© (Searchlight Pictures) Frances McDormand as Fern in “Nomadland” (Searchlight Pictures)
A quietly poetic drama about people living all but invisibly on the margins of American society, director Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” has made a considerable amount of noise — and been anything but a fringe player — in this year’s topsy-turvy awards season.
Since its premiere last September at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the top Golden Lion prize, “Nomadland” has racked up virtually every award in its path, from the Golden Globes to the Producers Guild Awards to this past weekend’s BAFTAs. Heading into the Oscars on April 25, the Searchlight Pictures release is nominated for six awards, including best picture and director, and is widely considered the film to beat.
But being the frontrunner brings with it an added level of scrutiny, and “Nomadland” has come in for its share of criticism since its release in theaters and on Hulu in February. Even as many have praised the film for its sensitive, authentic depiction of itinerant workers, others have griped that it glosses over the harsher realities of the modern gig economy and, in particular, what it’s like to work in an Amazon warehouse and participate in the company’s seasonal CamperForce program.
In a recent op-ed in The Times, ProPublica reporter Alec MacGillis, author of “Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America,” argued the film, which is centered on the experience of a nomad named Fern, played by Oscar winner Frances McDormand, sidesteps what he says are dehumanizing and potentially injurious working conditions at Amazon. “The visual power of the film and its emotional core, Fern’s grief over the loss of her husband and her former life, occupy the audience’s attention, not Amazon’s problems,” MacGillis wrote. “One could easily come away from the movie having a benign view of the toll Amazon takes on its workers, including the temporary ones.”
Critics see the film, adapted by Zhao from journalist Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” as a missed opportunity that omits the nonfiction work’s most damning passages. Others counter that the critically acclaimed picture is a stirring character study, not a work of muckraking journalism. (Zhao and the film’s producers were not made available to comment for this story.)
The debate has gained traction in recent weeks amid a closely watched and ultimately unsuccessful unionization effort by workers at an Amazon facility in Bessemer, Ala. The union push highlighted what many Amazon critics say are punishing working conditions in the company’s warehouses, with workers relentlessly driven to perform monotonous and physically taxing work at an ever-faster rate in order to hit algorithm-mandated targets, subjecting themselves to potential repetitive-motion injuries — criticisms that Amazon has long pushed back against.
“I thought there was a lot about the film that was very beautiful but it left more than a bitter taste in my mouth,” says Tim Shadix, legal director of the California-based nonprofit advocacy organization Warehouse Worker Resource Center, who points to a 2019 study that found that the injury rate at Amazon warehouses was more than twice as high as in the general warehousing industry. “I felt like the portrayal of all of the work in the film, but particularly the Amazon work, paints a very misleading picture of what our economy is like. It shows Amazon as a place to make money and enable someone’s personal journey, not really dealing with how dark it is that you have companies that are taking advantage of often senior people who should be retired but, because of economic circumstances, are working in horrifically dangerous jobs.”
© (Joshua Richards / Searchlight Pictures) McDormand and director Chloe Zhao on the set of “Nomadland” (Joshua Richards / Searchlight Pictures)
In a statement, Amazon spokesman Andre Woodson told The Times, “We are proud of our innovative CamperForce program and the opportunities it offers for individuals to combine earning extra money during the holiday season with RV camping. CamperForce provides employees with at least $15 per hour, partial campsite accommodations and hook-ups for their vehicles … Hundreds of our seasonal employees are part of our CamperForce program, many of whom return year after year to help fulfill customer orders during our Peak season. Within the CamperForce program specifically, we see many of these employees return and tell us of their positive experience.”
While researching her book, Bruder spent a week working in an Amazon warehouse in Texas and witnessed some of its potential dangers. She writes of one 70-year-old CamperForce worker, Chuck Stout, who was stationed near a conveyor belt when a box flew off and knocked him down, causing him to hit his head on the concrete floor. After Amazon’s in-house medics determined he hadn’t suffered a concussion, Stout was sent back to the job that had him walking some 15 miles a day.
