BUCKING REALITY - An Interview with THE RIDER writer/director Chloé Zhao

Fri, Apr 27th, 2018

by Steve Prokopy

Not long after releasing her first feature, 2015’s SONGS MY BROTHERS TAUGHT ME, Chinese-born writer-director and NYU Graduate Film Program alumni Chloé Zhao went back to the film’s location in and around the Badlands of South Dakota to visit her new friends and simply take in the area where she had something of a creative and spiritual rebirth. During that trip, she me a young rodeo rider named Brady Jandreau, and she was immediately stuck with her inherent, undeniable leading-man charisma and looks. From that moment forward, she knew that he would be the focus of her second feature, although she wasn’t sure at the time what story she would build around him.

Shortly thereafter, Jandreau was in a horrific riding accident that not only ended his rodeo career but nearly cut short his life due to a head injury that required dozens of staples along the side of his skull. As terrible as the incident was, it also gave Zhao the inspiration she needed to create a narrative around Jandreau that effectively was a version of his life story called THE RIDER, in which a promising young career in rodeo is cut short, and a young, restless cowboy must figure out what he’s going to do with the rest of his life. Jandreau, who had no acting experience prior to this film, stars as Brady Blackburn, along side his real-life father and sister, as well as a cast of first-time actors in the supporting parts.

After debuting at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and playing at dozens of additional festivals since (including Sundance and South by Southwest), THE RIDER was nominated earlier this year for multiple Film Independent Spirit Awards (as was her first movie), and Zhao’s career has never looked more promising. We had a chance to speak with her recently about the film’s themes of broken masculinity, identity, and resilience; THE RIDER opens May 27 at the Music Box Theatre.

Question: The film has been on the festival circuit for almost a year now. Are you happy that it’s finally coming out in a way where everyone can see it and not just people who attend festivals?

Chloé Zhao: Very happy about that and that the the endless tour will be over. [laughs] I’m looking forward to the day when it hits VOD and Netflix, because that’s when the majority of the people in the Heartland will be able to see it.

Which is both good and bad, because it is such a beautiful movie to see on the big screen, and it’s been shot to capture the landscape perfectly. If ever there was a movie that deserved to be seen large, it’s this one.

Thank you. And many of those who are in the film have seen it that way because they all drove down to Telluride. We were lucky because it’s so close and the weather was good, so they were all able to come down. Also, there is a movie theater on the reservation where we shot most of this, and the DCP looks great, so we’ll make and effort to show it there so people can see it.

You meet Brady after your first feature. Can you put into words what drew you to him and made you want to include him in your next film?

I was going back to the reservation just to hang, and that’s when I met him. Initially, at first glance, I thought his face was really great. I didn’t speak to him; it one of those creepy occupational side effects, where I just stare at people’s faces—at a gas station or wherever. But he walked into the basement of the ranch where I was playing video games with the rancher’s son, and he worked for the rancher. That same evening, I went outside and saw him training horses, and I started talking to him and he started explaining to me what he does with the horses. I actually said to him at that moment, “You want to make a film together?”

When he was showing me the horses, there was a little bump on the horse’s neck, on the spine there’s a bone that sticks out. I said, “Why is that sticking out?” And he said, “That’s what God put on a horse to hold the saddle.” If that line was written in a script, I would roll my eyes if an actor delivered that. But the way he said it, if he can sell that line, he believes every word he’s saying. There’s something very authentic about this person, and not everyone, but not everyone even out there is like that. That’s where it got started.

And this was before he was injured, correct?

About a year and a half before, right.

But you had decided to work with him in some capacity before the accident. Did you have an idea for a story before he was injured? And if so, how did it change after?

I had a different story. I had a story about him and the young girl from my first film. I tried to find a story there between them. At some point, I thought about exploring some of the land issues out there—small-scale ranching versus the big, commercial mean industry. I just knew that I wanted him to be the main actor, whether it was going to be a romance, drama, whatever. He did have a rodeo dream, and I thought we would explore that. But nothing really stuck until he got hurt. Initially I said, well you should just recover and not worry about the film. I didn’t see him right away; I saw him about a month after he was injured. And when he told me about the recovery process, I thought, “There’s a movie there.” And that was very quick, from when I first came up with a story, it was late July [2016], and we started shooting at the beginning of September.

