Meet 'Nomadland' director Chloé Zhao, who could make Oscar history (and was Spike Lee's student)

Patrick Ryan, USA TODAY
·5 min read

Chloé Zhao is set to make history yet again.

On Sunday, the 38-year-old "Nomadland" filmmaker is widely predicted to become the first woman of color to win best director at the Oscars, after scooping up directing prizes at the Golden Globes, Critics Choice, Directors Guild of America and British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA) this season.

She already made history as the first woman of color nominated in the category at the Academy Awards. If she wins, she'll become only the second woman ever to earn best director, after Kathryn Bigelow ("The Hurt Locker") in 2010.

Speaking to USA TODAY in February, Zhao – who's next helming Marvel's "Eternals" – humbly shrugged off any mention of potential milestones.

"I think it would mean more to other people than it would to me," Zhao says. "I just love telling stories, I really do."

Adapted from Jessica Bruder's 2017 nonfiction book, the life-affirming "Nomadland" follows a widow named Fern (Frances McDormand) who hits the road in a van after losing her job, finding comfort and meaning in the people she meets (most played by non-professional actors). Here's what you need to know about Zhao's journey to "Nomadland" and beyond:

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Chloé Zhao posing for a portrait during the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. The "Nomadland" filmmaker is nominated for the best director Oscar this year.
Chloé Zhao posing for a portrait during the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. The "Nomadland" filmmaker is nominated for the best director Oscar this year.

'Terminator' was an early influence

Zhao was born in Beijing to a hospital worker mother and steel company manager father. She credits Wong Kar-wai's 1997 romance "Happy Together" as the "film that made me want to make films," but says her earliest recollection of American movies was watching "Terminator."

"I was like, 'Holy (expletive), that looks crazy,' " Zhao says. "My first introduction to Hollywood was that, 'Sister Act' and Ghost.' "

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Chloé Zhao, left, director of photography Joshua James Richards and actress Frances McDormand on the set of "Nomadland."
Chloé Zhao, left, director of photography Joshua James Richards and actress Frances McDormand on the set of "Nomadland."

She used to debate her college professor, Spike Lee

Zhao has been traversing the globe ever since high school: studying in London, Los Angeles and Massachusetts, before enrolling in the graduate film program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in 2010. It was there she counted directing legend Spike Lee ("Do the Right Thing") among her professors.

"What I like about Spike is that he doesn't really sugarcoat things," Zhao says. "Spike will just tell you as it is and I really needed that. We used to have very heated discussions, where his assistant would come in and say, 'Everything OK?' But (it was) a lot of fun. It was always a great time."

She also met her partner, Oscar-nominated "Nomadland" cinematographer Joshua James Richards. They currently live in California with their dogs and pet chickens and have collaborated on four features together, including Marvel's "Eternals" (in theaters Nov. 5). "We want to keep challenging each other," Zhao says.

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She's long been drawn to Middle America

As she was readying to graduate from NYU, Zhao felt the urge to get out of the city. She looked to the Midwest, having had a fascination with the plains since she was young.

"I was feeling a little restless because I wasn't sure what I wanted to say, partially because it was too noisy around me," Zhao says. "I needed a reset and that's why I first traveled to South Dakota."

Since learning about the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, she was interested in the untold stories of Native American people that didn't focus on struggle. She shot her 2015 debut "Songs My Brothers Taught Me" on a shoestring budget, spending months before cameras rolled getting to know members of the Lakota Sioux tribe who also starred in the film.

She employed a similar technique of working with non-professional actors for 2018's "The Rider" (one of former President Barack Obama's favorite films that year), about cowboys in present-day South Dakota, and continued the practice in "Nomadland."

"Eternals" star Kumail Nanjiani speaking on stage at San Diego Comic-Con in 2019.
"Eternals" star Kumail Nanjiani speaking on stage at San Diego Comic-Con in 2019.

Her Marvel movie has a 'very, very diverse cast'

Before she wanted to be a filmmaker, Zhao aspired to be a manga (graphic novels/comics) artist but admits she "wasn't very good" at drawing. Japanese manga wound up influencing Marvel's "Eternals," which follows a team of celestial superheroes and features an international cast led by Kumail Nanjiani, Gemma Chan, Angelina Jolie, and Salma Hayek.

"Eternals" is notable for its firsts: the first Marvel movie to feature a South Asian superhero (Nanjiani), a deaf superhero (Lauren Ridloff) and an openly gay superhero (Brian Tyree Henry). Zhao says she didn't set out to break barriers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: "Casting only works when it makes sense for the story. For 'Eternals,' as a story it makes sense that we have a very, very diverse cast ... and it's really about the (characters) as individuals."

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Frances McDormand, left, and Chloé Zhao on the set of "Nomadland."
Frances McDormand, left, and Chloé Zhao on the set of "Nomadland."

Zhao has a lot in common with her 'Nomadland' heroine

Zhao met McDormand days after the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival premiere of "The Rider," when the actress emailed her about adapting Bruder's "Nomadland" for the screen. The film was shot in late 2018 around the Midwest, as cast and crew traveled in vans and stayed in motels.

Many aspects of Fern are inspired by McDormand (she came up with the character's name, for instance, and outfitted Fern's van with family heirlooms and photographs). But Zhao also channeled her "inner self through Fern," namely her constant desire to "see what's beyond the horizon."

Plus, "I feel like Fran and I have a lot in common," she says. "We both like overalls and being in big cities with people, but need our space in nature."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Oscars: 'Nomadland' director Chloé Zhao is doing a Marvel movie next