Feature Filmmaker

Ep. 65 - Success Patterns: Chloe Zhao

January 14, 2022 Anna Thalman
Feature Filmmaker
Ep. 65 - Success Patterns: Chloe Zhao
Show Notes Transcript

This year, we've started a new series of podcast episodes highlighting successful filmmakers' beginnings. We'll show you patterns you can follow to create your own successful film career and motivate you with examples and ideas of what that path can look like.

We kick off the series by featuring Chloe Zhao, who made her first feature film in 2015. Her third feature, "Nomadland" won 3 Academy Awards. She was also the first woman of Asian descent and the second woman ever to win "Best Director" at the Golden Globes.   

Her most recent release, "Eternals" had a $200 million budget, but her first feature film was made with no budget at all. Click below to hear her story.

Learn about the Film and Family Program:
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Anna Thalman:

All right. Welcome to the podcast today. We apologize that it's been a couple of weeks. We usually do this very consistently every week, but our last episode was our Christmas special. And then we got COVID

Kent Thalman:

and holiday camera got stolen.

Everything

Anna Thalman:

went crazy. Yeah, it's

Kent Thalman:

been wild.

Anna Thalman:

In fact, just in the last couple of days, we had our sink collapse in our kitchen. This afternoon, our daughter got a pink crayon, lodged deep into her ear, and we still haven't gotten it out yet. So we need to go to an urgent care and do that. I'm just saying it's like crazy. And then we went out on our golf cart cause our sink was broken to go get food and the golf cart. We had to walk home and get in our car and go get food. So it's been really crazy stuff like that every day, but we're here and we're bringing you a new series of podcasts that we're pretty excited about. So we've decided to start doing

Uh, success patterns, series, where we talk about big name filmmakers and how they got their start in the film industry.

Anna Thalman:

Specifically people who went this route that we teach in our program, which is to start by making a cheap indie feature film, and let that show what you can do in launch your career. So we wanted to start out talking about chloe,

Kent Thalman:

yeah. And, and, you know, something that's important to know is one of the reasons I think Chloe Zhao sticks out so much to us. First of all, if you haven't seen nomad land, we both highly recommend it. But her career is really interesting and she's very. To filmmaking, to be honest, feature

Anna Thalman:

film is

Kent Thalman:

2015. Yeah. It was really not that long ago. and. The reason I think we want to share some of these stories is because sometimes we feel like there's a right way. Like there, I'll just be honest. Sometimes I feel like I'm not doing it right. Or I'm not making a real movie or whatever. And. What's really nice is that Chloe's first film. She worked on it for three years, developing it, looking for like a million or $2 million funding. And a lot of us do this. We're like, okay, it's our first film. We'll make it for like a million bucks. That's low budget. Right. And really, I think that cinema has become democratized and we don't really need a million dollars to. To really get going. So, she did that for like three years. She actually had a lot of grants and other things coming up and then everything fell through and she ended up just saying, let's just make it with no money. And so before we do that, I want to give a little bit of background on Chloe jowls career. So she was actually born in China and. And a sort of act of rebellion. She moved to England and when she was 15 and then she moved to the United States when she was 19 and then in the U S she went to college and got her undergrad, at a women's school, in politics. So when I read that, I was like, oh, like, how did she make this transition? You know, like, and up to this point, she had. To my knowledge, based on what I've read no interest in pursuing film as a career, or she had no experience. And then after she finished her undergrad, she realized she didn't really see herself having a career in politics in any way. And so she got. A MFA from NYU and film. And so she's like, well, I think I have a lot of an amalgamation of a lot of interests that are kind of combined and film. And so, that might be a good career path. And so she, she went. And got her degree at NYU. And then she had a lot of grants and opportunities coming up for this first feature and then everything apparently fell through. And she, with the same DP that shot nomad land and got nominated for the Oscar, makes. This first feature and her first feature takes place in, sort of the Badlands of North Dakota on an Indian reservation. And it's called songs. My brother taught me and

Anna Thalman:

the, we even get into that. You may know her as well. She distracted Eternals. Yep. And nomad land was the other big success you probably familiar with, but what else has she

Kent Thalman:

done? Well, she's only done four feature films, so she did songs, my brother, Tommy, and then she immediately did the writer, which is a very similar film set in the same location. Working with people who live on that ranch, that, Indian reservation and. And then she may nomad land and it won best picture Oscar. So that is our third film. And then, or fourth film was Eternals, which is just, um, super massive big Hollywood project. And so you can kind of see a ridiculously meteoric path, but. It's noteworthy that someone who very recently made her first feature and has experienced a lot of success. You know, it's the same pattern that everyone who has success does this one thing and that's, they make stuff and they share stuff. And so I think it was really courageous of her and her team to just say, all right, we have no crew. It's just me and you and a few of our friends and we're going to go make the story and they didn't hire any actors.

