In about three months time, you will hear the name Chloe Zhao echo loudly around the entertainment world. What is it about this talent that will have everyone talking, and why haven’t you heard her name any sooner?
Zhao was born in Beijing and went to school in London and Los Angeles, and in 2010 released a short film called Daughters about a young Chinese girl attempting to escape an arranged marriage. It’s a big statement. She’s been boxed in her whole life, and she’s ready to break free. Since then, she’s directed three feature films, with a fourth on the way in 2021. At only 38 years old, she has set herself up to be one of the most important, distinct and recognisable storytellers of the 20’s.
Her latest film Nomadland is set to hit Australian theatres in just one week’s time, and is already getting massive Oscar buzz. After it’s initial premiere at the Venice film festival where it won the Golden Lion prize for best Feature, it went to Toronto and won the top prize there too, making it the first film in history to achieve both awards. If that isn’t a statement, then tell us what is. Praised heavily for it’s screenplay and direction, as well the performance by star and producer Frances McDormand. It’s been a few years since McDormand reminded us why she’s one of the greatest to ever do it with her unforgettable, Oscar winning performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Zhao also produced and edited the film, making every inch of it her own, which makes the praise that much sweeter.
You don’t get to a film like Nomadland overnight though. Over the past decade she has released another two feature films to massive critical acclaim in festival circuits across the globe. Her debut film Songs My Brothers Taught Me premiered at Sundance and Cannes, and let the film world know she was a new voice to be reckoned with.
The film follows a Native American family on a ranch in the U.S. after the death of an absentee father, and the decision one brother has to make: leave for a new life in Los Angeles, or stay and care for his sister and continue his family and their legacy. Make no mistake, the allegories for Zhao’s own life are ever present, as is usually the case when it comes to a first feature. Her connection to L.A. and her own native land translates to the screen in a way that captured the minds of all who saw it’s 2015 premiere.
Songs was shot on location on a ranch in South Dakota, and while she was filming Zhao met a man on the ranch by the name of Brady Jandreau. Jandreau took a huge fall during that time during a rodeo, splitting his head and fracturing his skull, and yet when the doctors told him to stop he continued to ride, as he does to this day. Zhao was clearly fascinated by this, and in 2017 The Rider was released to even more acclaim and garnered national recognition for her filmmaking. The film starred Jandreau playing a fictionalised version of himself, and featured real ranch workers in prospective supporting roles including Jandreau’s real family playing his fictionalised one.
It premiered at Cannes and won the Art Cinema Award, as well as getting nominations for best feature and director among others at the Independent Spirit awards that year. It also grossed $4.2 million at the box office, making it a relative commercial success.
As they do, the folks over at Marvel caught wind of Zhao’s talent, and immediately offered her the keys to a new property, Eternals. She accepted, and the film is due to be released November 5, 2021. Pushed back due to the Coronavirus, it stars Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden and Kumail Nanjiani to name a few of the big names Zhao has taken the helm of.
She expressed her thankfulness that Marvel allowed her to shoot the film her way, with the same rigs used on Nomadland. When speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, she stated that she “got lucky in that Marvel wants to take risks and do something different.” They shot all over England, including an island named Fuerteventura, where the crew had to be evacuated due to a bomb discovered as remnant from the Nazi era. Gemma Chan, who previously played a different role in the MCU in Captain Marvel, highlighted the difference between the two films and how they’re shot, explaining that Eternals shot more on location and utilized natural light while Captain Marvel had more studio work and bluescreen.
It proves that Zhao is a filmmaker’s filmmaker. Someone who has respect and love for the craft and no matter how high the budget goes she will always employ the right methods to make what is best and is true.
Nomadland stays true to her roots, shooting on location and employing real life nomads into the film as a supporting cast, as she did with ranch workers in her previous works. They lived out of vans while shooting and it took four months to complete the film. Her next film is set to be a biopic featuring Bass Reeves, the first African-American U.S. Marshal in history, produced by Amazon Studios and written and directed by Zhao.
Chloe Zhao is a name that will be championed by Hollywood over the coming months of award season, and will be displayed for millions at the end of Eternals, but she will always remain someone that tells honest stories about real people, no matter how big the budget is or the matter of the subject. She has the talent to go down in film history, and the nature to be unforgotten as a storyteller and historian of the human condition.
Nomadland hits theatres on Boxing Day across the country. Check out the trailer below:
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