“The Rider” Filmmaker Chloé Zhao on Writing For and Working With Non-Actors (Interview)

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Last week, A24 opened Lean on Pete, Andrew Haigh’s new drama starring Charlie Plummer about a boy and his horse. Another drama that shows off the beauty of horses and their relationship with people is Chloé Zhao’s , a movie that has been trotting on the festival circuit for almost a year since premiering at Cannes.

Unlike Lean on Pete, which features professional actors, Zhao decided to make a movie with non-actor friends of hers who she met while making her previous feature Songs My Brothers Taught Me, writing the feature specifically for Brady Jandreau.

Jandreau, an honest-to-gosh horse whisperer, plays rising rodeo star Brady Blackburn, who’s sidelined after a riding accident that threatens to keep him off the circuit. Living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Brady has to care for his teen sister Lilly, who has Asperger’s Syndrome – played by Jandreau’s actual sister, Lilly – while having a tense relationship with his father Wayne, played by Tim Jandreau, who as you may have guessed is Brady’s actual father.

It’s another amazing film from Ms. Zhao that has been winning over fans at all the festivals where it has played, and it also received four Independent Spirit Award nominations. Zhao ended up winning the first-ever Bonnie Award at the annual film awards, and The Rider has gotten her enough attention that her next film is likely to have a lot more interest from both audiences and financiers.

The Tracking Board sat down with Ms. Zhao at Sundance to talk about her film, which was nearing the end of its festival run, with SXSW still ahead. The Rider is a really intriguing film because of how Zhao worked with all these non-actors, so a lot of my questions went in that direction. Enjoy.

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I understand that The Rider came out of meeting people while you were making your previous movie?

After I made the movie, around April 2016.

Did you know Brady Jandreau before that?

Mm-hmm, for a year and a half. After I made my first film, I was just going by to visit, and for a while, I wanted to make a film with him. I just didn’t have the story.

When he got injured, did that influence where to go with the story?

Yeah, after he got injured I went to visit him, and we chatted, probably in July, and then I decided in August, “Okay I’m going to make this film,” and we were shooting in September. 2016.  Then we premiered at Cannes in May — it was a fast turnaround.

So how did you develop the story around a cowboy being injured to including Brady’s entire family? I assume they’re based on his real family, too?

Yeah, they’re all…  Real people play versions of themselves, but I knew him and his family for about a year and a half, and then when I wrote the story I just said, “You guys want to do it?” And they were like, “Yeah, sure.” I started writing it, knowing who they are, [rather than] writing a scene where they may not be able to do [it]. I would probably not write a scene with the dad crying. I mean, I think he probably could, but I just wouldn’t push that. I know them well enough to know where their limitations are and what they’re comfortable with. I wrote a script that’s achievable, both in terms of performance and financially for a six-person crew, including me. I knew I had to do this right away, because Brady was in his most physically vulnerable time. Now he’s back to being buffed, but he was thin after the injury. We shot the film a couple of months after his injury. Four months.

There seems to be a time gap in the movie as well, so did you film part of it and then come back to shoot the rest?

What time gap?

Well, you know his hair grows back after the accident.

Oh, no, no… I filmed it backwards. We filmed that stuff first, and then the last week I shaved his head and had to put a fake injury on there. It’s on top of his real injury.

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So you had to shave his head again, after he grew his hair back?

Oh, yeah. He grew it back. He didn’t care. He had wanted it short. I made him grow it out a little bit for the film, and then he was like, “Oh, the hair’s getting long.” Because he works outside, so he doesn’t want it long. Then we shaved half of his head, put a fake thing on his real scar, and then he just shaved it all off after the film.

When you were developing the script for this, did you have some time where you actually were just writing in terms of having a whole script or was it more of a treatment?

It’s a full script, but it’s short — it’s 65 pages. And then the final film is very much similar to the script actually. But there were scenes I just said, “Brady hangs out with Lilly and tells her duh, duh, duh.” You know, his sister. I don’t describe stuff like that. It’s a short script, but it has enough scenes to make a film. 

His sister Lilly is pretty amazing, and I’m not sure if you could get such an amazing performance if you tried to cast a real actor.

You need a really good actor.

Lilly was a real natural in the movie, and it felt like your direction made them seem natural, so were there a lot of scenes where you had the script but you just let them go off on their own? How did it work with those scenes?

I watched Lilly and Brady interact for a long time, so I knew, “Okay, I can use that in the film.” For example, when Brady is explaining to Lilly his injury, I’ve seen that happen in real life. I wrote that scene, and all Brady needed to do is to do the same thing, and Lilly would give her version of it. She knows we’re making a movie, but she’s not going to be anything else but herself. It’s just a matter of making her being herself make sense in this story, which it does, because it’s Brady’s story.

How did you end up constructing the scenes at the rodeo and the various places in the neighborhood? Did you have to get permission and was that hard?

Yeah. I do have to get permission, but I get them a case of beers. This is Pine Ridge Reservation where I shot my first film. Brady and his dad are from the Lower Brule Reservation, which is another Sioux and they moved to Pine Ridge. I knew I could make this film for so cheap, because I knew I could walk into all these places and I say, “Hey, I’m going to use it.” People allow me to use it. I know the farm owner, I know the supermarket owner. I shot there for my first film, for that same rodeo.

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How did you first get involved in that world when you were making your first movie?

To Pine Ridge? I just wanted to get out of New York. I wanted to go to the middle of the country to learn about America, and I studied American Politics for my undergraduate degree. I know about Pine Ridge, and around that time there was a lot of teen suicide that happened on the reservation, which was [because] of young people struggling with identity, so it’s theme that I feel very close to. That brought me to the reservation on my first trip, and I just really felt close to that place, so I made two films there.

