History-Making Oscar Winner Chloé Zhao: Her Flourishing Career in Photos

Zhao has become one of the most sought-after directors in the industry, with her Nomadland a top contender this awards season and a Marvel movie slated for the fall

01 of 12

From Beijing to New York City

Director, screenwriter and producer Chloé Zhao moved to New York City from Beijing to attend NYU's Tisch School of the Arts in 2010. It was there she developed her critically acclaimed short film Daughters, which won numerous awards including best student live action short at the 2010 Palm Springs International ShortFest.

02 of 12

First Feature Film

Actress Irene Bedard, actor John Reddy, actress Jashaun St. John, producer Forest Whitaker and writer/director Chloe Zhao of "Songs My Brothers Taught Me" pose for a portrait at the Village at the Lift
Larry Busacca/Getty

During her program, Zhao also finished her debut feature film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival's US Dramatic Competition.

The Native American drama set on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota — written and directed by Zhao and produced by Zhao and Forest Whitaker — stars John Reddy as Johnny Winters, Jashaun St. John as Jashaun Winters and Irene Bedard as Lisa Winters.

03 of 12

Accumulating Accolades

"Songs My Brothers Taught Me Year" Chloe Zhao

Her debut project earned her several nominations and awards throughout the film festival circuit, including nominations for the grand jury prize at Sundance in 2015 and the best first feature and someone to watch awards at the 2016 Film Independent Spirit Awards.

When asked by Film Independent in 2016 about the inspiration for her movie, she said, "When people hear about the struggles people face on Pine Ridge, one of the most common questions is: 'Why don't they just leave?' I wondered the same at the beginning. But after spending a lot of time there, I started to understand the incredibly strong connection people have with their families, communities and land."

"It's a complicated connection—both freeing and confining," she added. "I wanted to make a film exploring that complicity."

04 of 12

Here Comes The Rider

"The Rider" Chloe Zhao
Caviar/Highwayman Films/Kobal/Shutterstock

Zhao's next film, The Rider, was released in 2017 and gave her a bigger boost in recognition and respect as a director when it garnered high praise following its premiere at Cannes Film Festival.

The Western took her back to the Lakota Sioux tribe of the Pine Ridge Reservation and follows Brady Blackburn (played by real-life horse trainer and rodeo rider Brady Jandreau), who must give up the rodeo after suffering a serious head injury. The visually breathtaking drama takes viewers through Blackburn's journey to try and adapt to a new way of living outside of the ring.

05 of 12

Riding High Through Awards Season

Actor Brady Jandreau, director Chloe Zhao, and actor Tim Jandreau attend a screening of "The Rider" during the 55th New York Film Festival at Alice Tully Hall on October 12, 2017 in New York City
Michael Loccisano/Getty

The movie broke open the film festival floodgates with a slew of nominations and awards, including best film at the National Society of Film Critics Awards and best feature at the Gotham Awards. Zhao also received the coveted Art Cinema award following the premiere at the Director's Fortnight selection at the Cannes Film Festival.

Zhao explained why she centered her story on Jandreau in a 2018 interview with Vanity Fair.

"A lot of sports movies are about people who, in the end, win the game," Zhao told the outlet. "In the case of rodeo and Brady, the chance of him returning is very slim. But not a day goes by that this man has given up on the rodeo or continued to live in a way where he could be close to these animals."

"I really wanted to make a film that celebrates that, celebrates those who stay on the reservation, who make the tough choices in life, who keep going," she continued. "I don't think our culture celebrates that enough."

06 of 12

Major Recognition

Filmmaker Chloe Zhao (C) receives an award from actress Rosamund Pike and CEO of IWC Schaffhausen Christoph Grainger-Herr on stage during the exclusive gala event 'For the Love of Cinema' during the Tribeca Film Festival
Jamie McCarthy/Getty

Following the release of The Rider, Zhao continued to receive honors for her contributions to cinema. In 2017, Zhao won the IWC Filmmaker Award, which further solidified her spot as the up-and-coming director to watch.

