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The Untold Truth Of Chloe Zhao

The name "Chloé Zhao" may sound unfamiliar to some, but she has been gaining more and more recognition in the first few months of 2021. 

The Chinese filmmaker wrote, directed, produced, and edited the critically acclaimed drama "Nomadland," starring Frances McDormand as a woman in her sixties who rides through the midwest in her van as a modern day nomad. The film won an Academy Award for Best Picture and Zhao won another for Best Director, making her the second woman in history to win this specific Oscar and the first Asian woman to win in the category. Zhao is also writing and directing the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film "Eternals," which features an all-star cast that includes Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, and more.

Although Zhao is a rising talent in the film industry, most people may not know much about her personal background or her filmmaking career. We're here to explore little-known facts and tidbits about Chloé Zhao, from her many homes to her other upcoming projects.

Grew up in three different countries

Similar to the main character in "Nomadland," Zhao has lived in several locations throughout her life. According to Vulture, she was born in Beijing as Zhao Ting and grew up as both "a rebellious child and a poor student." Zhao's father was a top executive at one of China's largest steel companies, Shougang Group, and later worked in real-estate development and equity investment. Her mother, on the other hand, was a hospital worker. They divorced when Zhao was in high school, but her father later married Song Dandan, a famous comic actress Zhao grew up watching on TV. 

At the age of 14, Zhao moved to the U.K. for boarding school despite not knowing much English. In 2000, she traveled to Los Angeles in order to finish high school; Zhao attended a local public school and lived alone in a studio apartment in Koreatown behind a Sizzlers. Wanting to learn more about the U.S. than what she saw on the screen, Zhao majored in political science at Mount Holyoke but was turned off of politics after four years. She would bartend and work odd jobs before noticing that she's "drawn more to people than to policy," and most people can assume where her life would go next.

Graduate school film career

Zhao started her filmmaking career while she was in graduate school. In 2010, Zhao moved to New York City where she enrolled in the Graduate Film program at New York University Tisch School of the Arts and developed the short film "Daughters." Revolving around a quiet 14-year-old girl in rural China who seeks to free herself from an arranged marriage, this movie premiered at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival and won many awards, including Best Student Live Action Short at the 2010 Palm Springs International ShortFest and the Special Jury Prize at the 2010 Cinequest Film Festival.

As a thesis student, Zhao finished her feature debut "Songs My Brothers Taught Me," which was shot by fellow Grad Film alum Joshua James Richards. The film revolves arounds a rebellious Lakota Sioux teenager who must choose between leaving his reservation and staying with his younger sister. It premiered in the 2015 Sundance Film Festival's U.S. Dramatic Competition and was screened as part of the Director's Fortnight selection at the Cannes Film Festival that same year. "Songs My Brothers Taught Me" also received an Independent Spirit Awards nomination for Best First Feature. That's a lot of accolades for a graduate student!

Fascination with western US

As exemplified in her films, Zhao has long been fascinated with the western United States. She elaborated on this obsession during her conversation with Alfonso Cuarón, the Academy Award winning writer and director of "Gravity" and "Roma," for Interview magazine in 2020.

"Growing up in Beijing, I always loved going to Mongolia. From the big city to the plains, that was my childhood. Spending a lot of time in New York in my mid-20s, I was feeling a bit lost," said Zhao. "I always joke that historically, when you feel lost, you go west. And for me, going west is west of New York. It's just a part of America that I don't think I knew anything about. South Dakota, for example, is mostly a ranching state. The dirt on the ground hasn't been touched. It feels ancient and static. And my life has been so transient and fast-moving that it's just such a nice feeling when I'm there, almost like time stops."

Zhao's love for the American west seems to connect her to the country and inspires her to explore this region through filmmaking. Who knows? Maybe this love will carry over into "Eternals"?

Interesting story about second feature

The story behind the making of Zhao's second feature, "The Rider," is quite a fascinating one at that. This movie is about a young rodeo star who, after suffering from a near-fatal head injury, searches for a new identity. 

As it turns out, the narrative is not too far off from what happened in real life. When Zhao was filming "Songs My Brothers Taught Me" in South Dakota, she met and befriended a rodeo competitor named Brady Jandreau. He would later suffer a severe head injury after falling off a horse and fell into a coma but eventually recovered and got back on a horse. This tale inspired Zhao to cast Jandreau as a fictionalized version of himself for "The Rider." 

"I would say that about 65 percent of the story is Brady's real life, but even the 35 percent that is fiction had a lot of input from Brady, too," Zhao told The Wrap. "As we were shooting, we were following the natural pattern of his life, training horses and other jobs around the reservation. And as we'd go over the script, Brady would change some of the lines to make them like how he would say them."