Was it hard to convince Brady or Tim to make this movie with you?

Not Brady. Tim, I just had to make him understand what he needs to do. He was a little bit nervous [about] whether he can do it or not, but he was so good. Not really. I know those guys. I just hung out with them, and they’re rodeo cowboys. They understand showmanship. They’ve been around cameras. They’re performing in front of a huge audience, you know what I mean? They aren’t just regular rancher cowboys. All of these boys are rodeo cowboys.

Right, but also what they do is a sport and it’s dangerous. I don’t know how much performing they actually do without a horse or bull.

Oh, it is a lot of performing. As a matter of fact, saddle bronco what Brady’s riding, a lot of that is how you spur, and how you come up.

Right, that’s what he’s teaching the kid, so was everyone else around the family locals as well?

Yeah, they’re all just friends that hang around on the ranch, and then the guy he got into a fight with is actually one of his best friends. So is the guy [Lane] in the wheelchair. These are always my friends.

Those scenes with him and Lane are really, really beautiful. When you shot those did you take a very similar fly-on-wall documentary approach where you able to put the cameras on them to capture their interactions? Are you able to get a lot of different angles or end up with extra footage to use in the edit?

It depends. If I’m with Lilly, I wouldn’t cut and do a bunch of different shots, but if I’m doing a scene with Brady and his dad, yeah I would do coverage. It’s quite convincing though in that sense. It’s a mixture of things. It depends on what the scene needs, and most the time, 99% of the time, it’s just me, the DP and the sound person. That’s it. I don’t use monitors, unless I physically cannot get into a tiny room. Then I will use monitors. But I don’t use monitors. I’m right there with them, so if there’s anything I need to change, it’s a tiny nudge. By the end, some people ask me, “How did you decide how long to push the camera in before he blows the whistle?”  By then there’s a dance happening between actor and me, and DP, and the sound person. It’s hard to explain, but you have to create an environment to shoot that way, because then something happens there or the weather does this. You have to do it. It’s hard on a conventional shoot with bigger crew. 

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Also, you were working with animals, which makes it harder to know what’s going to happen or what they’re going to do.

I’m very fortunate that I’m with one of the best horse whisperers in the region, so these horses are trained by Brady from the wild. He can make those horses do whatever he wants, and when he’s training a wild horse in the movie, he’s doing it for real, because every day when we’re shooting from 6:00 AM to lunchtime, he’s training horses for his clients. Then we film something else for the film, and he’ll come on set to shoot the movie in the afternoon.

Did you spend a lot of time discussing with Brady what was going to be possible either before or while writing? He’s obviously the best person to ask when researching stuff, I’d imagine.

I asked him questions and he would tell me details about his recovery, more so that than the overall storyline, because I know that lifestyle, that world. By then, it’s been four years since I’ve been in that world, so I knew what’s possible, what’s not. But dialogue-wise, I always make them change the dialogue to how they would say it. I never used my own dialogue.

I was wondering about working with the actors and whether there was any improvisation. I’ve spoken to Lynn Shelton, who has made a few movies where she allows her actors to improvise, which she then puts together in the edit phase rather than writing a traditional script.

So she would do the improvisation first?

No, she would develop the characters with the actors first, write a treatment and then have the actors improvise as their characters based on it.

Oh yeah. I don’t [do that]. That’s why the final results will confuse people a little bit. I’ve opposed it because they’re like, “How do you get through this?” I look at it as a conventional fiction film, and I felt Brady [would be good], not because of his injury story, but it’s because I think this guy can act. He’s acting in front of a 3,000 pound beast every day, and convincing them to settle down. I think if he can convince that horse, he can convince the audience. I think he has a movie star quality, so it was that first, and then there was a good story, and I know he can act. I’m approaching that this way because I know he’s already there as far as authenticity, because it will be there regardless. For me, the most important thing is to just focus and figure out what is this narrative? What is this story? And the improvisations happen. The devil is in the detail for me. The main arc of a character, a story is made up, but it’s made up based on what I know of Brady. Maybe I don’t need him to improvise, because I’ve known him for two and a half years? I know what he’s going to say to certain situations.

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Did the script or the idea for the movie change a lot. Like after it was shooting or once you were in post and you had all the footage?

No, it’s exactly very similar to the script. Again, people probably thought we shot a bunch of things as it happens, everything is staged, but I don’t really rehearse. That’s the one thing. I have them read through the lines once, and that’s it. But everything is staged in their house. There’s no production design because they wouldn’t need to. But there is not like, “Oh, something cool is happening here. Let’s go shoot it.” I did a lot of that on my first film and ended up with 100 hours of footage, but not enough of a story to keep the audience awake. So, I’ve learned that lesson that I know me and my DP we will get a lot of that authenticity stuff. We just have to figure out a script that’s achievable and is focused, and we have to follow that when we shoot, so it’s a conventional fiction film in our mind. But the final result, obviously, when you’re working with people, animals, if really casting people who are disabled or who are autistic but not using actors, they aren’t going to give you exactly what you need in the moment. There is [where] that documentary thing comes in.

I think that’s what people liked about your movie so much, because it feels very natural, and it feels like it could be a documentary even though it’s not.

The core is more of a traditional fiction. At least, that’s how we made it.

Do you have any idea what you want to do next? Are you generally always writing or thinking about stuff to do? This movie has been done since last year, so what do you want to do now?

It went to Cannes last year, and it will be released in April. I have a couple projects in the making. One is a historic Western about an African-American marshall called Bass Reeves. That’s probably the closest to having a script.

The Rider opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, April 13.

  | East Coast Editor
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Still quiet here.sas

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