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Better Than Wages: Chloé Zhao Discusses "The Rider"

The director discusses American dreams, working with a small crew, and her attempts to fuse truth and poetry in her prize-winning film.
The Rider
Midway through The Rider, Lakota cowboy Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) takes a job at a local grocery store. Forbidden by his doctors from ever riding again and with few prospects near his home on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, he’s humiliated to find himself wearing a name tag and waving a barcode scanner. Brady, the actor, later told Chloé Zhao that filming those scenes was one of the hardest things he’d ever done. Like the character he plays, Jandreau had recently survived a near-fatal skull fracture during a rodeo, and the painful prospect of giving up his cowboy life was still fresh. 
The Rider is the second feature film Zhao has made at Pine Ridge, following Songs My Brothers Taught Me in 2015. “I wanted to make a movie about the cowboys I met there,” she told me, “but I didn’t have a story until Brady’s accident.” Working quickly with a small crew and a small budget, Zhao assembled the cast from Brady’s everyday life, including his father (Tim Jandreau) and sister (Lilly Jandreau), the pack of cowboys he's lived and competed with, and Lane Scott, a young rodeo champion who was paralyzed in an accident and is now confined to a rehabilitation facility. Zhao and Director of Photography Joshua James Richards made the most of the South Dakota landscape and natural light, shooting as often as possible during magic hour. The results are, to borrow Zhao’s description of the location, “majestic.”
The Rider is like The Misfits (John Huston, 1961) as re-imagined by Claire Denis, an archetypal story about the knotty tangle of work, masculinity, identity, and the natural world, told in a subjective and sympathetic formal style. Clark Gable’s weathered and wandering horse trader Gay Langland haunts this film, with his mantra, “It’s better than wages, ain’t it?” finding a new resonance in the 21st century. Zhao, a Chinese immigrant, is herself ambivalent about the ties that bind men and women like Brady to their land—shutting them out of other economies in the process—and The Rider likewise presents a conflicted, observational portrait of their cloistered and enviable world. 
This interview took place on September 10, 2017, the morning after The Rider had its first screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. When I introduced myself, I explained that I was visiting Toronto from Knoxville, Tennessee, where I live on a small horse farm, and that before buying our place we’d boarded our horses for years at a rodeo stable. I asked if we could talk horses. Zhao agreed happily and said she only wished Brady could’ve joined us. 

CHLOÉ ZHAO: What kind of horses do you have?
NOTEBOOK: A Tennessee Walking Horse and an Appendix Quarter.
ZHAO: Ooh, the Tennessee Walking Horse is amazing to ride. Some of these horses you see in the movie are rough, but Walking Horses . . . 
NOTEBOOK: Ours is getting old, but when he gets into his full gait, it’s beautiful. 
ZHAO: They’re amazing.
NOTEBOOK: I appreciated your attention to the details of horse life. There’s a scene in which Brady considers pawning his saddle, and you step viewers through the entire exchange. Brady says exactly what he paid for the custom work and the guy in the shop explains that they usually offer 25 cents on the dollar. There are more saddles on the wall behind him, so we know immediately that horse tack is a kind of currency in this community. And the same with horses. You show them being bought, sold, and traded throughout the film. The horse world is like a separate economy. 
ZHAO: That’s Brady’s saddle. Every day on set he’d ask, “Is my saddle in back?” “Yes, Brady, it’s in back.” Or once I put his hat on the dashboard [for a shot]. “Chloé, the hat needs to be upside down. It’s going to collapse!” I thought, “I don’t have a production designer. Leave me alone!” [laughs] These things are so important to them. 
I’ve spent so much time with rodeo cowboys, so much time. Two years. After Songs, my first film, I met these Indian cowboys on the reservation and went to my first rodeo. I knew nothing before. I’d only seen images [on TV]. And you know how with “extreme sports,” once the sponsors come on, everything becomes much fancier? I’d never seen a backyard, “let’s just have a rodeo” type of thing. These kids, every day they grab a couple bulls and put them in the corral and have a bullfight. I would watch this and think, “Oh my God.” But it’s the heart of it. They live so close to the animals and the land. It’s such a part of their DNA. I became fascinated with it. Obsessed. All of these little details you’re talking about are just the accumulation of my experience watching and listening for two years.  
NOTEBOOK: In my experience, there’s a real generosity baked into the ethics of rodeo culture. People take care of each other. 
