Oscar 2021: Nomadland–Community Seldom Seen On Screen Before

In the original feature Nomadland, brilliantly directed by Chloe Zhao, Fern (Frances McDormand, Oscar frontrunner) attends the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, an annual gathering of nomads in Quartzsite, Arizona, led by Bob Wells.

The scene was shot just a week before the real-life RTR, with more than 50 nomads, including Wells, playing themselves.

The nomads sit around a campfire, telling stories about how they came to live a transient life. “We recorded every single person there. They didn’t all make it into the cut, but everybody had a chance to tell their story,” says Nomadland producer Mollye Asher. “It’s just such a beautiful moment, because it’s like a gift we’re giving to them and a gift they’re giving to us, where they get to share their own story in their words.”

For Asher and director Chloé Zhao, having the participation and support of the nomads was key to telling their stories authentically. “We worked directly with the people that are in the community, and right away. So they’re, in a way, making it with us,” says Asher, adding that Zhao had done the same with her previous film, The Rider, which centered on the Lakota Sioux of the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Zhao, like 0ther directors of the best picture nominees, was challenged to make films that portray a community — and capturing those communities authentically was imperative to telling these stories in the right way.

In order to succeed–as they did–they conducted endless research, brought on experts and often went straight to the people who had lived those lives.

For Nomadland‘s Asher, the input of those who’d walked the walk of the transient life became invaluable, and many of the main characters were played by the nomads themselves. So when the character Swankie tells Fern a story about a kayaking trip where she witnessed hundreds of swallows flying above her, that story is from the real-life Swankie’s life, and even the video footage of the swallows used in the film is from Swankie’s trip. And for those scenes shot at the RTR, when they gather for a potluck, the nomads really made the food that was shared among cast and crew. “The person from the group that usually makes the chili for the potluck made it for this potluck,” remembers Asher. “It’s really a collaboration with the people in the community that I think is a bit part of the authenticity.”

Nomadland, Mollye Asher headshot
Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection; Jean Baptiste Lacroix/Getty Images
Some of the nomads featured in ‘Nomadland.’ (Inset: Mollye Asher)