The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of The Rider.
Can you take us through the process of making this film? There was a long period of time when you were building toward something like this.
Chloé Zhao: During my third year at NYU, I was thinking about what feature film to make. That’s when I first went out to Pine Ridge. It took three years to make my first movie, and on the fourth year I was going back to visit. And on the fifth year, I went out there and met Brady. Immediately I was very drawn to him, watching him training horses that same evening. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. There’s such a sharp focus between him and the animal. Nothing else mattered. And I thought that kind of presence that can be present with another being is what you hope your actor can do on screen. I tried different stories for about a year and then when he got injured at a rodeo a year later, the story presented itself to us.
“I was scared to go to Cannes with a cowboy movie.”
Can you just talk a little bit about being introduced to the filmmaking process before your injury, and also how that experience changed you?
Brady Jandreau: I met Chloé around April 1st of 2015 and she came back numerous times to research ranch lifestyle. She wanted to make a movie about cowboys in the heartland of America, primarily Indian cowboys. She came back several times throughout the summer, learned how to ride, moved cattle on the ranch with us, gathered them to be doctored, and just basically learned about that. She had some exposure to the rodeo world, but she actually wanted to learn about the root of rodeo like horse training, raising cattle, and just being a cowboy. And I got to know her pretty well and there was one little thing I said to her the first day I met her. She said, “What’s this part where the horse’s neck meets his back?” And I said, “That’s the withers. That’s a little bone God put in there to keep the saddle on.” And she took out a notepad and wrote it down. She’s like, “What would you think about possibly being an actor? Possibly acting in my movie?” I knew she was a director, and you know I kind of chuckled about it at first to myself. I never dreamed of doing anything like this. I never did any drama class or anything like that. But Chloé wasn’t scared of horses and cows, so why should I be scared of cameras and lights? I’ve always been presenting myself in front of people, and at a very young age I kind of gave up on basically worrying about what people thought. I always just tried to be myself the best I could, and as long as I was happy with myself, that was all that really matters.
You stay in a very wide space with your actors and you really get a sense of the world around them, and Brady gives a performance that is very brave, because you’re really exposing everything. Could you talk about your choices in location and how that impacted production?
CZ: I come from the Terrence Malick school of filmmaking. It is really important for both me and my DP to be able to choose wide angle lenses. We want you to see Brady and these characters in this landscape. Because that’s the point of the film. The land chooses them and they choose the land. It’s a very mutual decision. So for you to understand that relationship, I want to see what’s behind them, and what’s around. How they interact with it. And also to shoot as much 360 degrees as we can. And we had a six person crew, five toward the last week including me. We used natural light. These are real locations and there’s not much production design. I didn’t have a production designer, but I would like to work with one in the future, that would be great! But in this case you know we were lucky enough to be able to film in people’s homes. Even the supermarket is the one that they have been to many times. So there is a little ecosystem that’s going on there and you have structure your set, interview your crew, everything has to be part of the process of maintaining that ecosystem for everything to feel authentic.
How were you able to create a compass for yourself to gauge where you were emotionally?
BJ: There had been times where I talked about Lane. It was therapeutic for me. And so I would cry sometimes to talking about him to her. And so after we visited Lane, she was able to say, “OK, now you just talk about Lane and cry.” But every time I thought about Lane, I thought about how much progress he made in the last few weeks. He was very sick before we went down to Omaha to visit. So every time I thought about Lane I just wanted to smile. So instead, she asked me, “What’s one of the saddest moments from your young childhood?” And I said, “Well when I was like around 7 or 8 years old, there was this foal, and it’s mother died giving birth to it. And I raised it on a bottle. That winter, it was turned out to pasture and it fell through the ice on the damn where it watered. And then the following year there was another colt that was born, and it was actually injured by another horse– about one out of every ten male horses will react this way to a newborn foal. Just like a lion would, going to kill another lion’s cubs. This colt was severely injured and it was very new. So I brought it in the house and I fed it on a bottle for a few days and it must have had some serious internal damage because it passed away in my arms. I talked to her about these two things.
CZ: I used that to make him cry. It was very mean, but it worked!
What was it like working with your family?
BJ: At first it was kind of hard for my Dad to take it seriously. But after about the third take the giggles were out, and he was ready to go. We were all kind of like that. We just had no exposure whatsoever. It’s like if I showed up at your house with a horse or something! But we got to know Chloé pretty good. We trusted her, and she trusted us. So Lily, ever since she was very small, was playing back kiddie shows, recording audio, recording videos. She would memorize lines and reenact things and record herself. She was very excited about it.
What did it fell like to actually bring a film to life and to share it with an audience?
BJ: The first time I ever watched the movie I remembered everything. It was the first time I ever watched any of the footage at all. I laughed a little bit. I would remember what I was doing that day or whatever the heck it was. The first time I watched it was on a big screen with an audience present. It was a lot more emotional and heartfelt. I was very excited to see the enthusiasm of the audience. I couldn’t believe how it all came together, to be honest.
CZ: The thing that had moved me the most about this very long festival run was that I got pretty cynical and jaded after my first film, but I was so moved by it all this time. I was scared to go to Cannes with a cowboy movie. But then from the reaction it seemed that it doesn’t matter how liberal the audience is or how they feel about rodeo. Whatever. People were relating to Brady’s story. And throughout our travels, we’ve gone everywhere from the heartland to the coast. There is a need to relate to another human being, and our society and politicians are telling us you shouldn’t care about that. And they need to see that the good in others is so strong in a time like this. That was so moving for me.