Here’s How Chloe Zhao Went From Independent Director To Oscar-Winning MCU Mastermind In 6 Years

In 2021, the Chinese filmmaker Chloe Zhao makes history. She became the second woman (after Kathryn Bigelow) and the first woman of color to win the Best Director Oscar for nomadland, beating big names like David Fincher. She also won Best Picture for the same film. Even during the less glitzy Oscars of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zhao was far from his roots.

She was born in Beijing in 1982 to a wealthy family. As a teenager, Zhao said she was “rebellious… lazy in school.“She was drawn to pop culture influences in the western world, drew Manga comics and wrote fanfiction. Even as a teenager, Zhao was developing what would become his way of telling stories.


What’s interesting about Zhao’s career trajectory is the fact that she chose the western genre. Is there a genre more intrinsically American than the western? An argument could also be made that the Marvel Cinematic Universe also follows the story arc of a western, and that’s what made Academy Award-winning director Chloe Zhao the perfect choice to direct. Eternals although he had so far only had experience in small independent films.

Let’s see exactly how Chloe Zhao went from darling of the independent film world to famed Oscar-winning director of a major blockbuster MCU film in just six years.

Related: Chloe Zhao Explains Unused Dark Ending Eternals Could Have Had

Chloe Zhao considered going into politics

Chloe Zhao holds a chicken and sits on the floor
Vanity Fair / Tierney Gearon

Although Chloe Zhao was born in Beijing, she attended a private boarding school in the UK called Brighton College when she was 15. She then moved on her own as a teenager to Los Angeles and attended LA High School while living in an apartment in Koreatown. She enrolled at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, majoring in politics and film. During this period of his life, Zhao intended to enter politics. However, after graduating in 2005, she became disenchanted with the idea of ​​entering politics after working as a bartender in New York. This experience made her realize that she really enjoyed meeting people and hearing their stories. This inspired her to enroll in NYU film school.

His NYU shorts have made waves

While studying at NYU, Chloe Zhao directed the short film The Atlas Mountains in 2009. The film tells the story of a girl who has a brief but passionate affair with an immigrant worker who fixes his computer. Zhao’s second film at NYU, Girls, was about a 14-year-old girl named Maple in rural China who is forced into an arranged marriage. In an effort to avoid this fate, she finds herself on a dangerous path. Girls won the First Place Student Live Action Short at the 2010 Palm Springs International Short Fest as well as a Special Jury Prize at the Cinequest Film Festival the same year.

His first feature film told the story of the Lakota siblings

Songs my brother taught me
Kino Lorber

When Zhao set out to shoot her first feature film, she focused on a story of Native American siblings. The film, Songs that my brothers taught me, was about an Oglala Lakota boy from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Her film was influenced by the things she learned from the residents of the reservation. The film debuted in 2015 and told the story of a boy torn between staying on the reservation to help care for his younger brother and mother or following his girlfriend to Los Angeles. The film’s cast was mostly made up of residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. , not professional actors, and it totally worked; the naturalism of the performances complimented the beautiful nature around them, and the whole product was entirely organic. The film screened at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for the Camera d’Or at Cannes, and the sacred and revered Criterion Collection tweeted about it and included it in their exclusive list of films from elite on their streaming channel.

His film the Rider caught the eye of Frances McDormand

The Cavalier
Sony Pictures Classic

For his follow-up Songs that my brothers taught me, Zhao completely entered the genre of the american western with the Rider. She returned to an Indian reservation to shoot the story of a Native American cowboy who sustains a near-fatal injury during a bronco riding competition. In the act of filming, this filmmaker of Chinese origin “reinvented the western” (to quote Vogue) to adapt it to her own cinematic vision. In the same interview with Vogue, Zhao said, “I have an obsession with the Old West,” which is clearly seen through his focus on quiet and strong characters, his fascination with natural rhythms, and his interest in America’s heartland. Riders caught the eye of Oscar-winning actress Frances McDormand, who owned the book option nomadland and, after seeing the movie, I thought Zhao had just the right sensibility to tell the story.

Related: Is Eternals Director Chloe Zhao Directing Kevin Feige’s Star Wars Movie?

Nomadland was acclaimed and glorified at the Oscars

When Frances McDormand contacted Zhao about directing nomadland, it didn’t take much persuading. Zhao said adapting the book into a screenplay and directing it was like a natural next step after his first two films. It’s similar in structure and storytelling, as well as its intimate look at a small subset of people (again, mostly played by non-actors). nomadland was nominated for multiple Oscars and surprisingly won Best Actress (Frances McDormand), Best Director (Zhou) and Best Picture, beating films such as man, The Chicago 7 Trial, and Judas and the Black Messiah.

This led to Eternals and its entry into the MCU

Walt Disney Studios movies

Six years after launching her first feature film and a year after becoming the second woman and the first woman of color to win the Best Director Oscar, Chloe Zhao hit the big time by any measurable standard when she was chosen to direct the latest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Eternals. The film marks a departure for Zhao in many ways, including the fact that she was working with major talent (Salma Hayek and Angelina Jolie) rather than casting non-professional actors, with a budget literally hundreds of millions of dollars. Moreover. that she never had.

While some may look at Zhao’s work and not see how it led to the making of an MCU blockbuster, consider the fact that superhero movies are essentially westerns. The plots and relationships follow an arc very similar to a Western. It’s good versus evil, everyone in proper uniforms, fighting to save the city, just on another planet and with superpowers. Zhao nevertheless brings his Western and artistic sensibility to the film, providing awe-inspiring landscapes and a stronger level of emotion (and weirdness) to the film than many Marvel films before it. If the fans didn’t like Eternals, it’s both a testament to Zhao’s iconoclastic vision and the MCU’s surprising willingness to think outside the box for directors.

Eternals is a big risk for Marvel, says director Chloe Zhao
Eternals is a big risk for Marvel, says director Chloe Zhao

Chloe Zhao thinks Marvel took a huge risk with their upcoming sci-fi superhero adventure Eternals.

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