When I sat down to watch the movie the first time, I didn’t know any of this background. So that opening shot of him waking up and taking out his head staples with his knife and showing the injury, I was stunned. It looked so real.

That was makeup. I appreciate you saying that. But that scar was created on top of his real scar, which probably wasn’t that comfortable for him. But in real life, he left the hospital before he should have and he did use a knife to take the staples out of his own head. When I heard that story, I said, “We’re doing that.” We actually shot that scene near the end of the shoot. Brady doesn’t realize how good an actor he is because people tell me how believable his pain looks when he’s pulling the staples out of his head in the mirror. That’s really hard to do.

Did you always want to include his family and friends as part of this?

Yeah. Coming off making my first film, during which we learned a lot and made a lot of mistakes and realized what some of the challenges are. Coming to this film, there was no real development process; it was a very small team that started with me and the cinematographer [Joshua James Richards]. We were like “What do we wish we’d done differently on the first film?” One of those things is to keep everything local and small, so that we could go deeper with these characters. One of the limitations of making a film like this and would slow things down would be to try and make it too big, which would defeat the purpose. It was always going to be cast with people who live in that area—everyone was going to be related to everyone. We wanted to go deeper with this small group of people.

There are so many great scenes that tell us a lot about Brady without many words. The moment when he goes to visit his friend Lane in the rehab center, as well as the way he is with his sister, really shows the kind of heart that he has, especially when shown next to how his father is portrayed. Were those important for you to include?

Yeah, in real life, that’s what Brady is like. At the same time, I think he’s different than his dad because his dad raised him in a certain way. He’s not perfect because his dad’s dad was never around at all. Now that you say that, I realize I probably should have had a scene that talking about that [laughs]. But in real life, Brady’s father’s dad died when he was very young. There’s also a huge generational gap between them, and it’s turned down a lot how tough you need to be as a man and not show your emotion.

This really is an examination of a certain type of masculinity. You do get a sense that there was a time in his life where he would rather die than not ride ever again. There are moments in the film where he is self-destructive.

The difference between a a city person, which is me from the south, your identity isn’t tied to one thing because you grow up with so many things that inform who you could be, and there are also negative things about that. “I’m 35 years old and I don’t know who I am!” [laughs] But there can also be something negative about growing up so singular: “This is who I am”—like Brady. In real life, people around him, no one wanted him to continue to do rodeo and risk his life, and he became a father very quickly after his injury—in June of last year. We shot the film in September of the year before, so basically, right after the shoot, his wife got pregnant. That changes a lot. During THE RIDER, there was no way he was going back to rodeo. He’s thinner than he is today, and he was still recovering while doing the film. But now he could probably go back to rodeo, but he’s not going to because he’s a father now. He knows what the priority is.

The scenes of him working at the grocery store are very difficult to watch because he looks so completely beaten, emasculated almost. Did he do something like that as well in real life?

No, he didn’t. But we shot everything in the supermarket in a day, and Brady said that was the toughest day of all, tougher than crying on camera. That’s just a bigger layer of things that we don’t talk about in the film. When we talk about identity for people who live in the heartland, or parts of America that aren’t New York or L.A. or coal miners in West Virginia. It’s not that simple for them to just go to work in a supermarket and do that job for minimum wage. And it’s not even about the money; but when you’re used to raising cattle or any of these job forces that are dying, shifting identities is a painful thing. It’s something we don’t really think about when those type of jobs are eliminated.

Especially for people who traditionally work outdoors and then be stuck inside for eight or nine hours a day.

In florescent light, exactly.

Other than the beautiful visuals, what is it about the Badlands and South Dakota that appeal to you so much?

When I left China, I went to big cities in the UK and the U.S., and things move very fast. Even in rural China, we’re a farming nation, but the land has been dug up and developed. Whereas the Plains remind me of inner Mongolia in China, and also the Badlands, they aren’t really habitable or farmable. Even the land itself, forget about developing skyscrapers or having planes fly over. It’s mostly for horses and cattle. Something about that was something I needed at that stage in my life, which is the polar opposite of my life experience. It’s very personal. Making films takes up all your time, and I needed things that made sense to me.