"The Rider" premiered at Cannes in 2017 and received the International Confederation of Art Cinemas (CICAE) Award. Additionally, it received acclaim from not only critics but also very important people such as Barack Obama, who named the film one of his favorites from 2018.

Often works with non-actors

A common approach that Zhao takes with her movies is that she works with non-actors. Although this casting technique is nothing new in cinema, it does add authenticity to the filmmaker's stories about the rural American landscape. "The lines are sometimes a little bit different to what [the person] would usually say. But instead of hiring someone else to play them, you say, 'Hey, would you like to say these lines?'" Zhao told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). "When they're on set, sometimes the non-professional actors will give exactly the lines I want, even though it's a version of what they already said. Other times, they just say it how they want to."

With these performances, Zhao makes these people open up about themselves. In "The Rider," Jandreau cries even though he hasn't cried in seven years. In "Nomadland," Bob Wells talks about his son even though he's talked to barely anyone about him. "You have to explain to them why it will be powerful for them to share," Zhao explained. "And the people they could help by showing that kind of vulnerability — especially for the guys." Knowing that many actors in Zhao's films are actually talking about themselves makes her work feel more real.

Felt like an outsider

While many of her movies are essentially about outsiders, Zhao has said that she's felt like an outsider herself. "Wherever I've gone in life, I've always felt like an outsider," Zhao told The Telegraph. "So I'm naturally drawn towards other people who live on the periphery, or don't live mainstream lifestyles." This personal feeling adds another layer of authenticity to Zhao's films.

Film critic Justin Chang explained in the LA Times (via The Guardian) that even though Zhao is a Chinese woman making an American movie, he doesn't think she cares about labels. "She prefers to exist in a space where she is not categorized in terms of nationality, race or culture," wrote Chang. "She knows what it's like to be adrift in America, adrift in the world, and that obviously serves 'Nomadland,' which is an outsider's perspective on an outsider's subculture." An outsider not needing labels makes total sense as it further defines Zhao's filmography. Even the Eternals in the comics are outsiders since they are not from Earth but still protect it.

Romance with frequent cinematographer

Cinematographer Joshua James Richards has worked with Zhao on three of her films — "Songs My Brothers Taught Me," "The Rider," and "Nomadland" — but the duo are also romantic partners. An article from Vanity Fair states that when the two first met as NYU film students in 2012, Zhao sat Richards down and made him reveal everything about growing up in a little fishing town in Cornwell, England. "Chloé has an enormous capacity for people and their stories," said Richards. "She has a way of making your story feel important and special." That seems to be the case with everyone she works with.

On the other hand, Zhao is very particular about what to refer to Richards as on a non-professional level. Reportedly, Zhao went back and forth about if Vanity Fair writer Sandi Tan should refer to Richards as her boyfriend, partner, or life partner. One day before the deadline, Zhao decided on "partner" but not "life partner" because it's "One less false hope for my parents to think they'll get their grandkids soon."

As of this writing, Zhao and Richards live together in Southern California with their dogs — Taco and Rooster — and three chickens named Red, Cebe, and Lucille. Richards is also serving as a camera operator on "Eternals." 

Funny Frances McDormand story

When Frances McDormand offered Zhao the opportunity to write and direct the movie she was producing, the filmmaker said yes but had a unique follow-up question. 

During a red carpet interview from the 2021 Oscars, Zhao recounted what went through her head when McDormand approached her about the "Nomadland" gig. "Initially, it was just like 'Yes. Oh my god, yes," Zhao responded. "But then immediately, I said, "Do you have any snacks 'cause I'm so hangry I'm about to faint?' We met in her apartment. 'Dairy free snacks?' She was like 'I don't have any dairy free.' Damnit!" Zhao elaborated that her relationship with McDormand is "food and work."

For those unaware, "hangry" is a combination of the words "hungry" and "angry." That was not the only time Zhao's stomach took over during an important moment, as it turns out. During the "Oscars: After Dark" special, co-host Colman Domingo asked Zhao how winning Best Picture and Best Director felt. 

"Very, very happy and grateful, and very hangry," said Zhao. "Need food." 

Friends with fellow Oscar contenders

Zhao happened to be friends with many fellow 2021 Oscar contenders, making the awards season extra special. 

"This year, it feels like it's going to be a really, really intimate ... affair, which is exciting," she said on "Late Night with Seth Meyers." "There are people that are my co-workers who were producers on my previous films and classmates who ... we know each other way too well. Also, people I admire for a long time. People that influenced my career so much, and so having all these people in a room is gonna be great."

