When director Chloé Zhao called on cinematographer Joshua James Richards to shoot “Nomadland,” the two already had a visual language established, having collaborated on “The Rider” and “Songs My Brothers Taught Me.”
For “Nomadland,” available Dec. 4 on virtual cinema, their approach was to plan that look and feel from the inside out. That meant taking a trip together to meet the real-life nomads who would appear in the film, based on the book by Jessica Bruder, about workers impacted by the Great Recession.
The road trip spanned the Badlands of South Dakota; Empire, Nevada; and western Nebraska. During that time, Richards spent hours taking photos. “You’re constantly looking at how people’s faces are in what light, and the scout became a test shoot.”
Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a Nevada widow who packs her bags and decides to become an off-the-grid nomad — “houseless, but not homeless” — when her town’s main industry, a gypsum mine, shuts down.
Richards says Zhao wanted to focus on the lives of real people who are often overlooked, people we don’t typically see in Hollywood productions. “They’re old people and homeless people. It was about exploring life from a certain perspective that didn’t feel like an observation.” He continues, “There’s a poetry to the film.”
Richards sought the on-camera reactions of real nomads — Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells — to McDormand as they encounter her character.
“I wanted to be inside their world, and I didn’t want to be shooting from a distance with zoom lenses,” says Richards, who opted for Arri’s Alexa Mini out of familiarity and comfort. He paired it with wide Ultra Prime lenses because of their tendency to be able to handle less light, which Zhao prized. “The lenses were a little softer, and because we know we’re shooting in super low light conditions, that’s going to give me a little bit more leeway as that sun disappears further over the horizon.”
The wide-angle Primes also helped Richards capture the nature of rural America as Fern travels through the vast landscape. German painter Albert Bierstadt served as a visual influence for his framing. “There was always a decay in the foreground or a buffalo and its cubs, but there was always that glow in the distant horizon where the sun sets and promise lies,” Richards says. “I remember looking at those depictions and wanted to draw from there because that’s what’s happening to Fern — the possibilities for life are opening up in many ways.”
Having grown up in England, Richards notes the imagery of the Western horizon he was striving to show was something he never had — “the open, the freedom and being able to just go.”
For “Nomadland,” he gravitated toward shooting in the magic hour whenever possible. “Chloé and I would spend all day planning, and then there’s chaos” during the 20-minute window he had to capture the light. But it was worth the trouble, he says: “It’s God’s best light. It’s when all the spirits come out; it’s when people’s faces look exactly as they should look and I can see you truthfully as you.”
That crucial time of day also lends a softness to the colors that makes them richer — that the Ultra Prime lenses helped to capture — the faces against the backdrop of the landscape and the Western glow on the horizon.
Other times, Richards captured intimate moments, such as a conversation between real-life drifter Derek Endres and Fern during which she recites a Shakespearen sonnet. Again, he waited for the right moment to capture the light around the fire as the sun sets. But what he wanted to do most was to capture the reality of the performances, since Endres did not know Fern until that point.
The “Nomadland” crew wasn’t large – 19 men and 17 women – and they traveled together in old vans. “It helped us to be nimble and small so we could build something around these women [Linda May and Swankie] and make them feel as safe and collaborative as possible,” Richards says. “We went in as a group of people meeting a group of people.
“‘Shall we tell some stories?’ That is what filming ‘Nomadland’ was like. What you’re witnessing are genuine connections in front of the camera.”