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“How Do You Connect with Someone with a Camera? It’s a Hard Thing to Talk About”: DP Joshua James Richards on Shooting Nomadland

Frances McDormand in Nomadland (courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

A compelling portrait of one woman’s survival in the new economy, Nomadland won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Adapted from a book by Jessica Bruder, it was written, edited and directed by Chloé Zhao. This is the third collaboration between Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards, following Songs My Brother Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017).

Richards won the Best Debut Cinematography at the EnergaCamerimage Festival for Songs My Brother Taught Me. This year Camerimage awarded its Golden Frog to Richards for Nomadland. 

Frances McDormand, who plays Fern in Nomadland, optioned the book in 2017. Filming took place in 2018 on locations that ranged from the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR) to a beet harvest and an Amazon Fulfillment Center.

Richards spoke with Filmmaker from his home in California following Camerimage. Nomadland opens from Fox Searchlight and is on Hulu beginning today.

Filmmaker: Congratulations on your Camerimage win.

Richards: I was blown away, it was not something I expected to happen. I owe a lot of gratitude to the festival.

Filmmaker: The visuals in Nomadland have the intimacy and immediacy of documentary filmmaking. Can you give an idea of how you and Chloé determine framing and composition.

Richards: Because the environments and scenarios are unpredictable, having solid, simple rules frees you to explore. We know this is how we’re going to frame a wide shot, this is how we’re going frame a close-up, this is how we’re going to frame a two shot, and we never deviate from that. 

We have a sort of a language that’s so defined it can work in almost any scenario. And you know you’re anchored in that approach. It was really helpful when I heard Iñárritu talk about The Revenant. He described it like climbing a cliff. Once you start, that’s it. There’s no going back, you’ve got to keep going. You’ve made your decisions and you stick to them, because if you don’t, you’re kind of fucked.

Filmmaker: That approach works even with people who don’t have experience being on camera and may not be used to revealing themselves?

Richards: I’m always amazed by how open and free people out there are to having a camera in their space. They’re almost only able to be exactly what they are, they’ve been through too much to care what anyone thinks of them. 

That’s part of it, but everything’s in the stage leading up to the shooting. Chloé is truly interested in these people and places, and we make a very real attempt to create true relationships with them. By the time we’re shooting you feel like you’re making a film with your friends. 

You approach it knowing that they are the experts of their own experience. You remove yourself as filmmaker, get your ego out of the way, stop asking questions and listen to what they want to bring. If you arrive at an intimate moment, you know it’s a moment they want to tell.

I was reading Carl Rogers’ approach to psychoanalysis recently, and it reminded me of the way Chloé makes films. It’s the art of listening. She’s like a fisherman capturing all these moments that they’ve offered to her.

Filmmaker: Well, you can have rules, but you still need to make creative decisions about how to implement them. For example, what were your rules for close-ups? 

Richards: How do you connect with someone with a camera? It’s a hard thing to talk about. And I don’t know why being 45 degrees, just above the cheekbone, or just below it, puts me in that person’s world, in that perspective. I’m just close enough that I’m focused on their eyes, and their face, and I’m not focused on what’s around them. 

What’s really interesting is that I guess every cinematographer would have a different idea of how to frame that. But for me, when we’re in the interior world of the characters, it’s framed a certain way. If you look at [Charlene] Swankie or the characters around the campfire, if you look at Bob Wells, they’re all framed in the same way. Because I want the audience to feel it’s in an interior space now. So we’ll use the same lens for that.

When we’re wide, notice there are very few wide shots that don’t have Fran in it. They’re used to track her journey through this landscape, to let the audience feel it the way she does. 

So we would move the camera in a way that helps convey that somehow, using the Ronin 2 [a 3-axis handheld gimbal]. If you’re going to get on the Ronin, there needs to be a reason for that. I’d like to say I used it almost like a dolly, more tracking and following than just kind of floating. 

There’s quite a rigid formalism to the rest of the camerawork, I suppose.

Filmmaker: You have a very long take of Fern walking through her first day at the RTR.

Richards: I guess that one is a bit floaty.

Filmmaker: But you need to define the space. 

Richards: It’s tracking in a profile and then it moves around to following and then back to tracking. To me it’s moving with Fern as she’s beginning to open. How do you put the audience there? And what does it feel like when you arrive in a place surrounded by strangers? But it’s also about her realizing there’s community out on the road. The sun’s just beginning to come up over the hills, it feels like an awakening of some kind. 

Filmmaker: It feels like a completely unforced moment, but there must have been a lot of prep involved. What is the balance between design and discovery?

Richards: That shot was pretty preconceived. In fact, it was one of the shots Chloé had in mind early on to capture the feeling of the RTR.

I worked with Elizabeth Goddard in our art department. We drew a map of where every single van should go to create the depth we wanted. That was very planned, that one. We only had one take. 

Filmmaker: You say Chloé had the shot in mind. Is she specific about how shots should be framed?

Richards: She has a great deal of trust in my framing. Very rarely is too specific about exact framing and composition. She’s much more of the Cassevetes school of creating an environment and putting the camera in that. 

