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It was only a few weeks ago that Chloé Zhao made history in the movie industry.
With the recent announcement of this year’s Oscar nominations, the ‘Nomadland’ director became the first woman of color to be nominated for Best Director, as well as the most nominated woman in a single year in Oscar history — also getting nods for Best Adapted Screenplay, Editing, and as a producer in the Best Picture category. If she does win Best Director (which is possible especially after winning a Golden Globe this year for directing), she’d only be the second woman to ever win in the category after Kathryn Bigelow.
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It’s an impressive career trajectory for the soon-to-be-39-year-old filmmaker, having achieved the milestone after just three feature films. And 2021 is shaping up to a breakout year for her, with a major Marvel movie looming on the horizon. It’s clear right now in Hollywood that Chloé Zhao is a director worth keeping an eye on. So let’s pay tribute to the talented filmmaker who’s only just getting started.
Chloe Zhao’s Beginnings — A Love of the West
Chloé Zhao was born as Zhao Ting in Beijing to a hospital worker mother and a steel company manager father. Growing up she was something of a rebel and a lazy student, yet her parents mostly let her be. “I have interesting parents,” Zhao tells The Hollywood Reporter. “They’re just a bit different than your typical parents from Beijing. They’re rebellious. They’re weird. They never stopped letting me be who I am. When my grades were so bad and I was just drawing weird manga, I was a wild child and they just let me be. And that’s very rare”.
In addition to manga, she was also drawn to fan fiction (which she claims to still write), movies, and Michael Jackson. The works of Wong Kar-wai are a huge influence on her; she’s especially a fan of his 1997 film ‘Happy Together’, such that she watches it before starting on her own projects. She also grew up watching American movies on TV, counting ‘Sister Act’, ‘Ghost’, and ‘The Terminator’ as her introduction to Hollywood. Growing up they’re representative of her fascination with the West and Western pop culture, in response to feeling constricted by what she described as “an ancient culture where I was expected to be a certain way”.
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Despite speaking little English, at age fifteen she left home when her parents sent her to a boarding school in England (she jokingly described the experience as like attending Hogwarts). But her interest in the real West—America—persisted. After finishing high school in LA, she went on to earn a Bachelor’s in political science at Mount Holyoke before attending film school at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
There she met her boyfriend Joshua James Richards, who went on to be the cinematographer for her films (and was also nominated for his work on ‘Nomadland’). And one of her professors at NYU was Spike Lee, who she would debate: “What I like about Spike is that he doesn’t really sugarcoat things. Spike will just tell you as it is and I really needed that. We used to have very heated discussions, where his assistant would come in and say, ‘Everything OK?’ But it was a lot of fun”.
The First Films — Telling Stories With Real People
Per her alumna bio, Zhao developed her short film ‘Daughters’ at NYU. The film received critical acclaim and won several awards, including Best Student Live Action Short at the 2010 Palm Springs International ShortFest and the Special Jury Prize at the 2010 Cinequest Film Festival. But for her thesis and debut feature film, she decided to venture further west. In fact she’s had a long fascination with middle America. As she told Alfonso Cuaron,
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“Growing up in Beijing, I always loved going to Mongolia. From the big city to the plains, that was my childhood. Spending a lot of time in New York in my mid-20s, I was feeling a bit lost. I always joke that historically, when you feel lost, you go west. And for me, going west is west of New York. It’s just a part of America that I don’t think I knew anything about. South Dakota, for example, is mostly a ranching state. The dirt on the ground hasn’t been touched. It feels ancient and static. And my life has been so transient and fast-moving that it’s just such a nice feeling when I’m there, almost like time stops”.
And South Dakota would be the setting for that debut film, ‘Songs My Brothers Taught Me’, which she wrote and directed, and co-produced with Forest Whitaker. Set in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the Native American drama tells the story of a rebellious Lakota Sioux teenager (John Reddy) torn between leaving the reservation and staying with his younger sister (Jashaun St. John). Zhao cast nonprofessional actors in the film, drawing from experience filming her second-year film in China: she liked the idea of building a film around actors already in a place she had in mind for her film.
