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Interview: Jessica Bruder and Bob Wells Discuss ‘Nomadland’

Every year during the heat of awards season we see movies being positioned as the “movie of the moment”. They get lauded, adorned with prizes, maybe get a little bit of backlash, but the core idea is that this movie is important in a major way. Sometimes those movies fade fast (wither, Paul Haggis’ Crash), sometimes they endure, but when you’re in the moment you never know what their cultural legacy will ultimately be. 

All of that being said, things are looking quite good for Nomadland as not only a movie that represents our current time, but one that will continue to live on as a reminder to appreciate the world that we’re living in, an appreciation that our modern conventions can often take away from us. Living in the shadow of the Great Recession, the movie explores a community of people who, faced with economic downfall, discovered a new way of living, and found new meaning in life. 

The movie, directed by Chloé Zhao, is based on a 2017 non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, titled Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. It was named a “Notable Book” by the New York Times, was a finalist for the J. Anthony Lukas Prize and the Helen Bernstein Book Award, and won the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award. 

The book features real life nomads, including Bob WellsLinda May, and Swankie, three people who also appear in the film, playing variations of themselves alongside award-winning actors Frances McDormand and David Strathairn

Bob Wells is a leader within the community of nomads. He has a YouTube channel called CheapRVliving that has nearly 500,000 subscribers, which he uses to produce how-to videos, interviews with other nomads, and inspirational videos using quotes by authors and free thinkers. He also organizes a yearly gathering every January in Quartzsite, Arizona called the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, for fellow van-dwellers who he refers to as “The Tribe”. The first RTR in 2010 had 45 attendees. In 2019, there were 10,000. 

That speaks to the kind of impact that a man like Bob Wells can have on people, and it was my privilege to be able to speak with Wells and Jessica Bruder, just two days after Nomadland won Best Director and Best Picture – Drama at this year’s Golden Globes. With more awards surely to come, I started by offering a hearty congratulations to the two for all of the love the movie has received. We didn’t have a lot of time together, yet I still found great insight in this conversation, as the three of us got into the reasons why the film is connecting so much with audiences, what Bob hopes that people will get from the movie, and how Jessica’s experience living within the nomad community has stayed with her after she spent extensive time out on the road while researching her book. 

See our review of Nomadland here, and read on for my conversation with Jessica Bruder and Bob Wells: 

Mitchell Beaupre: When Chloé Zhao won the Golden Globe award for Best Director on Sunday night, she shared this beautiful quote from Bob about compassion, saying, “Compassion is a breakdown of all the barriers between us. A heart to heart bonding. Your pain is my pain. It’s mingled and shared between us”. Bob, I wanted to ask you about how that idea of compassion is conveyed through the film, and what do you hope that people get out of watching Nomadland

Bob Wells: Well, I think you see it in the relationships. I think it’s clearest when Fern (Frances McDormand) goes up to the young man. He’s there alone, and Fern goes up and says, “Have you called your mother?” Her heart went to the boy, but from the boy to the mother. She felt that mother’s pain and wanted to alleviate it, and she felt his pain and wanted to alleviate it. That’s the difference between compassion and sympathy and empathy. It takes steps, it puts one foot in front of the other, walks up to a young man, and helps him. I think to me that was the golden moment. The rest of it is self-compassion and it’s lived out on the screen, but that was the golden moment to me. 

MB: Jessica, there’s this moment early in the movie in the Amazon facility where we see a character showing their tattoo with a quote on it that reads “Home, is it a word? Or is it something that you carry within you?” While you were writing your book you spent time out living with the nomads, and then afterwards you returned to your previous lifestyle. What was something that you gained from your experience out there that you’ve carried with you afterwards? 

Jessica Bruder: Oh, so much really. I got this sense that you can live out your curiosity in different ways. For me, being able to do that and be out there, and to feel like people were actually speaking to me, and that I don’t have to be anxious. I’m a journalist, but I get a little nervous, so for me it was really a bolstering experience. 

MB: Most of the people in the film, other than Frances McDormand and David Strathairn, are real life nomads playing variations of themselves. Bob, if you could cast anybody to play you in a movie, who would it be? 

BW: George Costanza in Seinfeld, what’s his real life name? (laughing) Jason Alexander, yeah. No, no, that’ a joke. That’s a tough question, you know, I don’t think I have a good answer for that. 

MB: Bob, Linda May, and Swankie are all people who appear in your book Jessica, who also appear in the movie as themselves. What were your thoughts when you found out that they were going to be portraying themselves? That element of the film seems so vital, to have these real people conveying their experience on screen, as opposed to professional actors. 

JB: I thought it was fantastic! I remember when Chloé asked me if I thought Linda May would be good on screen. I told her, “You know, I’m not a filmmaker, but one thing that made Linda so wonderful to follow over the course of three years while recording my book is that Linda is Linda. Whether I’ve got my tape recorder on or off, she’s the same way with me that she is with the person at the deli, or the person at the gas station, or the people that are camping at a campground when she’s working there”. I think that came through on screen. 

MB: Bob, something that you convey in the movie is how part of this lifestyle is about removing yourself from the capitalism and commercialism that runs the modern world. When you were approached by Jessica, and then later by Frances and Chloé, was there ever a doubt for you that they might not portray your story, and your community, in an authentic way? Or when you met them did you know right away that they were people you could trust with your story? 

BW: Well, I’ve done a lot of media over the years. It’s always a risk, that’s one thing that I’ve accepted. It’s always a risk, and you never know what’s going to be put out. From my experience, it’s pretty much always been pretty accurate, and I was happy with it. With Chloé it was especially easy. I went back and watched her work, and found out about her story. Knowing her work and knowing her story, I was quite confident that something good was coming. 

Nomadland is in theaters now and available to stream on Hulu 

[This interview has been slightly edited for clarity] 

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Written by Mitchell Beaupre

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