Scoring Nomadland

Chloé Zhao on singer/songwriter Cat Clifford and the music of Ludovico Einaudi

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Chloé Zhao talks about longtime collaborator singer/songwriter Cat Clifford (Nomadland, The Rider, Songs My Brothers Taught Me) and composer Ludovico Einaudi
Chloé Zhao talks about longtime collaborator singer/songwriter Cat Clifford (Nomadland, The Rider, Songs My Brothers Taught Me) and composer Ludovico Einaudi Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

At the Venice Film Festival, the competition jury led by Cate Blanchett with filmmakers Veronika Franz (Goodnight Mommy), Joanna Hogg (The Souvenir) Christian Petzold (Transit, Undine), actors Ludivine Sagnier (Paolo Sorrentino’s The New Pope), Matt Dillon (Alice Winocour’s Proxima), and novelist Nicola Lagioia (La Ferocia) awarded Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, based on the book by Jessica Bruder, starring Frances McDormand, the Golden Lion as Best Film.

Frances McDormand as Fern in Nomadland
Frances McDormand as Fern in Nomadland

The tone of Nomadland is set from the get go, when we learn about the fate of Empire, a small town in Nevada that ceased to exist within six months after US Gypsum shut down its plant there in 2011 after 88 years. The film follows Fern (Frances McDormand), a widow, who, after a short seasonal stint as a Christmas helper in an Amazon warehouse, begins a new life as a modern day nomad.

Her quest to find work resembles that of Vincent Lindon’s character in Stéphane Brizé‘s devastating Measure Of A Man, and he did not even have the comfort of nature and the vastness of the American West to console him. In her previous films, The Rider and Songs My Brothers Taught Me, Zhao worked primarily with non-professional actors playing versions of themselves, here they are joined by the likes of McDormand and David Strathairn. In one of the two most beautiful sequences, Fern spots a group of cowboys in the distance, at dusk. The second is of swallows, hundreds of them at a cliff by the sea, little broken eggshells floating on the waves.

At the New York Film Festival press conference for Nomadland, held on Zoom with Chloé Zhao and producer Peter Spears (Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name), moderator Dennis Lim, Director of Programming, selected one of my comments and questions for Chloé Zhao.

Chloé Zhao: “Fern and Ludovico are on two different ends of the world and have very different life experiences …”
Chloé Zhao: “Fern and Ludovico are on two different ends of the world and have very different life experiences …”

Anne-Katrin Titze: A calming scene for Fern is when she sees singer/songwriter Cat Clifford and the cowboys on a mesa off in the distance. This beautifully connects Nomadland with The Rider and then we hear his song again during the end credits. Did he write Drifting Away I Go for the film?

Chloé Zhao: You guys ask the best questions! I love this! First off to Cat, Cat exists in my little cinematic universe of South Dakota. He’s been in all my three films and he played a guitar in every single one and then he plays the song again. Now Drifting Away is the song. That day, Cat and the cowboys showed up. I said: ”You got a song to play? On camera?” And then he’s like “Okay, what about this?” And he showed me on his iPhone. And it’s not something he wrote for the film. It’s just something he had, he’s recorded, and he has on SoundCloud.

I was like “Oh, that’s a good one.” So he played, on camera. And then as we were thinking of an ending, I said to Peter [Spears] “I think there’s an opportunity.” Because Peter actually was so moved by the voice performance on that day on the cliffs. And then loved how that music and Ludovico’s [Einaudi] piano for some reason has this really interesting cross.

And Peter actually really encouraged me to explore having Cat’s song at the end of the film. But it was very stripped down, so then we worked with our music editor to collaborate with another musician and to do a different rendition for the ending. So I really like that you noticed that.

Nomadland is the Centerpiece selection in the Main Slate program of the New York Film Festival
Nomadland is the Centerpiece selection in the Main Slate program of the New York Film Festival

I have actually not physically worked with Ludovico and I hope I’ll get the opportunity someday. A lot of filmmakers that I really admire use pre-composed music, use existing scores for their film. So that was my first idea and I literally googled “beautiful classical music inspired by nature” on the internet. And then Ludovico’s YouTube video of - it’s called The Elegy of the Arctic - of him playing piano on a floating platform in the Arctic Ocean [came up].

And it’s just this really singular beautiful piano piece and then you see the ice collapsing behind him from the mountains. And I was like, whoa, I felt something. And then the Seven Days Walking album, where he wrote seven albums inspired by the seven days of the same walk he took in the Alps. Every element, from golden butterfly to low mist to gravity, you know.

When I was hearing that music, I was feeling that even though these two people, Fern and Ludovico are on two different ends of the world and have very different life experiences, but their connection to nature and the way that they find themselves in nature actually connects them as humans. So for some reason that music just fit perfectly and I was so grateful for it.

Nomadland, the Centerpiece selection in the Main Slate program will screen at the Brooklyn and Queens Drive-Ins on Saturday, September 26. The film will also screen virtually on September 26 at 8:00pm in a four-hour window.

The 2020 New York Film Festival runs through October 11.

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