When Jessica Bruder and Bob Wells first met, they had no idea their personal experiences would lead to a major motion picture, slated as the frontrunner at this year’s Oscars. At the time, Bruder was a writer researching the effects of the 2008 housing crisis and the rise of those choosing the transient lifestyle in its aftermath. Wells was a leader in the nomadic movement, giving speeches and making YouTube videos showing others how to live in a van or camper.
Their experiences eventually let to Bruder’s 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, which caught the eye of Searchlight Pictures (formally Fox Searchlight), Frances McDormand, and director Chloe Zhao. Now called Nomadland, the film follows McDormand’s Fern as she travels around the country, working seasonal jobs in the wake of her husband’s death and losing her home. With Nomadland nominated for six Academy Awards, I sat down with Jessica Bruder and Bob Wells to chat about their lives since the film, the effects of COVID on the nomadic lifestyle and how all stories deserve to be told.
Jessica, you met Bob Wells when you spent months at a time driving around the country, documententing individuals who had given up their housing following the 2008 recession. That experience culminated into your book. Writer/director Chloe Zhao has not adapted it into the film Nomadland which Bob, you appear in. What drew both of you guys to working with with Chloe Zhao on this piece?
Jessica Bruder: The people who first approached me about the book were Peter Spears (producer) and Frances McDormand, and it was Frances who came upon Chloe at the Toronto Film Festival. She saw it and loved the writer and brought Chloe onboard to the project. And then I went and watched Chloe’s past work and I thought it was fantastic. And that’s really what you have to rely on when you’re making a leap of faith like this one. So that’s the simple answer.
Bob Wells: For me, I’m always looking for an opportunity to get the word out. I like to tell people that they have an opportunity. There are options in life that there’s hope, whatever their life situation is. There is another way to live and I did the exact same thing [as Jessica]. I looked at her work. I admired it, admired her and thought this would work well.
Bob, how has your life changed since Nomadland came out? Is it a whole different world for you now because of this?
BW: Well, actually it’s changed very little. I run away and hide in the back country as much as I can. You wouldn’t think it, but I’m an incredibly private person and I need my alone time to recover. Because I put myself in the spotlight so much in so many ways, I need more time than ever to be alone. My life is pretty much built around being alone. And so no one can find me! If you could track me down, you’re really, really good. But now I get more emails and my name is in the press more often, but in no other way has it affected me.
Jessica, the book goes to a much more political place than the movie does. Was that kind of a mutual decision between you and Chloe (Zhao, who wrote the script) and what are your thoughts on that especially now that Amazon, which is heavily featured in the film, is getting a lot of criticisms for actively trying to prevent unions.
JB: Well, I think people have been studying Amazon’s practices with labor for a long time. I actually don’t see that as a new thing. I do recognize that there’s a big difference between filmmaking and bookmaking and I am really glad I did the book the way I did. There are certain ways you can give context in a book that is perhaps different from how you might do it on screen. It’s a different type of show don’t tell. But in terms of how things were going to be structured with the film, I wasn’t the screenwriter. I basically said, “Here are all the ingredients in my pantry from working on this material intensely for years and Chloe, make of it what you will.”
Bob, you make a very moving speech to Fern towards the end of the film, where you talk about the death of your son. How did that conversation make its way into the film since it wasn’t originally in the script?
BW: I made a conscious decision to talk about my son in the film as a healing journey for myself. It was a conscious decision I made before I talked to Chloe about it. It was one of the few times I’ve talked about it in actual public, certainly to a national audience. It was hard, but it was healing. That kind of summarizes the whole movie. Doesn’t it? It was hard, but it was healing.
You just mentioned that you have been getting a rise in emails from a lot of people, who have seen the film. My question actually is for both you and Jessica, with COVID-19 causing a lot of people to go through financial turmoil, have you seen an uptick in interest in the nomadic lifestyle since Nomadland came out and since COVID started?
BW: Yes, definitely. The government’s pumped so much money into the economy it’s kind of kept it afloat. People are oddly enough, sometimes they’re flushed, sometimes they’re broke and sometimes they’re in flush again. So I think the real tidal wave is yet to come, but no question there have been more who are interested in coming out into the life now. I’ve had a lot of emails from people who’ve seen the film, but right now its a lot of COVID. After 2008, we’ve talked about the great recovery. Well, I haven’t seen that myself. I have gotten, not as many, but nearly as many emails since because the vast majority of Americans have been left behind from the great recovery… the great economy. So I still, I’ve always heard from them.
JB: Bob is also out on the road, so I would take his comment on this more seriously than mine, but anecdotally, I’ve heard about people heading out there. And I agree with him that the movie may be a small factor in the future, but I think the bigger factor is actually just kind of how we’re living as a culture, in terms of how we treat people. And if you look even as far back as 2019, CEOs were getting paid 320 times as much as the average worker. In 1965, that ratio was 21 to one. We’re just in a really strange place as a culture right now, where we’ve got this economy that we treat like a God and a society that we think as secondary to the economy, when it should be the other way around. I think that was crystallized in 2008, when a lot of people did lose faith in the economy. Like Bob said, the idea of jobless recovery is kind of an oxymoron. A lot of people didn’t bounce back and now we’re dealing with COVID and we’re talking about an eviction crisis where the federal government does keep kicking the can down the road. But in terms of rental assistance, that’s really a moving target. We don’t know when people will be back in some semblance of the lives that went before. So again, I think more to come.
I love how the movie very much blends fiction and reality. It’s sort of pushing this line between documentary and narrative filmmaking. What is one thing that you both hope a first-time viewer takes away from Nomadland?
BW: I think everyone sees that they have an alternative, that there is another choice. That if things are looking financially really bad, which they work for Fern, you realize there is an option. There is a whole other way to live and at first, it can appear to be a huge loss. For most people it would be a horror show, but Fern loves it and she chooses it and she finds healing in it. She finds community. One thing I tell people all the time is “these may very well be the best days of your life coming up,” and Fern found that and she would not give it up. I think that’s what I want people to know.
JB: I hope it will remind people that they don’t have to go draw from the same old wells to find stories. We live in a culture that’s obsessed with youth and wealth and celebrity and in my mind, great stories are all around. The stories that I heard on the road are to me more compelling in many ways than stories I hear about the bold face names out there. I hope people will keep an open mind and keep that in mind and reassess how they look at our culture a little bit.
Nomadland is currently in theaters and available to stream on Hulu.