Effortlessly blending together fiction and documentary, Chloé Zhao is a revelation to the world of film.
This past April, the Bejing-born writer, filmmaker, and producer walked away from the 93rd Oscars with a beaming smile and two Academy Awards: one for Best Picture and another for Best Director. Zhao is the second woman to take home the Best Director statue, and the first woman of color to ever win the category.
The winning film, Nomadland (2020), is a documentary-style drama starring Frances McDormand. Indeed, it was McDormand who approached Zhao to work on Nomadland back in 2017 after sneaking out of promotional duties for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017). The pair traveled throughout the United States for months, meeting nomads whose stories ultimately made it into the experience of the film. Such is characteristic of Zhao's filmmaking style: "I'm looking for some kind of truth," Zhao told NPR. "I'm looking for some kind of authentic moments."
Zhao's productions uniquely seek a cast of non-actors and actors alike. The blending of fiction with story, experience with narrative, allows the director to paint a colorful and authentic representation of the lives of those not otherwise represented on the big screen. Her technique often relies on shooting on location, a practice which she has repeated for each of her three films. What's more: Zhao enjoys full control over her work. For Nomadland, Zhao posed as writer, director, producer and editor, while McDormand both performed and produced.
Zhao recently completed filming for an upcoming Marvel production, Eternals. The film stars some of Hollywood's finest, including Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, and Kit Harrington. While the film represents a stylistic point of departure for Zhao, her process remains aligned. In a recent Variety interview, Zhao responded to the change in pace:
"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."
Born and raised in Beijing, Zhao attended a boarding school in London before then moving to Los Angeles to finish high school. After working odd jobs as a bartender, real estate agent, and even party promoter, Zhao returned to school to receive her degree in Film Production from New York University's Tisch School for the Arts. In 2015, Zhao directed her first feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. The film, which was shot on location, features the relationship between a Lakota Sioux brother and his younger sister on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
As Zhao continues to capture the world, the world continues to watch with rapture. Check out a trailer for Eternals below.