Frances McDormand in Nomadland (courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

A compelling blend of drama and nonfiction, Nomadland won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Adapted from a book by Jessica Bruder, it was written, edited and directed by Chloé Zhao. This is the third collaboration between Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards, following Songs My Brother Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017).

Richards won the Best Debut Cinematography at the EnergaCamerimage Festival for Songs My Brother Taught Me. This year Camerimage awarded its Golden Frog to Richards for Nomadland. 

Frances McDormand, who plays Fern in Nomadland, optioned the book in 2017. Filming took place in 2018 on locations that ranged from the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR) to a beet harvest and an Amazon Fulfillment Center.

Richards spoke with Filmmaker from his home in California following Camerimage. Nomadland opens from Fox Searchlight and is on Hulu beginning today.

Filmmaker: Congratulations on your Camerimage win.

Richards: I was blown away, it was not something I expected to happen. I owe a lot of gratitude to the festival.

Filmmaker: The visuals in Nomadland have the intimacy and immediacy of documentary filmmaking. Can you give an idea of how you and Chloé determine framing and composition.

Richards: Because the environments and scenarios are unpredictable, having solid, simple rules frees you to explore. We know this is how we’re going to frame a wide shot, this is how we’re going frame a close-up, this is how we’re going to frame a two shot, and we never deviate from that. 

We have a sort of a language that’s so defined it can work in almost any scenario. And you know you’re anchored in that approach. It was really helpful when I heard Iñárritu talk about The Revenant. He described it like climbing a cliff. Once you start, that’s it. There’s no going back, you’ve got to keep going. You’ve made your decisions and you stick to them, because if you don’t, you’re kind of fucked.

Filmmaker: That approach works even with people who don’t have experience being on camera and may not be used to revealing themselves?

Richards: I’m always amazed by how open and free people out there are to having a camera in their space. They’re almost only able to be exactly what they are, they’ve been through too much to care what anyone thinks of them. 

That’s part of it, but everything’s in the stage leading up to the shooting. Chloé is truly interested in these people and places, and we make a very real attempt to create true relationships with them. By the time we’re shooting you feel like you’re making a film with your friends. 

You approach it knowing that they are the experts of their own experience. You remove yourself as filmmaker, get your ego out of the way, stop asking questions and listen to what they want to bring. If you arrive at an intimate moment, you know it’s a moment they want to tell.

I was reading Carl Rogers’ approach to psychoanalysis recently, and it reminded me of the way Chloé makes films. It’s the art of listening. She’s like a fisherman capturing all these moments that they’ve offered to her.

Filmmaker: Well, you can have rules, but you still need to make creative decisions about how to implement them. For example, what were your rules for close-ups? 

Richards: How do you connect with someone with a camera? It’s a hard thing to talk about. And I don’t know why being 45 degrees, just above the cheekbone, or just below it, puts me in that person’s world, in that perspective. I’m just close enough that I’m focused on their eyes, and their face, and I’m not focused on what’s around them. 

What’s really interesting is that I guess every cinematographer would have a different idea of how to frame that. But for me, when we’re in the interior world of the characters, it’s framed a certain way. If you look at [Charlene] Swankie or the characters around the campfire, if you look at Bob Wells, they’re all framed in the same way. Because I want the audience to feel it’s in an interior space now. So we’ll use the same lens for that.

When we’re wide, notice there are very few wide shots that don’t have Fran in it. They’re used to track her journey through this landscape, to let the audience feel it the way she does. 

So we would move the camera in a way that helps convey that somehow, using the Ronin 2 [a 3-axis handheld gimbal]. If you’re going to get on the Ronin, there needs to be a reason for that. I’d like to say I used it almost like a dolly, more tracking and following than just kind of floating. 

There’s quite a rigid formalism to the rest of the camerawork, I suppose.

Filmmaker: You have a very long take of Fern walking through her first day at the RTR.

Richards: I guess that one is a bit floaty.

Filmmaker: But you need to define the space. 

Richards: It’s tracking in a profile and then it moves around to following and then back to tracking. To me it’s moving with Fern as she’s beginning to open. How do you put the audience there? And what does it feel like when you arrive in a place surrounded by strangers? But it’s also about her realizing there’s community out on the road. The sun’s just beginning to come up over the hills, it feels like an awakening of some kind. 

Filmmaker: It feels like a completely unforced moment, but there must have been a lot of prep involved. What is the balance between design and discovery?

Richards: That shot was pretty preconceived. In fact, it was one of the shots Chloé had in mind early on to capture the feeling of the RTR.

I worked with Elizabeth Goddard in our art department. We drew a map of where every single van should go to create the depth we wanted. That was very planned, that one. We only had one take. 

Filmmaker: You say Chloé had the shot…


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