ZHAO: That’s what I’ve seen. Again, we’re talking here about the reservation, and a lot of these kids didn’t have their parents when they were growing up. Or they do but the parents have a lot of kids and they have their own stuff to deal with. So a lot of these young people raise each other. Lane, Brady, Tanner, James, those boys have been together for so long on the road with rodeo. They spent all of their free time together as kids, climbing trees, hunting. There’s a brotherhood before anything else.
NOTEBOOK: Brady has “Brother” tattooed on his arm, right?
ZHAO: Yeah, it says “Brothers” if you look at it one way and “Forever” if you turn it. At Telluride, Lane said we all needed to get a bald eagle feather on our calves and it was going to say “The Rider” at the bottom. “Chloé, you’re going to do it too, right?” “No, I’m not going to have the name of my movie tattooed on my calf.” [laughs
NOTEBOOK: Earning that trust and building those relationships must have been 90% of the work. In my experience, along with their generosity and religious faith, which The Rider touches on occasionally, rodeo culture can also be a bit leery of outsiders. And a bit macho. 
ZHAO: Pine Ridge is like my second home, so they all knew I existed—this weird Chinese woman making films on the reservation. It’s such a tight-knit community. Everyone is sort of related. That all makes it easier for me to convince them I’m not an outsider.  
Other things were hard. It’s hard to get them to be vulnerable. It’s hard to get Brady to cry. And it was hard because we had a six-person crew. Just wrangling them was hard. “Can you please just be there at this time? Just do it!” And then the dad would be, like, “I’ve got a horse in Montana. I’ve gotta go pick it up.” I literally hid his keys [laughs]. “Where’s my truck?” “I don’t know. I think Tanner took it.”  
You’d be surprised by how maternal horse people are, even though the stereotypical image of the cowboy is very misogynistic. Even Brady’s dad is a big softy. I have to not be defensive. I have to be open. And then very quickly you can tap into that soft side.
And they’re rodeo cowboys, so they’re used to having cameras on them all the time. They’re performing. As you know, in rodeo, how do you judge a winner if both people ride eight seconds? Especially saddle bronc? It’s all about how you spur, how you throw your hat. It’s all a performance. They have to make a good show for the audience. They know these things. During the Q&A yesterday Brady said, “Even when I’m training horses, I’m performing. I have to project a certain character of myself to manipulate a horse.” That stuff came quite naturally. 
NOTEBOOK: In the scene where Brady’s coaching his younger friend, I thought, “He would be such a good teacher, of any subject.” 
ZHAO: Brady is a kid who loves to learn. That’s how he approached acting. “This is a job. I’m going to learn this craft.” So by the end, he was an expert. He’d say, “Chloé, you need to edit that out.” And I’d have to say, “Do you mind? Can I do my job?” He’s such a quick learner. That’s one of the things that gave us confidence at the beginning, when there were so many unknown factors. This kid had incredible focus. That’s the only way you can train wild horses. He’s very adaptable. 
NOTEBOOK: In Songs, there’s a scene where a teacher goes around the classroom and asks everyone, “What do you want to be doing in four years?” And they all have the same answer: ride bulls and own a ranch. It’s obvious from watching the film that Brady is a fast learner and curious and has tremendous potential in any number of career paths. But the economic and cultural situation you’re documenting in these films doesn’t readily facilitate those other paths.
ZHAO: We’re talking about that even now. “What opportunities do you want, Brady?” That’s something I had to wrestle quite a bit, coming from the outside and having only lived in big cities. Going in there, I wanted to say, “There are so many other lives? Why don’t you leave?” In my first film I kind of explore that. It’s one of those questions that’s not black and white. Because when you’re out there, after a storm, and you’re riding a horse near the Badlands, you understand why someone wouldn’t trade anything in the world for this. There is a sense of groundedness there that I never really had growing up. I was searching. All of the anxiety, all of the constant thoughts in my head, just washed out when I settled into that pace of life.
Those kids in the classroom, I didn’t tell anybody how to answer the question. It was what they really want. And the question is, “Is it better to be working on Wall Street? In that box?” I think we all look at others and wish we had some of that. Some people want to have their house and livestock and get away. Meanwhile these kids are on Snapchat, looking at life in cities. One is not better than the other.
NOTEBOOK: Part of the story of the American Dream, though, is that we’re born with the potential to pursue any goal. Which, of course, isn’t true. 
ZHAO: Because we forget about the psychological conditions. 
NOTEBOOK: And the economic conditions. 
