Chloe Zhao's hybrid 'The Rider' is compelling fiction made of real life drama.
On a Native American reservation in South Dakota, a young horse whisperer and rising rodeo champion had an accident in the arena. Rushed to the hospital with a serious head injury, he underwent emergency brain surgery. Although he emerged from the operating room alive, he had to leave his livelihood behind.
For Brady, a Native American of Lakota descent, horses are his world. When filmmaker Chloe Zhao first encountered him on the reservation while filming her feature debut, Songs My Brother Taught Me, she knew he should be put in a movie. But as Brady was forced to give up a life among horses—everything he knew and lived for—Zhao realized she already had her story.
In fact, the true events of docu-fiction hybrid The Rider seem as if conjured from a lesson in dramatic narrative. Obstacle after obstacle is thrown at our hero, a soulful, laconic cowboy who feels like a specter of the Old West. Brady is quick to steal our hearts: he tenderly cares for his mentally-challenged sister and is devoted to his longtime childhood friend, who suffered extreme brain damage in a similar rodeo accident. Watching Brady tame wild horses is mesmerizing, like a visual lesson in the essence of trust. Zhao enlisted Brady and his life's cast of characters to play themselves in a movie about a cowboy who must either accept his fate or die fighting it.
No Film School caught up with Zhao at last year's 2017 Cannes Film Festival, where, after the film's premiere, Werner Herzog sang the film's praises. Zhao detailed the intimate process she underwent with Brady to create a film steeped in verisimilitude. She also shared the lessons she learned the hard way from her first feature, why she thinks indies should be made with commercial money, and more. The film is currently in limited theatrical release.
"We have got to be creative about where the money comes from in indie film."
No Film School: You made a connection with the Lakota on your last film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me. Why did you decide to go back and make a second movie about that world?
Chloe Zhao: I didn't feel I got everything I wanted from my first film. It was my first time [making a movie]. And then also I became interested in the cowboys and their lives.
We met Brady on the reservation about two years ago. I thought, "Oh wow!" His face. I knew the camera was going love him. So when I saw him with the horses when he was working as a horse trainer, I said, "Okay, this is the kid I want to star in my film, but I don't know what film I want to make yet." I was coming up with different stories he could be in, and then last April he got hurt. He crushed his head in the rodeo.
NFS: What happened in the movie actually happened to him?
Zhao: Oh yeah, last April. So that video you see in the film [of his rodeo accident]—that's him. And the scar you see—the healed one—that's his real scar. When that happened, he went right back riding horses a couple of weeks after. He talked about why he is risking his life to continue doing what he does, and the theme of identity and the culture of rodeo came up. I thought, "Okay, we have a movie.”
I wrote the script in August and shot in September. So, in less than a year, Brady had the worst accident of his life, and now the biography of his life is premiering at Cannes.
NFS: It's so interesting to hear so that many of the challenges Brady faced were real. I keep thinking about the screenwriting craft— you're supposed to throw obstacles in the way of your main character until they're forced to change or adapt. It's incredible that Brady's life did that for you.
Zhao: Sometimes, we are so crowded by so many noises in the industry and in our lives that we forget that stories are actually all around us. My dad always said, "All these crazy scripts that the Chinese write—they should just read the Chinese newspaper!"
Losing money from my first film was a blessing in disguise because I am relying on real life to give me the movie. The Lakota people were responsive to the story because they wanted to see something real on screen. There are just so many things that they cannot relate to in Hollywood.
NFS: Did you and Brady collaborate on the script?
Zhao: He didn't help me write the script, but I asked him questions about events, like what happened day by day after he got hurt, the feelings he had, etc. The death of Apollo [Brady’s horse] is real. It did happen. The difference is he wasn't there [when his father shot the horse]. I used Brady to fictionalize that.
"The night before the shoot, I said to my DP, 'I hope he can act, because we're doing this.'"
Also, the speech Brady gave about his purpose in life—those are his words. They came out of his mouth as he was explaining to me why he continues to ride [despite the risk]. To me, those who have broken dreams but continue dreaming are really interesting characters.
Lane [Brady’s best friend in the movie, who suffered a rodeo accident that left him with extreme brain damage] is his best friend growing up in real life. It was all a package. So it can come together really fast because everyone was already there. Brady is the story.
NFS: Does he play himself completely? How would you work with him when you needed something that he wasn't doing?
Zhao: He's very goofy in real life. He's not as serious as he is in the movie.