Anna Thalman:

She said there were eight crew members on her first face. I remember it on that first.

Kent Thalman:

And she, she directed and just like Anna on our first film had no ID. So she was aiding by herself, basically for herself and no script, actually the treatment, they went off of a treatment because they, she basically said that she had done like 30 drafts of a script surrounding this Indian reservation and the culture there. And she was putting it together and she did draft after draft and kept revising it. And then when the funding all fell through, she basically had to scrap it because that script wasn't necessarily shootable and they just went off of the treatment and they worked with these non-actors, which is, you know, Sort of her style and she got really wonderful performances out of it and out of these actors and she basically said you have these human beings and they have stories. So we just kind of worked with their own stories, but it's not a documentary. She said it is fiction. And she's, she's kind of protective of that. But she used this sort of documentary avenue as a way to kind of mine real life. But she said they're actors that's actually one of the things she says that they're not professional actors and they don't have, they've never done a movie before something for all intents and purposes. They're non-actors but they're not social actors. They're not representing themselves in a true sense. They're not just being themselves. That's something. She was very. Defensive, because she said, if you met these people in real life, they would be different. And that's not them in the movie per se, but they're not actors. And she worked with them and she kind of pulled from real life to get these performances and did a lot of resource filmmaking, a lot of building and structuring things around the timetable and the resources and the characters that were sort of part of this community and available to them as a team. Yeah. And I think

Anna Thalman:

when you have zero budget, Or low budget. You just learn to get creative, learn to use what you have. And she's a great example of that. She has a rodeo scene and she said, well, obviously we couldn't stage a rodeo. We just figured out when, when is the rodeo happening? And how can we film

Kent Thalman:

around that staging? A whole rodeo would cost tons of money. Right.

Anna Thalman:

And then they use people they knew. Okay. You know, on our feature film, we did the same things. We use people. We knew we have our neighbor acting in the film and we have our kids acting in the film. We did hire a few actors, but a lot

Kent Thalman:

of them were not actors. And a lot of the actors we did hire, we knew we knew them from school or we'd worked with them before. And so I keep thinking about this term, like resource filmmaking and. It's actually so great. And I think that sometimes we feel like we need to sort of create something out of nothing or sort of fabricate or invent something. And I think that what's wonderful about resource filmmaking is that you know, she's conscious of narrative, narrative principles, and what's going to make a good story. And so. Trying to invent a great story. She's trying to see one, find one. Instead of trying to write every line of dialogue, she's working with these people until they start to say things that feel authentic, and then she kind of works with that and rolls with it almost as if it was script. And then, you know, and instead of trying to like write in these cool locations, she just looks around for cool locations. And I think sometimes as filmmakers, that's just a healthy. Exciting way to make films. And I think that I won't speak for her, but if you watch her work it's, it seems like she's been heavily influenced by the work of Terrence Malick. I know I have been. Pretty influenced by his work. And, and yet none of us are really making Malik films, like our film. Isn't a Terrence Malick film. You wouldn't watch it and feel like, oh, this is just like Terrence Malick or whatever. And certainly close jazz films they're influenced by it. But they're much more linear narratives than, than his are. His films are his films and they're just going to be that way. And hers feel like closure films. And I think. The point that I'm making is that Terrence Malick is an observer of the world. And he'll shoot things that are interesting to him, even if he has this list actor in front of him, that he's paying a bunch of money for. He'll still take the time to say, well, this sunset's really interesting. Or this environment is really interesting or he's on his toes. And so I think resource filmmaking, which is a lot like documentary filmmaking, Gives you this sort of creative Liberty and looseness that lets you just kind of stay on your toes and keep your mind sharp. As opposed to being like this is the script. This is the shot list. This is what must be done. And you shut yourself off from the wonderful. Opportunities around you, which I think, is evident in the work of some of these really, really talented filmmakers. Yeah.