ZHAO: Which are linked. Again, we’re talking about the reservation here rather than the “heartland” of the country. People own the tribal land but don’t have the capacity to fully use it because of the complicated history with the US government. They get onto the system of welfare and government support, and the kids are raised in that mentality. They know they can work off this land, they can start a ranch, they can have a farm, they can do anything on this land, but some of them will sell it back to the tribe because in their minds it’s just easier to make the quick money. They’re all on social media, so they [feel peer pressure] and think, “I need money right now.” It’s heartbreaking to see how that connection to the land is being cut off for this generation. 
So when I meet someone like Brady, it’s incredibly encouraging. He went to college, you know. This is someone who could go get a job at Wal-Mart, be a manager there, or work in an insurance company in Rapid City, but no. “I’m gonna fish every day in the White River. And I’m gonna eat that fish. And I’m gonna go hunting in the winter. That’s what I’m going to be.” So how do we celebrate that without sensationalizing it? A lot of kids get stuck. They need to see a different perspective. 
NOTEBOOK: How did Brady like college? 
ZHAO: He didn’t finish. A lot of kids do that. I know this one girl who got a Gates scholarship, went away to a school in Omaha that has a rodeo team, and after a couple years went back home because she missed her horses, her ranch. Maybe you understand?
NOTEBOOK: As I was walking out of the film yesterday, I was trying to explain to a friend why I was so overcome with emotion. I finally said, “The single most beautiful thing I have ever seen is a foal running for the first time.” Watching Brady work a horse in a pen moved me in the same way. 
ZHAO: I remember driving at certain times of the year, when all of the babies had been born, and they’re all running next to their mothers. It’s just... And Brady’s probably out there somewhere. He treats them like they’re his children. That cannot be taken away.
 NOTEBOOK: You mentioned earlier that you had a six-person crew and no production designer, but did you paint the walls in Brady’s room?
ZHAO: [Smiles] Yes! You got that one! [laughs] Me and my DP went to Wal-Mart and picked it out. That’s the trailer that Brady’s dad and Lilly and Tanner and all of those cowboys live in. It’s on the ranch where I met Brady and spend a lot of my time. So I asked, “Can I paint the walls?” Because it was all still the original colors. 
One of the things we talked about was honoring nature exactly the way it is. That’s a big contrast in reservation life. They live in these government houses that have stripped away their connection with the land for generations. They’re stuck in this man-made, fluorescent, industrial-looking world. It’s claustrophobic—like, eighteen people per house. And then you go outside and it’s just majestic. That contrast is quite confusing. It says everything about what we did to the Native Americans. So we wanted to use colors that are found in nature in the house: blue for Brady, pink for Lilly. And then use a lot of fluorescent light.
NOTEBOOK: I asked because you talk often about how you’re not making documentaries. You want your films to be cinematic. So, the obvious follow-up question: what’s the difference? Does painting those rooms fit into that strategy?
ZHAO: I was talking to someone last night from True/False Festival about how we have these films like The Act of Killing and Tangerine and Heaven Knows What and The Rider that are all over the spectrum. I think it’s human nature to need both truth and poetry. We gravitate towards both of them, and we all arrive at different shades of gray in the middle, even if we start on different ends [of the spectrum]. A documentary filmmaker can’t help but use poetry to tell the story. I bring truth to my fiction. These things go hand in hand. 
NOTEBOOK: I’ve heard you say that you were glad to find Brady because he has a great face for the screen. I want to ask you about Lilly’s and Lane’s faces too. Lane’s has been transformed by his injury. And Lilly’s gentle expression and the tenor of her voice are sweet and pure in a way that couldn’t be scripted or performed. [Note: Lilly has Asperger’s Syndrome, which Zhao intentionally avoided addressing. “She’s just her. It doesn’t need to be about autism. It’s just part of our community.”] I wonder if they each bring a kind of poetry to your film.  
ZHAO: That’s the truth. How you film is the poetry. I’ve found that if you go to that part of America, we already have a lot of preconceived notions of what these images mean, and you have to unlearn that. It’s really hard. To just point the camera, like the media do, that’s actually not the truth. The emotional truth is what’s hard to capture. When you’re having a rough day with all of these boys in your face, and then Lilly comes and sings you a song? You can’t get that feeling with just documentary.  
And Lane... these people are part of the landscape. Nature isn’t perfect. You see an actor who is perfect, all made up, perfect hair, who lives on a ranch in South Dakota? I don’t buy it. If you really are part of the landscape, part of nature, you’re going to be imperfect. There will be scars.

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