Luck is a huge part of it. And faith and taking a risk. I only really filmed one little test on the 5D with Brady before I brought a whole crew to make the movie. The night before the shoot, I said to my DP, "I hope he can act, because we're doing this."
"With non-actors, you have to be in the moment. You have to actually allow them to be."
Sometimes you can tell just by someone’s face that they can act. His face carries so much. That was important because this film is a lot of him alone in the landscape with the horses. Sometimes it's just physics; the camera catches things people can’t see in real life.
So that part was lucky. Also, the way I work, I really try to create a comfortable space. With Lilly [Brady’s mentally challenged sister], for example, she would not be anything other that what she was. So how do you manipulate the situation perhaps in the way that she could actually be in the moment to help you film?
I hope someday I get a chance to do that with professional actors. With non-actors, you have to be in the moment. You have to actually allow them to be. People love to go to the theater to see this kind of acting. I think we can do that in cinema as well, but maybe the 20 camera systems around actors on big movies don’t help that.
NFS: How did you get the movie off the ground so quickly once you decided to make it?
Zhao: Because I produced my first film as well, I already have a support system on the Lakota reservation, and I shot there again. Everywhere I walked in—hospitals and office stores—people say, "Yeah I know her, don't even care."
Also, ARRI is my favorite place in the world. They helped me out with Alexa again, which is my favorite camera.
There were a lot of miracles involved. We got one of the most beautiful storms I've ever seen. That storm you saw there is only a little bit of contrast in color correction. That was the actual color of the sky. We also happened to have a harvest moon, which only happens every 27 years. That's why you see a huge horizon and a huge moon in every night scene. There was no lighting in a lot of the moonlight scenes—they're lit by the moon.
NFS: How do you effectively navigate a docu-fiction hybrid?
Zhao: I learned from my last film that you don't want to go too far towards documentary. I want to make fiction. This time I was like, "What's the sweet spot? How do you really immerse in reality but still keep everything systematic?" I lowered the guard of the audience. I didn't want them to think this is a documentary. We have coverage this time. There is a 57-page script, while my last film only had a five-page script.
"I don't blame independent production companies for not giving me money because they can barely keep their heads above water."
NFS: So last time you didn't get coverage because you were shooting more vérité, but this time you knew what you needed for the editing process?
Zhao: This time, I totally manipulated—directed—the situation. It wasn't like, "Just do whatever you want." Also, I wasn't trying to capture everything. This time around, I knew it was going to be an intimate character film. If there was something crazy happening outside the frame, I wouldn't shoot it, like I would on the last. I just wanted to work with the performance and make sure we got the details.
Also, this time it's a simpler story. I think that's the danger of docu-fiction filmmaking in an interesting world: so many cool things to happen very quickly, and you rely on how many cool things you can show.
NFS: I can imagine it was difficult shooting around the horses, too, given so many of them were untrained.
Zhao: Our shoot days were like this: every day, Brady wakes up at 5:00 A.M. He goes to train the horses for a living from six to like 12 and then eats his lunch. At two o'clock, he comes on set. From two to eight he does the film. We were able to film him training horses for real. We would not be able to stage that kind of stuff. The scene where you saw him training the baby horse, you're watching selections from two 45-minute takes. There are very few people in the industry who can do that. Brady has a gift. He's a horse whisperer.
NFS: Since his performance was really personal, was it difficult for them to go to those emotional places?
Zhao: Crying was hard for him. So he was quite proud he did it. But these are performers. They are rodeo cowboys. They're so used to cameras from their whole life in the rodeo.
NFS: You said you lost money on the first film. Were you worried about compensating the investors this time around?
Zhao: Yeah. With the first one, we just about made money back because it was so low budget. For this one, I have production company myself. As a female filmmaker, I like to have control over my film. My own company invested in the film financially. I also got a huge commercial production company involved. Their bread and butter is big-budget video and commercials, but they are expanding into features. They did Diary of a Teenage Girl. They have the ability—the leverage—to take risks.
We have got to be creative about where the money comes from in indie film. I don't blame independent production companies for not giving me money because they can barely keep their heads above water. They barely can sell their films. It's so hard to make money in indie film. So I thought, let me knock on some different doors. There are commercial companies who want to branch out and do interesting films.
We can barely survive right now. We need outside help. We're not a sustainable industry. I think it's important to be flexible and willing to cooperate with people that are not in the center of the film world.