The book’s central character, Linda May, who plays herself in the film, developed a debilitating repetitive-motion wrist injury from operating a handheld barcode scanner for hours every day, with pain radiating along the entire length of her arm. Working through the Christmas rush, Bruder writes that Linda May felt like “a cog in the world’s largest vending machine.”
None of those hazards are seen in the film, however, in which Fern is shown packing boxes and placing products on shelves in an Amazon warehouse, declaring at one point that the gig is “great money.”
Zhao, who is also in the midst of post-production on the upcoming Marvel epic “The Eternals,” has not directly addressed the criticisms, but she has indicated the film is not meant to minimize hardships in the nomad lifestyle. “If you look deeply, the issue of eldercare as a casualty of capitalism is on every frame,” Zhao said in a New York magazine profile back in February. “It’s just, yes, there’s the beautiful sunset behind it.”
In a statement, Amazon’s Woodson said, “The health and safety of our employees is our number one priority — and has been since day one. We work closely with health and safety experts and scientists, conduct thousands of safety inspections each day in our buildings, and have made hundreds of changes as a result of employee feedback on how we can improve their well-being at work.”
To gain access to shoot in an Amazon fulfillment center in Fernley, Nev., McDormand, who also produced the film, wrote a letter to Jeff Blackburn, Amazon’s senior VP of business and corporate development. “It was right before they started giving people $15 an hour,” McDormand told The Hollywood Reporter last year. “This was a really smart move for them because … we are telling a story about a person who is benefiting from hard work, and working at the Amazon fulfillment center is hard work, but it pays a wage.”
© (Searchlight Pictures) Real-life nomad Bob Wells in a scene from “Nomadland” (Searchlight Pictures)
Bob Wells, an advocate for the nomadic community and co-founder of Home on Wheels Alliance, argues that the criticism of the depiction of Amazon in “Nomadland,” while understandable, is ultimately misplaced. Though he has personally never worked at Amazon, over the years he has spoken to many nomads who have. While he has heard first-hand accounts of how physically difficult the work can be, particularly for older workers, he says the CamperForce program — which launched in 2008 and operates at more than 25 Amazon facilities across North America — is in high demand as a way to make good money relatively quickly.
“I think people are conflating the regular Amazon employees that are there year-round, year after year, with the CamperForce, and I’m not sure that is a fair comparison,” Wells says. “The truth is that I think the CamperForce is treated reasonably well. I think people are taking their massive hatred for the corporate world, which is in my mind 100% valid, and they’re trying to shoehorn the CamperForce in there as evidence to back up their argument. Corporations do need to be controlled. But the CamperForce isn’t a prime example of the fault. I think if you’re basically healthy, the CamperForce is a very good thing.”
In Hollywood, support for “Nomadland” appears to remain strong as evidenced by continued domination of awards season. With the film business struggling to come back from the pandemic, competition for awards this year has been relatively congenial, and few seem to have the appetite to publicly go after a perceived frontrunner over a potential vulnerability. (Hardball campaigns can easily backfire and several recent films have claimed Oscar gold in spite of controversy, including contenders as varied as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Green Book” and “Joker.”)
Meanwhile, Amazon itself is a significant player this awards season with its film division having released nominated titles “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” “One Night In Miami…,” “Sound of Metal” and “Time.”
Bruder, who is on assignment, was unavailable to comment for this story. But speaking to The Times in February, she had nothing but praise for “Nomadland,” crediting Zhao — who, having taken top honors this past weekend at the Directors Guild Awards, could become the first woman of color to win the directing Oscar — for presenting viewers with a window onto an aspect of life in America that has thus far been largely ignored.
