Oscar Directors: Zhao, Chloe–Background, Career, Awards

Research in Progress (March 23, 2021)

Chloe Zhao’s Career Summation

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Nationality: Chinese

Social Class: Middle; manager of steel company and hospital worker

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Gap between First Film and First Nom:

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Chloé Zhao (March 31, 1982) is a Chinese filmmaker who is known primarily for her work in independent U.S. films.

Her debut feature film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015), premiered at Sundance Film Festival to critical acclaim and earned a nomination for the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature.

Her second feature film, The Rider (2017), was critically praised and received nominations for the Independent Spirit Award for Best Film and Best Director.

Zhao gained further success with Nomadland (2020), which attracted international recognition and won many awards, including Best Director at the Golden Globe Awards—making Zhao the second woman and first Asian woman to win the category[4]—as well as awards at film festivals, including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. She is currently nominated for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards, British Academy Film Awards and Directors Guild of America Awards.

Zhao has recently ventured into blockbuster filmmaking with the Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero film Eternals, slated for release in November 2021.

Zhao was born Zhao Ting in Beijing in 1982. Her parents were the manager of a steel company and a hospital worker who was in a People’s Liberation Army performance troupe. Vogue said she described herself as “a rebellious teen, lazy at school” who drew manga and wrote fan fiction.

She loved films growing up, especially Happy Together by Wong Kar-wai.

When she was 15 years old, despite knowing nearly no English, her parents sent her to a boarding school in the UK.

Her parents separated and her father later remarried to actress Song Dandan. Growing up, she was drawn to influences from Western pop culture. She attended a boarding school in London, then moved to Los Angeles to finish high school.

Zhao studied at Mount Holyoke College earning a bachelor’s degree in political science. She studied film production at New York University Tisch School of the Arts.

In 2015, Zhao directed her first feature film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me. Filmed on location at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the film depicts the relationship between a Lakota Sioux brother and his younger sister. The film premiered as part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at Sundance Film Festival. It later played at Cannes Film Festival as part of the Director’s Fortnight selection. The film was nominated for Best First Feature at the 31st Independent Spirit Awards.

In 2017, she directed The Rider, a contemporary western drama which follows a young cowboy’s journey to discover himself after a near-fatal accident ends his professional riding career. Similar to her first feature, Zhao utilized a cast of non-actors who lived on the ranch where the film was shot. Zhao’s impetus for making the film came when Brady Jandreau—a cowboy whom she met and befriended on the reservation where she shot her first film—suffered a severe head injury when he was thrown off his horse during a rodeo competition. Jandreau later starred in the film playing a fictionalized version of himself as Brady Blackburn.

The film premiered at Cannes Film Festival as part of the Directors’ Fortnight selection and won the Art Cinema Award.  The film earned her nominations for Best Feature and Best Director at the 33rd Independent Spirit Awards.  Zhao became the inaugural winner of the Bonnie Award, named after Bonnie Tiburzi, which recognizes a mid-career female director. The film was released on April 13, 2018 by Sony Pictures Classics and was critically acclaimed.

In 2018, Zhao directed her third feature film Nomadland. The film was shot over four months traveling the American West in an RV with real-life nomadic workers. The film premiered at Venice Film Festival where it received critical acclaim and won the Golden Lion award, and subsequently won the People’s Choice Award at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. The film was released on February 19, 2021 by Searchlight Pictures. Zhao won the Golden Globe Award for Best Director for Nomadland, making her the first woman of Asian descent honored. She also is only the second woman to win a Golden Globe for directing since Barbra Streisand in 1984.

On February 15, 2021, Variety reported that “with 34 awards season trophies for directing, 13 for screenplay and nine for editing, Chloe Zhao has surpassed Alexander Payne (“Sideways”) as the most awarded person in a single awards season in the modern era.”

In April 2018, Amazon Studios greenlit Zhao’s upcoming untitled Bass Reeves biopic, a historical Western about the first black U.S. Deputy Marshal. Zhao is set to direct the film and write the screenplay. In September 2018, Marvel Studios hired her to direct Eternals, based on the comic book characters of the same name. The film is set to be released on November 5, 2021.

