A native of Beijing, Chloé Zhao didn’t grow up with an intimate knowledge of American history or any particular interest in spirituality. But when she first saw Terrence Malick’s 2005 epic The New World, she was drawn in by its meditative take on the tale of John Smith and Pocahontas, and by the sense that its director had accessed a truth that transcended the limitations of the movie screen. Here was an interpretation of national mythology that was more concerned with evoking subjective experience—the feeling of rain on skin, the first stirrings of romantic love—than with reconstructing a well-worn narrative.
In this new episode of Under the Influence—a series in which we invite contemporary writers and directors to talk about movies from the collection that have inspired them—Zhao, who is now based in California, talks about what she has learned from her encounters with this masterpiece. Her two acclaimed films, Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017), are both set in the heartland, and share with Malick’s work a deep respect for nature and “an intense and deep curiosity” about humanity’s role within it. And, as she reveals here, Malick’s influence may well prove to be a guiding light for her next big project, a period western that she hopes will break free from preconceived notions about American history.