nev., when a factory closing makes it a ghost town.
That town is just one element of "Nomadland" that sparked Zhao — who, as writer, director, editor and co-producer, exerted such an unusual degree of influence on "Nomadland" that she could compete in all four of those categories when Oscar nominations are announced March 15. Already, she has racked up directing prizes from Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York film critics.
"You could make a whole movie about Empire, Nevada, the drama of having to leave," said Zhao, who was born in Beijing but whose family moved to Los Angeles when she was a teenager. "Fran and Peter knew early on that they didn't want to do a conventional film. They knew there was such an interesting world there that you might not be able to recreate, no matter how big the budget was, and they wanted someone who could find that balance."
The balance intrigued Zhao.
"If you could do this with professional actors, how would you do it? If we get someone like Fran McDormand, how do we? That's what is interesting about being a filmmaker," said Zhao, whose next project is even bolder: entering the Marvel Cinematic Universe for "Eternals."
Fran and Fern
It was probably a good call to put McDormand in "Nomadland" since she's snagged many of the pre-Oscar awards for it. But that meant directing one of the industry's top pros alongside folks who rarely see movies and never act in them.
"Fran had to let go of a lot of things. The person she's acting with isn't going to do the things a co-star would in a more conventional film," said Zhao, who notes that McDormand had to improvise in a scene with an auto mechanic who turned out to be too nice to pull off the nastiness the script required.
"To work with Bob Wells, Swankie and Linda May [some of the real people in "Nomadland"], I'm looking for them to be willing to not know what is going on in the moment, someone who is willing to make fools of themselves in front of the camera, who is willing to lose their character arc and just interact as a human being."
The clearest sign of that comes in the opening minutes of "Nomadland" when a clerk can't find Fern's RV park reservation and Fern tells her to "look under M-C-D." As in McDormand.
The two-time Oscar winner has said she has long dreamed of changing her name to Fern, taking her RV on the road and smoking Lucky Strikes. Also, the woman who plays Fern's sister in "Nomadland" is one of McDormand's best friends.
So is the "Fargo" star playing a dream version of herself?
"When I proposed to Fran that since everyone else is going to play versions of themselves, it is very important for her to do that as well, she very generously agreed," Zhao said. "I couldn't give you an exact percentage but there's quite a bit [of McDormand] in there."
There's also quite a bit of Zhao. In addition to the multiple hats she wore on set, she found the plaintive Ludovico Einaudi music that accompanies "Nomadland's" images, including a wordless scene of Fern in the Badlands.
"I found it on YouTube. I googled 'most beautiful classical music inspired by nature,' " said Zhao with a chuckle.
Taken from several albums by the prolific Einaudi, the music helped Zhao reconnect with "Nomadland," which — in a rare instance of good movie news during the pandemic — ended up in front of audiences earlier than intended because of COVID-19.
"Nomadland" was shot in 2018, with the understanding that editing it would have to wait until Zhao fulfilled her commitment to "Eternals," which stars Angelina Jolie and Kumail Nanjiani and was supposed to hit theaters last November. The pandemic reshuffled big movies' release dates, so "Eternals" was moved to this November. That meant Zhao was free to edit her little movie last spring, in time for a December release and, now, streaming.
"I had forgot why I made these decisions [on 'Nomadland'] because it had been so long ago," said Zhao. "But when everything shut down in the U.S., I turned on the laptop for 'Nomadland' and had to relive this footage. There was a period when I wasn't confident this would all work. I think a big turning point was when I found Ludovico's music."
It also helped that Zhao always knew how "Nomadland" would end: with a shot of Fern, alone in the American West.
"We worked backward from the ending to figure out what the film was," said Zhao. She understands the curiosity about how her indie aesthetic will translate to big-bucks Marvel, but says they're not really that different.
"With 'Eternals, it's about setting the same kind of limitations I had making my first films onto a world where I was given every possible choice. It's about setting parameters so we could go really crazy [within them]," said Zhao. "The camera, the world and the cast are of equal importance to me and that's not always the case with these big films. There's a visual language that is a choice and I think that gets lost."
When she says figuring out a look for "Eternals" was as crucial as finding the sky-dominated aesthetic of "Nomadland," it sounds like something very special may be about to happen in the Marvel universe. Meanwhile, with "Nomadland," something special already is happening on the screen of your choice.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367