Chloe Zhao on Nomadland and the road to self-rediscovery

Chloé Zhao’s sublime Nomadland follows a woman forced to join the US’s new economic nomads, eking out a living on the road. She talks about the film, and tapping into the old pioneer spirit.

13 April 2021

By Graham Fuller

Frances McDormand as Fern in Nomadland (2020)
Sight and Sound

▶︎ Nomadland is available on Disney+ Star from 30 April and in UK cinemas from 17 May.

It’s Tuesday, 3 November 2020 and America’s fate for the next four years is about to be decided by more than 160 million voters. Reached in the morning on a Zoom video call to Ojai, California, the writer-director Chloé Zhao is nonetheless all smiles as she prepares to talk about her new film Nomadland. She confesses, though, that she’s “a little anxious. It’s good to talk to you today to take my mind off the election.”

Nomadland stars Frances McDormand as a van-dwelling modern migrant worker travelling across the American West. A lyrical, anti-materialist neo-western with docudrama elements, it punctuates its melancholy with sublime images and epiphanic moments in the wilds.

Given that the movie and Zhao’s previous features Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017) – both set on the Oglala Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota – empathise with people who have been rendered invisible by mainstream American society, it’s obvious who’s the source of Zhao’s anxiety. As early as his first week in office in January 2016, President Trump signed an executive order sanctioning the oil industry’s Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone XL pipeline construction projects, putting Native American tribes’ water at great risk of contamination and threatening their burial and prayer sites in the Northern Plains. And in July 2019, Trump unilaterally weakened the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act by limiting public review of federal infrastructure projects, a potentially devastating blow for ethnic minority groups unable to protect their communities and also for America’s natural splendours. If Zhao is anxious, it’s with good reason.

Chloé Zhao
Pat Martin

It’s tempting to locate the concern with the outsiders and itinerants found in Zhao’s films in the story of her own life. Born in Beijing in 1982, Zhao attended Brighton College in England and completed high school in Los Angeles. Before enrolling in film school at New York University, she took a BA in political science at Mount Holyoke College – Emily Dickinson’s alma mater – but she notes that despite her peripatetic upbringing, she’s uncertain about why she has an affinity for marginalised people.

“I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately,” she says. “I don’t think I can pinpoint why my upbringing or experiences have made me that way, but I have always been an outsider myself; it doesn’t matter where I went. I’m attracted to people who are on the periphery of society. I’ve been like this since high school. I liked mangas growing up and the ones I was drawn to were not about mainstream characters. Coming to America from Brighton when I was 18 – having been quite sheltered before – and going straight to downtown LA in 1999, I was just confused. I didn’t understand this country I thought I knew, but four years of studying American politics at Mount Holyoke opened my mind a lot.”

That identification with those beyond the mainstream of American life finds its most expansive expression yet in Nomadland. The film draws from Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (2017), a journalistic immersion in the world of the expanding tribe of retirement-age people, who in the wake of the 2007-09 recession have reinvented themselves as ‘workampers’. They drive around the country in their mobile homes – RVs (recreation vehicles), school buses, cars pulling trailers – and pay for their gasoline and food with their gig economy earnings, often spending their nights in parking lots.

Linda May in Nomadland

The spine of the book is Bruder’s 15,000-mile, three-year trek in her own van, from 2014, following Linda May, an educated grandmother (now 70), who had worked as an insurance executive, a general contractor and a cocktail waitress, but by 2010 had become suicidal because she was terminally stuck on a low-wage treadmill. She took to the road in an RV in 2013 and discovered that nomadism liberated her, as it did many of the other older transients Bruder met, among them the Santa Claus-bearded van-dwelling guru and YouTube star Bob Wells (who set up and runs the website) and the genealogy- and nature-loving kayaker and blogger Charlene Swankie.

After seeing The Rider at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, McDormand – who had optioned Bruder’s book with producer Peter Spears – enlisted Zhao to write and direct Nomadland in March 2018. Zhao, McDormand and other cast and crew members themselves lived in vans as they shot the film in South Dakota, Nebraska, Nevada, Northern California, Arizona and finally Southern California over the last four months of that year. Alongside McDormand and David Strathairn – the film’s only other professional actor – Zhao cast May, Wells and Swankie to play themselves (in at least one case with a major biographical alteration). Alongside a probable Best Picture nomination, and likely nods for Best Director for Zhao and Best Actress for McDormand, there’s talk of an Oscar nomination for Swankie.

Frances McDormand as Fern alongside the nonprofessional cast of Nomadland

“I think it’s 50-50,” Zhao says when asked if including real nomads in Nomadland was a moral principle or prompted by the need for authenticity.

