Nomadland creates buzz on festival circuit with insightful glimpse into life on the road in the US

Following the economic collapse of a company town in rural Nevada, Fern (Frances McDormand) packs her van and sets off on the road exploring a life outside of conventional society as a modern-day nomad.

The third feature film from director Chloé Zhao, Nomadland, features real nomads Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells as Fern’s mentors and comrades in her exploration through the vast landscape of the American West.

The film has already taken a number of film festivals by storm this year. So far, it has won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival and the Grolsch People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. It will also be screened at the BFI Film Festival in October, so it could be in line for more triumphs soon.

In late 2018, Zhao says that while filming the movie in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, near the frozen field of a beet harvest, she flipped through Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire – a book given to her by someone she met on the road, and came upon this quote, which had a big impact on her: 

“Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear – the earth remains, slightly modified. The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break…. I sometimes choose to think, no doubt perversely, that man is a dream, thought an illusion, and only rock is real. Rock and sun.”

She adds that for the next 4 months, nomads came and went as they travelled and filmed. “Many kept rocks from their wanderings, their home on wheels powered by the sun.  They left stories and wisdom in front and behind the camera.

“Having grown up in the cities of China and England. I’ve always been deeply drawn to the open road – an idea I find to be quintessentially American – the endless search for what’s beyond the horizon.  I tried to capture a glimpse of it in this movie, knowing it’s not possible to truly describe the American road to another person.  One has to discover it on one’s own.”

Watch the trailer:

Described by some people as a sweeping panoramic portrait of the American nomadic spirit set on the trail of seasonal migratory labour, Chloé Zhao’s (Songs My Brothers Taught Me, The Rider) Nomadland is a road movie for our times, now doubly relevant and resonant in this moment of redefinition and change.

We see the grandeur of the American west, from the Badlands of South Dakota to the Nevada desert, to the Pacific Northwest, through the eyes of 61-year old Fern. She is played by Frances McDormand (Fargo, Three Billboards, Outside Ebbing and Missouri) who also brought Zhao on board when she recognised a kindred spirit in the director’s previous film, The Rider.

Together they create a portrait of a woman who has lost a husband and in fact her whole former life, when the mining town where she lived is essentially dissolved.   But in the process, she gains strength and a new life.  Fern finds her community in the nomad gatherings she attends, which includes a close companionship with Dave (David Strathairn), and others she meets on her journey.  But most importantly, as Zhao puts it “, …in nature, as she evolves – in the wilderness, in rocks, trees, stars, a hurricane, this is where she finds her independence.”

The Book Origins

In 2017, Frances McDormand and her producing partner Peter Spears (Call Me By Your Name) optioned the rights to the non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century by Brooklyn-based writer Jessica Bruder. “The book is a work of investigative journalism,” says Zhao, “and each chapter has a different topic. Half of the book focuses on nomadic living, and the other half is actually undercover reporting—Jessica went undercover at Amazon and worked at the beet harvest.”

“Frances and I had optioned the book,” says producer Peter Spears, “and then Frances saw The Rider at the Toronto International Film Festival and she said: ‘You’ve got to see this movie—I think this is the director for us.’”

The Rider was one of the best things I’ve seen in many a day,” says McDormand.  “Not having preconceived ideas of the characters, the director or not having heard much about the film made it feel like the movie was a personal discovery for me.  As a producer, I was drawn to a female director that had used the classically male/Western genre tropes to tell a more universal story of triumph over adversity and the will to survive and adjust one’s dreams.”

“To research the book,” says Bruder. “I immersed myself in the daily lives of the people I wrote about, spending weeks in a tent, then months in a van. Experience is a great teacher. I went from knowing very little about nomads to marveling at the creativity, resilience and generosity I’d encountered on the road, often from people who’d faced tremendous challenges in their lives.”

“I was actually in the process of building a van,” says Zhao, “just because of the amount of time I slept in my Subaru making my first two films, but I wasn’t really aware of the extent to which people gathered together and followed this life. Fran and Peter gave me the book, I read it and I thought, ‘Wow, I really didn’t know about this.’”

Real-life Nomad Wells, who now commands a huge following with his YouTube videos and his book How To Live In a Car, Van or RV, “I was a homeless bum living in a van. It was a very, very bad time in my life. And then, a strange thing happened: as I solved all the problems and came to all the solutions: I fell in love with the road, with the freedom. I had done everything society said: get a job, get married, have kids, buy a house… and I was never happy.  And here I’d done exactly the opposite of what society had told me, and for the first time I was happy.  And that made me question everything.”

Watch the Premiere at the Telluride Film Festival:

“One of things I needed to do,” adds Wells, “was not just tell people how to go out and live in the desert or in the national forests. I needed to build a community. That was a commonality: people wanted to find other people.  I’d get a lot of emails asking, ‘How do I find someone?  I don’t want to just go out there and be all alone!’ Community was so important.”

He continues, “Look at the mountain men from the turn of the 19th century. They were fur trappers, they loved nature, they loved being alone, they loved exploring.  And yet they always came together once a year for a great big blow-out. So, I started the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in 2011. The first year we had 45 people. Last year, we had eight to ten thousand, minimum. Hard to count that many people in the desert.”

Read more about Zhao’s experience of making the movie

The film has also been shown at the New York Film Festival and will be released in cinemas on January 1st, 2021.

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