Joining the press conference of “Nomadland” via Zoom on Friday, presented in Venice in the main competition before its Toronto bow, director Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand – “It’s McDormand, not McDonald. M-C-D-O-R-M-A-N-D. It’s difficult, but you will get used to it,” she said, correcting a journalist as she started from the very beginning. “A friend of mine, [producer] Peter Spears, sent me the book and asked if we should option it. I said: ‘Why not?’ Soon after that I saw ‘The Rider,’ loved it, wanted to meet Chloé Zhao and then it all happened. Boom!,” said McDormand about Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction study of the modern-day nomads. Just like the film’s Fern, who one day just packs up her bags and leaves.
Working with a small team of 25 people, they traveled together for five months, visiting more than seven states and becoming, as noticed by McDormand, “like an organism.” “Because of that, we were able to move swiftly and live in the community of the vandwellers in a way that wasn’t disruptive. We played the game of ‘what if?’ What if I was really one of them?”
“It was really about setting up an ecosystem, working with the nomads, because they are not always stationary and getting Fran to blend in,” agreed Zhao, currently at work on “Eternals.”
“It was much more about honoring the process of a person’s life than a process of making a movie,” said McDormand. “It was successful because in one town, in Nebraska, I went to the local Target and I was offered employment. I was offered a form to fill out! I went back to Chloé and said: ‘It’s working!’”
Able to meet many people through Bruder’s book, the community proved welcoming to the team. “Once we had her blessing, that was our way in. And then, who wouldn’t want to work with Fran? People were just surprised we wanted to tell their story and Fran treated them like the biggest movie stars.”
“I learnt to just sit still, keep my mouth shut and listen,” added McDormand. “The keeping still part I am not very good at, the listening part I have practiced for a long time. It was about hearing their story, not telling mine.”
While, as pointed out, vandwellers’ choices have a lot to do with the economic disparities in the country, politics were never discussed. “That’s my third time going into a community that’s not my own, trying to convince people to share their lives with me. Talking about politics is not a way in,” pointed out Zhao. “It’s more about talking about the things that relate us instead of things that potentially divide us. When you are on the road, people that come into your life will be of every religion and every political preference, and when a tornado is coming or your car breaks down, you have to be friends.”
McDormand also underlined the importance of the community. “They have created, dare I say, a socialist situation: One for all and all for one. There are so many people on the road now, because of the economic situation, but also because they are answering to their wanderlust and their feeling of confinement. There is something about human spirit that’s about movement.”
Underlining that getting to know the nomads taught her “deep humility,” McDormand was also asked about her career, including Oscar-winning turn as Mildred Hayes in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” “Landscapes are important to Chloé, they are a part of the American story. They are so grand. But one of the things I learnt to appreciate about myself in these last 10 years was something that a journalist said about my face on film – that it’s like visiting a national park,” she said.
“If you could say one consistent thing about what I have done over the last 38 years, it’s that I mostly played American female characters. Although Fern is probably going to be a bit of a punctuation – I am never going to play another American woman again!,” she continued, to the audible protests of her director. “Both Mildred and Fern are in the same world, they come from a working-class background. I am from the working-class background too and here is this ‘what-if’ again. What if I hadn’t had the opportunity to go to college and to graduate school? What if I hadn’t had a chance to partner with a spouse who believed in my potential and helped me realize my dreams, what if I hadn’t met my son and became a fuller human being? What if I had looked in the mirror, unable to recognize myself as the women who are being represented in fashion magazines and movies? What if that had stopped me? That’s a lot of ‘what-ifs,’ but part of the American Dream I got to realize was working with people like Chloé Zhao.