Chloé Zhao is changing the game for diverse screenwriters and filmmakers by making her mark in Hollywood history. She’s the first Asian woman to win Best Director at the Golden Globes, the Directors Guild of America Awards, and the BAFTA Awards. In February 2021, Variety declared her “the most awarded person in a single awards season in the modern era.”
NOMADLAND, Zhao’s third feature that she wrote and directed, is nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Picture at the upcoming 93rd Academy Awards, making her the first woman of color nominated for Best Director at the Oscars. The recognition of her talent speaks volumes for the shift to inclusivity in storytelling that’s much-needed in Hollywood.
What can you learn from the journey of a BIPOC female filmmaker that went from making short films to now writing and directing Marvel’s hotly anticipated ETERNALS? Read on.
Rewrite, Rewrite, Rewrite
If there is anything that can be gleaned from Zhao’s writing process, it’s to embrace the creative flow that naturally evolves. When writing her first feature, SONGS MY BROTHERS TAUGHT ME, she penned thirty drafts before production began.
After casting nonprofessional actors to play versions of themselves in the film, she allowed their lives and the filming location, Pine Ridge Native American Reservation, to inspire her.
In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, she talked about letting the actors guide her revisions of the script: “I’m friends with a lot of their friends on Facebook. They’ll write their stories on their status updates, and sometimes that will change a scene. The script, the story, the people and the place all exist [within each other]. It’s an organic process.”
Forge Forward, Even When It Seems Impossible
Zhao lived off grants and student loans as she attended labs and developed her first feature. Having successfully secured funding, she was living in South Dakota where they planned to shoot. She described in Sam Fragoso’s Talk Easy podcast how she and cinematographer/partner Joshua James Richards were out looking at cameras for the shoot when they received an unexpected phone call – they had lost all funding for their film.
Upon returning home, it got worse. They had been broken into. Computers, hard drives, footage already shot, sound and camera equipment were all stolen. Devastated, Zhao forged forward. She connected with the producers to figure out financing and shot a different revision of her script, which became her first feature, SONGS MY BROTHER TAUGHT ME. It premiered at Sundance to critical acclaim.
“I broke down many times, but then you wake up the next morning. I don’t have another reality at that time. I was so immersed in making these films. … When your whole reality is moved to this place called Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and you’re there to make a film, you just have to do it, because otherwise you have to start over, your life.”
Be Prepared For The Real World Of Filmmaking
After making her second feature, THE RIDER, Zhao shared in the Talk Easy podcast that attending film school at NYU helped her find who she was as a filmmaker. She counts Spike Lee as one of her professors. She also credits labs she attended at Sundance and Film Independent as having nurturing environments that supported her, but when it came to the business of actually making films, “the real world is a slap in the face.”
The reality of finding funding and the business side of the biz is a far stretch from nurturing. Be prepared as screenwriters and filmmakers that after labs and film school, the reality of the business is one you’ll have to learn to navigate. She says, “There is that reality, the nurturing independent film world, people that want to help. And then there’s the reality of the industry.”
Consider And Embrace The Budget
Zhao learned a valuable lesson from making her first feature. She was overly ambitious and operated beyond the budget she had, which ultimately hurt it. When making her second feature, THE RIDER, she tightened the budget.
Speaking on her first feature: “It was much bigger and more conventional, and I wanted to make that. When that is not possible, I made something else, but I wasn’t embracing it yet. I was still hoping it’s something bigger. … When I had eight people and no money, but still try to have all this plotty stuff. But plot means budget…but what if you don’t have money to shoot that scene?”
After writing outside of the budget for her first feature, Zhao saw firsthand how it adversely affected the story she wanted to tell as a director. For her second feature as writer/director, Zhao scaled it down and stuck to the budget, which made it more achievable.
Screenwriting Is Like Writing Fan Fiction
Zhao believes in writing what you want to watch, so much so that to this day she writes fan fiction online (under an alias, of course). She compared her style of screenwriting to penning fanfic when she spoke about Brady Jandreau, the nonprofessional actor that portrays fictional protagonist Brady Blackburn in THE RIDER:
“You write the stuff for yourself. It’s what you want to see. … For example, THE RIDER could be a fan fiction movie of Brady’s life, but the version I want to see. … In fan fiction, you take characters that are already existing and then you put in the world that makes sense to you.”
Find Your Unique Voice As A Storyteller
With her writing and filmmaking style of incorporating real people, aka nonprofessional actors, into the script and cast, Zhao has found her own unique style that mixes real life with fictional characters and narratives. She says that she’s realized she’s “not the kind of writer-director that can create this character in my own in a dark room.”
The screenplay for NOMADLAND is not a traditional adaptation of a novel. In the book, real-life nomad Linda May is the protagonist. Zhao and producer/star Frances McDormand discussed early on that McDormand would play a fictional character that was not in the book, alongside real people from the book that would portray fictional versions of themselves on screen.
Zhao discussed her approach to developing Fern, McDormand’s character created for NOMADLAND: “I brought in many aspects of Frances’ own life into the film, because to me that was the only way. From the very beginning Fran and I agreed that that is what we were going to do… That’s the only way that we could work it, to get her character into a world where everyone is playing a version of themselves. … A lot of the process of the creation of Fern is figuring out how much is pure fictional and how much is something that Fran can contribute from her own life.”
Chloé Zhao has already broken glass ceilings everywhere, and whatever the results of the 93rd Oscars will be, she has gone down in history as the first woman of Asian heritage to be nominated for Best Director and has paved the way for AAPI writers and directors to share their unique stories and voices.
Joanna Ke is an award-winning, half Taiwanese actor, writer, producer, and trained sword fighter. Her foundation as a creative producer and screenwriter is built on nearly a decade of experience as a professional script reader in development and acquisitions. She studied screenwriting with the late, great Syd Field, and as an actor, has had the honor of working with director Cameron Crowe. Her films have won BEST ACTION and BEST FANTASY awards, and her acting has won BEST PERFORMANCE and BEST VILLAIN accolades.
Wielding her broadsword is a favorite, both on and off camera.