GOD’S BEST LIGHT
By Ron Prince
Universally-admired as a sublime contemporary Western, and a hauntingly-beautiful character study, director Chloé Zhao’s remarkable, hybrid, docu-fiction drama, Nomadland, follows Fern, a woman who has lost pretty much everything – including her house and her husband – during the Great Recession of 2008.
After packing her possessions into a garage lock-up, Fern hits the road in Vanguard, her new but rather tattered mobile home, and travels through the vast landscapes of the American West, living life as a 21st century nomad.
Being a rootless van-dweller of no fixed abode, Fern necessarily scratches a living as a seasonal employee – working variously as a packer at a gigantic Amazon fulfilment warehouse, harvesting frozen sugar-beet, and scrubbing the bathrooms and toilets at an RV park.
Along the way she encounters other nomads and itinerant retirees – such as Linda May, Charlene Swankie and would-be suitor David – and spends time hunkering around campfires at the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR), the annual January gathering of nomads, in Quartzsite, Arizona, learning survival tips and listening to raw personal stories.
Resisting the entreaties of both David and her own family to resume a regular existence, Fern returns to Empire, Nevada, the abandoned sheet rock factory town, where she built her previous life, before hitting the road again.
“I prefer the anthropological possibilities of filmmaking”
The unhurried, sweeping portrait of recession- hit America, is based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction account, Nomadland: Surviving America In The Twenty-First Century. The book was optioned by actress Frances McDormand, who stars as Fern and who originally reached-out with her producing partner, Peter Spears, to ask Zhao to adapt and direct the $5million film. Whilst Fern and David (played by David Strathairn) are invented, fictional characters, the vast majority of the cast is made up of non-professional actors, real-life drifters in fact, including Linda, Swankie and Bob Wells.
Nomadland premieres to critical acclaim
Independently-produced, Nomadland premiered on September 11, 2020 at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Golden Lion. It also won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, making it the first film ever to win the top prize at both festivals. Amongst many other accolades, the film’s cinematographer, Joshua James Richards, earned the prestigious Golden Frog at the 2020 Camerimage Film Festival.
Production on Nomadland, with a small crew, just 27-strong, took place over four months, starting in the autumn of 2018 and concluding in February 2019, but with a brief hiatus for the Christmas and New Year holidays. The road-trip stopped at multiple locations in Nebraska, South Dakota, including the dramatic layered rock formations of Badlands National Park, plus Nevada, California and Arizona, where the RTR scenes were shot. Remarkably, Zhao shot the film in complete secrecy, whilst also being engaged in pre-production on Marvel’s Eternals (2021, DP Ben Davis BSC).
“Chloé wanted to focus on the lives of real people who are often overlooked, people we don’t typically see in Hollywood productions,” says Richards, who hails from the UK, and who met Zhao at NYU Film School. “They’re homeless people – both young and old – whose talk is about DIY survival tips, cancer and PTSD. For Chloé, it was all about exploring life from a certain perspective – to see and feel their situations from the inside out, rather than it being an observation with a telephoto lens.”
Building a visual language
Zhao and Richards had already established a visual language and modus operandi having previously collaborated on the acclaimed Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and the even more highly-rated The Rider (2017), as Richards explains.
“On both of those films it was all about the relationships we made with the people, following them and their lives with a small crew, no lighting, very minimal camera and lighting equipment and wrestling with the elements. When Fran and Peter approached Chloé with Nomadland, they were very open and receptive to Chloé’s idea of casting real people, real nomads. But we wondered if we really could cast actors alongside them and make it work? It has very rarely been done, and that really excited me. It was a challenge, uncharted territory and scary, but probably the right place to be as a filmmaker.”
During a lengthy pre-production, Richards and Zhao spent several weeks travelling to their intended locations and meeting as many of their nomad characters as possible.
“We shot some tests with them on a DSLR, to get a sense of how they interacted with the camera and to see whether we really could get what Chloé wanted,” remarks Richards. “It was incredibly important, because if they were not comfortable with me, the crew and the process, the film was just not going to work. Going to a world that you would not otherwise see and getting a glimpse into other people’s lives is quite a privilege. It’s probably the part of filmmaking I enjoy most.”
Richards adds that, likewise, Zhao spent significant time with McDormand. “We needed Fran to bring herself, and not a heightened performance, to this film. So Chloé delved into Fran’s life as much as she did the other nomads. It meant that what you witness on-screen are genuine connections in front of the camera.”
