A world premiere in the Directors’ Fortnight, Chloé Zhao’s understated The Rider is among the early standouts of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Shooting among real Sioux cowboys in South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, Zhao follows a young hotshot on the rodeo circuit (Brady Jandreau, essentially playing himself) who has been sidelined by a horrific injury. Warned that he may die if he gets injured again, Brady struggles with the idea of a life away from riding. I talked to Zhao about how she came upon her subject, and how she worked with her remarkable cast of nonprofessionals.
Village Voice: Even though The Rider is a narrative film, these are real people playing themselves, and in some cases real situations we’re watching. How did you come upon this story and these characters?
Chloé Zhao: I met a lot of Indian cowboys when I was shooting my first film [2015’s Songs My Brother Taught Me]. Some of them look just like white kids, but they’re real members of the Sioux tribe. They’re born, raised, and live on a reservation. Some would be offended if you called them white. That’s not the focus of the film, but I wanted to make a film about one of them. I met Brady, and it’s just incredible how he really honors a way of life that is rapidly disappearing in Middle America, this identity people have that they try to hold on to.
I wanted to tell a story with Brady as the main actor, about his life, but I just couldn’t find the story until he got badly hurt last April and then went back to riding — talk about risking one’s life to keep one’s identity. So I talked to him about it. A lot of this stuff is what he actually went through, and everyone in this film — the father, the sister, Lane [Scott], all those boys, you know, all his real friends and family — they’re all real.
The fact that people are all essentially playing themselves intrigues me. With the father, for example — there’s some conflict in the film between him and Brady. How much of that is real, how much is narrative creation?
I’d say 50 percent. The two are constantly arguing about how they should train horses, and about life in general. And Tim [the father] in real life is just difficult, old-school, a wild cowboy father. He’s more of a father than most of the dads I’ve met out there, but there’s still the expectation of tough love — that’s what these boys are raised by, and they want that more than their mothers’ love.
For so much of the film, Tim is against his son’s riding again, knowing that it could kill him. And at one point he asks, “Why don’t you listen to me?” And Brady says to him, “I’ve been listening to you all these years. You’re the one who said be a cowboy and man up.” Did this touching conversation come from real life between them?
Not so much, but Tim would tell me this story of when Brady had in real life actually had some health issues where they had to rush him back to the hospital. And on the car ride back, they did have a conversation which is sort of in the film, when Brady says he feels worthless and then Tim’s telling him, “You’re smarter than me. There’s so much more opportunity for you now.” When I talked to Brady about it, he told me, “Yeah, he’d say that, but he wouldn’t do that. He didn’t raise me that way.” So the scene you mention didn’t exactly happen, but I felt like it really summarized the heartbreaking dynamic between father and son.
Tell me about working with Lane Scott, the rodeo rider who is now paralyzed and who communicates with one hand, and whom Brady visits in the hospital at several points.
I knew about Lane for a long time, because all these boys looked up to him. Brady and Lane grew up together. They’re best friends. I knew of Lane even before Brady got hurt. Once Brady got hurt, we talked a lot more about Lane, and we talked to his parents about having him act in the film. Lane was excited about it, because he’s such a performer, and a lot of the lines like, “Throw some dirt on it” — these were all his added moments. Someone was actually about to make a film about Lane right before he got hurt, because he’s such a small-town hero. It was probably one of the most humbling experiences of my life, because there’s just so much spirit in Lane. That kid is not beaten down in any way.
It’s interesting that you say somebody was going to make a film about him before he got injured. That’s kind of the paradox here: Maybe failure is not the right word to use, but in some ways people are afraid to film failure. Why wouldn’t someone make a film about him after he got hurt? Why is his story suddenly not one worth telling?
Even with Lilly [Brady’s sister]. If a film features someone who is autistic, usually autism is a big part of the story. Why can’t people just be that way, and still be one of the heroes of the film? It doesn’t have to be about the issue of their injury, or disability. They can still be celebrated. And it’s so important to me to make this film because in the rodeo world, and in the cowboy cultures throughout our history, there are very few films that really go into how transient that life is, and how impossible it is to live up to it. At the end of the film [when we see slow-motion footage of an unidentified rider on a bucking horse], to me, Brady and Lane are the rider. Because that eight seconds, that sense of freedom they feel and look for, that is in their spirit despite how trapped they are. It’s something that many of us have never experienced. I wanted to make the film to celebrate that, even though they’re not the one on the stage with the trophy.
