Chloé Zhao is a Chinese filmmaker who is known primarily for her work in independent U.S. films. Her debut feature film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015), premiered at Sundance Film Festival to critical acclaim and earned a nomination for the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature. Her second feature film, The Rider (2017), was critically praised and received nominations for the Independent Spirit Award for Best Film and Best Director. Zhao gained further success with Nomadland (2020), which attracted international recognition and won many awards, including Best Director at the Golden Globe Awards—making Zhao the second woman and first Asian woman to win the category— the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and the People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. She is currently nominated for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards, British Academy Film Awards and Directors Guild of America Awards.
Zhao has recently ventured into blockbuster filmmaking with the Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero film Eternals, slated for release in November 2021.
Zhao was born Zhao Ting in Beijing in 1982. Her father is Yuji Zhao, who rode the wave of China’s industrialization to great success, first as a top executive at one of the country’s largest steel companies, Shougang Group, and later in real-estate development and equity investment. Her mother was a hospital worker who was in a People's Liberation Army performance troupe. Vogue said she described herself as "a rebellious teen, lazy at school" who drew manga and wrote fan fiction. She loved films growing up, especially Happy Together by Wong Kar-wai. When she was 15 years old, despite knowing nearly no English, her parents sent her to a private boarding school in the United Kingdom.
Her parents separated and her father later remarried to famous comic actress Song Dandan, who Zhao grew up watching on television. Growing up, Zhao was drawn to influences from Western pop culture. She attended a boarding school in London, then moved to Los Angeles to finish high school.
Zhao studied at Mount Holyoke College, one of the elite private Seven Sisters colleges, earning a bachelor's degree in political science. She studied film production at New York University Tisch School of the Arts.
In 2015, Zhao directed her first feature film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me. Filmed on location at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the film depicts the relationship between a Lakota Sioux brother and his younger sister. The film premiered as part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at Sundance Film Festival. It later played at Cannes Film Festival as part of the Director's Fortnight selection. The film was nominated for Best First Feature at the 31st Independent Spirit Awards.
In 2017, she directed The Rider, a contemporary western drama which follows a young cowboy’s journey to discover himself after a near-fatal accident ends his professional riding career. The film was executive produced by her father Yuji Zhao. Similar to her first feature, Zhao utilised a cast of non-actors who lived on the ranch where the film was shot. Zhao's impetus for making the film came when Brady Jandreau—a cowboy whom she met and befriended on the reservation where she shot her first film—suffered a severe head injury when he was thrown off his horse during a rodeo competition. Jandreau later starred in the film playing a fictionalised version of himself as Brady Blackburn.
The film premiered at Cannes Film Festival as part of the Directors' Fortnight selection and won the Art Cinema Award. The film earned her nominations for Best Feature and Best Director at the 33rd Independent Spirit Awards. At the same ceremony, Zhao became the inaugural winner of the Bonnie Award, named after Bonnie Tiburzi, which recognizes a mid-career female director. The film was released on April 13, 2018 by Sony Pictures Classics and was critically acclaimed. Peter Keough of The Boston Globe wrote: " achieves what cinema is capable of at its best: It reproduces a world with such acuteness, fidelity, and empathy that it transcends the mundane and touches on the universal."
In 2018, Zhao directed her third feature film, Nomadland, starring Frances McDormand. The film was shot over four months traveling the American West in an RV with many actual nomadic workers. The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where it received critical acclaim and won the Golden Lion award, and subsequently played at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the People's Choice Award. The film was released on February 19, 2021 by Searchlight Pictures. Zhao won the Golden Globe Award for Best Director for Nomadland, making her the first woman of Asian descent honored, and only the second woman to win a Golden Globe for directing since Barbra Streisand in 1984.
On February 15, 2021, Variety reported that "with 34 awards season trophies for directing, 13 for screenplay and nine for editing, Chloe Zhao has surpassed Alexander Payne (Sideways) as the most awarded person in a single awards season in the modern era."
In April 2018, it was announced that Amazon Studios greenlit Zhao's upcoming untitled Bass Reeves biopic, a historical Western about the first black U.S. Deputy Marshal. Zhao is set to direct the film and write the screenplay. In September 2018, Marvel Studios hired her to direct Eternals, based on the comic book characters of the same name. The film is set to be released on November 5, 2021.
Zhao resides in Ojai, California with three chickens and two dogs, and her partner and cinematographer, Joshua James Richards.