Chloé Zhao is making waves in Hollywood. The 38-year-old Chinese-born director has nearly swept this year’s awards season, earning multiple Best Picture and Best Director honors for her meditative film Nomadland, which tells the story of a houseless woman (Francis McDormand) who roams the American West in search of temporary employment. It appeared on many year-end lists of unmissable films, and is nominated for six Academy Awards at Sunday’s ceremony.
Before Nomadland, Zhao was something of a dark horse in the mainstream film industry. Her two previous films–Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider–are quiet, naturalistic dramas set in the West that feature nonprofessional actors playing versions of their real life selves. By casting the acting veteran McDormand, Nomadland was a small departure from her penchant for telling delicate stories from a cast of non-actors. That doesn’t mean her recent film completely abandons the Zhao playbook–a majority of the characters in the movie are real life nomads who have experienced the kind of mobile life that Fern endures. The result is an almost hyperreal cinematic experience that blurs the line between reality and fiction.
Zhao isn’t only interested in capturing life as it is. Her films seek to memorialize places that are disappearing or have already gone. “I’ll pass through a small town in Nebraska that has a population of 18 people, which used to be a popular railroad town until the railroad stopped, and all I want to do is try to figure out from those people how they would want to be remembered, if their town were to disappear entirely. That impulse still drives me,” Zhao told Deadline.
“As storytellers, we’re in the business, anyway, of recording things; of recording time and recording people. And, for me, I’m interested in those things that are about to go away, like the town of Empire. Maybe that’s where the romanticism comes in, because I don’t go in thinking I want to examine an issue or make a statement; I’m always trying to look through the perspective of someone who loves a place like this, and this way of life.”
So what else do we know about Zhao, who may be crowned the second woman to win the Oscar for Best Director and the first Asian woman?
She was born in Beijing and went to high school in both the U.K. and Los Angeles.
Chloé Zhao was born Zhao Ting in 1983. She grew up in Beijing with her father, who enjoyed success at the Shougang Group steel company and later as a real estate developer and equity manager, and her mother, who worked at a hospital. After her parents divorced while she was in high school, her father married the Chinese comic actress Song Dandan. Around the same time, the 14-year-old Zhao jumped at the opportunity to go to boarding school in the U.K., and later transferred to a Los Angeles high school, where she lived alone in a Koreatown apartment in 2000.
Following high school, Zhao enrolled in a political science program at Mount Holyoke College, where she discovered that she had little interest in politics. After she graduated, she worked as a bartender and picked up odd jobs, where she discovered that she liked “meeting people and learning about their histories,” she told Filmmaker Magazine. Those experiences gave her the push she needed to go to film school.
She was Spike Lee’s student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Zhao enrolled in the graduate film program at New University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2010. While at Tisch, she studied under the tutelage of the iconic director Spike Lee. "What I like about Spike is that he doesn't really sugarcoat things," Zhao told USA Today. "Spike will just tell you as it is and I really needed that. We used to have very heated discussions, where his assistant would come in and say, 'Everything OK?' But (it was) a lot of fun. It was always a great time."
All of her films have been set in the American West.
During her final year of film school, Zhao became interested in the Dakotas for their geography and began to work on a script set in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota. According to her Vulture profile, after Zhao came across images from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation by the photojournalist Aaron Huey, she resolved to spend time in the community and tell stories from the perspective of those who live in it.
She ended up making two movies starring nonprofessional actors playing versions of themselves. Her first movie, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, follows a Native American boy in the Pine Ridge Reservation who plans on moving to Los Angeles after he graduates, but hesitates to leave his little sister behind. Zhao’s second movie, The Rider, tells the story of a cowboy (Brady Jandreau, a real-life cowboy) who struggles to find purpose after he is injured in a bronco-riding competition.
She currently lives in Ojai, California with her partner, cinematographer Joshua James Richards.
Zhao met Joshua James Richards–a transplant from Cornwall, England–while studying at NYU. Together, the couple has worked on Zhao’s first three films. “She was gnarly and extreme — my idea of the collaborator I hoped to find at film school,” Richards told Vulture. “Most people I was spending time with were sitting around talking about their projects. Chloé was doing them. And so I jumped on that train.”
The couple currently live in Ojai, a town in the Topatopa Mountains outside of Los Angeles. They’ve raised two dogs and some chickens together at their home overlooking orange groves, per Vulture.
And, she’s in post-production on Marvel’s Eternals.
Following the success of The Rider back in 2018, Zhao was tapped to direct the major Marvel film Eternals, which stars Angelina Jolie, Kamail Nanjiani Richard Madden, and Kit Harington.
“Not only does Chloe make remarkable, small, personal movies in a remarkable, small, personal way, but she thinks in grand, cosmic, gigantic terms, which fit perfectly with what we wanted to do,” Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige told Rolling Stone.