Chloe Zhao made history at the 93rd Academy Awardson Sunday, becoming only the second woman, and the first Asian woman ever, to win best director, for her drama "Nomadland" which also won best picture.
The last time a woman took home the top directing prize was in 2010 when Kathryn Bigelow won for her film "The Hurt Locker."
Zhao has made history several times over with "Nomadland" wins this awards season, including becoming just the second woman and first woman of color to win the Golden Globe for best directing, more than three decades after Barbra Streisand took home the top prize for 1984's "Yentl."
Though more than a dozen films directed by female filmmakers have been nominated for best picture, only seven women have ever been nominated for the top director prize in the Academy Awards' 93-year-history.
This year, Zhao was joined by "Promising Young Woman" director Emerald Fennell in her nominee group — the first time two women have been up for best director in the same year.
Lina Wertmuller ("Seven Beauties"), Jane Campion ("The Piano"), Sofia Coppola ("Lost in Translation") and Greta Gerwig ("Lady Bird") are the only other female directors who have ever been nominated for the best directing Oscar.
What Zhao learned from scrapping her first movie
Zhao, 39, grew up in Beijing, China. She attended boarding school in London, finished high school in L.A. and studied political science Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. After graduating, she spent several years bartending and taking up odd jobs until she decided to enroll in film school at New York University during what she thinks of as a "quarter-life crisis," she said in an interview with Vulture.
Over the next few years, she developed an intimate method of storytelling that required her to embed herself into new communities and gain the trust of people who'd become the subjects of her movies. She planned for her first movie to be set in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and spent a year getting to know people in the area until she felt she was hearing their authentic stories — beyond the narratives of poverty, alcoholism and historical trauma they'd relay to journalists and artists who dipped into the area for material, Zhao told Vulture.
Zhao spent three years in the area, including a stint working as a substitute teacher for a high school creative writing class, and wrote 30 drafts of the movie. But then funding suddenly fell through. She and her filming and romantic partner, Joshua James Richards, learned the news while on a camera test in New Jersey. When they drove back to their New York apartment right after, they found their apartment had been broken into, and all their previously gathered footage was gone.
Having to start over proved beneficial in the long run: "I got ahead of myself," Zhao told Vulture. "I thought that movie was my identity. When it was taken away, I actually found myself because I would have not made it right that way."
Zhao took the $70,000 she had in the bank, raised another $30,000, and returned to South Dakota for a fresh start. Her first feature film released in 2015, "Songs My Brother Taught Me," is about a Lakota Sioux teenager from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation who is considering following his girlfriend out to L.A. when she leaves for college. Zhao drew from the actors' lives and events that occurred on the reservation to write scenes each day.
Her second feature, 2017's "The Rider," stars Brady Jandreau, a Lakota horse trainer and rodeo competitor the director met while scouting projects in South Dakota. She learned that Jandreau had recently experienced a near-fatal and career-ending injury during a rodeo performance, but, against his doctors' wishes, got back on the horse a few months later. Zhao developed the script based on these events and cast Jandreau as the lead.
The slower route to success
Zhao told the Atlantic that building rapport with underrepresented communities, rather than going straight to big-budget projects, has been key to her success: "In this industry, if you're not honest about who you are, you're going to attract people that you don't want to be working with anyways. By being authentically who you are, you might be a little slower in becoming successful, but you're going to be slowly gathering people who are your tribe, your kinda folks."
Zhao's indie work led her to direct 2020's "Nomadland," adapted from Jessica Bruder's nonfiction book of the same name, that follows a group of older Americans living out of their cars and vans after the Great Recession. The sweeping story of down-and-out nomadic workers has helped Zhao secure directing awards from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and the Directors Guild of America.
During her Oscars acceptance speech Sunday, Zhao recalled a Chinese poem she learned from her dad growing up, and recited a few lines before translating it in English: "People at birth are inherently good."
"I have always found goodness in the people I met," she said. "...This is for anyone who has the faith and courage to hold onto the goodness in themselves."
Though she's made a name for herself working on smaller projects and with subjects not often seen onscreen, Zhao's upcoming works will be of a much larger scale: She directed the upcoming Marvel movie "Eternals," starring Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek, due out in November, and she's set to direct a sci-fi western spin on "Dracula."
Still, Zhao told Vanity Fair she doesn't see herself sticking to big-budget projects now that her career is on the rise: "Do I want to go back and make a film with even less budget than 'The Rider?' A hundred percent. If the right story presents itself."