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The true story behind Oscar-winning hit Nomadland

Exploring the real events that inspired the Best Picture winner.

Nomadland

By: Steve O’Brien

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In 2017, American journalist Jessica Bruder released her first non-fiction book, Nomadland: Surviving America In The Twenty-First Century. Orbiting around a 64-year-old grandmother named Linda May, who, while living in her secondhand Jeep, worked a succession of low-wage jobs, it told the sweeping, unvarnished story of post-Recession America and its (mostly older, mostly working class) victims who had chosen to walk the nomadic path, travelling around the country in search of seasonal work.

It was actually the multi-Academy Award-winning Frances McDormand who decided to option Bruder’s acclaimed bestseller. “The story by Jessica Bruder dispelled all my romanticism about hitting the road in a van,” the actor gushed to Cinema Express. It was a slap in the face about the reality of the whole thing and explained exactly why so many people are drawn to that choice economically. I think Jessica’s reporting in her book was extraordinary.”

Impressed by Chloé Zhao’s 2017 neo-western The Rider, McDormand approached the Chinese-American filmmaker to adapt Bruder’s book for the big screen. Zhao recently walked away with the Best Director Oscar on top of Nomadland scooping the night’s top prize, showing just how canny a choice that was.

But what’s the truth behind this year’s most talked about movie? Though Zhao designed her own protagonist, Fern, a 62-year-old widow (played by McDormand), who upped sticks from her hometown of Empire, Nevada and now lives her life as as a van-dwelling nomad, elements from Bruder’s book are peppered throughout the film, not least by the inclusion of the real Linda May starring as a dramatised version of herself.

NomadlandFrances

Zhao has long used non-actors, alongside professional ones, in her movies, going back to her very first feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, in 2015. So while the film’s two main characters, Fern and Dave, are fictional and played by professional thesps (in Dave’s case, the always-great David Strathairn), many of the others are the actual van-dwellers from Bruder’s book.

Bob Wells is the founder of Cheap RV Living, a website where the inspirational sixty-something shares tips on how to live on the road (he also has a YouTube channel of the same name with over half a million subscribers). One of the most emotionally devastating moments in the story, where he sits down with Fern and relives the pain of losing his son to suicide, is, sadly, entirely real. Wells has said that, before the movie, he’d only ever talked to 20 people about his son’s death, but opened up to Zhao before filming. The director then asked if he’d be comfortable including it within the film. “I think the movie was very, very healing for me, actually saying it, telling the world,” Wells told Vulture. It was a gift to my son’s life and of my life to the movie.”

Another character that’s portrayed by their real-life inspiration is Charlene Swankie. Though Zhao improvised many scenes and much of the dialogue with her, some of the details in the story are invented. In the movie, Swankie reveals she has cancer and dies off-screen, with the characters paying tribute to her around a campfire. Happily, in the real world, the cancer-free Swankie is very much alive.

“My character is 99 per cent me,” she told the LA Times. “I am fiercely independent and seldom ever ask others to help me, so it was exceedingly difficult to act like I needed Fern’s help. That one per cent was acting.”

Though we only see what’s left of Empire, Nevada, in the closing moments of the movie, the ghost of that one-time company town haunts the rest of the film. Due to a reduced demand for sheetrock, we’re told at the movie’s beginning, US Gypsum shut down its plant in 2011, after 88 years. “By July,” the on-screen caption tells us, “the Empire zip code, 89405, was discontinued.”

Amazingly, that detail is true. Once boasting a population of 750, Empire is now home to just 65 people. Certainly at the time Nomadland is set, around 2012, it really did look as eerily desolate as in the film. Thankfully, its fortunes have improved moderately in the years since. In 2016, mining executive David Hornsby purchased the town from the US Gypsum Corporation for $11.38 million, setting up the newly-named Empire Mining Company a year later.

Despite the film being a unique cocktail of the real and the invented, Chloé Zhao’s naturalistic directing style adds to Nomadland’s potent sense of verisimilitude. And in blending the factual with the fictional so deftly, Zhao has crafted a film that tells a much deeper truth, one that hits at the heart of the broken American Dream.

“My goal is to put the camera inside of [the characters],” Zhao has said. “Nomadland may be fictional, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a true story.”

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Nomadland is premiering on Star on Disney Plus in the UK and Ireland on 30th April. You can sign up to Disney Plus for £7.99 a month or £79.90 for a year now. Check out our lists of the best movies and best TV shows on Netflix, or visit our TV Guide to see what else is on.