Anna Thalman:

And it's not like it was without difficulty. It sounds like her first feature film was extremely difficult and it usually is, with the lack of resources and having to scrape things together and having to learn a lot of hard lessons. Your first time around. And she said they shot tons of coverage, like a hundred hours of

Kent Thalman:

footage, but not necessarily coverage, but just

Anna Thalman:

footage. And it reminds me, I think one of the best things we learned on our film was just, you can't be too prepared to make your first feature film, unless you're just not making it because you're trying to prepare forever. But, but really it's almost like. So we've had three newborn babies in our lifetime so far that we've struggled to help them sleep. And with our first son, we didn't really prepare. We were just like, you know, we'll figure it out as we go. Yeah. I think we felt a little prepared, but we didn't think we could prepare much more. And then that slate us, like trying to stay up late and. Take care of him was really, really hard and we didn't get any sleep. And then our second one came along and we felt like, okay, we finally got this. We figured out something with the first child. Now we know what we're doing. We'll be prepared this time. And then the second time was even worse because it was totally different,

Kent Thalman:

a whole new set of problems, forgotten everything that we'd learned with the first one, which we didn't realize until the second one was already born. So that was a little bit of a rude awakening. We got very humbled

Anna Thalman:

and then maybe this was just luck, but on our third, We were prepared. We prepared as though it was the end of the world, like Armageddon was coming and she was pretty easy. As far as newborns go, we actually got decent sleep personally pretty

Kent Thalman:

well. We were also the preparation all helped too.

Anna Thalman:

So I think our first feature film was a lot like our first baby where you just, you just don't know what's coming. You don't know what to prepare for in some ways, but,

Kent Thalman:

Anyway, no, it's a good, it's a good point because, close out, read a quote from her. She says, I struggled for three years for my first film and instead lost the budget and had to make the film with nothing. And so all those years that she worked on it probably weren't wasted. Right. I mean, she was working on. The same film. It was similar, but they scrapped the script. Right. But she was still getting to know that reservation and the people on it. They were trusting her. They knew her by the time she made this film, which allowed her to be able to maneuver in a sort of documentary, like fashion without getting a bunch of permits to shoot everywhere. And people were like chill with her being around, making this film. But. Sometimes I feel like that's almost what we did. We, we worked for a while on a film and then we worked on a smaller film and then we worked on an even smaller film, which ended up being our first film. And you learn, I feel like we learned what we needed to prepping for those big ones. So it did prepare us for the smaller one, but at the same time I look back and I'm sometimes like there was nothing really stopping us from making a really cheap first feature to begin with. So. Things don't really start happening in your career until you make a film or two on a shoe string with your resources. And she immediately, because she said it wasn't like opportunities flooded into my lap. After the first film she made a film called the writer like a year after, it was very fast. It was like as soon as she was finished and did a little bit of festivals, Shamia went into production on this other film. Script for, but not a lot of drafts. It sounds like she was kind of still writing it when they started shooting. And that film, I think also got a lot more accolades than the first one. And she'd learned a ton on the first one and that's probably what led to nomad land.

Anna Thalman:

Her first one got into Sundance, got into cons.

Kent Thalman:

It got into the, and the independent spirits or the cons first director section. And it didn't get any big awards and I don't think it sold. I don't know this for sure, but it doesn't seem like it got a big acquisition or anything. Her first film out of Sundance. So it wasn't like it opened the flood gates, even though Sundance is a, you know, that's a great success for anyone to get your film into a major film festival. I think most people who are making films are trying to make Hollywood films. They're trying to make cool genre pieces. Kind of expensive or they're trying to beat Hollywood at its own game and they're making films without any, star power, you know, but they're trying to act like it's a film that would have star power where she just, she did what true independent filmmaking is all about in my opinion, which is using your resources and sort of bucking the trend and just making it unique and creating art based on what you like. And being honest with yourself. So I think, I think that that's, I think that's my opinion as to why she may have seen some more success artistically with festival entries and such, but whether your film gets into Sundance or not, your first film will always be a big stepping stone. It will be a stepping stone to whatever your second film is, which includes your house case. Wasn't even like a big break. And sometimes I worry about doing some of these beginning series, episodes, because it's not like all of them are the same, right? Like Jared has didn't point Dynamind it was like, boom, the world was open to him, right. Same with, Christopher Nolan. It was like his next film had a $3 million budget. It was right after the first film. And we'll, we'll do episodes on both of those guys and many more people, but, but I like close out story because she wasn't like, okay, I'm waiting for the phone to ring. She just, she made low, low budget, independent feature films until it started to get the momentum. And I think she was wise, but I think it wasn't that long because she just went and did like a one, two punch, I think doing the second feature, taking everything she'd learned off of the first one really allowed her to make a much higher scale film for very little money still, but she'd taken everything they'd learned as a team. And, made an even better film with even less people with like a little bit of money. It sounds like. So yeah, I think it's a really fascinating story. I want to, I want to comment on budgets. So her first film, it sounds like was literally a no budget film. They had pretty much nothing, but maybe a few bucks that they spent, I'm guessing. And in our program, we talk a lot about making your first film in that 20 to 200 K range, but it is possible to make it for next to nothing. If not nothing. Depending on what your resources are. If you're in a similar situation has closed Dow wearing that. She was single. When that first film was made, as an not married, I don't know what her dating situation was. And even if you're married, if you, if you have kids, I feel like that's the big one where like, everything starts to change. If you have a mortgage or if you're paying. Two three bedroom rent looks a lot different than studio rent, you know? And it's just think th th the pressure gets a little more intense as you go along that family growing path. And I'm not saying that anyone needs to, or needs to not do that, but because this is a film and family podcast, I'm assuming that most of our, or less, at least a lot of our listeners. Have families or want to have families and are concerned about being able to make a feature for little to no money given the time that's required of them. And a lot of you have day jobs and it's like, okay, how do I take weeks and weeks to make this thing, given my other responsibilities. And that's why we encourage people to raise a little bit of money so that they can. Put money towards the project and not just be spending all out of their own pocket and maybe even pay themselves a little bit, just so that at least production there, they've got a little bit of padding, you know, so, um, and it's totally possible to scrape, 20 K together, for a first feature and we that's something we could talk more about in. Tillman family academy, which, which you can find more information on our website. But, I just make that note because sometimes it sounds so idealic and I don't want to sugarcoat this and be like, yeah, anyone can just go out and make a movie. It's like, well, some of us have. Some things that make them more difficult.