You said you had a script for THE RIDER, but how much room did you leave for things to happen spontaneously and organically?

The script was about 65 pages, and that was every scene in the film, but there were a lot of moments…like with Lilly [Brady’s sister, who has Asperger's syndrome], for example, I would just describe the scene—“Lilly doesn’t want to wear a bra”—and maybe the dad and brother had a line or two, but using that description, we would shoot the scene and see what happens. Or in a scene that didn’t make the film—but will probably be on the DVD—Brady and Dad talk about horse papers and discussing what horses to buy. I didn’t need to go into that, but it wasn’t scripted.

Watching Brady—whether he’s teaching some would-be rodeo rider or training a horse—you can tell he would be such a good teacher; he’s very natural and patient. And you said when you met him, he was working with horses. I don’t know what he’s doing now, but is that still a part of his life?

Yeah, even during the shoot, he was working from about 6am to lunchtime, training raw horses—there were four of them they brought to the ranch, and he had to have them trained and ready for a big horse sale in a month. So he would come to set after lunch and shoot until the magic hour was over. He has a company called Jandreau Performance Horses, and they breed quarter horses, train them, and sell them. He’s a full-time horse trainer. He can still do that, but he’s got to watch out for his head.

When you first come to this location, what was it like being an outsider—a young Chinese woman showing up on a reservation—and wanted to not just spend time there but film this very private way of life?

Because I’ve travelled quite a bit, I do find that the more you go into a place—and maybe it’s because I don’t know who I am or what I stand for—it may be easier for me to go to South Dakota and this reservation because I don’t have all of that burden on my shoulders of what that means as an American. I don’t think about the history that much. And maybe because I’m a woman, I don’t think that much about the masculinity stuff. When I show up, I don’t think about the politics. I just spend time with people. That’s what’s frustrating in today’s world: we’re all so similar as human because, even though all of these labels are being put on us and they separate someone like me and Brady. But almost right away, we were just sitting there being two normal people talking like we’ve known each other. It’s never like, “Who did you vote for?” The problem is, we go in with a lot of these worries, and people put up their wall really quick. It was so easy, especially going from my first film to this one. I never felt any line between us.

I wondered if it made things easier or more difficult that you’re working in with a camera. You’re not just going to meet people; you’re going there to capture them.

In the beginning, I would occasionally go in with my iPhone and record somebody and say “This is for research.” I have to pick my battles with that. You can’t just go in during that initial trust period and stick a camera in people’s faces. I have done that, and you can tell who likes the camera and who doesn’t. Again, people out there have seen a lot of outsiders come in with cameras, and they have a good sense of, for example, I have certain beliefs about how the world should be, and what is right or wrong. But if I were on that ranch in South Dakota and I go in there with any opinions about how things should be, then the war is going to start. If you are interested in their lives and their stories, you have to forgot about how the world should be. Maybe that’s not an easy thing to do for some.

What does Brady think of the film and his performance?

[Laughs] The first time, I think he said, “I think I did a pretty good job!” He’s also said, “At the time, I wasn’t sure what you made me do that stuff, but when I see it edited together, now it makes sense.” Brady is such a fast learner. Even while we were on set, he was giving his dad directions like “You can just say that, dad, because they’re going to edit that out and cut to me first.”

Does he have any aspirations of doing more acting?

Yeah, yeah. He does. I think he’s got some good auditions. The trick is to figure out how to transition because THE RIDER is a very unconventional film. But I think he’s got something and I hope somebody takes a chance on him.

Do you have any idea what you’ll be doing next? Is it back to the reservation once again?

I’m going back to another reservation, but in the 1800s. I’m working on a historic western, set mostly on Indian territory…and a couple other things.

That sounds great. Chloe, congratulations on this and best of luck with this and future works.

Thanks very much.

Steve Prokopy is the chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review (www.ThirdCoastReview.com). For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago Editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker & actor interviews under the name “Capone.” 

THE RIDER opens Friday, April 27th at the Music Box Theatre. CLICK HERE for Showtimes & Advance Tickets