Prevailing through personal and national precarious times can be equally challenging and rewarding for anyone, regardless of what their social, economic and emotional circumstances are like. That’s certainly the case for Academy Award-winning actress Frances McDormand’s protagonist of Fern in, as well as the filmmakers behind, the new drama, ‘Nomadland.’ As the lead character struggles to find her place in society again after the closure of the company and town where she built her career, and the filmmakers sought to finish production on and release the movie during this year’s COVID-19 pandemic, they all learned how to continue establishing themselves as humane chroniclers of living, and supporting, life on the American margins.
‘Nomadland’ was written by Chloé Zhao, who based the screenplay on journalist Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction book, ‘Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.’ The screenwriter also served as the film’s directed and editor, as well as a producer with McDormand and Peter Spears. The process of adapting the novel for the screen began when McDormand and Spears acquired the literary adaptation rights shortly after the book’s publication.
‘Nomadland’ began its limited run in the Film at Lincoln Center Virtual Cinema today, where it will be available to rent until next Friday, December 11, courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. The drama is also scheduled to be theatrically released nationwide in the United States on February 19, 2021. The movie’s official distribution comes after it had its simultaneous world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival on September 11, and was then featured as the Centerpiece selection at this fall’s New York Film Festival (NYFF).
Set in the economic collapse of a company neighborhood in rural Nevada, ‘Nomadland’ recounts a year in the life of Fern, a stoic, stubbornly independent widow who spent her adult life in the now-defunct Western town. After being laid off from her job, she repurposes her old van and sets off on the road in search of seasonal work, and to start a life outside of conventional society as a modern-day nomad. She finds comfort and companionship in her new mentors, including real-life nomads Linda (Linda May), Swankie (Charlene Swankie) and Bob (Bob Wells), as she explores the vast landscape of the American West.
Zhao and Spears generously took time during this year’s NYFF to talk about writing, directing, editing and producing ‘Nomadland’ during a virtual press conference, which was moderated by the festival‘s Director of Programming, Dennis Lim. Among other things, the filmmakers discussed how development on the drama began, how McDormand helped craft her character and how they preserved a connection with nature during the production.
During the press conference, Spears recalled how the process of adapting Bruder’s book for the screen began. He shared that his husband, talent agent Brian Swardstorm, who represents McDormand, told him about the novel. “At first we thought it would be an adapted screenplay situation, in which Frances would play Linda May herself,” he recalled.
But once Zhao was brought onto the project, their initial idea changed. The screenwriter-director didn’t think that they shouldn’t just turn May’s exact life into a story for the screen, as the filmmaker wanted to explore something even deeper in the landscape of the life of a nomad.
Zhao explained that she remembers meeting “Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells for the first time. It was exciting—they had sparks in their eyes and stories in their lives. From the beginning, I (asked myself), how do we create a narrative, a fictional character and a journey for her that we can incorporate organically, and all these incredible characters that Jessica (Bruder) met through her research, into a screenplay?”
The scribe-helmer also discussed how much input McDormand had in the development of her character of Fern. “I think so much is a collaboration with Fran—everything from the plates (that play a significant role in the movie’s story, as the actress received them from her father) to the photographs—are from her real life.”
The overall script that Zhao created for the film features minimal dialogue, as it focuses more on the visual storytelling, including emphasizing the landscapes, the observational moments that Fern has on her own and the interactions she has with other nomads, help the viewer step into her world. “The script allowed enough breathing spaces for surprises. The structure was that when surprises occurred, it often led us into new directions,” she shared.
The writer-director then further discussed ‘Nomadland’s connection to nature, which runs through the heart of each scene and character. She noted, “When you are forced out of your houses and your cities and you’re living in a vehicle, a lot of time, you might not be a nature person, but you get to understand a lot more of what nature does. It’s not just beauty or a beautiful sunset; it’s also the storms and the overall harshness of the weather. It just tumbles you as a human being.
“When you see a huge lightning storm coming, you look at the person next to you,and you realize that we’re human beings first, so we’ve got to help each other out…That power of nature is so important, and we obviously should protect it,” Zhao added.
The filmmaker also discussed why she also decided to edit ‘Nomadland,’ in addition to serving as the scribe and helmer. To her, the choice to also edit the movie felt natural. She noted that the production team had to quarantine during the drama’s post-production, due to COVID-19. “So initially, I just thought that I’m just going to do it myself, and if I ended up needing to branch out, I would. The pandemic made it easier for me to just do it myself,” she concluded.
Watch the full ‘Nomadland’ NYFF press conference in the above video, and the official teaser trailer for the drama below.