Chloé Zhao on the future of film

In the summer of 2021, Zhao was on the crest of a wave, between Nomadland’s triumph at the Oscars and the release of her Marvel blockbuster Eternals. Who better to reflect on where cinema – at whatever scale – would head next?

Chloé ZhaoPhotography by Erik Carter

When I tell Chloé Zhao up front that the focus of our interview will be on the future of cinema, her response is enthusiastic: a couple of months after a long, ultimately triumphant awards season campaign for Nomadland, she admits, she’s happy simply to talk about any cinema that isn’t in her recent past. She’s half joking, though cinematically speaking, Zhao herself is in an interesting transitional space between past and future.

After conquering the indie realm, eventually to Oscar-winning effect, with her distinctive brand of intimately scaled, documentary-inflected hybrid filmmaking, the Chinese-born, US-based filmmaker is now months away from releasing her first lavishly budgeted studio blockbuster, the all-star Marvel superhero outing Eternals. Having worked at both ends of the industry, then, Zhao seems well positioned to comment on where on earth – or elsewhere – the medium might be heading.

Nomadland (2020)

Not that she’s at all decided on the matter. “I’m both really hopeful and also really terrified,” she says, “so it varies every day.” The day we speak, she’s on the hopeful end. She’s just come from an early screening of Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi spectacle Dune, and it has her feeling pretty bullish on the current state of cinema – artistically, at least. “It gives me hope that a filmmaker like Denis is able to really harness his vision and put together something that’s so incredible, so cinematic. I’m just blown away by the experience I had in that room. But I’m terrified about how many people are or aren’t going to have that experience like I did, in a theatre, and what that means for the future.”

In the languishing stages of a global pandemic that left cinemas shut for most of the past year, Zhao is far from alone in her fears that the theatrical experience may no longer be a universal constant for the medium. “I try to separate myself as a human being, with my own ideas of how I want films to be seen, from the inevitability of where we’re going and how we deal with that,” she says. “If I sound like I’m being overly analytical, it’s because I don’t want my own nostalgia to get in the way. I do think technology has completely changed our view of our society and our relationship with each other. We need each other a lot less – not emotionally, but actually to survive. I’ve been making films in the middle of the country, where people need each other a bit more than they do in New York and LA. And because of that, our culture moved so much more toward individualism in terms of everything, really. Individual experiences are more promoted than collective experiences. And we’re all feeling how dangerous that is.”

Growing up in China, Zhao’s earliest film memories centre on the small: TV viewings of such 1980s and 90s pop standards as The Terminator and Ghost. “Bring back VHS tapes!” she says with a laugh, when I ask her what she misses from her childhood film culture. She didn’t go to a cinema, she says, until she was in her early teens – but while she knows first-hand that a love for film can be fostered without the big screen, she fears we’ll lose something at a societal level by simply staying home and streaming. “The small screen has been there a long time,” she says, “but to get together in a room with strangers and experience something, it should be in our nature, as something that’s very good for us. But there’s a disconnect culturally and societally that is preventing that urge: we’ve become less trusting of each other to share that space. And it’s not that people want the small screen – screens at home are getting bigger. It’s about whether you want to go into a dark room with strangers or not.”

When I ask if cinema needs saving, however, her tone turns sanguine. “I don’t want to be dramatic,” she says. “We’ve been telling stories from the beginning and we’ve seen them evolve according to our needs as a society and the evolution of technology. So whatever form cinema takes, it will remain there, because human beings will never stop telling stories. So I don’t think it’s going to go away. But that certain form that we know as cinema might have to evolve.”

But as the subject shifts to the idea of an evolving film canon, she hesitates. “I hear this word a lot, and honestly, I must admit I don’t know what a film canon is,” she says. “Is The Godfather in the film canon because everybody knows it? Like a word that tourists from all over the world can recognise when they go travelling?” I haven’t heard it put this way myself. She may be right, I say.

“Then I think it cannot just remain about classics,” she continues. “We have to continue creating the film canon, to continue creating iconography. I think about that a lot, and the amount of images that are available now: images we take of ourselves and of each other. Mostly ourselves, a lot of the time. It’s become very standard to have an image. And I see them and wonder who, where, and why is this person? Is their look and their story going to resonate with people all over the world? Are we going to remember them the way we do a silhouette of Chaplin? If so, maybe that’s OK. The democratisation of technology changes the way we respond to images, and that’s a natural progression.”

Gemma Chan as Sersi in Eternals
Gemma Chan as Sersi in EternalsCourtesy of Disney

But if Zhao acknowledges the small screen – the phone screen, even – as a source for such images, she doesn’t believe we can merge big- and small-screen forms altogether: feature films, even ones as disparate in scale as The Rider [2017] and Eternals, fall under a separate umbrella from TV, however audiences see them. “What’s important to me is to give the audience an immersive experience, whether big or small: I like to think, either way, that I make films for the big screen,” she says. “If I were to do a TV show, I would think differently. When I make a film, I imagine people watching it in a room with no interruptions and no other light. That effects what kind of lens I use, what kind of story I tell, what the pacing is like, the music. Also, is it a film that means something different if you see it in a room with strangers and experience it together? Is it that kind of story? I think about that a lot.”

At 39, Zhao is conscious that the generations following her may have a very different view of things. “The last round of great filmmakers that we know grew up on that type of collective experience. Everybody’s got a story of their first time at the theatre with their parents or whatever. So I’m wondering about the generation that grew up on small screens, on the internet, without that same attachment. Does that prevent them being better filmmakers? Or will that just lead to a new type of filmmaking?” She believes virtual reality, in particular, will be a defining – or redefining – factor in the medium in future decades.

But she’s also wary of being overly in thrall to the new. “I wouldn’t call myself a cinephile,” she admits. “I didn’t grow up with classic cinema, I didn’t study film as an undergraduate. But when I’m working, I feel on a daily basis how much I can still learn and how rich the history is. Sometimes I think I’ve discovered something, like the latest technology, and then I find somebody in Russia did it 60 years ago.” She laughs. “I have to catch up.”

The future of film