07 of 12

Inaugural High Honors

Chloe Zhao, winner of the Bonnie Award speaks onstage at the Film Independent Spirit Awards Nominee Brunch at BOA Steakhouse on January 6, 2018 in West Hollywood, California
Emma McIntyre/WireImage

In 2018, Zhao also recieved the first-ever Bonnie Award at the Film Independent Spirit Awards nominee brunch. The prize is a $50,000 grant given to a talented mid-career female director who demonstrates innovation and uniqueness of vision in film.

08 of 12

Teaming Up with Frances McDormand

Frances McDormand and Director/Writer Chloé Zhao on the set of NOMADLAND
Frances McDormand and Chloé Zhao on the set of Nomadland. Joshua James Richards

Zhao's next project was born out of a fateful encounter with actress Frances McDormand, who wanted to meet with Zhao after watching The Rider. According to a recent interview with Vulture, McDormand bought the rights to journalist Jessica Bruder's nonfiction book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, and Zhao happened to be writing a similar story of her own at the time. The two decided to join forces instead to tackle the story of Fern (played by McDormand), a woman who decides to live life on the road as a modern-day nomad after her town of Empire, Nevada, shuts down following the closure of a U.S. Gypsum facility — an actual event that occurred in 2011.

09 of 12

Joining the Marvel Universe

Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Salma Hayek, Director Chloe Zhao, Lia McHugh, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie, Lauren Ridloff and Don Lee of Marvel Studios' 'The Eternals' at the San Diego Comic-Con International 2019 Marvel Studios Panel in Hall H on July 20, 2019 in San Diego, California
Eternals cast. Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty

Zhao has switched gears from telling stories from America's heartland to diving into the Marvel Universe, as she was chosen to direct The Eternals in 2018. The director beat out several other contenders, including Nicole Kassell (who has worked on Watchmen and Westworld) and Travis Knight (Bumblebee).

The Eternals cast is stacked with A-listers including Salma Hayek, Angelia Jolie, Gemma Chan, Kit Harington, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry and more, and is slated to be released on Nov. 5, 2021.

10 of 12

Award Season Favorite

frances mcdormand
Francis McDormand in Nomadland. Courtesy Searchlight Pictures

The film won awards at several film festivals in the U.S. and internationally, and was up for four at the 2021 Golden Globes: best motion picture, best screenplay (Zhao), best director (Zhao) and best performance by an actress in a motion picture (McDormand). It took home both best director and best motion picture.

11 of 12

Making History — Twice

Chloe Zhao
Amanda Edwards/Getty

Zhao joined Promising Young Woman's Emerald Fennell and One Night in Miami's Regina King as part of a historic group of women directors nominated for best director at the 2021 Golden Globes. It was the first time ever more than one woman had been nominated in the best director category, and Zhao was also the first woman of Asian descent to ever be recognized in the directing category.

Her win made her just the second female best director ever, and first female of Asian descent to score the award. She also nabbed the best director award at the April 22 Film Independent Spirit Awards, where four of the five nominees were women for the first time ever. She won best director at the BAFTA awards, too, two weeks prior.

12 of 12

A New Accolade

Chloe Zhao Academy Awards

At the 2021 Oscars, Zhao won Best Director, becoming just the second woman to do so (first was Kathryn Bigelow for 2010's The Hurt Locker). She was the first woman of Asian descent to be nominated, and only the fifth woman ever, alongside another female 2021 nominee, Emerald Fennell.

In her moving Best Director acceptance speech, Zhao reflected on her childhood.

"I've been thinking a lot lately of how I keep going when things get hard, and I think it goes back to something I learned as a kid," the Nomadland director said. "When I was growing up in China, my dad and I used to play this game. We would memorize classic Chinese poems and texts, and we would recite it together and try to finish each other's sentences."

"There's one that I remember so dearly; it's called 'The Three Character Classics,' " she continued, before stating the first phrase, then translating it to: "People at birth are inherently good."

"Those six letters had such impact on me as a kid," recalled Zhao. "And I still truly believe them today, even though sometimes it might seem like the opposite is true. But I have always found goodness in the people I met everywhere I went in the world. So this is for anyone who has the faith and the courage to hold onto the goodness in themselves and to hold onto the goodness in each other, no matter how difficult it is to do this."

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