“First, I felt it was incredibly important for the van-dwellers to have a voice in the film. Jessica had done an incredible job in her book of documenting these really colourful characters with interesting life experiences and also the worlds they exist in. It’s hard to recreate that kind of thing, as I learned from making my first two films, so using real people and places was always something we were going to do.

Second, I asked myself, ‘How will a film like this catch the attention of people today?’ I was quite pragmatic about it. The idea of having a character, Fern, whose emotional arc would be something the audience could track throughout the film – and also having her be a listener and a guide to this world – was very important to me.”

Life after life

Frances McDormand as Fern and David Straithern as David in Nomadland

Nomadland depicts a year in the life of Fern, a fictional character from the real Nevada desert village of Empire, which originated as a gypsum-mining tent city in 1923, and became a ghost town in 2011 – abandoned after United States Gypsum closed its plasterboard plant because of plummeting sales caused by the Great Recession’s acceleration of the construction industry’s decline. Following the lingering death of her beloved husband Beau, the stoical sometime cashier, supply teacher and Shakespeare fan Fern is first seen shutting up her belongings in a storage unit before taking to the road in the white van that’s to be her permanent home.

To survive, she cheerfully takes seasonal jobs – at a nearby Amazon fulfilment centre, at a recreation vehicle park, at the Wall Drug Store in the South Dakota Badlands, and during Nebraska’s beet harvest. Welcomed into the nomad community, she is mentored by May, Wells and the cancer-afflicted Swankie and hesitantly courted by David (Strathairn), a former mineworker she keeps running into and cares for when he is ill.

I asked myself, ‘How will a film like this catch the attention of people today?’ I was quite pragmatic about it.Chloé Zhao

Though Fern is played with formidable reticence by McDormand, she allows us to sense her character’s reluctance to getting closer to David, through her skittish remarks and body language when they visit the Reptile Gardens in Rapid City while working in the Badlands. Over the course of the film, she refuses three offers of immobilising herself again, as she did during her marriage, by living in what nomads call “sticks-and-bricks”. Zhao non-judgementally presents a portrait of a woman whose aversion to conventional society and family life – her sister Dolly (Melissa Smith) felt abandoned by when she fled home to marry Beau when she was young – is underpinned by her psychologically complex born-to-run mentality.

Nomadland (2020)

On her travels, Fern twice encounters an amiable young drifter, whose rootlessness remains unexplained. The first time they meet, she gives him a cigarette lighter; months later, he returns the favour. Derek Endres, who was playing himself, ended up joining Zhao’s crew.

Most of the film’s nomads, though, are fifty-, sixty- and seventysomethings who may have learned to embrace the van-dwelling lifestyle, for all its uncertainty, hazardousness and comparative primitiveness, but whose itinerancy stemmed originally from a tragic personal or financial loss.

“This specific film mostly shows older people and many of them said to me, ‘At our age, we’ve been through one or two personal upheavals and lost people we care about,” Zhao says. “That makes the older people’s road and the younger people’s road very different experiences. Jack Kerouac’s road and Fern’s road have very different feelings.

Jack Kerouac’s road and Fern’s road have very different feelings.Chloé Zhao

“What’s so beautiful to me was hearing Bob Wells, Linda May and Swankie – and this is something I didn’t quite understand as a younger person than them – talking about that ‘See you down the road’ idea’.” This is a belief in a spiritual as much as a literal reunion, which Wells shares with Fern when they talk, wrenchingly, about his son, who killed himself, and Beau.

“It’s like we’re all connected by something bigger, even though we’re alone right now,” Zhao continues. “Having carried so much loss and grief, this is such a powerful healing thing for them.”

Bands apart

Frances McDormand as Fern in Nomadland (2020)

Nomadland joins a small band of 21st century American films about outsiders and wanderers that testify to fault lines in the social order, including Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2007), Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008), Gerry Troyna and writer-presenter Richard Grant’s 2011 BBC documentary American Nomads, Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (2016), Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace (2018), and a 2020 PBS documentary called American Nomads, directed by Ben Wu and David Usui, a series of six shorts that suggests there may be many more African Americans (including single women) on the road than is sometimes thought.

Wu and Usui’s series includes a mini-profile of Bob Wells and a visit to the annual Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in Quartzsite, Arizona, which was attended by an estimated 45 nomads when Wells founded it in January 2010 and now attracts thousands. In Nomadland, Fern, welcomed to Quartzsite by May, starts to feel like she’s part of a tribe. It’s there she meets Swankie, who, brusquely at first, schools her in van care and self-protective common sense.

