On Sunday, Chloé Zhao became the first woman of color and only second woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director. Zhao is the filmmaker behind Nomadland, a quiet and compassionate study of American itinerant workers who rely on seasonal work at Amazon, national parks, and other employers. Zhao also won an Oscar for Best Picture and was nominated in the Best Adapted Screenplay category. Along with directing Nomadland, Zhao produced the film and wrote its script.
Nomadland is just the third feature film from Zhao, who grew up in Beijing before moving to the U.S. and graduating from Mount Holyoke and NYU’s film school. After three relatively low-budget (and critically-acclaimed, to say the least) indie films, her fourth is a monster. She’s currently in post-production on The Eternals, a superhero film based on Marvel characters which she finished shooting early last year, just before the world went into lockdown.
Considering that Zhao entered film school in 2010, Zhao’s meteoric rise from low-budget indie-filmmaker to $200 million-budget movie maker is an impressive one. And there’s a lot to learn from Zhao. Here are three lessons that anyone, inside or outside the film industry, can take away from Zhao’s short but wildly successful career.
1. Work with your limitations; don’t let them work you.
Zhao’s recipe for success has largely relied on blending fiction with nonfiction to create an almost documentary-like quality to her feature films. Zhao’s first three features use actors along with non-actors playing fictionalized versions of themselves. Which was not all by design. In 2018, Zhao told NPR’s Terry Gross, “You either work with limitation or you let it work you … Back in 2010 to 2013, it was a tough time for the country financially, and for the industry, for everybody. No one was going to just throw me money to [make my films]. So, it was a blessing in disguise, because that style came out of it. We had to be friends with the limitations that we had, including the way we shoot, the time of day we shoot, who we cast, and how we run the set.” In other words, Zhao worked around and with her limitations, creating what she could with what she had.
Of course, limitations come in forms other than financing. Often, they come in the form of a perceived lack of experience, skills, and knowledge. For example, if you’re interviewing for a position in a field you haven’t worked in before, don’t let that stop you; make it work for you. Explain to hiring managers how hungry you are, eager to learn, and passionate you are about the field—an eagerness to learn is one of the most highly sought after traits in a new hire. Also, companies are always looking for new perspectives to solve old problems. So, try to connect the dots for hiring managers between what you’ve done in the past to what you want to do in the future. Chances are, you’ll have applicable skills and experiences, even if it doesn’t look that way to you at a glance.
Whatever it is you’re aiming for—job, career, spot in grad school—it’s important not to let limitations stop you. And, who knows, it’s possible that, like they did for Zhao, they’ll propel you to the next level in your career.
2. Be honest about who you are and what you’re interested in.
After her first two feature films, Zhao was offered several “director-for-hire jobs”—projects she didn’t develop or write herself but that she was asked to direct. She didn’t accept them. And speaking with The Atlantic earlier this year about why not, she said, “They were bigger projects. But it’s not who I am, and 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 kind of folks.”
Of course, honesty and authenticity are essential to success in any industry. If you take on jobs, careers, or projects you have little interest in and have little do with your passions, chances are you won’t get any closer to where you want to be. In fact, you’ll likely get further away. For example, say you’re unhappy with your current job, are looking for a new one, and the first opportunity that comes along isn’t something that’s a good fit, but you take it anyway. The next thing you know, it’s three years (or a decade) later, and you’re stuck on a path you know is the wrong one—you’re not doing work you love, you’re not working with like-minded people, etc.
Of course, not everyone has the ability to wait for that perfect fit, but if you can, try to hold out for as long as you can. It’ll be worth it in the long run.
3. Empower your colleagues to be co-collaborators and co-owners.
Making a feature film, even a low-budget independent film, typically requires the work of hundreds of people. And so, filmmaking is nothing if not a team effort. Which is something Zhao understands well—and takes to another level on her sets. In a recent episode of Next Question with Katie Couric, Zhao called Nomadland a complete team effort, explaining that all the non-actors involved in the film were essential to bringing the story to life. Not only did they act in the film, bringing their highly personal stories to the script, but they also performed other duties, including scouting locations. In fact, Zhao said that Bob Wells, one of the main non-actors in Nomadland, told her after he saw the film that he and the other non-actors in Nomadland felt like they were co-filmmakers, that they knew Zhao needed their input to make the film she wanted to.
Of course, working in teams and collaborating is essential in all corners of the working world. There’s almost no success to be found without teamwork, of some shape or form. Although this is no secret—all interviews these days focus on teamwork skills—it can be difficult to keep in mind and remember that where you want to go personally in your career also relies on how well you work with others, that your work is only as good as your team's work. In other words, to raise your work to a higher level, you need to do more than delegate; you need to ask for others’ input, gathering ideas and solutions from a diverse group of people at various levels, making your colleagues co-owners of the team's work.
If you can remember this—and empower and truly collaborate with those around you—you’ll discover what Zhao has: there’s almost nothing you can’t achieve.
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