She also wanted to go against the conventional indie filmmaking trends: when applying for grants she realized they overly favored stories of struggle. So while ‘Songs’ still shows its characters struggling, the focus is more on themes of home. The idea of seeing the humanity and dignity in her characters would inform her later works.
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‘Songs’ premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival’s U.S Dramatic Competition and was screened in the Directors’ Fortnight section at Cannes that same year. Zhao was also nominated for Best First Feature at the Independent Spirit Award. Two years later she followed that up with 2017’s ‘The Rider’, a western drama about a young rodeo star’s journey of self-discovery after a near-fatal accident cuts his career short. There’s an interesting story behind what led to the making of the film: while in South Dakota, Zhao met and befriended rodeo competitor Brady Jandreau.
He later suffered a severe head injury after falling off his horse and fell into a coma, but managed to recover and get back on a horse. This inspired Zhao who cast Jandreau as the main character: a fictionalized version of himself. It fits into her goal of verisimilitude for her subject — “Non-actors are just always going to be a version of themselves, and that’s what you want them to be”, says Zhao.
‘The Rider’ premiered at Cannes where it won the Art Cinema Award. It went on to receive near-universal acclaim as well as more nominations and awards; among the film’s fans were Bong Joon-ho and Barack Obama (who named it one of his favorite films of 2018). The film also caught the attention of both Frances McDormand and Marvel, which leads to Zhao’s two most high-profile projects so far. Let’s look at them.
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The Breakout — ‘Nomadland’ and ‘Eternals’
‘Nomadland’ began when McDormand and her producing partner Peter Spears optioned the film rights to Jessica Bruder’s novel. McDormand (who’d also been demanding greater inclusion in Hollywood) saw ‘The Rider’ and was very impressed and approached Zhao to write and direct the film. By coincidence, Zhao had been developing a similar project, but found a more potent story is focusing on the reasons why an older generation became modern-day nomads. The story would center on McDormand—the first real Hollywood actor Zhao directed—with the rest of the cast, with the exception of David Strathairn, made up of real nomads playing themselves.
As we mentioned in our review, ‘Nomadland’ is a fantastic film. McDormand’s performance is excellent, aided by a fantastic cast of nonprofessionals. And Zhao is masterful in telling the lives of the nomads with compassion, heart, and dignity, as well as capturing the vast landscapes they travel. And if the critical acclaim and awards recognition is any indication, everyone seems to agree.
This brings us to Marvel. After ‘The Rider’, Zhao was on the company’s shortlist to direct ‘Black Widow’; while the job ultimately went to Cate Shortland, Zhao was handpicked to direct the upcoming ‘Eternals’. One would think that she’d be an odd fit for the project given her previous films, but it turns out she’d been a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and was the one who approached them, with Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige being impressed by her pitch and vision for the film.
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Circling back to her childhood influences, “I grew up with manga…That was my first love. I wanted to be a manga artist, but I was not very good at drawing. I have been a fan of the MCU for the last decade. So, I put the word out there that I wanted to make a Marvel movie and the right project came to me,” says Zhao. And with ‘Eternals’ she gets the opportunity to bring her manga influences to the film in a melding of East and West influences (another example is a Bollywood dance sequence) and a multicultural cast (which includes Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Salma Hayek, and deaf actress Lauren Ridloff). Needless to say, this is one of the most anticipated films of 2021. And the recent boost to Zhao’s profile will only have people more interested in the film.
What’s to Come
As for what’s next for Zhao besides ‘Eternals’, she’s working on a historical western movie based on the true story of Bass Reeves, the first Black U.S Deputy Marshal. She’s also developing a futuristic sci-fi western inspired by Dracula for Universal Pictures. With her ease in navigating the indie and Hollywood world, she’s a filmmaker that might not be pigeonholed as easily, which is nice.
If her work so far is any indication, we can count on her to deliver. Her rise is encouraging in how it could give hope to future female directors (especially those of color) looking to follow in her footsteps. Her films reflect a genuine and sincere, without being patronizing, love of the West and its pop culture, as well as her desire to tell stories of individuals beyond just their identity or what they represent — to tell stories about interesting people.
By Mario Yuwono
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