Chloé Zhao – Writer, Director, Editor
There are only two filmmakers in history who were nominated for writing, directing and editing their feature films: David Lean and Chloé Zhao. There have been co-editors who were nominated for directing and writing. Even that is a short list: Michel Hazanavicious, the Coen Brothers and Alfonso Cuaron, who is the only director to win for editing and directing.
Chloé Zhao as the sole nominee for editing is quite an extraordinary thing, not just for filmmakers overall but for women on the rise in an industry that has excluded them. What Zhao does here, or what any director who also edits can do, is be the singular voice in the expression of the work.
While it’s true that a collaborative effort can make for some of the best films ever made (Robert Wise edited Citizen Kane, for instance) Zhao’s perspective for Nomadland is crucial to appreciating the movie. Since she’s also written and directed it that leaves the collaborative efforts up to Frances McDormand, as the lead actress, and longtime collaborator Joshua James Richards, who was the DP on The Rider and is Zhao’s life partner.
Zhao has edited only two of her previous works, Songs My Brother Taught Me and two shorts. Her decision to cut Nomadland makes it all the more an almost autobiographical work, with McDormand as her muse. That puts us squarely into the mind, the heart and the eyes of Zhao.
Nomadland follows the internal trajectory of the main character Fern (Frances McDormand), and without being able to also edit the film, it would be harder for Zhao to follow that narrative line. The cutting must follow the music and the mood. That makes this film completely within Zhao’s control.
The benefit of editing and writing the film is that much of it is wordless. Zhao knows in her own mind how she wants a scene to play, how long she wants to hold on McDormand’s face before shifting the scene. Zhao says she wanted Fern to be the “guide,” but really Zhao is the guide since she is depicting the world through Fern’s eyes.
For Zhao, the editing was her favorite process and that makes sense if you consider her background. She’s piecing the film together shot by shot to convey meaning, but often an editor will try to simplify a scene or offer a suggestion on what to take out. But here, there is a singular voice in command of all of it, with no such pressure. This is part of what makes Nomadland so visually distinctive. It isn’t anything we’ve seen before in a major Oscar contender.
Of editing Nomadland, Zhao said, “I’m happier in the editing room than I am anywhere else in the process. I grew up with manga. I wanted to be a manga artist. So before I knew I could tell stories in words, I was telling stories in pictures, in edited pictures. When I’m writing a script, I’m editing in my head. On set I will be thinking about how I’m going to edit it. The script doesn’t finish until the morning of the last day (of the shoot).”
Because Nomadland captures non-actors telling stories, that was another tricky part for Zhao as editor because she didn’t want to cover up the “mistakes” because that seemed closer to real life. “It’s that uncomfortable, almost too-real feeling of just holding on someone’s face long enough and having them stumble on their lines, when they’re speaking something so personal and real. That’s something almost impossible to re-create in a staged situation.”