“I always hoped and expected that Chloé would do this with a light touch that would show the full nuance of the situation,” Bruder said. “Part of what happens, we hope, in a book of narrative non-fiction or a film is that it becomes a vector for empathy. Rather than exoticizing a group of people, you recognize in them bits of people you know and bits of yourself. Maybe this makes me sound like a bit of a hippie. But I consider it a connective sort of storytelling.”
“Nomadland” cinematographer Joshua James Richards and director Chloé Zhao met at NYU Film School and have worked together ever since.
“There was a bond formed just through our taste and visually what we were drawn to,” Richards told IndieWire.
Following film school, the collaborators spent a great deal of time traveling the American West, in particular South Dakota, where they made their first two features, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” and “The Rider.” Like “Nomadland,” both films feature first-time performers in stories set against expansive western landscapes.
In a far-ranging interview, Richards discusses how their collaboration and filmic language evolved over the three films.
The following interview excerpts have been lightly edited for clarity.Moving with Fern
Richards: Soon as Chloé started talking about “Nomadland,” I thought, “This is a camera that needs to move with Fern (Frances McDormand). We gotta be in a fluid, mercurial motion through this movie.” And Chloe agreed. It’s all about grounding you in Fern’s perspective, and the audience feeling like they are moving with her. I always said, “It’s like a rollercoaster.” Scorsese used that [to describe] Marvel movies, and I thought, “Why’s that a criticism? Riding a rollercoaster is what movies are like for me.”Related Related
Whereas “The Rider,” so much of that was about that character’s stasis. He’s a prisoner in that landscape in many ways, until he gets on that horse, and then the camera moves.
With “Songs [My Brothers Taught Me”] it was complete chaos because it was our first feature. I did go back and watch “Songs,” and it was really interesting because I was just going off of instinct, I didn’t know what I was doing. Because it was kind of cool to go back and see your instincts and be like, “Yeah, a 18mm for a close-up, that’s cool.” Because in the madness of it, you don’t really remember why made some decisions or why you gravitate toward that.
I did want to challenge myself [on “Nomadland”], and use few more tools, expand my cinematic vocabulary and see if when put together do they still work. Because when you’re starting out, you’re like, “OK, I’m handheld,” because you’re uncertain. You don’t want to draw attention to the cinematography. For me, it’s taken a while to build that confidence as well. It’s not all conceptual. Maybe if we had a bit more cash we’d have done the same thing on “The Rider.”
One thing that was really beneficial [on “Nomadland”] was my AC [first assistant camera] Charles Bae always had two cameras going. Both Alexa Minis with two sets of ultra primes [lenses], never go longer than a 35mm. We’d have one camera on the Ronin Gimbal [camera stabilizer] at all times, and with that, I’d have a vest. And the other one was just ready to put on the shoulder, run-and-gun, with an easy rig.
It was super important that both those cameras were always ready, in whatever situation. If blocking becomes that they want to start walking around, if Fran wants to go over there, she can. We’re never tied down. And what it allows me to do with the movement of the camera, I’m not just finding my shot. I’m constantly nimble. I’m constantly ready to move with the character.
Chloe creates an environment, but it’s dictated by them. That’s the key to it.Framing the American Landscape
20th Century Fox
Richards: I was always inspired reading about [cinematographer] John Toll and [Terrence] Malick back on “Thin Red Line,” where they felt like as soon as they got on a longer lens, on those Panavision C-Series lenses, it just felt like they were losing something.
In the case of the “Thin Red Line” it’s, “Look at these people blowing each other up, and they are surrounded by so much beauty and nature,” and I suppose in “Nomadland,” that relationship with the landscape is about Fern’s future promise, but also the passing of things, a kind of American decay, we wanted to get in there.
We were inspired by paintings, the Hudson Valley River School, that fading light on American western horizon, with the fallen tree in the foreground. I’d go home to the hotel [while shooting], and I’d just look at those paintings, and a shit-ton of [William] Eggleston photography. Eggleston to me is just the master of finding poetry in the everyday American mundane.A Snowy Empire: “We’re Fucked”
“Nomadland” begins in Empire, Nevada, a town where gypsum mining operations shut down in 2011 (as it does in the movie), leaving many like Fern unable to earn a living.