Sometimes life drives you to a place… the road allows you to rediscover yourself.Chloé Zhao

At a time when Trump has given a bad name to rugged individualism – the creed supposedly behind the settling of the American West – it’s not insignificant that Nomadland is a film constantly in dialogue with westerns. It not only shares their terrain, which supplied a mythic backdrop to the genre’s working out of conflicts between family-based communities and businessmen, and between communities and individuals (not least drifters), but ironically recasts the relationship between migration and displacement in the West.

Whereas the forebears of the striving young Lakotas portrayed with such resonant contemporaneity in Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider were a self-reliant semi-nomadic people forced by the US Army into hunger and miserable dependence in the 19th century, Fern and the real-life itinerants of Nomadland are economically displaced descendants of the pioneers whose settling of the West, along with the lure of gold, brought about Native Americans’ cruel displacement into the reservation system.

John Reddy as Johnny in Songs My Brother Taught Me (2015)

When Fern visits Dolly at her nicely appointed house in a Californian suburb to get a cash loan to fix her van, Dolly well-meaningly, if patronisingly, defends her sister’s opinions from the incomprehension of her husband and a barbecue guest, who both work in real estate, by likening Fern to the pioneers. The crucial difference is that pioneers were heading to places where they could build houses and towns, while nomads begin their journeys by leaving them. Zhao sees nothing negative in this.

“I feel like the American road, that part of the country [the West], and the spirit that’s in that landscape is in the people whose ancestors arrived there. They were always chasing the horizon and wondering what’s beyond it. It’s still there – it’s a very young country. 

“When you put someone in a house for a long time, and at a certain point in their lives they’ve been defined by their jobs and their homes and their roles in the family and the community… when suddenly that’s all gone, the road allows them to rediscover themselves,” she continues. “We all have to question whether the place we’ll arrive today is where we really want to be. Sometimes life drives you to a place. You might end up in a job or on the road, but if you’re lucky enough to have the silence and the space to re-evaluate who you really are, hopefully you’ll find it’s never too late to redefine yourself.

“If I were to generalise, I’d say there are two types of nomad,” she adds. “Some use the road as a means to an end, so that they can get back to home and stability. And the others stay on the road forever until the end. They are nomads at heart. To me, Fern is the second kind. Some of them find something that’s inside them, whether it’s in their bones or their blood or their ancestral DNA. They go, ‘Wait a minute, actually I want to move.’” I see that in Fern, in Johnny and in Brady.”

Brady Jandreau in The Rider (2017)

Aspiring to leave Pine Ridge, the 18-year-old bootlegger Johnny (John Reddy) in Songs My Brothers Taught Me and the injured rodeo star Brady (Brady Jandreau) in The Rider eventually stay because they have family ties. Fern is able to leave Empire because Beau has died, though it’s only after she returns to the desolate gypsum plant and the bare house where they lived in the film’s haunting final sequence that she’s able to say goodbye. Her last look at the factory staff room – where a coffee cup and a hard hat are gathering dust – echoes her last look, unaccompanied, at the dining room in which David had welcomed her to the laden Thanksgiving table during her fleeting visit to his son’s house.

Just as the opening of Nomadland – the darkness inside Fern’s storage unit followed by a shot of her lifting its door – echoes the moment the ranch house door opens on the arrival of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) at the start of The Searchers (1956), so the final image in which Fern is fully visible recalls that of Ethan, unable to enter the Jorgensen family’s house, turning away into the desert, at the end of John Ford’s classic.

Zhao says that she and her cinematographer Joshua James Richards, who has shot all three of her completed features, “talked at one point about Fern as a modern-day John Wayne character who, in the end, leaves the home and walks into the wilderness. We definitely had the conception that those shots would be the beginning and end of the film. It’s about how you see a character framed by the world they live in and their inner relationship to that world.”

An opening title about Empire’s demise (the town has been partially reopened since small-scale gypsum mining was resumed in 2016) contextualises Nomadland as a drama sprung from the recession, which stemmed from the greed of large financial conglomerates, but Zhao is wary about viewing it in political terms.

Frances McDormand talking to Chloé Zhao on location for Nomadland

“It really depends who is watching the film,” she says. “Some people find it political, some find it not political at all. I’ve always felt that when you put a camera on different communities, especially marginalised communities, you put a political perspective on them automatically just because of the associations that we have with these places. I learned that on my first film and I try hard not to do it. I have a lot of strong political opinions – and they are going to come out by the end of today! – but it’s not my job to convince you of them.