Zhao cites Wong Kar-wai’s romance Happy Together (1997) as the “film that made me want to make films.” She was also influenced by Spike Lee who was her film professor while she studied at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She cited Ang Lee as an influence as well saying, “Ang Lee’s career has been very inspiring to me — how he’s able to bring where he comes from to all the films that he makes”. She also has mentioned Werner Herzog, and Terrence Malick as key influences.

Zhao stated her earliest introduction to American cinema was The Terminator (1984), Ghost (1990) and Sister Act (1992).

In 2013, Zhao was preparing to film Songs My Brothers Taught Me, and told the magazine Filmmaker that the premise of a closed environment with a high teen suicide rate reminded her of her Chinese upbringing:

It goes back to when I was a teenager in China, being in a place where there are lies everywhere. You felt like you were never going to be able to get out. A lot of info I received when I was younger was not true, and I became very rebellious toward my family and my background. I went to England suddenly and relearned my history. Studying political science in a liberal arts college was a way for me to figure out what is real. Arm yourself with information, and then challenge that too.

Zhao’s US film The Rider had a one-off screening at the 2017 Pingyao International Film Festival but did not have a theatrical release in China. Zhao said in 2018 that while growing up in China, she felt constricted “an ancient culture where I was expected to be a certain way” and was drawn to Western culture.

In 2020, while promoting her US film Nomadland, she said she had felt like an outsider in the US, in not having “the weight of history” on her. The newspaper initially reported her statement, “The US is now my country, ultimately, but maybe, it is easier for me than how I see my friends are reacting [to everything], especially this year.” The comment was removed by February 16. The newspaper later restored a corrected quote of Zhao, saying she had said “not,” instead of “now.”

Before the 78th Golden Globes on February 28, 2021, Nomadland was scheduled to have a limited theatrical release in China on April 23, 2021. When Zhao won the Golden Globe Award for Best Director for Nomadland at the ceremony, becoming the first woman of Asian descent to do so, Variety reported: “Although most Chinese viewers have yet to see the film, many cheered the Golden Globe win. Scores of posts praised Zhao’s heartfelt acceptance speech about compassion and described her as an inspiration to women in the arts.” It also wrote that many commentators “lamented that Zhao likely could never make such a powerful film about China, given the mainland’s current censorship environment”. Initially, state-owned media in China, including China Central Television, People’s Daily, and Global Times, “sought to claim Zhao’s glory for China”. Shortly afterward, social media users learned of Zhao’s comments to Filmmaker and News.com.au, both which had been removed in mid-February 2021. Variety reported that the original interviews were “translated and widely disseminated on the Chinese web, sparking controversy among nationalists”. Users questioned Zhao’s citizenship and debated “whether it is appropriate to claim Zhao’s victory as China’s”, with Variety calling the claim “a common move by state-backed outlets to drum up nationalism”.

On March 5, 2021, the Chinese government censored mention of Nomadland online, and references to Nomadland’s release in China were also removed. The New York Times reported: “It was not a complete blackout. Numerous stories about the movie were still online as of Saturday. And so far, there have been no reports that the film’s China release was in jeopardy.” The newspaper added: “But the online censorship was the latest reminder of the power of rising nationalist sentiment in China and the increasingly complex political minefield that companies must navigate there.” It wrote that while Nomadland was not expected to have a significant box office gross in China due to its planned limited release and slow pace, “the patriotic frenzy” could potentially impact the release of Eternals, directed by Zhao, in China, for which a release date had not yet been announced.

Filmography

2015 Songs My Brothers Taught Me Yes Yes Yes Yes Kino Lorber
2017 The Rider Yes Yes Yes No Sony Pictures Classics
2020 Nomadland Yes Yes Yes Yes Searchlight Pictures/Hulu
2021 Eternals Yes Yes No No Marvel Studios [40]

Zhao resides in Ojai, California with three chickens and two dogs, and her partner and cinematographer, Joshua James Richards.