Nomadland: From Book to Screen

It first started with journalist Jessica Bruder camping in a tent then later in a van for three winters in the desert around Quartzsite, Arizona. Her plan was to get acquainted with a group of modern-day nomads living in RV’s, vans, and car campers. Bruder’s three-year research resulted in the non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twentieth-first Century (2017), an eye-opening account of a fringe population growing in large numbers after the 2008 financial meltdown. Many of the nomads were once middle-class Americans who had lost their jobs, homes, investments and retirement savings during the economic crisis.

Bob Wells, who started the website CheapRVLiving.com in 2005, is the guru of nomadic living. But it was after the 2008 economic catastrophe that he saw the traffic to his site ‘exploded’. Linda May and Swankie are two of these nomads in their 60’s and 70’s. To sustain their living, many become migrant workers doing seasonal work and hard labour in Amazon warehouses to earn minimal wages.

Bruder’s book is rich in data and testimonials. While offering an in-depth look at how the nomads not only survive on bare essentials but how they find community, friendship and support, at the same time, it is a scathing social commentary on the human toll of the 2008 financial meltdown, and a stark revealing of exploitive employment of a vulnerable, elderly labor force.

What follows is intriguing. One of my first questions to ask Frances McDormand if I had the chance to interview her would be why she thought Bruder’s non-fiction work, though exceptional, would make a good movie so much so that she acquired its film rights.

Cut to the Toronto International Film Festival, September, 2017, where the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri starring McDormand was screened. Stepping out of a press junket for her film, McDormand went to catch another TIFF selection, The Rider directed by Chloe Zhao. After watching, she knew who she’d want to direct the movie adaptation of Nomadland.

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Frances McDormand and Chloe Zhao on the set of Nomadland. Photo by Joshua James Richards

Adhering to her first two features, Songs my Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, director Chloé Zhao casts real-life, non-professionals to play a cinematic version of themselves. She shot her debut work in the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and have Lakota youth tell their story. For The Rider, about a cowboy facing the end of his career after a fall during a rodeo resulting in a traumatic head injury, Zhao casts a real life bronco who’d suffered a similar tragedy to play himself.

Zhao’s signature naturalistic rendering is how she styles the adaptation of Nomadland. Real life nomads in Bruder’s book, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells among others all appear as themselves, enhancing authenticity. To develop a narrative vein, Zhao creates two fictional characters, Fern (Frances McDormand) and Dave (David Strathairn), to weave among them.

In the film, an unadorned McDormand, spot-on with her weary and dishevelled looks as Fern, mingles and makes friends with the nomads, learning the ropes of self-sufficiency. With Linda May, she works as a camp host and as a warehouse worker with Amazon’s CamperForce. Through the dialogues, some of Bruder’s researched data and testimonials flow out naturally.

Born in Beijing, China, Zhao was uprooted when just a teenager to travel to the UK for school and later to the US. She graduated from college in Massachusetts, after that attended NYU Tisch School of the Arts and is now living in California. Her diasporic experience is itself a kind of a nomadic journey. It could well be that her liminal identity, an insider-outsider multiplicity, has equipped her with a unique point of view as a filmmaker.

Shot in five Western States on location where nomads frequent, the film Nomadland is essentially about one woman’s journey towards healing as she takes to the road. Fern and her husband Bo had long worked for US Gypsum and built their home and community in the company town Empire, Nevada. When Bo died of cancer, and later the whole town disappeared from the map as US Gypsum shut down its plant in 2011 after 88 years, Fern stayed in her company house till the very end. There’s this poignant dialogue when she talks to Bob Wells:

“Bo never knew his parents and we never had kids. If I didn’t stay, if I left, it would be like he never existed… It’s like my dad used to say: ‘What’s remembered lives.’ ”

From a non-fiction book on nomads surviving America, Zhao has turned it into a humanistic, personal narrative of loss and healing. While the book is more explicit in its critique and social commentary, Zhao’s film exudes a tone of acceptance, as her focus is not so much on societal ills or corporate greed but the humanity of the characters.

The camera follows Fern in her attempts to connect her past with her present, as she travels down the road to an unknown future. Shot in the magic hour of dawn and dusk and accompanied by the pensive score by Ludovico Einaudi (The Father, 2020), cinematographer Joshua James Richards (The Rider, 2017) knows when to capture Nature’s golden light to elicit depth and allow time for thoughts. While nature is a healer––and we see many soul-stirring scenes reminiscent of Terrence Malick––Fern’s journey to recovery rests in the memories of the ones she still loves even though they have all departed.

And with that, Zhao invokes The Bard. In the latter part of the film, Fern meets a young drifter Derek again and they chat. Derek is lost for words when writing letters to his girlfriend. Fern suggests he uses a poem, and upon his prompting, she shares the one she used as her wedding vow, Sonnet 18. When two characters sitting on gravel ground beside a makeshift fire for warmth adjacent a highway and one recites a Shakespearean love sonnet, it seems incompatible with the setting. But then, why would it be?

What follows is probably the most beautiful sequence in the film. From memory, Fern starts: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/Thou art more lovely and more temperate…” As she goes on, the camera shifts to the evening sky and finally rests on Fern in the van looking at slides of her dad, mom, sister, and herself as a young child as we hear her voice-over continuing with the sonnet towards the last lines: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Thereafter, the camera follows Fern to the redwood forest, where her outstretched arms can only span a tiny portion of a tree trunk, herself minuscule in comparison.

Thus she drives on to a destination unknown. And ‘this’ that gives life could be two-fold. Nature and her memories of loved ones, not a sonnet written with words but one etched deep in her heart.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Nomadland won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress at the 2021 Academy Awards, among 230 other wins internationally.