But at the same time I am so privileged to work with a director who cares about lighting and the time of day as much as I do, if not more. She has very specific ideas about the time of day she wants things to happen in. She thinks very visually in that sense.

It does take balls. You need a director who respects the landscape and the light, like Terry [Malick] or Chloé does. Yeah, it’s scary. It’s like: we have to get this. But when you do get it, that’s where the magic is, these spontaneous things that happen to us, or when it feels like the cosmos is aligning for you. That’s almost what life’s about, the kind of special accidents that happen that you never expected or could plan. I see it more as a kind of movement of cinema, a philosophy or language of cinema, rather than an aesthetic. I’m sold on it, this is how I want to make films for the rest of my life. 

There’s a danger to this, certain roles on film crews are going to become superfluous. There’s been a pushback, a hesitancy to make films this way.  But in terms of telling more human stories, and getting the camera into places that we haven’t seen before, this is the cinema that I’m excited about. The fact that I can do that with smaller and smaller crews is just so exciting to me. 

Filmmaker: How big was your crew?

Richards: I’d say we were about25 or 30 people. Funnily enough I was a camera operator on the last Marvel film, The Eternals [directed by Zhao]. Ben Davis, the DP, was talking with his gaffer, who was saying something like, “Don’t you miss the days when we were making films with 25 people?” Ben’s point was that in terms of heads of departments, it still is 25 people. They just happen to have ten more working underneath them. The people making the movie don’t change, it’s just that the ship gets bigger.

But it does bring up an ethical question. It’s a very wasteful way of making films. Chloé and I begin with questions of ethics. And I think other filmmakers do as well. Are we exploiting people? Are we using their stories for a movie that will probably benefit us more than them? But you can structure everything so they benefit as well. And on top of that, there’s a right way and a wrong way of making a film. Like I would ask Swankie, “Is the camera okay going here? It’s your van, you tell me where you’re comfortable with me being, and I’ll make it work.” 

With Chloé, she’s always coming at this with issues that are universal to people, themes of identity, finding what home means for us. Facing our mortality and the latter part of our life, and realizing that when we’re in the latter part of our life, there’s still room for reinvention. 

Filmmaker: In this film and The Rider, you focus on work, what people do for a living. 

Richards: Chloé really wanted to make a point about showing work. It’s fascinating watching people work, isn’t it? She comes from this Wong Kar Wai school, she loves watching people eat in film. She’s Asian. It’s all about food, their seasons and their days are broken up into food and what you’re going to eat. Chloé loves exploring identity through these things, and through watching the work that people do. You go into the heartland and these are the hardest working people you’re going to meet. A lot of the time, they’re not really thinking about what we are on the coasts do. They’re thinking about how they’re going to get through the day, from one day to another. And these are the kind of jobs people are doing, it felt important to show that. 

Filmmaker: The scene inside the Amazon fulfillment center is revealing.

Richards: That was like [Andreas] Gursky, there’s a great documentary on him, he does these vast photos of like factories in China for example. The individual lost in this commercial space. I was very limited in what I could do there. Amazon was wonderful, the staff was really helpful. But I just had the camera and that was it. The light you are seeing, it’s just all these LEDs they had there.

Filmmaker: What did you use for camera and lighting?

Richards: We had a Alexa Mini on a Ronin 2 gimbal, and then we had the Alexa Amira on an easy rig or on my shoulder. We were shooting Zeiss Ultra Primes, mostly wide angle, nothing longer than a 35mm. 

Lighting, we had all kinds of different light gear, mattes, sticks, a few Jokers, small LED units. Usually I was using just practicals. For all the campsite lighting, for Fern’s light especially, LED ribbons bunched up inside a normal camping fixture.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about working with Frances McDormand?

Richards: I think Fran was stunning. First and foremost, this woman’s cutting her own hair, not a touch of makeup, completely involved with what her wardrobe’s going to be, completely involved in the pieces of Frances McDormand that she wants in the van. Little things from her life. It almost becomes a tribute to Frances McDormand at some point. I love that, because she’s a special human being. And has a talent as an actor that’s weird to observe, because of its honesty.

I think the process here was completely alien to Fran, it was something she’d never done before. Most actors, it’s really about trusting that you’re making them look good. But that wasn’t the thing with Fran. She had to have complete faith in Chloé that her character was coming through. And I think with the way Chloé makes films, it’s really difficult for the actor to see that, to see the character, sometimes not until the edit’s completed.

I think a lot of the time Fran might have been feeling like she was sort of coasting blind. She had to just trust Chloe. That isn’t an easy thing to do.

But from my point of view, every day was a pleasure because you came away thinking you captured something special. I know a lot of people describe it as a dance between the actor and the operator, but it really was with Fran. I learned a lot from her as an operator.

Filmmaker: How did she do that?

Richards: Francis made me aware of my part as an operator in crafting performance.  I would let her performance take the lead at times, like when she’s bathing in the spring, for example. She found positions and expressions and I kind of danced around them. It became about evoking emotions together, using the environment, in that case the water, to create moments that weren’t specific but give Chloé options for the edit.

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