On Sunday, film director Chloé Zhao made history at the 78th annual Golden Globe Awards by winning the best director award for her drama Nomadland. Securing the top prize made her the second woman ever and the first Asian woman ever to win the award. The last time a woman won the award for best director was nearly four decades ago in 1984 when Barbara Streisand won for Yentl.
Nomadland itself also won the best motion picture – drama award. Starring two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand and a cast of real-life nomads, its storyline chronicles the hardships of a group of older Americans who live out of their cars after the recession of 2008 hits. In her acceptance speech, Zhao said, “Now this is why I fell in love with making movies and telling stories because it gives us a chance to laugh and cry together and it gives us a chance to learn from each other and to have more compassion for each other.”
Following a tumultuous year upended by civil unrest and a global pandemic, Nomadland seems to have struck a chord with critics, columnists and fans alike for spotlighting the lives of real Americans. The film is already a top contender for this year’s Academy Awards in April.
No stranger to awards
While the recent accolades and praises of being Hollywood’s “next big thing” may indicate a certain newness to Zhao’s success, the filmmaker is actually no stranger to creating award-winning films. Those in the independent film circuit can trace Zhao’s rise to stardom back to as early as 2015 when the Beijing-born filmmaker debuted at Sundance Film Festival with Songs My Brother Taught Me.
Her debut went on to play at the Cannes Film Festival, as part of the Directors’ Fortnight, an independent section that runs in parallel to the esteemed film festival. By 2017, her second film, The Rider, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and took home the Art Cinema Award. The Rider also earned Zhao nominations for Best Feature and Best Director at the 33rd Independent Spirit Awards and was named one of Barack Obama’s favourite films of the year in 2018.
Prior to winning at the Golden Globes, Nomadland was met with critical acclaim at the Venice International Film Festival, where it premiered, and Zhao won the Golden Lion award, the highest prize given at the festival, and later the People’s Choice Award at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. In fact, according to Variety, Zhao surpassed director Alexander Payne as the most awarded person in a single awards season in the modern era with 34 awards season trophies for directing, 13 for screenplay and nine for editing.
Now Zhao is focused on Eternals, her blockbuster directorial debut for Marvel Studios, set to be released in November. The transition from small-budget independent dramas, mainly set in America’s heartland, to a $200 million superhero movie about battling an immortal alien race, will be an exciting and interesting one, especially for the filmmaker herself who credits her deep love of manga as the primary driver for taking the role.
A love for manga
“I grew up with manga,” Zhao said in a Variety interview with fellow filmmaker Barry Jenkins. “That was my first love. I wanted to be a manga artist, but I was not very good at drawing. I have been a fan of the MCU for the last decade. So, I put the word out there [that] I wanted to make a Marvel movie and the right project came to me.”
For being such a celebrated director, Zhao’s own story and unconventional path into filmmaking is also striking a chord with many, inspiring those who have otherwise been told that the route to happiness is through going to school to become a doctor, lawyer or banker. In fact, the theme of striking one’s own path and being an outsider is nothing new for Zhao. “I’ve always been an outsider,” she told Vanity Fair, “I’m always drawn to outsiders.”
Moving to Los Angeles
When she was 14, Zhao moved from Beijing to the UK for boarding school before heading to Los Angeles for high school. She then pursued a degree in political science from Mount Holyoke College but remained uninspired by the world of politics. The reality of living in America, however, fascinated her.
“I had such a romanticised version of what America was,” she told Vulture in an interview, recounting time spent living alone in Koreatown behind a Sizzler. Her post-university years consisted of bartending and doing odd jobs while refining her passions: she wanted to tell stories but she wasn’t great at any of the traditional creative skills such as painting or photography.
“You don’t have to be a master of anything, just a jack-of-all-trades, to be a director,” she says per Vulture. “I hire people who are really good at their craft, then put them together.” According to her alumna bio, Zhao enrolled in the Graduate Studies film program at NYU in 2010, with other classmates who were also experiencing what she describes as a “quarter-life crisis.”
Even as her career propels to new heights, the director maintains her roots as a down-to-earth indie filmmaker. She wears little to no makeup to photo shoots, and spends far more time on her film projects than anything else. “I haven’t been to the hair salon in five years,” she told Vanity Fair.
If her experiences working on her first three full-length films taught her anything it’s that conventionality is a little overrated. She may be one of Hollywood’s most beloved directors, but she doesn’t see herself conforming to the industry. “I love being reminded that there are other ways to live,” she tells Vanity Fair.
Stay tuned for more updates on the Hong Kong release of Nomadland.