British cinematographer Joshua James Richards discusses his ongoing collaboration with Chloé Zhao, and how they captured the American landscape in Nomadland. Nomadland is now available on Hulu in the US.
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Although Chloé Zhao has only made three feature films, she’s already a director with an instantly recognisable style: her films are filled with sweeping vistas of the American west, often shot at magic hour. Her actors, many of them non-professionals, are captured in that landscape with a kind of spontaneity — the camera instinctively follows their movements rather than following preplanned blocking — so it often feels like you’re watching an unusually gorgeous documentary. That distinctive aesthetic was devised, crafted, and developed over her career in collaboration with cinematographer Joshua James Richards; the two are also romantic partners. They’ve worked together on every one of Zhao’s features thus far: Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015), The Rider (2017), and Nomadland, which was released today.
Nomadland is probably the pair’s most visually ambitious film yet, because it involves a variety of different locations across America. The film follows Fern (Frances McDormand, the first professional actor Zhao has featured in one of her films), a widow surviving off short-term contract work, who decides to adopt a nomadic lifestyle. Fern travels from place to place in her van, making fleeting connections with other nomads, most of whom are played by real nomads whom Zhao and Richards met while preparing to shoot the film. Fern also flirts with the idea of a romance with Dave (David Strathairn), a nomad with whom she crosses paths every once in a while.
We first spoke with Joshua James Richards in 2017, when he told us about shooting God’s Own Country and The Rider, and the differences between Francis Lee’s and Chloé Zhao’s working processes. Since then, the British DP has continued to rise in prominence, so we caught up with him again to talk about Nomadland. He discusses the different approaches he uses when working with professional and non-professional actors, how his and Zhao’s approach to shooting the American heartlands has changed, and why he also took on the role of production designer for the first time with Nomadland.
Seventh Row (7R): What were the first visual ideas you discussed with Chloé when you embarked on Nomadland?
Joshua James Richards: Doing Songs [My Brothers Taught Me] and The Rider took us [Chloé and I] on the road a lot. We were living in New York at the time, and so we were driving to South Dakota a lot and getting to know the American road and the heartlands. Chloé was already thinking about these alternative ways of living, then Fran[ces McDormand] came to her with the book [Nomadland: Surviving American in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder, on which the film is based]. So there was a level of serendipity about it.
Coming out of Songs and The Rider, I still felt inspired by the landscape. I wanted to spend more time in it and continue exploring it. That’s the spirit we started with.
I did grow up on westerns, so there were a lot of westerns that came to mind. I remember that speech in The Searchers from the old woman, the “We be Texicans” speech. Those women, and that face in that landscape, always stuck with me. The possibility of capturing these faces in this landscape [excited me].
I was getting so much more out of photographic references, for some reason. I just didn’t know of a film that was quite like what Chloé was talking about. [William] Eggleston was a good one, because he finds the poetry in the mundane. Chloé was really adamant that the images contain in them part of the emotion.
It was such a delicate script. When she first wrote it, it was really bare bones, and so gentle and fragile. [We had to ask ourselves,] does enough happen? I don’t know. How do you make people really feel this experience in silence? That’s quite unnerving in script form. You really never know until you get out there with films like this.
7R: My impression of your process with Chloé is that it’s fiction filmmaking mixed with some documentary elements. To what extent is the footage you capture planned?
Joshua James Richards: I see it almost as contained spontaneity. There might be a scene Chloé wants where she’s not exactly sure what [the characters are] saying, but [she knows] the intention [of the scene].
For example, take the scene with Fern sitting down with Grandma in the Badlands in the campgrounds. We met Grandma there, and she had all these rings on her fingers. Each ring was from a man she had loved who had died. Chloé was like, “Oh wow, we need to put grandma in the film.” Then we’ll talk about and it will be like, “Well, maybe Grandma should be [consoling Fern].” So then Chloé creates that environment. We don’t know what Grandma’s going to say. And she actually had no idea who Fran was. She had no idea [Fran] was an actor. Grandma thought she was in a documentary. Even though we explained it, she just doesn’t care. She’s only going to be Grandma.
7R: Is your shoot guided by location? Do you go to a location, explore it, and work out exactly what to shoot once you’re there?
Joshua James Richards: Well, there’s a script, make no mistake. The script is as clear as any script, but it’s more like a road map, or a spine.
I love [location] scouting. You have to be as thorough as possible when you scout, because just over that little hill there might be something better. In retrospect, it was a huge luxury that we got to scout for a really long time. Prep was very long. And that’s sort of the trick with this kind of filmmaking, I think. The more prep and the more clear the cinematic languages [, the smoother the shoot will be].
You have all these rules. It’s like a jazz band. We all know the chord progression, and because we know that chord progression, now, we can do little solos here and there. And then we’ll come back to the main melody. That’s how I always described it to the crew. Much of what you shoot won’t be used, which, dependending on your attitude, can be quite disheartening. That’s the name of the game with this kind of shooting. You just shoot, shoot, and shoot, and maybe one percent of it is magical, spontaneous moments, and the rest is garbage.
