Frances McDormand in Nomadland (Courtesy Searchlight Pictures)
A compelling mix of drama and non-fiction, Nomadland won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the People & # 39; s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Based on a book by Jessica Bruder, it was written, edited and directed by Chloé Zhao. This is the third collaboration between Zhao and cameraman Joshua James Richards after songs My Brother Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017).
Richards won Best Debut Cinematography at the EnergaCamerimage Festival for songs my brother taught me. That year, Camerimage Richards awarded its Golden Frog for Nomadland.
Frances McDormand, who plays Fern in Nomadland, chose the book as an option in 2017. The filming took place in 2018 at locations ranging from the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR) to a beet harvest to an Amazon fulfillment center.
After Camerimage, Richards spoke to the filmmaker from his California home. Nomadland opens from Fox Searchlight and is on Hulu starting today.
Filmmaker: Congratulations on winning Camerimage.
Richards: I was overwhelmed, I wasn't expecting that. I am very grateful to the festival.
Filmmaker: The images in Nomadland have the intimacy and immediacy of documentary filmmaking. Can you give some idea of how you and Chloé determine the framing and composition?
Richards: Because the environments and scenarios are unpredictable, you can use solid, simple rules to explore the environment. We know that this is how we are going to take a wide-angle shot, this is how we are going to frame a close-up shot, that this is how we're going to take a two-shot shot, and we never deviate from it.
We have some kind of language that is defined so that it can work in almost any scenario. And you know you are anchored in that approach. It was very helpful when I heard Iñárritu talk about The Revenant. He described it as climbing a cliff. As soon as you start, the time has come. There is no going back, you have to move on. You made your choices and you're sticking with them because if you don't, you'll kind of get fucked.
Filmmaker: Does this approach work with people who have no experience in front of the camera and may not be used to showing themselves?
Richards: I am always amazed at how open and free people are to have a camera in their room. They can almost only be exactly what they are. They have been through too much to care what someone thinks of them.
That's part of it, but it's all in the pre-shoot phase. Chloé is really interested in these people and places and we are making a very real attempt to develop real relationships with them. At the time of filming, it feels like you are making a movie with your friends.
They are approaching the knowledge that they are the experts in their own experience. You move away as a filmmaker, get your ego out of the way, stop asking questions and listen to what you want to bring. When you get to an intimate moment, you know it is a moment you want to tell.
I recently read Carl Rogers' approach to psychoanalysis and it reminded me of the way Chloé makes films. It's the art of listening. She's like a fisherman capturing all of these moments that they offered her.
Filmmaker: Well, you can have rules, but you still have to make creative decisions about how to implement them. For example, what were your rules for close-ups?
Richards: How do you connect with someone with a camera? It's hard to talk about. And I don't know why 45 degrees, directly above or directly below, put me in this person's world, in this perspective. I'm so close right now that I'm focusing on her eyes and face, and I'm not focusing on what's around her.
What's really interesting is that I think every cameraman would have a different idea of how to frame that. But for me, when we're in the characters' inner world, it's framed in a certain way. If you look at (Charlene) Swankie or the characters around the campfire, if you look at Bob Wells they are all framed the same. Because I want the audience to feel inside now. That's why we use the same lens for this.
When we're far, note that there are very few wide-angle shots that don't include Fran. They are used to following their journey through this landscape so that the audience feels them as they do.
So we would move the camera with the Ronin 2 (a 3-axis hand gimbal) so that this is conveyed somehow. If you want to get on the ronin, there has to be a reason for it. I want to say that I used it almost like a dolly chasing and chasing more than just floating.
I suppose the rest of the camerawork has a pretty rigid formalism.
Filmmaker: You have a very long shot of Fern going through her first day at RTR.
Richards: I think you swim a bit.
Filmmaker: But you have to define the space.
Richards: It is followed on a profile and then to follow and then back to follow. For me it moves with Fern as it starts to open up. How do you get the audience there? And how does it feel when you arrive in a place surrounded by strangers? But it's also about realizing that there is a community on the street. The sun is just rising over the hills it feels like an awakening.
Filmmaker: It feels like a completely casual moment, but there must have been a lot of preparation. What is the balance between design and discovery?
Richards: That shot was pretty preconceived. In fact, it was one of the recordings Chloé had in mind early on to capture the feel of RTR.
I worked with Elizabeth Goddard in our art department. We drew a map of where each individual van should go to get to the desired depth. That was very planned. We only had one attitude.
Filmmaker: You say Chloé had the shot in mind. Is it exactly about how recordings should be framed?
Richards: She has great confidence in my design. Very rarely is too precise about the exact framing and composition. It's much more of the Cassevetes school of creating an environment and placing the camera in it.