As for his initial discussion with Zhao about the visual aesthetic for the film, he notes, “Chloé was clear, right from the start, that the images mustn’t be mundane. Rather, they really needed to sing – to embrace Fern’s indomitable spirit, as part of a sensitive and nuanced portrait of a transient life. For me the environment and the landscape were not characters in the movie, but more a projection of Fern’s emotions, and that’s how I approached things.”
References and inspiration
Visual cues included photographers such as William Egglestone, for his fearless naturalism and ability to capture the ordinary through exposure and colour, plus Andreas Gursky, for the presence and formal power of his renowned factory landscapes.
Richards says that Carl Dreyer’s The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928, DP Rudolph Maté) was a particular influence when it came to depicting Fern, who occupies most of the screen time in the movie. “During production, Fran cut her own hair, didn’t have a touch of make-up and looks absolutely beautiful in this film. Her face is illuminated in every kind of way, apart from big film lights, and by the time we finished I knew her face as would a sculptor.”
Although Richards has lived and worked in the US for a dozen years, he clearly remembers watching BBC kitchen-sink dramas in his youth, and particularly recalls cinematographer Chris Menges BSC ASC’s use of Steadicam in Alan Clarke’s TV play Made In Britain (1982), which contributed to the human connection and gritty social realism of the visual storytelling. Richards also reveals, “I grew up on a diet of Westerns too, John Ford movies, and came to America partly for those vast landscapes.”
These combined references, instructions and influences led Richards to shoot Nomadland using connective camera placement, movement and framing in widescreen 2.39:1 aspect ratio. He opted for ARRI’s Alexa Mini camera, paired with wide Ultra Prime lenses, chiefly 16mm, 24mm and 35mm lengths, provided with the support of Lynn “Gus” Gustafson, camera rental manager, at ARRI Rental in LA.
“We went widescreen on The Rider, and I felt it was the right choice again for the landscapes we were going to encounter and the framing possibilities it gives in the centre and sides,” he says. “I had the camera on DJI Ronin 2 gimbal, as it does not have the floating feeling you get from Steadicam can have. It moves more in straight lines, so I could easily track and follow Fran, such as in the long take when she walks up through the RVs at the RTR.”
Lenses and LUT
“Although I tested Cooke and Master Prime glass, I went with the Ultra Primes partly as we had fallen in love with them on The Rider, and partly because of their ability to be able to work in super low-light situations. I knew that was going to give me a little bit more leeway when the sun started to go down.”
To support the naturalistic look, Richards developed a simple LUT prior to the shoot, that yielded true colour, a slightly diminished contrast and detail in the blacks. Throughout the shoot, Richards typically shot between T2.8 and T5.6, and rated the camera at 1290ISO, shooting a stop and a half underexposed. “My target apertures gave a good sense of depth and background detail in the image,” says Richards. “Shooting at 1280ISO took away some of the sharpness from the sensor, by adding a little noise in the picture, and gave us a small nudge towards a filmic look, but without introducing any artifice.”
Despite suffering a scorpion sting to the elbow, resulting in a large and angry swelling, Richards operated and pulled-focus himself when shooting handheld. “Limitations can bring out the best in you,” he says laughing.
As for the lighting, he says, “The game was to shoot in available light as much as possible. The lighting package was tiny, and the most I deployed was a K5600 Joker in the scene with piano player. Other than that we used LiteGear LiteMats and LiteRibbons, with gels, to bring in light when we needed, such as in the campground scenes.”
For Nomadland, Richards was particularly drawn towards shooting in magic hour whenever possible, which he has described as “God’s best light.”
“It is a crucial time of day that lends a softness, richness and warmth to the colours. It’s the time when I knew we could capture the faces against the backdrop of the landscape with the Western glow on the horizon.”
Following Nomadland, Richards worked as a camera operator on the superhero action movie Eternals, with Zhao at the helm, and Ben Davis BSC in charge of the cinematography.
“I fully appreciate the incredible talent and the genius that goes into making movies like that,” adds Richards. “It was great observing Ben’s process, and the huge ship he has to steer, before realising that I personally cannot be on a sound stage all day. I have learned constantly that your environment is everything, and try to live like that.
“Also, I prefer the anthropological possibilities of filmmaking. I am much more interested in other people and their stories, than I am in my own imagination or anyone else’s imagination, I want to have the experience of making films that I know I will relish personally.”