Chloé Zhao on Making Oscars History and How She Stayed True to Herself Directing Marvel’s ‘Eternals’

On Monday morning, the day after making history with her two Oscar wins, Chloé Zhao is beaming. Her happiness is detectable even over Zoom. “It was just so, so beautiful to be in the room with people, and to be able to actually talk to them and to celebrate with my peers,” she says.

Not everything went as planned at the 93rd Academy Awards on Sunday night; witness the show not ending with the usual best picture category, instead unexpectedly honoring an actor, Anthony Hopkins, who wasn’t even there, as its climax. But at least one thing went very right: Zhao landed the trophy for best director for “Nomadland,” and also received the top prize for picture. She’s only the second woman to win an Oscar for director — after Kathryn Bigelow (for 2009’s “The Hurt Locker”) — and Zhao, who was born in Beijing, is the first woman of color to receive the prize. “Nomadland,” released by Searchlight Pictures, led all films with three Oscars, including actress for Frances McDormand.

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Andrew Eccles for Variety

Zhao went into the night with four nominations: In addition to producing and directing, she was up for adapted screenplay and editing. And after doing countless virtual panels, particularly with her fellow directors, she was at last together in person with the other nominees on Sunday night. Describing meeting nominee Emerald Fennell — both Zhao and the “Promising Young Woman” director wore sneakers — Zhao says she was able to “finally give a hug.”

“I think there’s a picture somewhere out there of the two of us with our sneakers together,” she says with a laugh.

Zhao’s “Nomadland” journey began in 2017 after McDormand sneaked out of her “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” promotional duties at the Toronto International Film Festival to see Zhao’s second film, “The Rider.” McDormand and producer Peter Spears had the rights to Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book “Nomadland,” which chronicles the post-Great Recession stories of older Americans who’d been forced out of their homes and into their vehicles, traveling the country in search of work. After buying a van, Bruder immersed herself in the nomads’ world — as Zhao had done for both “The Rider” and her first movie, 2015’s “Songs My Brother Taught Me.” To McDormand, “Nomadland” seemed like perfect material for Zhao.

And it was. “Nomadland” premiered to raves at the September film festivals, where it began racking up awards. Critics prizes, Golden Globes, and Producers Guild, Directors Guild, and Independent Spirit awards followed, making “Nomadland” the most-awarded film in modern history. The movie captured the anxious, melancholy mood of the pandemic year: The isolation of Fern (McDormand) as she travels from place to place — sometimes connecting with fellow nomads, other times choosing solitude — felt authentic to this moment in history. As did the movie’s longing for a better future.

Linda May is one of the real-life nomads in the movie, and she accompanied Zhao and Joshua James Richards — the “Nomadland” cinematographer and Zhao’s partner — to the Oscars Sunday night. In an interview, May recounts working closely with Zhao to craft her character, as well as the film’s portrayal of the nomad community. “No one could have done better than she did,” May says.

It wasn’t only that Zhao had to understand the story of “Nomadland” and its characters on a cellular level. Producer Dan Janvey describes the immense technical challenges of the shoot, which Zhao spread over fall 2018 and winter 2019 — with a rare hiatus in between — so that the movie could appear to capture a full year in Fern’s life.

Zhao was so good at each of her roles on the movie — writer, director, producer, editor — that it was as if different specialists were doing each of them, Janvey says: “And what’s crazy about it is the degree she harmonizes those different skills into one person. That’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.”

A woman filmmaker with a singular point of view? It hasn’t always been seen as a good thing, as Barbra Streisand reminds Variety. “When I began shooting ‘Yentl’ in 1982, I had a clear vision of the film I wanted to make, so I ended up directing, acting, producing and writing,” Streisand says. “A lot of people were upset that I was assuming all those roles, and I remember getting attacked for wanting to have control over my work.

“So it’s wonderful to see Chloé Zhao be in full control of her movie by doing multiple jobs — which ensures the final cut is completely what she envisioned. I’m very happy for her and for the state of women filmmakers today. We’ve come a long way.”

And at 39, Zhao is just starting. Next up is her massively ambitious Marvel movie “Eternals,” based on Jack Kirby’s comic series, with a large ensemble cast featuring Gemma Chan, Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek and Kumail Nanjiani. It’s a huge leap from her first three films, and after several COVID-19 delays, “Eternals” will hit theaters in November.

Zhao — a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the comics from which it originates — approached the company herself. She was originally considered for “Black Widow,” according to Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, but took herself off the list. Eventually, Zhao and Marvel executive Nate Moore began working together on an “Eternals” pitch, which Feige calls “spectacular.” It was, he says, “a very bold and very ambitious, sprawling 7,000-year story of humanity and our place in the cosmos.”