The film is nicely balanced between the poetry and beauty of this world and the sheer desperation of having to eke out a living.
That’s a reality of Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. These kids don’t have a lot of options. But there’s something deeper. Yes, they probably could get a job at Wal-Mart, but many of them choose to live off of the land. I wanted to explore that and say, “OK, there is another option of a real job, but how soulless and pointless would that make your life? So maybe it is better that you actually live off the land and do something you love, something that’s in your blood and passed down through generations.”
At the same time, there’s a sweet scene where Brady’s working at the drugstore and two kids recognize him. I didn’t get any sense of shame on his part or judgment on theirs. He’s still a hero to them.
Brady was the one that taught those two boys how to ride in real life, so that starstruckness they had for him is genuine. But for Brady, working, shooting in the supermarket wearing that outfit, he said it was the hardest thing he’s ever done in his whole life. He said, “The idea of doing that, I wanted to kill myself.” He’s never been stuck in a room more than ten minutes in his whole life. The idea that he might not be breaking horses, he just can’t accept that.
How did you approach the film stylistically? Obviously, you’re filming real people, and often real situations, but it’s all shot with beauty and care, much of it in magic-hour light.
I worked with the same cinematographer as my last film, and we did ask, “How can we allow as much authentic reality into the film but still keep it as cinematic and fictional as possible?” In my last film, we went a little more toward a documentary, vérité style. But in this one, it’s a question of how much do we sacrifice on each side, to be able to still keep people in the more fictional world. We were shooting practical lighting 80 percent of the time, and when you shoot like that, the only way to make it so cinematic is to really be friends with the sun. We almost never shot before 12 p.m. We were often shooting between four to eight every day, and it was almost always magic hour. And we always place our action against the sun if we have to shoot in the sun, because we don’t have to block it out. So there’s a lot of limitations. But finding that balance — actually getting cowboys together to block the scene, and get coverage, and how much naturalism you’re going to have to sacrifice for that — it’s a constant question that we ask ourselves. Because we don’t want to just make a documentary. We really want you to feel like this is a movie, a fictional film.
Can you tell me a little bit more about how you worked with these performers?
Each of them has strengths and challenges. With the dad, it’s, “Is he going to show off?” [Laughs.] And with Lilly, it’s about allowing her to really be herself, because you can’t ask her to do anything else. And with Brady, I feel very lucky because he turned out to be a really good actor. He was really not aware of the camera, and he was able to relive this thing that actually did happen to him three or four months ago and just be in the moment. We did have a sixty-page script with dialogue. Obviously, I made them rewrite all the lines to how they would say it, and we improvised sometimes.
Tell me about the scene where Brady has to break down in the car.
That was shot just me and him. There’s a two-seat pickup truck, so I squeezed in the back. He told me he had not cried for, like, seven years. So, the camera was rolling, mounted on the passenger seat, and Brady just drove around and told me a couple things I’m allowed to say back to him, tragic things that happened in his life. I did that and then asked him questions, and he was able to be vulnerable. Then, we drove back, and he ran off, because he didn’t want people to see that he’d cried. Kids who live out there have experienced so much in their lives, especially young cowboys like him, but they weren’t really allowed to cry. It’s not cool to cry, to break down. At the same time, Brady’s always going to do the best he can at any job he does, so if you tell him, “You’ll do the best if you let go,” it’s not really that hard for him, because there’s a lot of pent-up emotion.
You get the sense watching Brady, even before that scene, that he’s a very sensitive person. The toughness is obviously there, but the sensitivity comes through, whether it’s the way he interacts with the horses, or the way he interacts with his sister.
I’m glad you said that, because that’s what drew me to Brady in the very beginning. If you meet him, you can see that he’s constantly trying to act tough, but he’s so sensitive. That’s why he’s one of the best horse trainers out there. He makes much more money breaking horses every day than doing this movie, you know. Because he’s able to connect, and he’s able to show that vulnerability.