With 2017’s The Rider, Chloe Zhao proved that she could take the subject of a rodeo performer to talk about life and humanity in general. Now, she does likewise with Nomadland, featuring a tour de force performance from Frances McDormand, who is one of the film’s producers. Plucky as usual, the two-time Oscar winner (for Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) plays Fern, a woman who loses her husband, her job and even her (mining) town when the plant that has been her life closes.
Fern takes to the road and explores the lifestyle of a modern nomad, and discovers a sense of freedom she is reluctant to give up for a more settled life with her family or even a romance.
McDormand optioned Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book, which focuses on older nomadic women and after watching The Rider decided Zhao would be perfect to direct. In Venice, McDormand explained via Zoom how they shot for five months in seven US states.
“We became like an organism, really tight. Everyone crossed department lines and we were able to move very swiftly, to improvise as we lived in the community of the van dwellers that wasn’t destructive but cohesive. We played the game, ‘what if I was really one of them?’”
At one time in Nebraska she recalls being offered work while shopping in Target. “I went back to Chloe and said it was working.”
Zhao explains how she cast many of the real-life van dwellers from Bruder’s book and recalls how they were pleased to be working with McDormand, who remains humble as always. “Fran treated them like they were the biggest movie stars.”
As someone who came from a working class background, McDormand could empathise. “The choice of the van dwellers to live mobily has a lot to do with the economic disparities in our country. They’re a community that has made difficult decisions for themselves.”
Can she compare her Fern character with Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards?
“They were both me. Over the last 38 years, if you can say one consistent thing about everything I’ve done, is that I’ve mostly played American female characters. Obviously, Mildred Hayes and Fern both come from a working class background, and I’m from a working class American background. Again, storytelling is a wonderful game of what if? What if I didn’t have the opportunity to go to college and grad school? What if I hadn’t had the opportunity to partner with a spouse (her Fargo director Joel Coen) who believed in my potential and helped me realise my dreams? What if I hadn’t met my son and had the opportunity to become a fuller human being? What if I had never seen The Rider and met Chloe Zhao? What if I’d looked in the mirror and not been able to recognise myself as the women being represented in fashion magazines and in movies? What if that had stopped me?”
Thank God it hasn’t. It seems that the talent of Frances McDormand is unstoppable.