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Andrew Eccles for Variety

In a movie that would be full of visual effects and greenscreen — as all Marvel movies are — Feige says Zhao “was really fighting for practical locations” in accordance with her vision for it. At one point, they cut a sample reel of “Eternals” for Disney higher-ups to watch.

“And I had to keep saying, ‘This is right out of a camera; there’s no VFX work to this at all!’” Feige says. “Because it was a beautiful sunset, with perfect waves and mist coming up from the shore on this giant cliffside — really impressive stuff.” Later, watching “Nomadland,” he saw similar shots. “Oh! That is not just what she wanted to bring to Marvel,” he remembers thinking. “This is a signature style.”

Just hours after the ceremony ended, Zhao met with Variety for a photo shoot and a Zoom interview about her historic journey to the 93rd annual (semi-socially distanced) Academy Awards.

In your speech for best director, you quoted a saying from the Chinese text “Three Character Classic”: “People at birth are inherently good.” How did you decide what you wanted to say?

Just at 2 in the morning in my room alone. We had a really fortunate [awards] season, and I got to thank a lot of people along the way. I thought if I was fortunate enough to win, I wanted to think about where it all started. It’s definitely a sentiment that was very important to me, had an impact on me when I was a kid, and I carry that with me.

On a more trivial matter, people were obsessed with your choice of footwear.

I take a lot of inspiration from Frances McDormand, and I learned a lot from her through this journey. It’s a long night, a lot of walking — and I don’t have the courage to be in heels.

What was your creative partnership like with her?

I think we have a lot in common, Fran and I. We both like comfortable footwear, and also really like to work. Not a lot of words, more like a lot of doing. And through that process, I just learned so much from her. As a mentor, as a person — how she carries herself in the industry.

Linda May told me that the money from “Nomadland” has changed her life — which is amazing, but it shouldn’t be that way for a 70-year-old who’s worked her whole life. Can you talk about how the real stories of the nomads illustrated the points you wanted the movie to make?

When I read Jessica Bruder’s book — beautiful, beautiful work — there’s so much that she touched on. Almost behind every page, I felt this very universal emotion she captured, which is this collective feeling of loss, a loss of a way of life. And that’s what I wanted to focus on. Having made three films the way we did, by just telling human stories, the audience is going to take away the things that they need to take away. And they could have conversations and discussions like the one you just talked about, which is one that’s very dear to me: how we treat our elders in our society. When we go into each scene, that’s not what I think about. But I think by humanizing these characters, and making their stories universal, it will hopefully make the audience relate with them first, emotionally. And then ask the question you did: Why are they in that situation? You don’t just intellectually think about it, but you’re emotionally invested in it. And, obviously, in a capitalist economy, if you don’t contribute to the survival of the economy, you are disposable.

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Zhao gazes onto one of the lingering vistas highlighted in “Nomadland.” Joshua James Richards/Searchlight

What’s been your takeaway from the conversation about how Amazon is por- trayed in the movie?

I love that people are talking about it. I love movies that don’t necessarily tell me how I should feel or how I should think but give me this canvas that I can go away and have a conversation with myself and people around me. And I think we tried to do that with “Nomadland.” And the fact that people are having conversation is a good thing.

Kevin Feige said your original plan was that you were actually going to finish “Eternals” and it was even going to come out before you edited “Nomadland.” But because of COVID, you finished “Nomadland” so that was ready first. Is that right?

Yeah, I think so. I mean they were really back-to-back, those two movies.

That would have changed the course of history! Is it wild to think that if COVID hadn’t hit, “Nomadland” wouldn’t have come out this year?

I have gone through ups and downs in my relatively short career. And one thing I’ve learned is a bit of a cliché, but everything does happen for a reason. We never expected “Nomadland” to resonate the way it did. But everything worked out.

“Nomadland” seems like the kind of experience that would stick with you. Did making it change your life?

I have a whole new group of friends, people who are going to be in my life forever. Swankie is going to go kayaking, and Josh is going to go with her to Channel Islands this week. But also, I have never made a film about people who are elders. And just being around them, and just getting the wisdom from them about life and about mortality, about what’s important — it was life-changing.

This was your first major Oscar campaign. How was it for you?

It was longer than I thought. Look, we’re alone in our homes. We can’t see our family; we can’t see our friends. And being on Zoom, even though we all make fun of it, just seeing Emerald’s face, David [Fincher], Lee [Isaac Chung], Thomas [Vinterberg], and Aaron [Sorkin], doing all these panels with everyone, and seeing their homes, seeing their dogs and their families — it did make me feel less alone in this process, in this whole situation. So I’m grateful for this award season. I’m grateful for the people that came along.

