Tracking Nomadland’s Path Across the American West

Frances McDormand and David Strathairn in the Badlands. Photo: Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

If there’s one movie that will give you wanderlust in the confined Covid existence of winter 2021, it’s Nomadland. The film, directed and written by Chloé Zhao, follows Frances McDormand’s character Fern, who packs up her belongings into a van after losing her job and takes to the road, going back and forth across the American West. Through Joshua James Richards’s cinematography, we see not-quite postcard dispatches from a nomadic gathering in Arizona, a cooking job in South Dakota, a beet harvest in Nebraska, alongside performances from the amateur actors Zhao recruited to play versions of themselves along the way. Zhao started out with a script based on Jessica Bruder’s reporting in the book Nomadland, and her own trips to some of the locations in advance. Filming started in September 2018 in South Dakota, with the crew moving south and west across the U.S. over the next several months, adapting and incorporating what they witnessed in the locations along the way. “You find yourself in places you’d never expect to be, meeting people and making something that feels like community theater,” Richards said. He and one of the film’s producers, Mollye Asher, walked through what they discovered on some key stops on the road.

Graphic: Google Maps

1. Empire, Nevada

Fern’s journey begins when the U.S. Gypsum plant in her town near Nevada’s Black Rock Desert closes down during the recession, and forces her on the road. The circumstances are based on the events reported in Bruder’s book — she details how the mine’s closure led to Empire’s economic collapse and the cancellation of its zip code. Nomadland’s creative team found its way into the town by befriending the locals, crucially Brandy Wilber, who appears in a scene at a sporting-goods store with her daughters. Wilber then introduced them to others in Empire, including the man with a storage unit Fern talks to early in the film. “It’s not a big town,” said producer Mollye Asher, “But she knows everybody and they all love her. They’re proud of the place and so wanted to have it onscreen.”

McDormand in Empire. Photo: Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

When Zhao and her partner, cinematographer Joshua James Richards, arrived with the crew, they realized they had to adapt to the winter conditions. “Initially, it felt like this Mad Max postapocalypse in a dust bowl with tumbleweeds, but then we arrive and it’s covered in snow,” Richards says. “In time, we realized snow is actually better.”

2. Amazon Fulfillment Center, Southern California

In Fern’s early search for work, she takes a packaging gig at Amazon as part of the corporate giant’s CamperForce program, which employs older itinerant workers. In her book, Bruder worked undercover at a center, but in the film’s approach is more direct — they went straight to the top to request access to the facility. McDormand wrote a letter to second-in-command Jeff Wilke, and the company said yes, giving the crew license to film on location with what Asher described as few limitations. Amazon’s workplace conditions have been the subject of scrutiny and protests, and they are described as strenuous in Bruder’s book. The movie does not serve up a judgment in its depiction. “We made it clear that Chloe’s never going in with her films with an agenda,” Asher said. “It’s about Fern, and this is one of the places where she works.”

After the crew got permission to film on location, other employees in the program were cast as Fern’s co-workers. “We wrote a notice for Amazon to put out to their employees to say we’re filming and we met with a bunch of people to get a sense of who they were and taped them for Chloe for her to choose from that group of people,” Asher said. The filmmakers looked for whoever felt immediately compelling. “They need to bring an -essence of themselves in front of the camera,” Richards says, pointing out one man in particular who works with Fern and has tattoos of Morrissey lyrics. “I don’t know why Morrissey’s interesting, but it says something about ‘home,’ so let’s try it!”

3. Quartzsite, Arizona

The makeshift RV park. Photo: Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Fern gathers with a group of nomads in Arizona in a version of Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, an annual winter RV event. The version of the gathering on film features several real-life nomads, including YouTube personality Bob Wells, a van-living guru. Zhao intended to film in the same location as RTR, but the land wasn’t flat enough for the vehicles they needed to use. It also wasn’t open enough for the shot they hoped to get of McDormand swallowed by the landscape. Swankie, a nomad who plays herself in the film, helped locate other options for the crew near Quartzsite. Richards devised a layout to re-create the event so the real-life nomads they filmed would arrive in ordered groups and settle into carefully chosen marks. With that structure in place, they could then capture whatever developed naturally. “Chloe would send me off while we were waiting for key scenes to do interviews and vignettes with people,” Richards said. “Chloe creates this environment that’s actually quite rigid. It’s like a sandbox, and then inside we can play.”

4. Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Zhao made her first two movies around the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and returned to the area for some scenes in Nomadland. Fern works for a time at a campsite in the Badlands, a place Zhao and her crew had filmed before but hadn’t yet captured in the way they wanted. To film on location, they had to work closely with the National Park Service for months and changed part of the script with its input. (Older versions of the Park Service uniforms were used to accommodate trademark concerns.)

Later on, Fern takes a job in the kitchen at Wall Drug, a drug store and tourist fixture known for its tchotchkes, photo opportunities, and aggressive billboard advertising along I-90. “It’s a family-owned business, and we eventually did tell them that Frances was in the film, which they were excited about because the mom was a huge fan of her,” Asher said. Wall Drug let the Nomadland crew film while they were open, with McDormand serving customers who often didn’t recognize her. “That was probably as documentary as this movie got,” Richards said.

5. The Beet Harvest, Nebraska

There’s a major beet harvest in North Dakota that employs a number of older itinerant workers, but the crew couldn’t get access to it. “It was too big,” producer Mollye Asher says, “and they had no reason to have us there.” Instead, the crew found a smaller harvest operated by Western Sugar in Nebraska, where Fern works after leaving South Dakota. “They gave us the gear to be safe and set up a whole pile [of beets] for us so that we could shoot it more than once,” Asher says.

6. Dave’s Home, Point Arena, California

Strathairn and McDormand. Photo: Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Aside from McDormand, Nomadland’s primary professional actor is David Strathairn, who plays a nomad named Dave who flirts with Fern on the road. Late in the film, she visits him at his home in Point Arena, a haven for older hippies, and discovers how uncomfortable she feels being tied down. Asher says, “Chloé wanted it to be clearly the coast and sort of the end of the line.”

… And on the Road Along the Way

The film stitches together Fern’s many stops with footage of her driving through the American West. Some of those shots were carefully planned — such as a moment where Fern drives through a tree tunnel in Sequoia national park. Others were incidental. The crew kept a camera in one of their vehicles taping Fern’s van as they drove between locations to collect footage. At one point in the script, Zhao described a scene where Fern watches a bison from her van. But they couldn’t just bring in bison to shoot, since they’re so large and notoriously hard to herd. “One of our co-producers was running an errand and saw this buffalo and called and dropped a pin in on the map so that we made sure we found it,” Asher said. “We would drive through and everyone was like, ‘did you get the bison, Josh?’” Richards said, “and I was like, ‘I think so!’ and then we would move on.”

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Tracking Nomadland’s Path Across the American West