Chloe Zhao – A Profile
By Claire Graman
I have a dark secret I never discuss in polite company: I don’t like superhero films. However, I’m looking forward to Marvel’s upcoming film Eternals, and it’s all because of its amazing director: Chloe Zhao.
Chloe Zhao (Zhao Ting), born in Beijing, China in 1982, attended high school in London and college in the US. She went to film school at New York University. Growing up inside and outside of China gave her a new perspective on truth and how to arm oneself with knowledge. However, in her own words, Zhao dislikes politics. Instead, she prefers “meeting people and learning about their histories.”
Lakota Sioux Reservation and Cannes Nomination
This drive led her to the Lakota Sioux reservation of South Dakota. There, she made her thesis film, Songs My Brother Taught Me (2015). The film is about the relationship between a brother and sister and their struggles as young people coming of age on a reservation. The film went on to be nominated at Cannes for best first feature film. Zhao was asked about the problem of cultural appropriation. She explained that she strives to look beneath markers of identity, though not ignoring them, to the human spirit that unites us all.
Chloe Zhao: Filmmaker-in-residence at University of Oregon
I first became familiar with Zhao’s work during my graduate program at University of Oregon where she was brought to be a filmmaker-in-residence. I never had the privilege to talk with her or attend a class of hers–she taught directing to undergraduates. However, I attended a lecture and the screening of her second film The Rider (2017). Blurring the lines between documentary and fiction, The Rider follows real-life rodeo star Brady Jandreau as he recovers from a serious head injury after being bucked from a horse.
The conflict is simple and quietly powerful. Doctors warn Brady not to ride again as another injury could kill or disable him, yet riding gives his life meaning. The film, set in the badlands of South Dakota, focuses on masculinity, class, and ethnicity (Brady is Native American). From my distant perspective of mossy, middle-class Eugene, Oregon, I could very much relate to the human story of striving for meaning and purpose. Though it’s a slow, ponderous Western, when I taught The Rider for a film class, my students also enjoyed and related to it.
Less Flashy Moments Make a Film
During a talk at University of Oregon, Zhao urged aspiring filmmakers to focus on characters and dialogue, the less flashy moments that truly make a film. As proof of this, she told a story about Marvel approaching her to make a film. She was reluctant because she didn’t know how to shoot multi-million CGI action scenes. Marvel assured her that they had people who could do that. What they needed were people who could bring the rest of the film to life with the empathetic artistry a talented director has.
This perspective paid off. For Eternals, Marvel gave Zhao complete creative control. The film is already generating excitement for its inclusivity including characters of various ethnicities, orientations, and ability.
Chloe Zhao’s Current Projects: Eternals and Nomadland
Though Eternals has been delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Zhao’s latest film, Nomadland (2020), starring Frances McDormand (and my eternal crush, David Strathairn), is currently bowling over critics and has just won the Venice Film Festival’s top prize. Adapted from an award-winning nonfiction book by journalist Jessica Bruder, the film follows a woman from rural Nevada who travels as a modern-day nomad after the Great Recession.
I’m excited to see where Zhao’s career after making an indie darling and an expensive blockbuster so close together. Eternals may bomb (there’s no telling with the disarray the pandemic has caused the film industry), but I doubt it. Instead, I think I we’re lucky to see the rise of an amazing auteur.