How has it felt to navigate Hollywood as an Asian woman? Have you experienced any obstacles?

I’m sure I have. I know I have. The one thing that I learned really early on is that you’ve got to surround yourself with the right people. Because you can’t change how people think — you can’t control how they’re going to think, how they’re going to behave. But what you can do is make sure the people that are around you not only protect you but want to be with you because of who you are as an individual. I’ve been lucky in my whole career so far. Every single film we’ve made, I’m surrounded by people like that.

So even though I can sense things, and I’ve heard, obviously, people, my peers, experiencing these unfortunate situations, I have been very lucky that I’ve been protected.

What has this year of anti-Asian violence and hate crimes directed toward Asian people been like for you?

We’ve got to check in with each other. And I was very grateful for the phone calls, the messages, the Zoom calls I received. I think Tyler Perry said it really well last night. Sometimes it’s hard to have these conversations, but just by reaching out and to ask, “Are you OK? What can I do?” It means so much. Walk down the street and smile at a stranger — that might just make your day. So I think we have to start with ourselves — the small community and circle that we’re in. And if we all do that, I think we can make a change.

“Eternals” will have Marvel’s first gay superhero, a deaf character, a huge international cast. Did Marvel say yes to all those things?

It’s just been such an incredible experience working with the team at Marvel. I want to be careful saying “my vision,” even though I do want people to know they did support what I wanted to do. I want people to know that. But I also want to make sure they know that I got the support of this incredibly talented team, some of the most talented artists in the world. And it really is a village to make this film, but they did let me lead. Yes.

I know you’ve worked with small, tightly knit crews on your other movies. How different was “Eternals”?

Props to Marvel — from early on, they knew the way I wanted to make this film, how I wanted to shoot. It can’t be hundreds of people standing around. So they very much adapted how to run the set the way that I wanted to work. I’m still surrounded by 25 people. They just have armies, and each of them knew they needed to keep the army away.

During a conversation you had with Barry Jenkins for Variety earlier this year, when you were talking about “Eternals,” you said, “Can I put a spin on it while still being true to the essence of it?” How did you do that?

Jack Kirby and his imagination, his incredible work, is really the foundation of it. On top of that, there is what Marvel Studios has built, this incredible journey they have going on. And then on top of that is me as a fan of the MCU. And then, me as a fan of the genre, but also growing up with sci-fi and manga and fantasy films. And how can we have this big melting pot and cook up something that may just taste a little bit different? It was just an exciting thing; all of us went in wanting to do that. We’ll see.

You’ve said you’re getting a writing credit on it, and I know you’re in post-production now. Are you editing it too?

No. I’m working with two incredible editors, Craig Wood and Dylan Tichenor. And they’ve taught me so much. They were very patient with me, because they know it’s the first time that I’ve collaborated with editors that way. They’ve really helped me find the language to be able to communicate with them in a way that I hadn’t had to do to this extent.

Where are you with “Eternals” right now?

Final stretch. Just like sculpturing, you never want it to end. You just want to keep going until they tell you you can’t keep going anymore.

What can you tell me about your Dracula project for Universal that has been described as a “futuristic sci-fi Western”?

I love that you have the question mark at the end — a “sci-fi Western”?

Those things don’t necessarily go together!

No, I like that. It’s just like looking at Jessica Bruder’s book, and to really see behind the pages, to discover the meanings behind each page and the essence of it. I’m a huge fan of the book. And I wanted to see what essence I can find [in “Dracula”], and then be able to reimagine this really beloved character I love so much.

“Beloved character”? Interesting.

I like complicated characters.

So you love the book “Dracula”?

That was a very important book for me. Immortality is something that I started exploring on “Eternals,” but is something I want to question and understand.

And that’s the next thing that you’re going to do after “Eternals,” right? Or is there something in between?

I don’t know. I think right now I want to go back to my chickens and dogs. Hopefully they still remember me. And then I will see.

You’ve obviously forged your own path. But are there directors whose careers you look at in terms of their scope, and you think, that’s what I want to do?

When you’re talking about the scope of films, Alfonso Cuarón and Ang Lee, what they have been able to do, making intimate films, smaller films, but also films on a bigger scale — but you can see that they were able to bring themselves and those two worlds kind of together in a way that still keeps them true to the type of film they are. But you see a throughline. I love that, and I hope I can do that.

When I asked Dan Janvey what I should ask you, he said: “How quickly are you going back to work, and is that today?”

I think everyone in my life close to me knows that I’m maybe working a little too much. Yes! This afternoon I’m going back to Disney to work on “Eternals.” Right after this interview. I’m probably late.

This interview has been edited and condensed.