From writer/director/producer Chloé Zhao, The Rider tells a heartbreakingly beautiful and intimate story of what it’s like for a young cowboy and once rising star of the rodeo circuit when he suffers a tragic riding accident that means his competition days are over. Left to wonder what he has to live for when he can no longer do the thing that gives his life purpose, Brady (played by real-life cowboy Brady Jandreau) searches for a new identity and a new way to work with the horses that he has long admired.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, filmmaker Chloé Zhao talked about what a real labor of love The Rider was to make, how her first film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, led to this one, working with Brady and the Jandreau family, what she learned about the modern American cowboy through this experience, what she’s hoping to do next, as a filmmaker, how she went from studying political science to attending film school, and why it’s always a fight to bring your own vision to life, in the film industry.
Collider: I tremendously enjoyed this movie, which I know you’ve been hearing a lot lately, but I am happy to join the choir of that!
CHLOE ZHAO: Thank you!
A movie like this seems like it must be a real labor of love. What’s it like to have a finished film that you can not only be proud of as an artist, but that you’ve already been receiving all this overwhelmingly positive acclaim and praise for?
ZHAO: It’s really nice. When we were making the film, none of us expected any of this. Sometimes I feel like, the closer we feel, the more truthful we feel, the less success we’re going to have. This is a very nice surprise.
It sounds like your first film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, lead you to this film. Is that the case, or do you feel like this movie would have happened, even without that film? Do you feel like you might have eventually gotten here, one way or another?
ZHAO: I don’t think so. I think there’s just too many layers of things, all the way from even just being interested in cowboys, without any feeling of being an outsider and just hanging out on a ranch like that. Also, it’s been almost four years, in the building, for me, when it comes to how my relationship from that part of the country and nature, in general, has changed. It wouldn’t feel the same.
You first met the star of your movie, Brady Jandreau, in 2015 and wrote this film around him. What was it about him that compelled you enough to do that, and then to actually have him in the film?
ZHAO: I was pretty certain, even within the first week that I met him, that I could make a film with him. I just had no idea what that film was going to be. I was so drawn to his presence and also just watching him interact with the environment around him, from working with horses to talking to people. Somebody can just command your attention and they’re just watchable, and he’s like that. I was so eager to put a camera on him. And then, when he got injured, there was finally a story that I felt was going to be good enough.
What was his reaction to all of this. Did he think you were crazy, or was he game for it?
ZHAO: I don’t think he thought about it, so much. If I make him try fermented tofu or a thousand-year-old egg – you know, the ones that are Chinese – he’s like, “Oh, what the hell,” and he tries it. He is really open to new experiences. He didn’t take me that seriously, at the beginning, but the more I made progress, the more he realized we were actually doing this. He came along pretty naturally.
Was it more nerve-wracking for you to show to the finished film to Brady and his family and friends, or were you more nervous, the first time you showed it to an audience that didn’t take part in making it?
ZHAO: I was very nervous showing it to an audience, just because we premiered in Cannes, basically a couple months after Trump was in office. So, forget about where I stand politically, but I had to go to a country like France to see how much they even wanted to relate to a cowboy from South Dakota. I was really worried, but one of my favorite things about this whole experience is how much we all really want to relate to each other, at a time like this, instead of believing in the politicians telling us that we should be hating each other.
What did you learn about the modern American cowboy, from making this film, and what do you hope audiences learn about that, from watching the film?
ZHAO: The biggest thing I learned is that they’re not that different than the rest of us. There’s a really delicate, complex, bittersweet struggle between modernity and this way of life that inevitably is going to have to not necessarily disappear, but reinvent itself somehow. For these young people, especially at that age, to figure where they belong in the world, is a very delicate thing and depends on each person.
From talking to Brady about his life, what did you also learn about the psychological impact that injuries like the one he experienced can have on someone like him?
ZHAO: The head injury, on its own, is already complicated enough. And then, on top of that, you take away the one thing that defines him. Brady is single-minded when it comes to that. There’s one thing that he’s been doing, his whole life. That’s a double whammy. And on top of that, the only thing that gives him a sense of purpose is also being challenged. So, there’s a lot.
I love the moment in the film where Brady explains that it’s only because he’s human that he was allowed to continue living with this injury and that, if he were an animal, he would have been put down. It really puts that into perspective.
ZHAO: Especially out there because, when you live close to nature and you’re more of a reflection of nature. In nature, usually things are focused on one or two purposes, and they are essentially what they are. They don’t have these added things that we have been creating for ourselves. For Brady, and a lot of people out there, there’s a singular way to exist, and when that’s taken away, there’s no reason to live.
How did you find the experience, as a filmmaker, of working with him and getting the performance you wanted from him, knowing that he had no acting experience?
ZHAO: That line between some of the professionals and someone who hasn’t done it before is really fine for me. It’s not a very definitive line, if there’s a line, at all, for me. When you’re trained, you know a lot of technical stuff, but that kind of stuff can be very intuitive to somebody else. There could also be someone who is really intuitive, but also trained. Brady exists somewhere in his intuition, and natural talent does make up for the lack of technical experience, like knowing how to hit a mark. That stuff is easy to teach.
Are you surprised that he’s wanted to continue acting, or is that something that you could see him start to really enjoy?
ZHAO: I’m not surprised. I think there is showmanship to being a horseman. Doing a rodeo and selling a horse, or even presenting himself to a horse, is selling himself to the horse, for the horse to trust him. And Brady supports a family, so he needs to make a living. He has a daughter now, and acting is less dangerous.
What was it like to work with his sister, Lilly, who has Asperger’s? Were there things that you did to make her feel comfortable and safe enough to be on camera?
ZHAO: Well, you can’t really not make it to safe for Lil because she isn’t going to do anything that she doesn’t want to do. It’s more like, how we can work with Lil and let her be herself, and still have her be relevant to the movie. That was pretty much in the writing process. It was the same, every time we worked with a horse. It’s a long process. Because we shot on real locations, we had to worry about the weather and other people working on the ranch. It was the same with Lane’s disability and Lil, who has autism, and even Brady’s daily schedule. He has to train horses in the morning, for a living. We just wanted to pull back and allow people to exist. There wasn’t one single dominating vision. I had to write a script in a way that Lilly is part of the plot, but that she’s also given a lot of freedom to just do her own thing. I would tell her, “Okay, now Lily, go tell Brady something that’s going to make him feel better, even though he can’t rodeo anymore. Say something like, ‘It’s still gonna be all right.’” And Lil said, “It’s still going to be an A through Z adventure.” To me, that was amazing because I could never write that. It wouldn’t matter how much research I did.
There was also something both heartbreaking and inspiring about watching Brady and Lane together. What was it like for you to not only work with them, but to watch them with each other?