“’People at birth are inherently good.’ Those six words had such a great impact on me when I was a kid, and I still truly believe them today.” – Chloé Zhao
This excerpt from Chloé Zhao inspiring acceptance speech for best director at the 93rd Academy Awards goes far in penetrating the very essence of Chloé Zhao as a filmmaker, inherently concerned with the naturalistic relationship between an individual and their environment.
Once the creator of small, quiet independent dramas, following her success at the Oscars, Chloé Zhao now finds herself the most sought-after director in Hollywood. Having only two feature films to her name prior to the award-winning Nomadland, Zhao has pioneered her own brand of filmmaking using casts of largely nonprofessional actors to tell her hyperreal cinematic stories.
Born in China, Zhao found herself hopping across the globe from a young age, developing an eclectic appreciation for various cultures as she moved to Brighton, England in the mid-1990s at the age of 14. Marked as a particularly bright individual from a young age, the director quickly picked up English before moving on to the States to study political science in Massachusetts, then a graduate film programme at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts’. Under the tutelage of the hugely influential Spike Lee, Zhao would quickly mature, stating that “Spike will just tell you as it is and I really needed that”. With his guidance she would go on to develop her first feature film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me.
Set in a North American reservation in South Dakota, Songs My Brothers Taught Me is a gradually simmering coming-of-age story, using non-professional actors to tell the story of familial heartache and the urge to break from tradition. Her subsequent film, The Rider, cast a Lakota cowboy, Brady Jandreau, she’d met on the set of her debut film who’d recently been involved in a life-altering horse-riding accident. Retelling his story as that of an injured rodeo star who searches for a new identity in the American heartlands, Zhao’s film would receive critical acclaim when premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, winning the Art Cinema Award.
Speaking to The Rolling Stone, her Nomadland lead actress Francis McDormand explained: “She’s basically like a journalist,” when describing the way in which Chloé Zhao investigates the individual before sculpting a cinematic story of her own. Evidence of this journalistic approach to her work is present across both of her two debut films, casting non-actors to sculpt her compassionate tales of the American west lying somewhere between reality and fiction. Speaking of her own thematic style Zhao states: “Wherever I’ve gone in life, I’ve always felt like an outsider…so I’m naturally drawn towards other people who live on the periphery, or don’t live mainstream lifestyles.”
Glazed in the sunlit glow, Chloé Zhao specialises in the kind of cinema that’s caked in American dirt and tradition, extracting natural stories laden with rich history whilst reaching to a contemporary truth. It should come as little surprise then that Zhao has transitioned into blockbuster cinema, perhaps the purest form of American film, contributing her distinctive style to the Marvel cinematic universe with The Eternals. Concerning a league of immortal superheroes played by Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden and Kumail Nanjiani among many others, Zhao’s film, both in tone and narrative will be unlike anything the series has seen before.
Reportedly working on a “futuristic, sci-fi western” take on Dracula after The Eternals, the director’s self-proclaimed interests are in the building of rich, convincing worlds whether it’s the landscape of the textured American West, or the outer reaches of the cosmos. Exuberant in style and revolutionary in spirit, Chloé Zhao is a pioneering director bridging the gap between Asian and Western filmmaking, advancing modern cinema with stimulating vigour, stating: “I believe some people were just born to move. Others like to stay still. sometimes, I want to run.”