Producing Nomadland

by Elisabeth Jolly, Features Contributor
photo contributed by David Greenbaum

Growing up in upstate New York, David Greenbaum said that he did not have much exposure to the film industry. Now president of Searchlight Studios, an American film studio that was recently bought by Disney, Greenbaum has produced countless Academy Award-winning movies including “The Shape Of Water,” “The Favourite,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri” and “Jojo Rabbit.” Continuing in the same stride, his latest movie, “Nomadland,” has taken the world by storm. 

Despite his success in the industry, Greenbaum didn’t attend college for film; in fact, he said that it was only after he completed his undergraduate at Oxford University, while interning for former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, that he realized his love for filmmaking. 

During his time with Peres, Greenbaum produced a documentary about the Peres Center for Peace, which, among other contingent projects, opened his eyes to producing as a career.

“That was the first time that I had an opportunity to make and produce something. … You could actually tell stories to an audience,” Greenbaum said. “This was an extraordinary revelation for me.”

“Nomadland,” an adaptation of the novel by Jessica Bruder, narrates the stories of nomadic people in the U.S. It particularly follows one woman immensely affected by the Great Recession. The film examines the strong sense of community among the nomads, most of whom play themselves, as well as the phenomenon of the transient lifestyle in the 21st century.

Authenticity, combined with director Chloe Zhao’s unique style, made the film truly unique, Greenbaum said.

“Nomadland is scripted, but Chloe also does this interesting thing. Within each scene, she has lines that she wants the characters to say, but she allows people in the scenes and the moments to just speak,” he said. “That feeling of spontaneity and naturalism is what makes the movie feel so real because you never feel like the actors or the characters are ‘reading lines.’” 

Greenbaum said that through “Nomadland,” he came to understand the importance of encouraging all actors to approach their role in the way they feel most comfortable and confident doing.

“I learned that every actor has their own approach and also their own way of finding the character, so some actors are what we would call a ‘fully method.’ They almost live the life of the person that they’re portraying during the making of the movie,” he said.

The movie shows an interesting perspective on life and it teaches valuable life lessons, he said. 

“It’s about a woman who decides what she wants, and she’s driving into her own definition of what her life is going to look like. She’s not alone. The nomads will always welcome her. As Bob said, ‘I’ll see you down the road. I don’t know when, but I’ll see you down the road.’ That’s a beautiful metaphor for life,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re all going down the road and hoping to find people along the way that we want to spend life with.”

Greenbaum said he would advise students interested in filmmaking to be resourceful and perseverant. 

 “When I was a kid, we would try to make movies, but we needed to have a camcorder, an editing machine and a bunch of other things that essentially were not available to anyone who wasn’t a professional. … It was so hard to imagine how you could ever make that a career because you couldn’t really do it unless you went to school for it,” he said. 

“Now the reality is that there are probably school projects that students have where [they’re] making movies or videos,” he said.

Additionally, Greenbaum said he would suggest independent research as a means of developing style..

“Learn the history of movies and to spend time looking at and exploring the kind of movies you love,” he said. “So much of the way I produce movies comes from films I grew up watching.”

Greenbaum said he recommends budding filmmakers watch movies such as “Citizen Kane,” “The Godfather,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Pulp Fiction.”

“It’s not about red carpets and making money, it’s about telling great stories,” he said. “If you do that, then you’ll have success.”