The film “Nomadland” feels like a documentary even though it’s a fictional account that follows actress Frances McDormand’s journey across America, from the jobs she works to the people she encounters.
Rancho Mirage resident Peter Spears, one of the film’s producers, told The Desert Sun that’s part of the “alchemy and wizardry” of Chloé Zhao’s vision for shooting the film.
“Nomadland” won three Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress. Spears shared the Best Picture win with Zhao and producers McDormand, Mollye Asher and Dan Janvey.
The film is adapted from the 2017 nonfiction book of the same name by Jessica Bruder that chronicles older Americans who live transient lifestyles, move from place to place in the United States and take up seasonal work.
McDormand portrays a woman named Fern, who leaves her rural Nevada community after its economic collapse due to the Great Recession. She works temporarily at an Amazon fulfillment center, a campground near Badlands National Park in South Dakota, a restaurant and a sugar beet processing plant.
“Nomadland” also incorporates real-life nomads such as Linda May, Bob Wells and Charlene Swankie into the film. Swankie, an Indiana woman who had been on the road for 10 years when she was approached by Zhao, was hesitant to do the film because she was in desperate need of a shoulder replacement surgery. “I had a lot on my mind and just wanted her to go away,” Swankie told the Los Angeles Times.But she ended up in the film, appearing mostly as herself but with a plot device of having terminal cancer.
Spears, the Rancho Mirage resident who helped produce the film, also has worked as an actor, appearing in such films as “Father of the Bride Part II” and the romantic comedy “Something’s Gotta Give.” He also directed the 2007 film “Careless” and was a producer of the 2017 Academy Award-nominated film “Call Me By Your Name.”
Spears spoke by phone to The Desert Sun about the Oscars, adapting the novel into a film, and criticism over the portrayal of working conditions in Amazon fulfillment centers. The following interview was edited for length and clarity.
THE DESERT SUN: How did it feel for “Nomadland” to win at the Oscars?
PETER SPEARS: It’s an incredible recognition by your peers in the filmmaking community and the work the “Nomadland” company put into this project. There was only 24 of us, so it really was a family.
It was a long shoot and we never dreamed when we began filming it that we’d live through a pandemic and everything that came to pass. In the midst of that year, something hopeful and affirming happened in the guise of this recognition from this award; and to also be in the company of the other great films that were able to persevere through these challenging times and come out as well was really incredible.
Our movie, in particular, is about the importance of community and connection, and in a time when we were all disconnected due to the state of the world, it was very moving to know there were people connected with the message of kindness and shared humanity.
How difficult was it to take the idea of “Nomadland” and turn it into a film?
When Frances McDormand and I optioned the book “Nomadland,” we envisioned a more straightforward adaptation of the book where Frances would play a version of Linda May, who the book mostly follows. After Frances saw “The Rider,” Chloe’s previous film at the Toronto Film Festival, she called me and said, “I think I found the director for our project.”
I saw it quickly thereafter and agreed, but even then, in thinking we might be working with Chloe, we weren’t sure what the style of the movie would be. We loved the experience of the writer, which is something real and documentarian, and at the same time there’s a narrative story happening. When we met with Chloe, she was the one who proposed to us that the movie couldn’t be made the same way.
The new element would be a couple of professional actors now working in tandem with the non-professional actors, which was a new challenge for Chloe. We didn’t know at the beginning if it would be successful, but we were up for the challenge and excited for the experience.
What is it like to incorporate non-professional actors into a film production?
The book is filtered through Jessica Bruder’s experience living amongst these people for a few years. There’s always a little bit of distance built in. With any good writing, you can try to see yourself in that experience, but it’s editorialized by the author’s own experience. To have our own hands-on experience was a lot more immediate and allowed for the way Chloe works.
She had the story she wanted to tell and knew this character of Fern in collaboration with Frances, and she knew the art of the story and wrote the script. By living amongst and getting to know the actual nomads, we were also available to pivot to new moments and things that presented themselves along the way.
Often times we would meet a new nomad and something would shift; for example, Derek, the traveler Frances meets. The guy has a cowboy hat and she meets him twice in the movie. That was a different idea for that character, who would hold that space in Chloe’s original script, but we met him along the way. He’s a young man who travels the rails of America and picks up work here and there. We emboldened him into the story and he actually came along with us, too, and worked on the other side of the camera and learned about film production.
When you have all your plans, all the months of pre-production, the things you’re going to do and trying to make all those things happen as close to that plan as possible, you do all of that working with Chloe and you’re also open to new moments that happen and having to change on the dime. You often have to produce what you spent a month preparing and you have 24 to 48 hours to change when she’s making a change in the script due to a new situation that’s presented itself.
Do you feel this film will inspire a new method of filmmaking?
Chloe brought her own unique vision to bear on how the movie was made. Other people have worked with non-professional actors in different ways and created their own versions of how that might work. It’s hard to know what a movie could do in the way of influencing movies that are yet to come.
What I hope it will do is give permission to certain kinds of filmmakers to work outside the system and outside the traditional way of storytelling, to tell stories in exactly the way they are moved and motivated to tell them, and not feel like they have to fit into some preordained rubric of telling stories and making movies.
“Nomadland” received criticism for scenes shot at an Amazon warehouse that some say didn’t portray a controversial work environment. Do you feel the filming at Amazon reflected the work environment there?
Each person who comes to the movie will take something different away from it. I don’t want to speak of whether someone is right or wrong, and what they take away from that. I think the movie speaks for itself and how it portrays the environment, the areas in which the nomads work, how they work and in Fern’s story. This wasn’t a movie about Amazon; this is a movie about Fern’s story. I think a lot of other people watched the movie and came away with the idea that it was the opposite of that.
Desert Sun reporter Brian Blueskye covers arts and entertainment. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @bblueskye. Support local news, subscribe to The Desert Sun.