“I don’t make films so that people can agree with me more. I make them to portray a character, a people or a way of life that people don’t know but that anyone can get to know. Then they can experience those things through their own conditioning and walk away with their own opinions and we can have a conversation about it. That’s the power of cinema. But if you stop me on the street to talk about politics, I’ll argue with you all day.”

Reminded that it’s election day, Zhao sighs and says, “I get these messages from a stoic philosophy website that just sends me stuff. Today’s was: ‘What are you going to do? Life just has to keep going.’

And that’s how it is with the people I met on the road when I was making Nomadland and who told me their stories. You can’t even imagine what some of them have been through. But time changes everything. A couple of years later, they turned around and said, ‘That was the best thing that ever happened to me.’ We have to have that faith and that hope” – and she laughs quietly – “just to get through the next 24 hours.”

Hard travelin’: hoboes and wanderers in US cinema

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Nomadland is only the latest entry in the long American tradition of the individual brought low by hard times and forced to take to the highways – or the railways – to find a better life. It’s a tradition that, for all the hardships endured, is steeped in a romantic notion of the country that goes back to the Pioneers, through the Gold Rush and the stories of Jack London, and which found its defining moment during the Great Depression. John Steinbeck called the hoboes who hopped railroad cars in those years “the last free men”, and the same sentiment can be felt in the likes of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) – even if the impulse in their cases is the search for ‘kicks’ rather than sheer economic survival.

This ‘Hard Travelin’’ tradition, as the Woody Guthrie song called it, has a long lineage in the movies, going right up to Nomadland. Here are ten standouts.

Beggars of Life

William Wellman, 1928

Louise Brooks had her greatest American role in Wellman’s tale of a woman who hits the road with a vagabond (Wallace Beery) after killing her stepfather. Its scenes of train-hopping and campfires would soon be commonplace as the Great Depression hit just a year later.

Wild Boys of the Road

William Wellman, 1933

The ravages of the Great Depression are portrayed with unsparing grit in Wellman’s brisk, almost proto-neorealist drama which follows three youths who cross the US in search of work and refuge.

The Grapes of Wrath

John Ford, 1940

Steinbeck’s classic novel about the tragedy of the Dust Bowl follows Tom Joad (Henry Fonda, below) and the Joad family, who take to the road in search of a better life in California. Ford’s poignant, powerful adaptation sets the family’s harsh plight against the vast landscapes they must cross.

Emperor of the North

Robert Aldrich, 1973

In part inspired by Jack London’s 1907 memoir The Road, Aldrich’s film stars Keith Carradine and Lee Marvin as two hoboes in Depression-era Oregon. They cross paths with Shack (Ernest Borgnine), a ruthless conductor who stops at nothing to ensure nobody rides his train for free.

Hard Times

Walter Hill, 1975

Hill’s debut evocatively captures the desperation of the Depression era. It follows Charles Bronson’s out-of-work loner, who hops a freight train to New Orleans and tries to make it big as a bare-knuckle fighter.

Bound for Glory

Hal Ashby, 1976

Bound for Glory (1976)

Ashby’s warts-and-all adaptation of Woody Guthrie’s great autobiography, superbly shot by Haskell Wexler, stars David Carradine as the legendary folksinger and national social conscience, following him on a trip across Depression-era America.

Wendy and Lucy

Kelly Reichardt, 2008

Reichardt’s films have all focused on people on the economic margins, and none more so than this. Michelle Williams plays a woman whose fragile economic existence unravels, and who takes to the road with her dog, facing hardship at each new turn.

American Honey

Andrea Arnold, 2016

Arnold’s exuberant but tough road trip movie throws a light on modern outcasts, following a young woman who falls in with a band of hedonistic magazine sellers who criss-cross the US partying and hustling.

Leave No Trace

Debra Granik, 2018

Granik’s film captures the impulse felt by many today to live off-grid, away from the stifling grind of modern life. It concerns a war veteran and his daughter living a subsistence existence deep in the forests of Oregon, but who find they can only evade mainstream society for so long.

American Nomads

Benjamin Wu and David Usui, 2020

Six short documentaries about a range of people who have chosen to live in their vehicles. It reveals there are many more African-American nomads than many may have presumed.

Further reading

The Rider review: a visceral, organic western

By Nikki Baughan

The Rider review: a visceral, organic western

Film of the week: Leave No Trace grieves for the wild at heart

By Pamela Hutchinson

Film of the week: Leave No Trace grieves for the wild at heart

Film of the week: American Honey

By Pamela Hutchinson

Film of the week: American Honey

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