Before Meyers could keep speaking, Zhao interrupted him and said, "And be with people," to which he responded, "It doesn't even matter who they are. You don't even have to respect them. If they're people, it's a win right now." Being with a group of people after the COVID-19 pandemic does sound nice, even though Zhao admitted that she couldn't hug them yet.

China censored her Oscar wins

Although Zhao was born in China, her home country did not celebrate her historic Oscar wins. According to CNN, not only did the Oscars not air in China, but also no reports from the websites of state news agency Xinhua or state broadcaster CCTV shined light on Zhao's victories. The country also censored social media posts about the news.

Even though China celebrated Zhao's Golden Globe win for Best Director in March, with a nationalist tabloid called the Global Times even calling her "the pride of China," their silence during her Oscars wins come down to some comments she made in the past. In a 2013 interview with Filmmaker magazine, Zhao called China "a place where there are lies everywhere." In an interview with news.com.au from December of 2020, Zhao was quoted as saying the U.S. "is now my country, ultimately"; the website later clarified that Zhao was misquoted and actually said that the U.S. "is not my country."

Still, China's online nationalists accused Zhao of "smearing China" with some even calling for a boycott of "Nomadland." Promotional materials for the film disappeared from social media site Weibo, China's Twitter-like platform. It was originally scheduled to be released in China on April 23rd but was subsequently removed from the country's major movie websites. At this point, it remains to be seen if "Nomadland" will play in Chinese theaters.

Wanted to be a manga artist

If Zhao hadn't been a filmmaker, she would probably have tried to become a manga artist. Even though Zhao is Chinese, she grew up loving manga.

Zhao elaborated on this preoccupation during a conversation with Barry Jenkins, the Academy Award winning writer and director of "Moonlight" and "If Beale Street Can Talk." 

"I grew up with manga. I have to just say, we didn't have movies when I was growing up, not the same way that you guys had access to films, but I did have just cabinets and cabinets of Japanese manga. I just devoured them," said Zhao. "That was my first love. I wanted to be a manga artist, but I was not very good at drawing. I have been a fan of the MCU for the last decade. So, I put the word out there I wanted to make a Marvel movie and the right project came to me." Looks like Zhao's love of manga could come in handy on "Eternals."

Calls Eternals a "risk for Marvel"

Zhao is not the first independent filmmaker to direct a Marvel movie, but she still considers her project "a risk." 

The filmmaker spoke more about "Eternals" on "The Jess Cagle Show" on SiriusXM and discussed how the studio gave her plenty of creative freedom. "I think this is where Marvel really took the risk that we knew we wanted to shoot on location, because by shooting wide angle lenses on locations it's going to affect how you do visual effects. It's going to affect how you do the action," said Zhao. "There's a lot that will feel and look differently. We shot mostly on location, but I love being on the stage, learning about the technology, because I grew up with manga. I always imagined I want to be a manga artist. So for me, I always imagined stuff that doesn't exist." 

Knowing that Zhao will bring at least some of her indie sensibilities to a major Marvel movie makes "Eternals" sound even more promising.

Bass Reeves biopic

One other project that Zhao is set to develop is a biopic on Bass Reeves, a former slave who became the first Black U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River. For anyone who has seen HBO's "Watchmen" series, Bass Reeves is the figure who inspires Will Reeves to become the masked crime fighter Hooded Justice.

Deadline first announced on April 20, 2018 that Zhao will write and direct the biopic for Amazon Studios. Although "Watchmen" showrunner Damon Lindelof told Reeves' story before Zhao did, she told Rolling Stone on January 26th, 2021 that she's not mad and thinks that there are more stories about Reeves that need to be told. "I hope more films and TV shows are made about this person," said Zhao. "He's long overdue. And there's not a lot of concrete [stories about] his early life."

Futuristic Dracula movie

Zhao is also slated to work on an unconventional take on the iconic vampire Dracula.

The Hollywood Reporter confirmed on February 4th, 2021 that Zhao will write, direct, and produce a Dracula film for Universal Pictures through her Highwayman production company. While details on the project are scarce, it is supposed to be "an original, futuristic, sci-fi western" that will tackle "themes of being on society's fringes," which Zhao's previous films have also explored. "I've always been fascinated by vampires and the concept of the Other they embody," said Zhao in a press statement. "I'm very excited to work with Donna, Peter and the team at Universal to reimagine such a beloved character."

Zhao has made western movies before, but this and "Eternals" should allow the filmmaker to flex new muscles in genre filmmaking. However these projects may manifest themselves, the newly-crowned Oscar winner Zhao is a filmmaker to watch.