For the real-life van dwellers who appear in “Nomadland,” life hasn’t changed drastically since the film was released.
Folks like Bob Wells, Linda May and Charlene Swankie say they’ve seen a sharp increase in incoming emails, but they haven’t been bombarded by movie producers or fans trying to track them down.
Wells, for one, wouldn’t hear of it. “When life gets too hectic, I run away and hide in the back country as much as I can,” he says during a Zoom conference.
“You wouldn’t think it, but I’m an incredibly private person and I like 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. If you can track me down, you’re really, really good.”
Now staying with relatives in Oregon (where he’s handling family business), Wells is considered the go-to for information about folks who live in vans and travel around the country. A veteran van dweller, Wells founded the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, an annual gathering of van dwellers, and Homes on Wheels Alliance, a charity organization dedicated to the promotion of van dwelling.
Those endeavors made him a must for Jessica Bruder, the author of “Nomadland,” the book upon which the film is based. She steered director Chloe Zhao and producer/star Frances McDormand in his direction and that, in turn, translated into roles for Wells, Swankie and May, three featured prominently in the film.
“There’s nothing (in my appearance) that’s fictional,” Wells insists. “I’m just playing myself. It was so realistic, I didn’t feel like I was acting at all.”
Among the people McDormand’s character meets, Wells tells an emotional story at the end of the film that explains why he’s a nomad. It’s a heartbreaking account of his son’s death that’s guaranteed to bring tears.
“I made a conscious decision to talk about my son as a healing journey for myself,” Wells says. “It was hard, but it was healing – and that kind of summarizes the whole movie: it was hard but it was healing.”
A life option
In the film, McDormand plays a woman who loses her job, hits the road and learns what lies beyond. It’s a choice she makes for many reasons, not the least of which is financial.
During the last decade, Bruder says, van dwelling has become a viable alternative for many. “We’re just in a really strange place as a culture right now,” she says. “We’ve got this economy that we treat like a god and society that we think of as secondary to the economy, when it should be the other way around. I think that was crystalized in 2008 when a lot of people did lose faith in the economy. A lot of people didn’t bounce back.”
Van dwelling was seen as an option, Wells says. “After 2008, we talked about the Great Recovery, but I haven’t seen that myself. The vast majority of Americans have been behind since the Great Recovery.”
Bruder, who did extensive research for her book, says CEOs got paid 320 times as much as the average worker in 2019. “In 1965, that ratio was 21 to 1. We’re just in a really strange place as a culture right now.”
Life on the road, though, isn’t as risky as it might seem, Wells says. “Where are the bad guys? Bad guys are where there are people with access to money and something worth stealing. In the city, there are a lot of people with a lot of money. (Bad guys) can watch you, case your house, plan it. So (someone on the road) is a lot safer than you are.”
'A regular Jill'
Like others in the cast, Wells found McDormand incredibly down to earth. “We sat around and had dinner. We spent time with her and she was just a regular Jill – a wonderful person with no pretenses, no airs. She’s just someone you’d like to get to know and spend time with.”
Zhao recreated a Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in “Nomadland” and impressed its found with its authenticity.
“We were there for three or four days and it looked like the real thing,” Wells says of the gathering.
That care told Wells and others their story would be told correctly. From the film, he says, outsiders can learn there is an alternative.
“If things are looking financially, really bad – which they were for Fern (McDormand’s character), they will realize there is an option,” he says. “At first, it looks and appears to be a huge loss. For most people it would be a horror show. But Fern loves it and chooses it. She finds healing in it.
“One thing I tell people all the time is ‘these may well be the best days of your lives.’ And Fern found that and she would not give it up.”
Bruder – who cheered as “Nomadland” won Best Picture at the Golden Globes – says the film could prove to producers they “don’t have to draw from the same old wells for stories. Even in a culture that’s obsessed with youth and wealth and celebrity, great stories are all around. All the stories I heard on the road, to me, are more compelling in many ways than the stories I hear about the boldfaced names out there.”