Richards: When Chloé and I first scouted Empire, it was months and months before [production], and there had been fires somewhere, I think Oregon. So when we first saw Empire, it was this hazy desert, “Mad Max”-kind of vibe. That’s what we had in our minds and that’s where we thought Fern would begin and end up [the movie].
And then we get there, and it’s, “Josh, it’s fucking snow-covered.” And we’re literally, like, “We’re fucked. We’ll have to come back next year.”
We were making the exact mistake we always try to avoid. We were saying, “It has to be dusty. Remember those tumbleweeds that were literally blowing past?” But then you realize, tumbleweeds are kind of cheesy, cliche, and actually Empire is frozen in time, literally. And then we were like, “Snow is fucking perfect,” and it breaks up [the color palette and magic hour look of the film] a little bit. It bookends it. So you roll with the punches, and you get lucky sometimes. In the end, it actually adds a really important visual structure to the film.DP-Turned-Production Designer
Richards: I felt [our] process gets hindered sometimes by having a conventional production designer. It’s like, “Dude, we both know 95 percent of this is just going to be moving shit around,” but also Fern’s van just visually hit me. I just had such a specific idea for this van based on other vans that we had seen. I just couldn’t get other people there, so I asked Chloé, “I’ve got a couple of months, can I just build it?” So I built it all out and I got weird about it. I went full “Close Encounters,” I was sanding and staining everything.
Fern’s van is an internal space. This is where we see her go back into her memories. We probably see her at her lowest points in the van, and it’s kind of this underworld of the movie, that’s how I saw it. So visually, the chiaroscuro lighting — in the van is some of the only time you’ll see people front lit, against the darkness of the van, and that’s OK, because we’re in their world and you’re tracing the wrinkles and the lines and the stories etched into people’s faces.Fran Is Fern
Richards: [Frances “Fran” McDormand] told me once that a critic described her face as a national park, and mate, I can tell you, I know exactly what he means. Having stared at that face as long as I have, what a face. I just thought, how do I make that almost three-dimensional, and a bit soft, and that’s how I approached lighting, it feels like sculpture to me.
I wanted lenses that were a bit soft, but still have this sharpness. I don’t mind some distortion, we like that, bring the faces forward when we’re framing in depth — we are always framing in depth, other than on big close-ups. So my lens choice was really based on those things.
To me, Fern is truly Fran in an alternate universe. I get such a kick out of watching the movie that way, because she was able to bring that. I told her, the reality of that performance, just knowing Fran a little bit, and just seeing how honest she’s able to be in front of the camera — the only time I’ve seen it was from non-actors, every other actor I’ve worked with I’ve been like, ‘I don’t know, I kind of can tell.’ But Fran, she’s a magician.
© Provided by People Chloe Zhao
Nomadland also won best film, leading actress (Frances McDormand) and cinematography (Joshua James Richards). According to the Associated Press, Zhao said of her historic win, “If this means more people like me get to live their dreams, then I feel very grateful.”
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In February, Zhao became the second woman to win best director at the Golden Globes, coming after Barbra Streisand won the category in 1984 for Yentl.
At the Academy Awards, which will air April 25, Zhao is also nominated for best director, where, for the first time ever, more than one woman has been nominated in the director’s category (Emerald Fennell is also nominated for Promising Young Woman). Bigelow remains the only woman to win best director at the Oscars, also for The Hurt Locker.
Zhao, who previously made several independent films such as The Rider, received buzz for her work in Nomadland, which follows the story of Fern (McDormand), who becomes a drifter after losing her home in the 2008 recession.
Zhao has several projects in the pipeline, including her biggest film yet: the upcoming Marvel superhero movie The Eternals, starring Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek.
Nomadland is now playing in select theaters and available to stream on Hulu.