At the same time, I have the privilege of working with a director who cares as much about lighting and time of day as I, if not more. She has very specific ideas about the time of day things should happen. She thinks very visually in that sense.
It takes balls. You need a director who respects the landscape and the light like Terry (Malick) or Chloé do. Yeah it's scary. It's like: we have to get this. But when you get it, there is the magic, those spontaneous things that happen to us, or when it feels like the cosmos is aligning for you. That's almost what life is about, the kind of special accidents you never expected or could never plan. I see it more as a kind of movement in cinema, as a philosophy or language of cinema, than as an aesthetic. I believe this is how I want to make films for the rest of my life.
There is a risk that certain roles in film teams will become redundant. There was a setback, a reluctance to make films this way. But to tell more human stories and take the camera to places we haven't seen before, this is the cinema I look forward to. The fact that I can do this with ever smaller crews is just so exciting for me.
Filmmaker: How big was your crew?
Richards: I would say we were about 25 or 30 people. Funnily enough, I was the cameraman for the last Marvel movie The Eternals (directed by Zhao). Ben Davis, the DP, was speaking to his gaffer who said something like, "Don't you miss the days when we made films with 25 people?" Ben said that when it comes to department heads, it's still 25 people. You happen to have ten more among you. The people who make the movie don't change, it's just that the ship is getting bigger.
But it does raise an ethical question. It's a very wasteful way of making films. Chloé and I start with ethical questions. And I think other filmmakers too. Are we exploiting people? Are we using their stories for a film that we are likely to benefit more from than they are? But you can structure everything so that you benefit from it too. Furthermore, there is a right and a wrong way to make a film. Like asking Swankie, “Is the camera okay here? It's your van, you tell me where you're comfortable and I'll make it work. "
With Chloé, she keeps coming up with topics that are universal for people, identity issues and finding out what home means to us. Given our mortality and the latter part of our lives and realizing that there is still room for reinvention in the latter part of our lives.
Filmmaker: In this film and The Rider, you focus on work, what people do for a living.
Richards: Chloé really wanted to point out to show work. It's fascinating to see how people work, isn't it? She comes from this Wong Kar Wai school and loves to watch people eat in films. She is Asian. It's all about food, their seasons and days are divided into food and what you will eat. Chloé loves to explore identity through these things and to watch people work. You go to the heartland and these are the hardest working people you will meet. Most of the time, they don't really think about what we're doing on the coasts. They think about how they will get through the day from one day to the next. And those are the jobs that people do, it was important to show that.
Filmmaker: The scene at the Amazon Fulfillment Center is illuminating.
Richards: It was like (Andreas) Gursky, there is a great documentary about him, he takes these huge photos of similar factories in China for example. The individual lost in this industrial park. I was very limited in what I could do there. Amazon was wonderful, the staff was very helpful. But I just had the camera and that was it. The light you see is just all of those LEDs that they had there.
Filmmaker: What did you use for cameras and lighting?
Richards: We had an Alexa Mini on a Ronin 2 gimbal and then the Alexa Amira on a simple rig or on my shoulder. We shot Zeiss Ultra Primes, mostly wide angles, no longer than 35 mm.
Lighting, we had all kinds of different lighting devices, mats, sticks, a few jokers, small LED units. Usually I only used internships. For the entire lighting of the campsite, especially Fern's light, LED strips were bundled in a normal camping lamp.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about working with Frances McDormand?
Richards: I think Fran was stunning. First and foremost, this woman cuts her own hair, not a touch of makeup, entirely into what her wardrobe will be, entirely into the Frances McDormand pieces she wants in the van. Little things from her life. At some point, it almost becomes a tribute to Frances McDormand. I love that because she is a special person. And has a talent as an actor that is strange to watch because of his honesty.
I think the process here was completely alien to Fran, something she had never done before. Most actors are really about trusting that you will make them look their best. But that wasn't the case with Fran. She had to have full faith in Chloé that her character would come through. And I think with the way Chloé makes films, it's really difficult for the actor to see that, see the character, sometimes only after the editing is done.
I think Fran felt like she was rolling blind most of the time. She just had to trust Chloe. That is not easy.
But from my point of view, every day was a pleasure because you thought you caught something special. I know a lot of people describe it as a dance between the actor and the operator, but it really was with Fran. I learned a lot from her as an operator.
Filmmaker: How did she do it?
Richards: Francis drew my attention to my role as an operator in the production of power. I would let her performance take the lead sometimes, like when she baths in spring. She found positions and expressions and I kind of danced around her. It was about evoking emotions together, using the environment, in this case the water, to create moments that were not specific but gave Chloé options for processing.