History-Making Oscar Nominee Chloé Zhao: Her Flourishing Career in Photos

From Beijing to New York City

Director, screenwriter and producer Chloé Zhao moved to New York City from Beijing to attend NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2010. It was there she developed her critically acclaimed short film Daughters, which won numerous awards including best student live action short at the 2010 Palm Springs International ShortFest. 

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First Feature Film

During her program, Zhao also finished her debut feature film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival’s US Dramatic Competition.

The Native American drama set on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota — written and directed by Zhao and produced by Zhao and Forest Whitaker — stars John Reddy as Johnny Winters, Jashaun St. John as Jashaun Winters and Irene Bedard as Lisa Winters.

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Accumulating Accolades

Her debut project earned her several nominations and awards throughout the film festival circuit, including nominations for the grand jury prize at Sundance in 2015 and the best first feature and someone to watch awards at the 2016 Film Independent Spirit Awards. 

When asked by Film Independent in 2016 about the inspiration for her movie, she said, “When people hear about the struggles people face on Pine Ridge, one of the most common questions is: ‘Why don’t they just leave?’ I wondered the same at the beginning. But after spending a lot of time there, I started to understand the incredibly strong connection people have with their families, communities and land.”

“It’s a complicated connection—both freeing and confining,” she added. “I wanted to make a film exploring that complicity.”

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Here Comes The Rider

Zhao’s next film, The Rider, was released in 2017 and gave her a bigger boost in recognition and respect as a director when it garnered high praise following its premiere at Cannes Film Festival.

The Western took her back to the Lakota Sioux tribe of the Pine Ridge Reservation and follows Brady Blackburn (played by real-life horse trainer and rodeo rider Brady Jandreau), who must give up the rodeo after suffering a serious head injury. The visually breathtaking drama takes viewers through Blackburn’s journey to try and adapt to a new way of living outside of the ring.

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Riding High Through Awards Season

The movie broke open the film festival floodgates with a slew of nominations and awards, including best film at the National Society of Film Critics Awards and best feature at the Gotham Awards. Zhao also received the coveted Art Cinema award following the premiere at the Director’s Fortnight selection at the Cannes Film Festival.

Zhao explained why she centered her story on Jandreau in a 2018 interview with Vanity Fair. 

“A lot of sports movies are about people who, in the end, win the game,” Zhao told the outlet. “In the case of rodeo and Brady, the chance of him returning is very slim. But not a day goes by that this man has given up on the rodeo or continued to live in a way where he could be close to these animals.”

“I really wanted to make a film that celebrates that, celebrates those who stay on the reservation, who make the tough choices in life, who keep going,” she continued. “I don’t think our culture celebrates that enough.”

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Major Recognition

Following the release of The Rider, Zhao continued to receive honors for her contributions to cinema. In 2017, Zhao won the IWC Filmmaker Award, which further solidified her spot as the up-and-coming director to watch.

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Inaugural High Honors

In 2018, Zhao also recieved the first-ever Bonnie Award at the Film Independent Spirit Awards nominee brunch. The prize is a $50,000 grant given to a talented mid-career female director who demonstrates innovation and uniqueness of vision in film. 

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Teaming Up with Frances McDormand

Zhao’s next project was born out of a fateful encounter with actress Frances McDormand, who wanted to meet with Zhao after watching The Rider. According to a recent interview with Vulture, McDormand bought the rights to journalist Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, and Zhao happened to be writing a similar story of her own at the time. The two decided to join forces instead to tackle the story of Fern (played by McDormand), a woman who decides to live life on the road as a modern-day nomad after her town of Empire, Nevada, shuts down following the closure of a U.S. Gypsum facility — an actual event that occurred in 2011.

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Joining the Marvel Universe

Zhao has switched gears from telling stories from America’s heartland to diving into the Marvel Universe, as she was chosen to direct The Eternals in 2018. The director beat out several other contenders, including Nicole Kassell (who has worked on Watchmen and Westworld) and Travis Knight (Bumblebee).

The Eternals cast is stacked with A-listers including Salma Hayek, Angelia Jolie, Gemma Chan, Kit Harington, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry and more, and is slated to be released on Nov. 5, 2021. 

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Award Season Favorite

The film won awards at several film festivals in the U.S. and internationally, and was up for four at the 2021 Golden Globes: best motion picture, best screenplay (Zhao), best director (Zhao) and best performance by an actress in a motion picture (McDormand). It took home both best director and best motion picture.

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Making History — Twice

Zhao joined Promising Young Woman‘s Emerald Fennell and One Night in Miami‘s Regina King as part of a historic group of women directors nominated for best director at the 2021 Golden Globes. It was the first time ever more than one woman had been nominated in the best director category, and Zhao was also the first woman of Asian descent to ever be recognized in the directing category.

Her win made her just the second female best director ever, and first female of Asian descent to score the award. 

At the 2021 Oscars, Nomadland is up for six awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing.

Zhao’s Best Director nod is again historic: she is the first woman of Asian descent to be nominated in the category, and it’s the first time more than one woman has been nominated in a year for Best Director, as Promising Young Woman‘s Emerald Fennell is up, too. Only five women have been nominated in the Best Director category previously, and only Kathryn Bigelow has won, for 2010’s The Hurt Locker.

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