Why ‘Nomadland’ Cinematographer Joshua James Richards Is Also the Film’s Production Designer

“Nomadland” cinematographer Joshua James Richards and director Chloé Zhao met at NYU Film School and have worked together ever since.

“There was a bond formed just through our taste and visually what we were drawn to,” Richards told IndieWire.

Following film school, the collaborators spent a great deal of time traveling the American West, in particular South Dakota, where they made their first two features, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” and “The Rider.” Like “Nomadland,” both films feature first-time performers in stories set against expansive western landscapes.

In a far-ranging interview, Richards discusses how their collaboration and filmic language evolved over the three films.

The following interview excerpts have been lightly edited for clarity.

Moving with Fern

Richards: Soon as Chloé started talking about “Nomadland,” I thought, “This is a camera that needs to move with Fern (Frances McDormand). We gotta be in a fluid, mercurial motion through this movie.” And Chloe agreed. It’s all about grounding you in Fern’s perspective, and the audience feeling like they are moving with her. I always said, “It’s like a rollercoaster.” Scorsese used that [to describe] Marvel movies, and I thought, “Why’s that a criticism? Riding a rollercoaster is what movies are like for me.”

Whereas “The Rider,” so much of that was about that character’s stasis. He’s a prisoner in that landscape in many ways, until he gets on that horse, and then the camera moves.

With “Songs [My Brothers Taught Me”] it was complete chaos because it was our first feature. I did go back and watch “Songs,” and it was really interesting because I was just going off of instinct, I didn’t know what I was doing.  Because it was kind of cool to go back and see your instincts and be like, “Yeah, a 18mm for a close-up, that’s cool.”  Because in the madness of it, you don’t really remember why made some decisions or why you gravitate toward that.

Joshua James Richards using the Ronin Gimbal on "Nomadland"

Joshua James Richards using the Ronin Gimbal on “Nomadland”

Searchlight Pictures

I did want to challenge myself [on “Nomadland”], and use few more tools, expand my cinematic vocabulary and see if when put together do they still work. Because when you’re starting out, you’re like, “OK, I’m handheld,” because you’re uncertain. You don’t want to draw attention to the cinematography. For me, it’s taken a while to build that confidence as well. It’s not all conceptual. Maybe if we had a bit more cash we’d have done the same thing on “The Rider.”

One thing that was really beneficial [on “Nomadland”] was my AC [first assistant camera] Charles Bae always had two cameras going. Both Alexa Minis with two sets of ultra primes [lenses], never go longer than a 35mm. We’d have one camera on the Ronin Gimbal [camera stabilizer] at all times, and with that, I’d have a vest. And the other one was just ready to put on the shoulder, run-and-gun, with an easy rig.

It was super important that both those cameras were always ready, in whatever situation. If blocking becomes that they want to start walking around, if Fran wants to go over there, she can. We’re never tied down. And what it allows me to do with the movement of the camera, I’m not just finding my shot. I’m constantly nimble. I’m constantly ready to move with the character.

Chloe creates an environment, but it’s dictated by them. That’s the key to it.

Framing the American Landscape

"The Thin Red Line"

“The Thin Red Line”

20th Century Fox

Richards: I was always inspired reading about [cinematographer] John Toll and [Terrence] Malick back on “Thin Red Line,” where they felt like as soon as they got on a longer lens, on those Panavision C-Series lenses, it just felt like they were losing something.

In the case of the “Thin Red Line” it’s, “Look at these people blowing each other up, and they are surrounded by so much beauty and nature,” and I suppose in “Nomadland,” that relationship with the landscape is about Fern’s future promise, but also the passing of things, a kind of American decay, we wanted to get in there.

We were inspired by paintings, the Hudson Valley River School, that fading light on American western horizon, with the fallen tree in the foreground. I’d go home to the hotel [while shooting], and I’d just look at those paintings, and a shit-ton of [William] Eggleston photography. Eggleston to me is just the master of finding poetry in the everyday American mundane.

A Snowy Empire: “We’re Fucked”

“Nomadland” begins in Empire, Nevada, a town where gypsum mining operations shut down in 2011 (as it does in the movie), leaving many like Fern unable to earn a living.

Richards: When Chloé and I first scouted Empire, it was months and months before [production], and there had been fires somewhere, I think Oregon. So when we first saw Empire, it was this hazy desert, “Mad Max”-kind of vibe. That’s what we had in our minds and that’s where we thought Fern would begin and end up [the movie].

And then we get there, and it’s, “Josh, it’s fucking snow-covered.” And we’re literally, like, “We’re fucked. We’ll have to come back next year.”

We were making the exact mistake we always try to avoid. We were saying, “It has to be dusty. Remember those tumbleweeds that were literally blowing past?” But then you realize, tumbleweeds are kind of cheesy, cliche, and actually Empire is frozen in time, literally. And then we were like, “Snow is fucking perfect,” and it breaks up [the color palette and magic hour look of the film] a little bit. It bookends it. So you roll with the punches, and you get lucky sometimes. In the end, it actually adds a really important visual structure to the film.

DP-Turned-Production Designer

Richards: I felt [our] process gets hindered sometimes by having a conventional production designer. It’s like, “Dude, we both know 95 percent of this is just going to be moving shit around,” but also Fern’s van just visually hit me. I just had such a specific idea for this van based on other vans that we had seen. I just couldn’t get other people there, so I asked Chloé, “I’ve got a couple of months, can I just build it?” So I built it all out and I got weird about it. I went full “Close Encounters,” I was sanding and staining everything.

Fern’s van is an internal space. This is where we see her go back into her memories. We probably see her at her lowest points in the van, and it’s kind of this underworld of the movie, that’s how I saw it. So visually, the chiaroscuro lighting — in the van is some of the only time you’ll see people front lit, against the darkness of the van, and that’s OK, because we’re in their world and you’re tracing the wrinkles and the lines and the stories etched into people’s faces.

Fran Is Fern

Richards: [Frances “Fran” McDormand] told me once that a critic described her face as a national park, and mate, I can tell you, I know exactly what he means. Having stared at that face as long as I have, what a face. I just thought, how do I make that almost three-dimensional, and a bit soft, and that’s how I approached lighting, it feels like sculpture to me.

I wanted lenses that were a bit soft, but still have this sharpness. I don’t mind some distortion, we like that, bring the faces forward when we’re framing in depth — we are always framing in depth, other than on big close-ups. So my lens choice was really based on those things.

To me, Fern is truly Fran in an alternate universe. I get such a kick out of watching the movie that way, because she  was able to bring that. I told her, the reality of that performance, just knowing Fran a little bit, and just seeing how honest she’s able to be in front of the camera — the only time I’ve seen it was from non-actors, every other actor I’ve worked with I’ve been like, ‘I don’t know, I kind of can tell.’ But Fran, she’s a magician.

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