Gravely injured by the very act that elates him, a cowboy in South Dakota is adrift in the vastness of his sorrowful recovery and the inescapable landscape that engulfs his entire existence in Chloé Zhao’s stirringly poetic The Rider.

Entrusted with the task of portraying a scripted version of himself, Brady Jandreau revisited his own quest for personal redemption after an unfortunate event forced him to stop riding his beloved horses at rodeos. The perilous performance fueled his self-worth, and that of many other young men in the vicinity.

At its most heart-rending, Zhao’s grittily sumptuous sophomore effort observes a friendship forged through hardships and based on mutual admiration, one that helps both parties fight despair. Scenes with Brady’s comrade Lane, whose own riding tragedy was much more severe, add perspective, but also refuse to dwell on suffering and instead celebrate the fortitude to keep going. Channeling all poignancy of the truth that inspired, The Rider is a character examination of a valiant youth who is shattered, as he attempts to reassemble himself without a key piece of what defines him.

Armed with a six person crew, limited equipment, a cast of non-actors, and the sweeping terrain, Zhao’s follow-up to her 2015 work Songs My Brother Taught Me, brings the unseen into the foreground of her ethereal frames, which are magical and heroic simply because they are wholeheartedly human. MovieMaker spoke with her about fictionalizing Jandreau’s life and his environment for the screen.

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How did you become invested in Brady’s story and what drew you to make a movie about his struggles as an injured cowboy?

Chloé Zhao (CZ): He wasn’t hurt when I met him. It wasn’t that I heard a story of a cowboy that got hurt and wanted to make that story. After I made my first film, I was headed back to visit the reservation which is where Brady lives. When I met him I felt there was a star quality to him and that he could act. There’s a charisma to the way he speaks, the kinds of things he says, the way he was with the horses, and how his face is on camera. I thought, “I want to make a film with this person.” I wrote stories for him, but nothing really started for a year and a half, and then in April 2016 he got hurt at a rodeo in Fargo, and that’s where the story came from.

A lot of rodeo cowboys are quite proud of their rodeo injuries, believe it or not. It’s a battle wound. I went to see him, and we talked about it in late June 2016, and then we were shooting in September. It was fast. Initially I had a different idea that still included his injury, but then he started talking to me about his recovery, and I realized this was much more like The Wrestler’s arc—not the same ending but that kind of arc—so I went back and wrote a script.

Brady Jandreau in The Rider. Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

MM: In your experience, are there specific challenges to working with non-actors?

CZ: I don’t think there is a difference between working with non-actors and with professional actors—it’s a misconception. There are either really authentic or truthful performances or not, Werner Herzog said this. Brady is acting. People think he is just being himself, but that’s not how he is in real life. He is very talkative and funny. I gave him a script, and I gave him scenes. I don’t rehearse, but he would do multiple takes of each scene, and we got coverage, just like you would do with an actor. With a story that personal, it makes him feel safe in some way because it’s not a documentary on him. It’s fiction. It might be conveying a lot of emotional truth of how he felt, but this is not exactly how he is in real life. The content is drawn from his real life, fictionalized, and handed back to him to act.

MM: At first your protagonist feels defeated and without an identity. Why did you choose to focus the narrative on his vulnerability and the difficult realization that riding might not longer be feasible?

CZ: There is a maternal thing about me towards Brady as well. I want to show him that he doesn’t have to end like the guy in The Wrestler. We sensationalize heroes and a hero’s sacrifice in our culture, but real life isn’t like that. It’s not that glamorous. You don’t always die for your cause. Sometimes you end up living a very normal and common life, but that is okay. Not only is it okay, but you are still loved, and you can still do so much for those around you. We don’t push that in our culture for our boys. When you are so close to these people (Lane and Brady), you know that you must tell a story that isn’t going to sensationalize these things. Therefore, it’s not going to be the typical kind of Western or a story in which he dies for his dreams. No. He is going to live on, and he is going to have a lot of uncertainty because most of these kids end up like that.

MM: Tell me about capturing the striking landscapes and imagery in The Rider?

CZ: It’s extremely important for me to convey to the audience why this way of life is in Brady’s blood and his bones. This is who he is, so I have to show the audience how beautiful and godly this place is, and how he feels on a daily basis. To convey that I can’t make a documentary. I spent three “magic hours” over three days shooting the minute and a half scene when he first got on the horse. A “magic hour” is actually only 20 minutes. That scene shows how he is feeling every day, and I can only achieve that through fictional storytelling.

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