Written by Shona Smith on May 5, 2021. Posted in Awards and Festivals

Academy Award winning Nomadland displays the landscapes of the American West

Based on journalist Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century 2020 Academy Award Best Picture winner tells the story of creativity, resilience and generosity of those that live on the road in the American West. Director Chloe Zhao also won Best Director at the awards.

The film follows Fern, played by Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Fargo), who after the economic collapse of a company town in rural Nevada packs her van and sets off on the road exploring a life outside of conventional society as a modern-day nomad.

The American West plays as much of a role as the real nomads Lina May, Swankie and Bob Wells who feature in the film.  The film shot over six months on the road featuring locations in South Dakota, Nebraska, Nevada, the Pacific Northwest and California.

The shoot began in September 2018, where South Dakota’s Badlands and at the Wall Drug cow-boy themed tourist spot. The production then moved to Nebraska. “We drove through Deadwood on our way down to Western Nebraska for the beet harvest,” says producer Peter Spears. “From there we were off for a little bit of time, and then we reconvened in Empire, Nevada, which is near Black Rock Desert, where Burning Man happens.”

Once a company town home to generations of gypsum miners the great recession saw Empire obliterated as a town. Zhao and McDormand had decided on Empire as the jumping off point for their heroine, Fern, and it was also the seed from which Bruder’s book had grown.

Following on from Empire, Point Arena, a one-time countercultural enclave in Mendocino County on the Northern California coast hosted production. Yuma, Arizona and California’s San Bernadino country also make their way onto screen.

The travelling production was working with existing communities and worked with a small, handpicked team that included producing partner Dan Janvey (Beasts of the Southern Wild), cinematographer Joshua James Richards (The Rider, God’s Own Country).

“On a shoot like this, where you’re going into communities that are not your own, you need to be invisible in a way, so we needed people who were not only good at their jobs but who had the right kind of personality.” Says producer Mollye Asher.  Nineteen men and seventeen women made up the crew. “Chloé and Josh worked with a really small number of people, so that they could embed themselves in this community. We worked out of old vans that could have belonged to nomads which allowed the production to shoot 360.”

McDormand, who also produced the film notes that “as producer, I became a member of a tightly knit company of 23 young filmmakers and travelled with them on the road while making the movie as their peer. I was not there to teach, I was there to learn and that was the ethos of our journey,” says McDormand.

The landscapes are brought to life by composer Ludovico Einaudi’s (This is England, The Intouchables) latest work Seven Days Walking.  inspired based on compositions on a series of walks in the Italian Alps in 2018 where he followed the same route each day but opening up to different emotions an, light, temperature, wildlife and weather conditions.  Zhao says that for the soundtrack she “set out to look for music inspired by nature. A big part of Fern's evolution is learning to live with nature.  Living in a van, she becomes increasingly more exposed to nature -- its beauty and hostility, its ability to replenish and to heal.”

Images Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

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