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Chloé Zhao and her Explorative Filmmaking

Ryan O’Toole

Photo: Variety - Source

At the 93rd Academy Awards, when Bong Joon-ho read out Chloé Zhao’s name and Zhao approached the stage to accept Best Director, her first Oscar of the night, it felt like a truly momentous occasion in a way that the Oscars always strive for but rarely achieve. Not only was this a watershed moment in terms of diversity at the Oscars, a South Korean filmmaker passing the torch to a Chinese director, and Chloé Zhao’s win marked only the second time a woman had won the award and the first time for a woman of color, but it seemed to mark an incredible career to come. It was the Oscars calling their shot, pointing their bat at centerfield and waiting for the home runs to come.

In only three movies and at the age of 39, Chloé Zhao had reached the mountaintop and achieved an award to put her in a hallowed group of our finest directors. But she still has an entire career ahead of her. And within the same year that she won two Oscars and directed Frances McDormand to a win, Zhao is slated to release The Eternals, her foray into Marvel and blockbuster filmmaking. She certainly shows no signs of slowing down.

Photo: Screen Daily - Source

Chloé Zhao’s first movie is 2015’s Songs My Brother Taught Me. Set in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the film explores what life holds for those on the reservation. Johnny, played by non-professional actor John Reddy, wants to leave and set out for Los Angeles, but that would mean leaving his family behind. The film was a critical success for its size, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival and earning Zhao a nomination for Best First Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards.

Songs My Brother Taught Me also introduces a lot of Zhao’s style that she would later build on in her sophomore effort, The Rider, particularly her use of non-actors. The Rider follows Brady Jandreau playing a fictional version of himself: a rodeo star who suffers a serious and career ending head injury. It is a solemn movie about self reflection as Brady, both the character and the actor, search for a new identity. In this way, Zhao places herself in the modern tradition of casting non actors similar to Sean Baker (Tangerine, The Florida Project), or as he refers to them: first time actors.

It always feels like a fool’s errand to try to assign responsibility for many of a film’s elements. It’s always hard to attribute something to the writer, director, or actor, and more likely than not, it is some messy amalgamation of all three. But The Rider feels like a movie that would fundamentally not work without the contributions from its main actor. Every line of dialogue and story beat feels so authentic that it is hard to imagine it not stemming from his own life, or at least created with his input. Zhao feels like less of a writer and more of an observer documenting the real-life events of this character. She is able to capture real truth in these films without the artifice or vanity that could come from actors attempting to portray these lower class characters. In both of her first two movies, Chloé Zhao is able to explore real people, uncover truths about them, and make truly humanist movies.

Chloé Zhao has also reimagined the American West. When you think about the West, or even Western movies, the icons of old Hollywood may pop up in your head, such as Sergio Leone, Howard Hawks, or its stars like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. But Zhao has captured a different side of the modern American West, still focusing on working class characters like rodeo stars and cowboys, but focusing on a more contemplative style than the Western genre is known for. In this way, Zhao joins a movement of other independent directors like Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone, Leave No Trace) and Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff, Certain Women) that are redefining what the modern west looks like, with their films focusing on lush nature photography and slower character studies about working class people in rural environments.

Photo: BBC - Source

Chloé Zhao’s directing style is then furthered and placed in the spotlight for the world to see in her Best Picture winning Nomadland. The movie stars Frances McDormand — who, after seeing The Rider at the Toronto International Film Festival, approached Zhao with this project and wanted her to direct — as Fern, a woman who lost her husband and her job and now lives as a nomad, living in her van and traveling across the country. Unlike her first two films, Zhao cast Frances McDormand and David Stathairn in two of the lead roles, working with professional actors for the first time. But the supporting cast is entirely made up of non professional actors and actual nomads, giving the film an authentic, honest feeling as Zhao explores the nomad lifestyle and the people who live it.

Nomadland features a variety of formal techniques that set it apart from other character studies. Zhao uses a free flowing handheld camera, to capture lush landscape photography largely with natural light. She also forgoes continuity editing for something much more impressionistic, often cutting over large sections of time within a scene to give a feeling of what is happening rather than a real time account.

Her largest influence and director who is most similar to Zhao is Terrence Malick, with his natural photography and natural lighting in Days of Heaven, his free flowing handheld camera in Tree of Life, and his non continuity editing in The New World. Both of their movies have a contemplative, almost meditative style as they sit with the characters and the world they inhabit. And they both try to explore different aspects of human nature in their processes. They never start out with a tightly polished script and fully know what they want to say with a given project at the jump. It is a process of discovery that they have with the actors as they shoot it. Speaking about Terrence Malick’s process, Zhao had this to say:

“It’s almost like a necessity for [Malick], to explore something he wants to understand about the world, about human existence, about all these bigger questions he had. And that shines through his cinema. That’s why his films are so intimate and also universal at the same time. He’s exploring questions that everyone can relate to… there’s a lot of myself asking these questions as well, and by making these films I was able to have some of them explored.”

This is why Zhao’s films feel so personal. She is always discovering something new about other people and about herself. The adaptive nature of her films causes her to adopt these stylistic choices. She is not choosing to shoot handheld, with natural lighting, and non continuity editing purely for aesthetic reasons. Nor is she doing it to take from one of her biggest influences, Terrence Malick. She adopted her style as a necessity to be as free flowing as possible; to be able to shoot entire scenes in one take, with minimal setup, so the actors, especially those with little experience can always be in the moment. They can always be fully invested in the scene they are acting out and Zhao, with her limited crew and brilliant Director of Photography Joshua James Richards can simply observe and capture these beautiful moments, leading to some of the most beautiful moments of recent memory, between Nomadland and The Rider.

Photo: Indiewire - Source

Chloé Zhao’s follow up to Nomadland is her first blockbuster, Marvel’s Eternals. It is clearly a departure from her previous work, both in terms of size and subject matter, so it will be interesting to see both how much Chloé Zhao she can bring to Marvel and how much Marvel is infused in her work. Early indications seem to be a little of both with the Los Angeles Times’ film critic Justin Chang saying that Eternals “is probably one of the more interesting movies Marvel will ever make, and hopefully the least interesting movie Chloé Zhao will ever make.” Either way, Chloé Zhao is already one of the most interesting voices of her generation and is poised to have a great career to come.


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