10 Screenwriting and Directing Tips from Chloé Zhao

Chloé Zhao with Frances McDormand
Chloé Zhao with Frances McDormand on the set of 'Nomadland'Credit: Hulu
Chloé Zhao wants to help you on your nomadic journey as a writer. 

Chloé Zhao is one of the most exciting voices working in Hollywood today. She's a revolutionary storyteller who likes to work with a small crew, tell intense character dramas, and entertain the audience. She helmed the last Best Picture winner and she has a major Marvel blockbuster coming out this fall. Zhao has shown her ability to stay true to herself and her vision across any Hollywood project. 

That means when Zhao offers some free advice, it would behoove us to listen. Check out this video from Outstanding Screenplays and let's talk after the jump. 

10 Screenwriting and Directing Tips from Chloé Zhao

1. Use your protagonist as a guide and let them anchor your audience through their intimate experience so they feel more comfortable experiencing everything around them without getting lost.

I love this tip. We often think of the protagonist as just another character, and we worry about arcing them, but not about how they need to inform us.

The protagonist is our window into a new world. We should steep ourselves in them, simultaneously coming to an understanding about something. 

2. The people, the places, and the communities that are around today will someday disappear. So what you ought to do as a filmmaker is capture and represent these people and places in a way that they want to be remembered.

Every time you sit down to tell a story, you're capturing a moment in time. Those moments are fleeting.

If you write about cultures or specific people, take the time to get to know them. People disappear from the earth every day, but their stories mean they can live forever. 

3. Going backwards in your story is how you create a character’s emotional arc that is strong enough to compel the audience.

I love to work from the final scene. Where does your character arc end? Then work backward and pick the moments in the story that took them there.

If you build from the end to the beginning, you'll have sussed out the story beats that need to happen to get your character to a believable end. 

4. For certain types of films, it could be damaging to get rid of a specific moment or a scene just to keep a consistent tone throughout the film. It won’t be perfect, the beauty is in making it yours.

As a writer, you get to be in control of what happens inside the story. You have a say of what makes it into your script, especially before other people get involved. Concentrate on what you can do to push the scenes and parts you believe in toward the front so they don't get cut. 

5. You can be inspired by other mediums like video games and incorporate the elements that you like into your film. But with imitating another medium, new problems arise, so you need to find creative solutions to solve them.

You should take as much inspiration as you can from the world around you. Play games, go to museums, read books, steal from it all. But remember certain things are made certain ways because of the advantages of their medium. You have to tackle how those mediums can best be translated to your own. 

6. Use real people for the authenticity of the story and then create new fictional characters as protagonists that need more plot points and require more depth within that world that already exists.

The most "real" stories feel that way because they get the details right. Spend time interviewing and talking to people. borrow life details, change names, but get to the bottom of the truths you want to tell. 

7. Never shoot a scene without a treatment. Even if you know your scenes are going to be mostly improvised, you still need to have a plan for what needs to happen in the scene.

We're big believers in treatments. I think the best way to get through a writing assignment is to have a map of where you want it to go. Having the layout for what you need means you can try a bunch of different ways to get there, but as long as you hit the destination, you can take the best one and insert it. It will work. 

8. To make the scenes feel realistic, try to make the audience think that you just showed up with a camera and the scene happened. And to do that, you need to plan three times more than the usual shoots.

There's a certain lyricism to Zhao's movies. She makes everything feel naturalistic. That's something you can emulate, with planning. You get three kinds of shots. You need to find the right way into the scene and also hit the right blocking, time of day, and rehearse it so much it feels like second nature. If you want it, you have to put in the effort. 

9. Don’t try to preach something to your audience, rather give them situations and let them decide for themselves. Make your protagonist a docent, rather than a teacher.

We talk a lot about theme on this website. Theme is what your audience takes away, not what you spoon-feed them. There's grace in finding subtlety in these stories. So how can you format your stories in a way where the audience has free will to decide?

Do many rewrites and passes, put characters in situations where they have to deal with them, and make the audience judge how and why they act. Challenge the viewers. 

10. No matter how big your film is, you’re always working with the same core group of people. On bigger projects, they might just have more people with them, helping them achieve the common goal.

One of the best parts about directing is hiring the people you know you can count on and trust. It might take a few projects, but begin to find your crew. Who are the people who can help inspire your best work, the ones who take care of their jobs so you can worry about your own? You will work your best with a team that believes in doing their best.

Don't just sit there. Go out and find them.      

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