Updated: Sep 12
Our UpRising Editors
Chloe Zhao has arrived. This week, the Nomadland filmmaker shattered glass ceilings becoming the first Asian woman and first woman of color to be nominated for Best Director at the Oscars. Aside from her epic awards run, Zhao is the most nominated woman in a single year in Oscar history with three additional nods for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing and as a producer in the Best Picture category.
In the chilly fall of 2018, Zhao ventured out to Badlands National Park with a slim crew and cast including the likes of Frances McDormand, plus four individuals she describes as "real-life, van-dwelling, modern-day nomads." For the next few months this motley crew lived and worked under the stars to create the masterpiece that is Nomadland.
Chloe Zhao is making the impossible look like a piece of cake. When asked about her milestones and the huge significance they bring, Zhao replies in USA Today, "I think it means more to other people than it does to me, I just love telling stories." Her artistry is palpable and that brilliance leaps off the screen in her most recent flick.
So who is Chloe Zhao? That's the million dollar question on our minds after wiping Nomadland-made tears from our face.
Chloe Zhao grew up in Beijing in the 80s and 90s to humble beginnings. Growing up, everyone around Zhao shared her Chinese heritage. That specificity feels vital to the way Zhao has decided to expand her universe through filmmaking - pouring herself into new cultures, finding commonalities, and sharing the heart of a shared human experience.
While filming Nomadland, Zhao was intentional about immersing herself in Western nomadic life, getting familiar with harmful and untrue narratives to blow the lid open on a new way of life. Need further proof? Zhao has filled Nomadland (and most of her films) with locals, expertly pulling fictionalized versions of their true experiences to create awe inspiring performances on screen. Take John Reddy, the lead in her 2015 debut, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, for example . Zhao found John in a school yearbook and cast him as Johnny, a teenager who dreams of getting away from the reservation. Zhao also cast Lakota cowboy Brady Jandreau when she found him working at a ranch. Cut to Brady leading The Rider as Brady Blackburn, an injured rodeo star who struggles to find a sense of purpose after being told he can’t ride anymore.
Unlike her formative years in Beijing, during the filming of Nomadland, Zhao found herself in the Badlands as the only Chinese person in sight. It made her think about her culture differently, a bit less consequential - what if we are all from nowhere? That deep question, that feeling of isolation and connectivity, gives this film all its magic. Zhao has mastered the art of making us feel like we belong everywhere and nowhere all at once.