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Nonfiction Techniques Underpin Film 'Nomadland'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A new film called "Nomadland" offers a glimpse into the lives of older Americans who move into their vehicles - mainly for economic reasons, but who also embrace it or at least choose to see it as a way of life. The film is a work of fiction, but as NPR's Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi reports, its director borrows from the world of documentary to tell the story.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: When we first meet Fern, the 60-something protagonist of "Nomadland," played by Frances McDormand, her life is in flux.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOMADLAND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) My mom says that you're homeless. Is that true?

FRANCES MCDORMAND: (As Fern) No, I'm not homeless. I'm just houseless - not the same thing, right?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) No.

MCDORMAND: (As Fern) Don't worry about me. I'm OK.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: After the death of her husband and the economic collapse of the Nevada mining town where she lives, she's moved into a white Ford Econoline van, nicknamed Vanguard, which holds her few precious possessions. She meanders through a series of vast, beautiful and at times brutal landscapes around the West in search of work.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOMADLAND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) So when do you need to get back to work?

MCDORMAND: (As Fern) Now. I need work. I like work.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I'm not sure exactly what you would be eligible for.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: She picks up shifts at an Amazon fulfillment center, as a campground host in the South Dakota Badlands and harvesting beets in the fields of Nebraska. At each stop, Fern meets other nomads, middle-aged and older Americans who've found themselves trudging the same road.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOMADLAND")

LINDA MAY: (As herself) I was getting close to 62, and I went online to look at my Social Security benefit. It said $550. Fern, I had worked my whole life. I'd worked since I was 12 years old, raised two daughters. I couldn't believe it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Based on the 2017 non-fiction book "Nomadland" by journalist Jessica Bruder, the film features a cast of mostly non-actors, real-life nomads like Linda May, who you just heard, telling the real stories of their life within the frame of a fictional film. And that blending of fact and fiction is a signature technique of the film's director, Chloe Zhao.

CHLOE ZHAO: I think I'm looking for some kind of truth, you know? I'm looking for some kind of authentic moments.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Zhao's films have been called modern Westerns, but Zhao says she didn't actually see those films growing up in Beijing. And her interest in the Western landscape came later, around the end of film school at NYU. When she saw a series of National Geographic photos of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, she knew she wanted to make her first film there.

ZHAO: There was such an American message and identity in these images - how the clash between the old and the new, seeing a Lakota boy on bareback on a horse at a gas station, and he's wearing a Tupac T-shirt, is very special. So that's how I first went there.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Zhao planned a more traditional fiction film, working from a screenplay with professional actors. But when her funding fell through, she created a cinematic style that fit her budget. She centered her first film, 2015's "Songs My Brothers Taught Me," around non-actors, building trust with her subjects to weave the details of their personal lives into the story.

Her next film, "The Rider," which premiered at Cannes in 2017, built on the same technique, telling the lightly fictionalized story of a young rodeo rider struggling to find a new sense of identity after a traumatic brain injury leaves him unable to ride. It won accolades at Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival, where senior director Diana Sanchez says it had audiences, including herself, in tears.

DIANA SANCHEZ: You gets so close to her characters. So I think it's that intimacy she's able to achieve that just really touched a chord in people.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: It was also at Toronto that Frances McDormand, who'd optioned the film rights to "Nomadland," saw Chloe Zhao's work for the first time. As she told an audience at a screening last year, McDormand didn't know how the book would translate to the screen, but when she discovered Zhao's films, she knew she'd found the right creative partner.

MCDORMAND: Not being a writer or director, I couldn't imagine it. But I had seen "The Rider," so I knew she could.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And McDormand says Zhao brought her signature approach to this film.

MCDORMAND: Chloe and I talked a lot about my own desire to live on the road. I told my husband that when I turned 65, I was going to change my name to Fern, start smoking Lucky Strikes, drinking Wild Turkey, and I'd hit the road in my RV.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: They traversed the country in vans for months, meeting real-life nomads and incorporating their experiences into the film.

BOB WELLS: I just deeply admire her as a storyteller.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Bob Wells is a central figure in the real-life nomad community and plays himself in the film. He says that Zhao's organic approach to filmmaking was a bit mysterious at times.

WELLS: I never knew what the story was. I think I watched the story evolve as we shot it. But the story lived in her head. And they captured the nomadic life so well it just felt like my life.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Earlier this month, Chloe Zhao became the first Asian woman nominated for best director at the Golden Globes, and the film has strong Oscar buzz. Later this year, she becomes the latest indie director to helm a Marvel movie. That movie? "The Eternals."

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDOVICO EINAUDI, REDI HASA AND FEDERICO MECOZZI'S "GRAVITY DAY 3") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.