Chloé Zhao on The Rider, her tender portrait of America's heartland
The Rider, Chloé Zhao's study of an injured rodeo rider, fuses reality and cinema poetry. We discuss the film with Zhao, who explains how she created this moving film out of a charismatic rodeo rider's real-life fall from the saddle
When young rodeo rider Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) suffers a horrible fall and head injury, he finds himself having to choose between risking his life or abandoning the sport that defines him. Through his story, told beautifully by Chloé Zhao in The Rider, we discover a fading way of life, as well as meditations on family and friendship, and, of course, horses.
Zhao’s first film, Songs My Brother Taught Me, was filmed on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and for her follow-up, she returned to the reservation for inspiration. We meet the Chinese writer-director at the first edition of the Pingyao International Film Festival in China, and sit down to discuss the film.
The Skinny: How do you see The Rider in relationship to classic westerns?
Chloé Zhao: I’ve seen three westerns in my whole life. But my cinematographer, who’s British [Joshua James Richards, who also shot God’s Own Country], grew up with westerns so he’s purposefully framing shots to reference The Searchers, which is one of the westerns I’ve seen. But westerns explore human beings’ relationship with nature so thematically it makes sense. If you’re going to explore the way people live in that part of the country, the themes are going to overlap.”
How did you meet The Rider's lead, Brady Jandreau?
I hung out a lot, I went to rodeos and such, looking for the story I wanted to tell. But it was random. I was at a ranch and Brady walked in. He just had a face for the camera. I saw him training the horses and we began talking and he was telling me about the horse. I asked about a part of the horse and he told me: 'That’s what God put in the horse to keep the saddle on.' I was like: 'You know what? I think you’re going to be in my next film.' Because someone who can give me lines like that... I don’t know much about cowboy culture or horses so for me to make an authentic picture I need someone like him who’s going to give me lines.
So how did the story become a script?
I knew Brady two years before we started shooting. I would just write down things he’d say. I had a script I had made up but I struggled for a year and a half to find a story. But then he got hurt in April , in real life – that video you see in the movie, that’s him getting his head stepped on by the horse, and that’s an injury as severe as you see in the film. So that was April and I start talking to him about June, right after they had to shoot [his real life horse] Apollo, and he said to me, 'Any animal got as hurt as I did, they’d have it put down' and when he said that to me I said: 'Hold that thought. I’m sorry you got hurt, but let me write this down. We have a movie.'
I wrote the 55-page script in August and we started shooting in September. It’s so much based on what Brady told me about his injuries, but the overall arc of the story I made up.
Brady’s real family – his father and sister – play themselves in the movie. Did you mould those relationships or did you film them as you found them?
His sister Lilly [Lilly Jandreau], his dad Wayne [Tim Jandreau], and his friends are all real. And the dynamics are like that. His dad has some issues and his sister is autistic, his friend was an ex-rodeo small town hero. That’s their trailer you see in the film. There’s about four or five cowboys, including her dad, and Lilly lives with them there. It’s an interesting dynamic, it’s so unique. She’ll tell them off and give them a hard time.
And yet you changed Brady’s last name...
At first it was a joke. Blackburn is a type of horse, a bloodline. I suggested we change his name because it felt safer. It was to remind him that this was a fictional film. If it all goes wrong, or you feel uncomfortable, we can say it was all made up. It gave him protection.
How did you get such incredible performances out of non-actors?
The most important thing is to write your character for them. If you’re expecting them to create a character in your vision, then you’re expecting people who have never been in front of a camera before to do an acting job. And that defeats the purpose of casting them. You have to let go of your ego and how you want the movie to be. I wanted more of a plotty-plot but I knew the limit of each of my actors really well and so I’m rewriting for them as the shoot goes on. If they can’t achieve certain things, change the scene. Otherwise, it isn’t authentic.
We don’t rehearse but we read through the lines before we shoot a scene and they would change things they say. Also, it's a small crew: six people including me. So it’s a film set but not a film set.
The film starts and ends with a hug...
This is why we need you guys: that’s awesome! I’m having a moment right now. I didn’t realise that until you mention that right now. That’s great. Tim – the dad in real life – he could be so insufferable sometimes. He’s a dad. He didn’t just raise Brady. There were a dozen boys he raised who didn’t have dads and they loved coming round and staying there. Tim never had a father. There’s a gentleness. It’s a very beautiful relationship. Real father and son relationship. No bullshit.
[WARNING: SPOILERS] Did you always have the ending in mind?
I always knew. Because life goes on in the real world. And I’ve always wanted to thematically show that the superhero doesn’t always get his power back. I didn’t want to show that he could still be a hero by dying because it’s harder to give up a dream and keep living – that’s a very heroic thing to do. It’s not glamorous but that’s 90 percent of life, but we don’t tend to portray that. Because it doesn’t sell tickets.
The tendency is to save the day or die trying, but that’s not the real world. It’s an open ending. If you ask me if he’s given up, there’s always a chance he’ll go back to it. But there’s a road ahead of him. The reason I chose that ending was because in real life that’s what Brady struggled with emotionally.
The Rider screens at Glasgow Film Festival: Tue 27 Feb, Cineworld, 6.15pm | Wed 28 Feb, Cineworld, 3.30pm