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Inside ‘Nomadland’s’ Unique Production Challenges

Tim Gray
·3-min read

Every film presents unique production problems, and Searchlight’s “Nomadland” had a high degree of difficulty. Writer-director Chloé Zhao and her team wanted total authenticity as they filmed nomads who travel from job to job in the U.S. Southwest.

Production challenges included multiple locations, changeable weather, a small crew, a limited budget — and accommodating the nomads, who were playing versions of themselves, with no acting experience.

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“We were there to follow them, and let them lead their lives,” says Peter Spears, one of the producers. “They didn’t all move together. Everyone had a different schedule. Some had family obligations or medical things to attend to; sometimes people would suddenly peel off to a job.”

Zhao — another of the film’s five producers — had written a tight narrative script, inspired by the nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder. The director and her team followed her script but with room for spontaneity.

This style of filmmaking was new for Spears and fellow producer Frances McDormand, who stars. “Having our other producing partners, Mollye Asher and Dan Janvey, was invaluable. Mollye had worked on Chloé’s earlier movies, and Dan had done Benh Zeitlin’s ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild,’ so both had made films with ‘real people.’

“Our mantra was: Stay open to the newness. We called it ‘producing on the fly,’ which is the opposite of everything one has learned,” says Spears. “There was so much work that went into Chloé’s script, and so much producing done beforehand. You don’t want to throw out your plans, but with this movie, the attitude was, ‘We’re planning to do it, but if things change, we’ll explore it; it might reveal something we didn’t know was there.’”

As Spears says, filming was all about “getting into parts of America you usually drive past or fly over. That’s where this movie lives, off the main road.”

Great films of the past have dealt with people traveling in search of jobs, such as Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and Martin Scorsese’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” And mixing top actors such as Mc­­Dor­­mand and David Strathairn with “real people” can be traced to Italian neo-realistic classics including Roberto Rossellini’s “Rome, Open City,” but “Nomadland” feels totally original.

The five producers were “all wearing so many hats,” says Spears. “When you have 20-some people on your crew, your job
description is ‘do literally everything.’ There were the usual producer things, such as budget, location scouting and cost reports, but it also involved doing craft services, directing traffic, helping decorate the set, everything.”

Spears relates one of his duties, for a scene where Fern (McDormand) goes out to the cliffs. “It was hurricane-force winds. I was holding [DP Joshua James Richards], who had the camera, so he didn’t go off the cliff. It was scary, but a favorite memory of making the movie. Almost every day had moments like that, of coming together to tell the best story we could.”

All the nomads register strongly; Spears credits the director and star. “Frances and Chloé were open and curious and patient. That allowed the nomads to be themselves and share their stories and give over to a process that was completely new to them.

“We tried to avoid putting our handprints on their proceedings. When these nomads were with us, we were responsible for everybody’s safety and well-being. We were happy to do that. We were incredibly honored that they let us into their lives and allowed us to tell their stories.”

“Nomadland” is a metaphor for 21st century life: You follow your plans when possible, but throw them out if you need to. It’s what the nomads do, what the production did, and what we are all doing today. “Nomadland” is the tao of Zhao.

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