7R: I saw that you were credited as a production designer on the film, as well. How did that come about? And what was it like balancing both roles?
Joshua James Richards: I think it came about when we found a Ford Econoline [the van in which McDormand’s character lives], and we kept discussing the way it’s an extension of Fern’s character. We started talking to Fran, and I got so attached to it, it just happened, really.
On The Rider I was also [an uncredited] production designer, really. For the most part, we’re going into locations, and you’re curating what’s already there for the camera, and removing certain colors. You want some kind of palette, like any other indie. I just fell in love with the idea of having my own input [into the van] and creating that inner space. That led to me being production designer for the whole movie. But it was also a huge team thing: a really tight art department that was always just one day ahead of us, prepping the next location. It worked really efficiently.
7R: How did your usual process with Chloé change now that you had a professional actor at the centre of the story, which wasn’t the case with your previous two films with her?
Joshua James Richards: It changes everything in some scenarios, and then it changes nothing in other scenarios. When I was conceiving of the visual language of Nomadland, it was almost like three films. We were trying to fold these films into each other. How do you do that visually or without it feeling [jarring]? The camera needs to feel as spontaneous in [traditional dialogue scenes] as it does in the truly spontaneous moments.
It’s almost forced spontaneity. In the scenes that are spontaneous, you’re actually trying to keep the camera more purposeful. And then in the scenes with Fran and Dave [David Strathairn], in the van, for example, when he drops the plates, it needs to feel like this is just happening.
We talked about how to help the audience feel Fern’s emotions. It’s going to have to be immersive. How do we make this a really, truly immersive road movie? How do we give the audience the sense that they’re discovering things as Fern does. That was when I was going to shoot steadicam. But then we opted for the Ronin 2 gimbals, and that made things really nimble. I felt liberated actually. We’d have two cameras ready at all times, so if Fran wants to suddenly go walk over there, I can just grab the Ronin, and we’ll do that. And she has the freedom to do that. The camera is always reacting to the actors. That’s it.
But that’s something Fran wasn’t used to. The biggest difference is that, normally, Fran and Dave [Strathairn] would say, “Look, as actors, you give us lines, and then you give us enough rehearsal, and we’ll get to the truth.” But when you’re working this way, with non-actors, it ain’t gonna be that way. Probably, your first take is the closest thing you’re gonna get to something true and lived in. That was, I think, very difficult for Fran. And it was a challenge for all of us.
You always start on your nomads. Bob Wells [one of the nomads] gets, like, forty-five minutes, and Fran gets, like, five minutes. You feel bad, because, at the end, we’re clapping Swankie [another nomad] and saying, “Oh, Swankie, that was amazing!” And then you’re like [in a flatter tone], “Well done, Fran.” [laughs] It must have been quite lonely for her at times.
7R: You said that you shoot a lot more than you actually use in the film. How do you approach planning a scene and how you’re going to cover it?
Joshua James Richards: In the case of Nomadland, I felt I needed a really clear visual language. Like a very simple dialect, in a way. When we come to somewhere new, I lead you in in the same way to each location. And then a closeup is going to be kind of the same. You limit your language a bit and create quite rigid rules for yourself, because I feel it could have become a bit too much of a confusing mosaic of movement. [Because we have] that language, Chloé and I, when we say closeup, we both know exactly what each other means.
The crew all have the same respect for this magic hour hustle. Three hours beforehand, everyone knows where we’re shooting, what direction, what light… we’re all going for it. It means people are jumping behind bushes and vans and things. It’s really a group effort. And that’s when the small crew really comes into its own.
I’m really fortunate that Chloé allows me to be part of the scheduling. We schedule [the shoot] around the [natural] lighting, which is very unusual, and very ballsy, especially because you’re working with people who’ve never been in front of the camera before. And you’ve got half an hour, or twenty minutes, to get the scene [because that’s how long magic hour lasts]. So there’s careful planning. We draw a lot of overhead diagrams. We show that to everyone in the morning, as well, just so that there’s no way you’re not clear on exactly what we’re shooting and where.
If you like shooting this way, it’s a dream, but you have to be on your feet the whole time. And it’s very stressful. A lot of it’s coping with the chaos. And these shoots can be very tumultuous, because you’re crossing so much landscape and different environments. I got bit by a scorpion, and my arm was all swelled up for most of the shoot. And also, there’s this fungus [that we encountered] that gives you a cough that you can never shake. So a lot of it was just dealing with that.
7R: You captured a similar American landscape in your last two films with Chloé. In Nomadland, did you want to capture it in a different way than you did the previous times?
Joshua James Richards: Yeah. The movement of the camera was very new. I was excited by that. The other films, if you think about it, are kind of about stasis, in a way. These characters are kind of trapped in this landscape that quickly becomes a prison if they’re not doing the thing they’re meant to be doing.
With this, it was very much more of a movement… I was gonna say pseudo-spiritual sort of movement, but that’s not right. It’s more like, if God exists in a Malick movie, paganism exists in Chloé’s movies. There really is a respect for the landscape. I feel like people miss the film if they’re not tracking Fern’s love story between her and these places she’s in.
Nomadland is now out on Hulu in the US.
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