Jessica Bruder, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (W. W. Norton & Company, 2017) 273 pp., hardcover. The book won Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award. Jessica Bruder is an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

This article also posted on Shiny New Books. Do check them out.

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Other Related Ripple Reviews:

Nomadland: A Book Review

The Rider is Poetry on Screen

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Don’t just drive past Three Billboards

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a ‘Coen-esque’ feature with Fargo (1996) star Frances McDormand. This might well be one of the better Brit-U.S. collaborations in recent, tumultuous years. And McDormand just might head to another Best Actress Oscar win after Fargo.

Caution: The following discussion involves a minor spoiler. Not so much a spoiler in plot but in idea. I can’t be more obscure in reviewing the film if I’m to delve into meaning.

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In British writer/director Martin McDonagh’s debut feature In Bruges (2008), the main character, a hitman, Ken (Brendan Gleeson), explains to his angry crime boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) why he didn’t kill his young protégé Ray (Colin Farrell) as Harry had ordered, saying: “He has the capacity to change. We all have the capacity to change.”

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is McDonagh’s damatization of this pivotal idea in full force: We all have the capacity to change. Viewers may not like the characters or their speech, but the dark comedy leads us to the point where we’ll find it worthwhile to hold our judgment, no matter how despicable they behave or speak. And that is the main reason for the gratifying ending of Three Billboards: Change. A change from distraught to calmness, from tension to release.

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Indeed, language is the spoken expression, the tip of the iceberg. What lies beneath and beyond language is the essence of a character. McDonagh’s script is starkly effective in presenting the different sides of his characters. Not that we should make excuses for their wrongs, but that everyone has a backstory and a present reality to deal with.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) has lost her teenage daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) to a most violent, horrific crime, ‘raped while dying’. She is frustrated by the inability of the police to bring in any arrests. The three billboards she pays for outside Ebbing, Missouri advertise to the world her rage, targeting police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). It’s her intention that the publicity they draw could lead to some effective police actions.

McDonagh is apt to instil humour into the sombre subject matter. The dialogues are sharp and the actors deliver. Call it a dramedy if you will, but the spontaneous laughters generated in the theatre are bittersweet, for they are acerbic depiction of racism, injustice, and the grieving rage of the unconsoled.

The three billboards pit Mildred against the town except for her co-worker Denise (Amanda Warren) in the gift shop and an admirer James (Peter Dinklage) in the bar. Her action has put her otherwise devoted son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) in an awkward position in school and inflamed her ex Charlie (John Hawkes), whose 19 year-old girlfriend Penelope (Samara Weaving) is totally oblivious to what’s going on in town. Dixon (Sam Rockwell) from the police station shows his utter disgust with unchecked impulses.

While the ensemble cast deserves kudos, the pivotal acts fall on three characters. Their superb performance augments the incisive and thoughtful script.

McDonagh wrote the role of Mildred Hayes with Frances McDormand in mind, and she delivers with a punch. Her actions as an angry and helpless mother is stark and brutish, but McDonagh also shows us her vulnerable side, a mother who is regretful of the argument she’d had with her daughter on that fateful day, mournful for a daughter who’d never come home, and embittered by the ineptness on the part of the police. McDormand indwells her role so effectively that she makes me see only the angry Mildred, and totally forget the pregnant, innocent police woman in Fargo.

Sam Rockwell’s dimwitted, racist Dixon stirs up non-stop laughs in the theatre. His ultimate change is the powerful force that makes the latter half of the story so gratifying.  Rockwell’s performance is spot-on. McDonagh wants us to have a last laugh on him too: Dixon’s heart may have melted by some kind, motivating words from chief Willoughby, but his intellect remains intact.

Woody Harrelson plays Chief Willoughby with a heart. He is a tough police chief and yet underneath is a kind man, a loving husband to his wife Anne (Abbie Cornish) and a devoted father to his two young girls. Furthermore, Mildred is not the only one bearing life’s harsh blows. While Mildred reacts with rage, Willoughby deals with repressed fears.

A few kind words can cause immense change. And when one person changes, the ripple effects are contagious. The latter part of the film with its twists and turns slowly reveal how positive changes ripple on. For often underneath the hard surface lies a moldable heart. I particularly appreciate the audacity of McDonagh’s writing. Among the tough and macho, love is noted as the key to hold up oneself as love leads to calmness, and calmness to thoughtful actions.

Tying up the emotional bond is the music, in particular, the Irish folk song “The Last Rose of Summer”. Thomas Moore’s lyrics and the soft yearning of Renée Fleming’s voice sings out the sad tune in Mildred’s heart, a cry for justice and the dispelling of emptiness and loss. In the opening scene, the song introduces us to the three billboards as Mildred drives by and contemplates her vengeful scheme, the song reprises as vengeance engulfs a distraught heart and leads to a violent act. Ironically, that scene becomes a pivotal turnaround for Dixon in the police station.

‘Tis the last rose of summer left blooming alone
All her lovely companions are faded and gone
No flower of her kindred, no rosebud is nigh
To reflect back her blushes and give sigh for sigh

The juxtaposition of a quiet Irish folk tune with a fictional, small American town dealing with the fallouts of a horrific, unsolved crime may sound incompatible, but it’s poignant and effective here.

Old loves are irreplaceable, yet regrets cannot heal deep wounds. Lovely companions may have faded, but new ones can be forged, albeit not the same nature, but there’s  hope for new bonds. The last rose of summer dissolves to the first red leaf of fall. It could still be a beautiful season.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples