Professional Practice: The Art of Directing with Chloe Zhao


For my Professional Practice assignment I decided to attend U of O’s “Art of Directing series” that they tend to hold from time to time. In this series of talks they bring in independent director’s from all over the globe in order for them to give their insights of the filmmaking process/the film industry if they have it at all to give. They held this one on May 1st at 4 PM in the Gerlinger Lounge at the UO campus.

Outside of the Gerlinger Building at UO Campus

This time it was with Director Chloe Zhao director of independent films such as Songs That My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and more recently The Rider (2017) which has won awards such as the C.I.C.A.E. award at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for 4 awards at the Film Independent Spirit Awards (Best Directing, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, and Best Feature).

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Chloe is a director from Beijing, China who initially went to school at Mount Holyoke College which is a liberal arts college where she earned a degree in political science. After realizing that getting actual work in US politics wasn’t really what she wanted to do she worked odd jobs for a while, mainly as a bartender for about 3 years before deciding to attend New York University Tisch School of the Arts in order to study filmmaking.

The talk itself didn’t have much order and went all around so based on the notes I took I’m going to try to organize it all into different sections.

She told us how from a young age she was always interested in telling stories, originally being super into Japanese Manga to the point of even wanting to make her own. But feeling not very confident in her abilities when it came to art she ended up not pursuing manga creation.

Chloe Zhao (right) with Forest Whitaker (left) who produced Songs My Brothers Taught Me.

She wanted to tell real human stories about different and cultured people, finding the romanization of a culture more toxic then finding their real human struggles that we generally don’t see on film, which is mainly what both Songs My Brothers Taught Me and the Rider deal with. Songs mainly dealing with Native American’s and their culture and the everyday struggles of the characters in that film and the Rider dealing with cowboy/rodeo culture which takes the real aspects of the main actors life and fictionalizes parts of it.

Chloe always saw community theater and people engaging with community theater to be super interesting due to getting different people with different backgrounds and different cultural experiences really being able to put their all into their performances in interesting and unique ways. She also said that she sees audience interaction with a film/the screen to be something that she loves. Engaging with people who engage in the work you end up putting out is super key to her.

In regards to her crew she talked about how it’s a good idea to find people you trust very well and that you know you can work well with for a smaller production that you have more personal control over. If you have someone who’s wishy washy with you or that you don’t particularly work well with, then there will be clashing and problems that are bound to happen, especially on such a small production. She also said to make sure you take special care of your crew. She would always cook breakfast every single day for her crew.

I think I got a pretty decent shot of the chair Chloe sat in! Wasn’t a gigantic fan of the lighting overall in there for pictures honestly.

When it came to writing she said that no matter the size of crew every single part of the shoot/film all comes from the script. If a part doesn’t work while shooting Chloe said to just rewrite it and that’s a benefit you can have while on set. For the production of Songs, she wrote 30 drafts with a 10 page treatment which made the movie take about 3 years overall to write, while the Rider ended up only taking about a month to write comparatively. Money was also a factor as Songs didn’t really have much funding due to nobody wanting to back a first time asian female director making a film about Native Americans.

Chloe also made it a point to emphasize that it’s good to not be too bombastic or crazy with your first film as in a way your first really applying everything you’ve learned and you’re going to bump your head. It’s best to work within your budget/limitations and be realistic/reasonable with how you end up going about it all. First films, even if they’re not perfect or have problems or flaws can end up being calling cards to bigger films, even if they’re just a small short film! It’s all about learning the process, networking and getting your name around and out into the filmmaking world/community. You never need a lot of money to get your foot in the door somewhere or to open doors to better opportunities.

An interesting quote from her that I really enjoyed was when talking about budgets for films, she ended up talking about the Budget for the Rider and how it didn’t really matter. To her “Production Value/Budget doesn’t really mean much, $80,000 in South Dakota can be $5,000,000 in New York, it’s far more about the talent of your cast and crew during the production itself.”

We were told that creatively you have more advantages when small over working for a big corporation. When small you have way more leeway and far less studio intervention. She also suggested staying small if you’re an indie creator, as studios can end up taking notice of you and wanting you on bigger projects, or wanting to fund more of your work if you impress them.

Another quote I quite enjoyed was her saying she was from the “Terrence Malick school of filmmaking”.

Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life, Knights of Cups) is pretty well known for filming primarily outdoors, often relying on natural lighting for his productions, focusing on philosophical subjects, mixing well known actors with non actors and trying to get real true raw reactions from them.

Her two movies really do follow these pretty well, dealing with real subject matters/philosophical angles, tending to lean towards using unknown actors, shooting outside most of the time and really trying to get real, raw and personal reactions and stories. It was honestly fairly inspiring to me as someone who wants to create/help create meaningful and philosophical media and art that tackles interesting subject matter.

What added to this was how she told us how she didn’t film using a monitor, or just sitting behind the camera all the time. She really tries to get engaged with her actors, letting them know exactly what she wants the actor to convey and really getting that across effectively. And the advice she gave of telling us to humble ourselves to the nature around us and that it will have the chance to surprise us while filming. She experienced this on the filming of the rider as they worked quite a bit with horses (specifically the main actors horse) which tended to wander around and do it’s own thing from time to time which ended up leading to some beautifully constructed shots for the film.

She ended off mainly by talking about big studios and telling us to stay true to ourselves, but to compromise on certain things and cooperate to what the studio wants as well if you are working with a big studio. She had been given offers for bigger films and is even working on a new movie funded by Amazon soon enough which to me is fairly cool and exciting to hear her going from a no name unfunded film like Songs to the success of the Rider at festivals to being funded by Amazon. It’s inspiring and shows that even small creators can really make it.

Before leaving, I first stopped by the catering provided by UO catering which was pretty great!

Great job to the catering staff!

And then I got a chance to introduce myself to Chloe and ask her two questions.

The first being about what she exactly looks for in an editor for her films, as I have an interest in and want to become an editor for films/media.

Her response was she does the first rough cut of the film herself and then she looks for someone who could work the best with constantly changing/adapting content. Someone who can adapt to scenes they may have finished needing to be tweaked/adjusted/changed completely when needed. As when a film develops things can change due to reshoots/script changes and what not.

The second question I asked was about what she suggests for an editor trying to get their foot in the door/in the industry at large.

This probably wasn’t the greatest question since she’s a director so she didn’t have a ton of advice to give from her personal experience, but she did say that her editor on the Rider came from and looked into Sundance labs and editing fellowships which since talking to her I’ve began looking into. These supposedly put you with real professionals who analyze and critique the work you give them and teach you how to improve your craft, as well as matching you up with directors who need editors for their work. So I definitely want to begin looking more into this if I personally can.

Overall, I’d say my experience with this professional practice was fairly positive and I’m definitely going to try to be on the lookout for more events that the Cinema Studies program at U of O puts on from here on. I ended up going to the Icarus showing they put on yesterday too and it was pretty great! Learned quite a bit from that cinematographer who showed up there so they definitely have some very valuable discussions and showings for people who are interested.

3 thoughts on “Professional Practice: The Art of Directing with Chloe Zhao

  1. Christopher Mitchell

    It looks like you took advantage of a great opportunity to see the work of an up and coming director. It doesn’t seem like she will be categorized that way very much longer. this was a very clear, detailed account of your experiences and I thank you for the information. I will try to pay attention to the events that the U of O Cinema Studies Program has to offer.


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