The purest flame in Chloé Zhao’s heart

Published November 2, 2021, 11:38 AM

by Rica Arevalo

The ‘Nomadland’ and ‘Eternals’ director shares her creative process

“Eternals” and “Nomadland” director Chloé Zhao was one of the guest speakers during the Adobe MAX The Creativity Conference held on Oct. 28, 2021 in a virtual event.

The  two-time Oscar winner Zhao was the first woman of color to win the Academy’s Best Director award last year.

Chloé Zhao

“When you get into your late 20s, you have to do something in your life,” she recalls after getting into investment banking, pre-law, and bar tending in New York City.

Once she got into New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, the world opened up.

“The first filmmaker who really changed my life was Terrence Malick and then Werner Herzog and Wong Kar Wai,” says the Beijing-born director. “What draws me to Terrence Malick, he has this beautiful curiosity about human nature and about the natural world we live in. His camera, his cinema is always searching, looking for answers, looking for truth.”

Herzog is a pioneer of New German Cinema. “I feel this is someone who is unafraid, to look into anyone’s eyes and to ask anything he needs to ask,” muses the 39-yer-old 2020 Golden Globe winner.

Watching Wong Kar Wai’s “Happy Together” awakened her to let go of her dream as a kid to become an animator. “That film had a really, really profound impact on me because I never really had an experience of something where sound, music, camera movement, editing, voice over, acting, everything came together in a way that wasn’t just trying to tell me a plot, tell me a story but it was going to much deeper,” she stressed.

Wong Kar Wai’s talent to visually capture loneliness and love on screen made Chloé understand that the medium of cinema was special. “I don’t think I could feel it in the way I was drawing manga or writing stories,” she says.

To make her fourth feature, she left the city to immerse in a different culture. “Living in New York City, there was a lot of noise,” she confesses. “When things are comfortable, when things are familiar, I started to become formulaic.”

Chloé had to get out of her comfort zone. “Is there any other pacing of life that exists, values that curiosity combined with ‘I need to make a film’ got me to South Dakota,” muses the Directors Guild of America Awards’ Outstanding Directing winner.

Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand on the set of ‘Nomadland’

“Nomadland” was partially filmed in South Dakota starring Frances McDormand who lives in a van looking for work and meeting fellow nomads in a supportive community.

“As someone from New York City, from Beijing going to a place like South Dakota, to the reservation, to feel so at home, that’s when I realized how I want to tell my stories especially when there are people I don’t know, didn’t grow up with,” says the “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” director. “There are two layers. In the top layer, it’s so authentic that everyone got their accent, the way they speak, the way they live is just so specific.”

The other layer, according to Chloé, is universal. “Struggles human beings go through can be shared and understood no matter where you are in the world,” explains the Golden Lion winner for “Nomadland.” “Once you put these two together, then you make films that connect people.”

Only until I have both the people with money and the people with talent agree on the how that I truly go on board.

To commit to any project, Chloé makes sure she is surrounded by the right production team and gets the full support of her producers. “Only until I have both the people with money and the people with talent agree on the how that I truly go on board,” she admits. “The most important thing I have done with myself is surround myself with a group of incredibly talented and good people who somehow believe this crazy idea is worth exploring. And without them, I wouldn’t survive the industry because it’s the industry that injects the self-doubt in you.”

2020 Oscar Best Director

How does one persist to make personal yet universal stories? “Every night, you look inside and there has to be this desire that tells you there’s no other way, you have to do it,” says Chloé.

The flame is the purest at the beginning of one’s career. “With every project I always try to put myself in the situation so I can feel the same burning flame as the beginning of my career, my very first film,” says the first-ever recipient of the Bonnie Award of Independent Spirit Awards. “If I lose that, I don’t think I would keep making films.”