Anna Thalman:

Yeah. It's going to take an investment of effort and then time or money or both in this case for Chloe Zhao, it sounds like time. She was able to invest lots of time, three years of her life preparing to make this film and then all the hours of shooting

Kent Thalman:

while they made it. And of course, we didn't know any of the details about any of the pressures that might've been. We just don't know, so I don't wanna make it sound like it was super easy for her. She talks a lot about it. I only say this because I feel like, and, and I can relate to this a lot when she talks about it, she uses the word trauma. Like I was traumatized by my first film and how hard it was and how just like down to your bone marrow. Grates on you. And it's just, it's just hard, a lot of stress and a lot that you're doing, you're wearing so many hats and trying to get things going. And she basically said that her on her second film, she was like, it cannot be the same. We're going to do things different. It's going to be a little better. We're going to have a script. And I feel like Anna, I can super relate to that. And it's really nice to hear her say that because it's, that, that was definitely the case on this first feature that we felt, some major. Anxiety, trauma, sleep deprivation anyway, but it was great when we recommended for everyone, but it's just a Rite of passage. I remember on the bus driving up to the start point for the first marathon that Anna and I ran this older gentleman who'd ran dozens and dozens of marathons. He said, you'll never forget your first marathon. He says, you remember every step. And I feel like we ran our first marathon. It wasn't pretty, we weren't fast. We just wrecked our bodies. We weren't very good, you know, and we trained for it, but we didn't train very well because we didn't know what we were doing. And I just feel like it's a lot, like we ran a lots of, I mean, I've run lots of five Ks and you know, you've probably made some short films and commercials. You've made other stuff, but till you make that first feature, you remember every step of that race, it's a marathon. It's a. Hard grueling race. It probably isn't pretty, but you can't make a feature film career until you make one feature film. And I think closure is a great example of that.

Anna Thalman:

I think you summed

Kent Thalman:

it up. Awesome. Well, in other news, quick announcement, we are. Quickly approaching picture lock on our film. Yeah,

Anna Thalman:

the loved and lost. And we're working on a little teaser trailer that we might be able to give some of our. Email subscribers, a sneak peek at, so keep your eyes and ears out for that.

Kent Thalman:

It's an unofficial trailer. We're putting it together mostly. Just as a resource to have, as we go into, post-production collaborations and recording some people like sales agents and festival curators, and it's just a nice resource to have to. Uh, an impressive conversation starter, essentially. So we want to share that with you, but it is an unofficial trailer. Of course it's not distributed or being released by distributors. What I mean to say.

Anna Thalman:

Yeah. And it won't be publicly posted, but we might give you a little sneak peek and things are going well. We feel really good about. How post has gone forward. I feel like it's been really smooth. Despite production being a total mess. Post production has actually been pretty smooth sailing and it's taken longer than we expected, but

Kent Thalman:

that's life and we're learning a lot and we'll apply all these wonderful lessons to the next feature film, which there are things brewing there. Irons irons in the fire. Yeah, once we get millions of dollars, we're going to make that next film. So thanks for joining us on this episode and we hope to hear you on the next one.