Winner of the top prize at Directors’ Fortnight, Chloé Zhao’s The Rider follows a young cowboy, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), forced to reconsider his dreams and priorities after a rodeo incident leaves him unable to ride again. The film is a hypnotic, sensitive yet brutal study of masculinity in crisis set in the alien world of the Badlands. One emerges from The Rider like from a dream.
At the Cannes Film Festival, I talked to writer-director Zhao about making a feminist film on masculinity, working with non-actors, and being a loner.
Seventh Row (7R): Your previous film, Songs by Brothers Taught Me (2015), was also focused on a male character and explored masculinity. Where does that interest come from?
Chloé Zhao (CZ): I went to a women’s college in Massachusetts, so obviously, feminism is in my blood. I’m a pretty independent, feminist person. Yet I find myself more interested in telling stories about men than about women — at least thus far in my career. Of course, I do think it’s important to create more nuanced female characters than have been portrayed through the male gaze, so that our daughters can grow up watching themselves authentically on screen. A lot of great female filmmakers — and male filmmakers — are doing that, but I find my calling more in portraying male characters through a female gaze.
I want to tell our boys that it’s okay to be vulnerable, that they don’t have to be like the tough winners on our screens. I want to tell our sons that they can have broken dreams, but a real hero is someone who keeps on dreaming anyway. They should know that a real hero can be vulnerable, cry, and still be loved. I think that’s also very important for feminism: bringing men and women together instead of making them enemies.
7R: How did you get the idea of setting the film in the world of cowboys and rodeo?
CZ: My first film took place in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in South Dakota, and I go visit a lot. When I was filming that, I met these Indian Cowboys — by Indian, I mean Native Americans, but that’s what they call themselves. I didn’t know you could be a cowboy and Native American at the same time. It’s such a great American contradiction. It can only happen in America.
I knew I wanted to make a film about them, but also about the culture of rodeo. This way of life in America has always been fantasised and romanticised in westerns, in music… Yet when you really live there, it’s a very transitory and vulnerable life. You can’t do that forever.I want to tell our sons that they can have broken dreams, but a real hero is someone who keeps on dreaming anyway.Click To Tweet
Then, I met Brady [Jandreau], and I saw him with horses. That connection with animals and with the land is such a huge part of what shapes their identity, and which they don’t want to lose. The film is really about how far Brady is willing to go in order to keep this identity that means so much to him. That fight also means a lot for many people all around the world who feel that their way of life and identity are threatened by this very conforming modernisation.
7R: Your feminist perspective really focuses on emotions. How did you get your non-professional actors to express those emotions?
CZ: The first thing is to cast the right non-actors for the roles, to write the characters for them, and [to] make sure they are operating within their abilities. You’re not directing them like you would Daniel Day Lewis. Only about five people in the entire world can act like that!
What’s important is to know the strengths and the weaknesses of the non-actors and never to impose your vision on them too much. If a scene doesn’t work, I usually rewrite. I don’t make the actors redo a scene forever. With non-actors, repeating like that is not an interesting technique. It is more suited to professional actors.
There are some people who I think are born with a face for the camera. Brady’s face just says so much. There is so much on his face. When Cat [Clifford, who plays one of Brady’s friends in the film] saw the film for the first time, he told me, “I see him everyday, but here, there’s so much sh*t in his eyes! I don’t see it on a daily basis!” The camera catches him. The light catches him. I knew that the moment I met him. I thought he had that Heath Ledger kind of jaw and intensity.
I don’t rehearse very much. I love seeing the actors be present. I manipulate the situations, especially with Lilly [Jandreau]. There’s nothing I can do except manipulate the things that are going on around her so she can feel comfortable and be present. I think that’s why actors like to go do plays, because you really get to experience things when you’re on stage, and you create these spontaneous human interactions that cannot be scripted.You plan your day based on where the sun is gonna be, not the other way around. It’s again this whole idea of us humbling ourselves to nature. Click To Tweet
7R: I think this presence from the actors during filming actually has a lot to do with the look of the film, because it allowed your camera to freely move around them, which created a very strong, absorbing sense of place.
CZ: I never stay behind the monitor. I’m always with the camera, moving with the characters. This light we had in Dakota, it’s the best light. You plan your day based on where the sun is gonna be, not the other way around. It’s again this whole idea of us humbling ourselves to nature.
If a director has five million dollars, then they go first before nature. I think that’s the problem with our modern society. We feel we can do whatever we want, that we are above nature. That’s how we’re destroying the Earth right now. Being a female filmmaker of colour, there are not a lot of people throwing money at me! And that turned out to be a blessing! That limitation humbles me and my vision. I have to work with nature. As a result, I think people are very responsive to the film because it feels completely authentic. We shot for five weeks, during every magic hour. We didn’t start shooting until 2 p.m. everyday, then until 8 p.m.
7R: You said that sometimes you’d rewrite scenes. Did the actors sometimes suggest things?
CZ: They did! For example, language. Brady would say, “Spur them high!’ but I would never write that! There was definitely a lot of improvisation with the dialogue. Brady would go, “I would never say that word, though. I would call them this.”
There are times where I would have to force something even if it was unrealistic. They would say, “But in real life, we would look that way!” “Yeah, but the sun is over there…” “Ohh… Okay.” So it was collaborative and very sweet.You’re constantly trying to see how much you’re willing to be part of a community, and how much you want to be on your own. Click To Tweet
7R: The film is about this man who has this dream, but he also has to look after his family. He wants to kill himself, but if he does, no one will be there to take care of them. Why are you interested in that battle between wanting to be alone and caring about other people?
CZ: I’m an only child, and I love being on my own. I love being completely independent. But my parents are getting older, I’ve got two dogs, and suddenly, I can’t live without them… As a human being, you’re constantly trying to see how much you’re willing to be part of a community, and how much you want to be on your own. I think about that all the time, and I struggle with that.
In South Dakota, sometimes you find yourself completely alone. Brady might be spending all day in nature riding a horse, looking for a cow that got lost or something, with nothing, not even a plane going by. And then when he goes back to that trailer, everyone’s in his face. He has all these responsibilities… The contrast is so strong when you live out there, in a small community. Here, it’s different.
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7R: You say that you often feel the same way. Are you thinking of making films about female characters who struggle with the same issues, who want to be by themselves? They are so rare in cinema.
CZ: The first film I ever made, my short film, had a female protagonist. I’m working on three projects now: one of them is a historical western with a male character again.
The other one is sci-fi, and it’s a female protagonist, who’s definitely a loner. Oh yeah! This one is very much based on myself, but in a sci-fi way. She’s this person who’s constantly struggling with loneliness and an inability to relate, but circumstances force her to relate to other people.
The third project is a drama set in the South-West of the United States, also with a female protagonist. So I’m getting there! Let’s see how I do with a female lead! It’s always a little harder for me… For example, if I’m making a film about a Chinese woman, that’s a lot! To make a film about someone who really resembles you, you really have to have your shit together, because it’s yourself you’re looking at.
This review was originally published on May 29, 2017.
We loved Chloé Zhao’s first film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, which also explores masculinity and family in an Indigenous community. It’s through the lens of a young girl and her teenage brother who is contemplating leaving home. This year also featured other excellent and unconventional westerns: Zama, Lean on Pete, and Sweet Country. We talked to Zama director Lucretia Martel about addressing colonialism in the film. We put together a Special Issue on Lean on Pete, about a boy and his horse in search of home. We talked to director-cinematographer Warwick Thornton about telling a post-WWI story from an Indigenous perspective.