MM: In your collaboration with cinematographer Joshua James Richards, what themes or ideas regarding the technical and aesthetic needs of the film did you discus to achieve what you wanted with the resources you had?
CZ: He shot my first film too. We both agreed that we were going to use three lenses and that was it. Limitations are good because we like to physically move in and out, and it’s like a dance with Brady. We had discussions, but he is so good that I don’t need to go into the technical. I would discuss ideas with him like the way we wanted the indoors to feel very manmade, almost prison-like. It’s like that in the reservation. These houses that are in the middle of this majestic landscape of nature, inside are usually very harsh and dark, so that’s a contrast for people who are trapped in this confinement. We want to show that contrast, so he would create lighting that way. Those were the creative conversations. We didn’t have a lighting package. We didn’t have money for that, so everything we used to light the film was from Walmart or hardware stores. It was Joshua and another guy, Jack [McDonald], who was an AC, a gaffer, a grip, and a driver. It was just the two of them and then he had a second AC helping him with the camera. Joshua operated and pulled his own focus.
MM: When it comes to the music in the film, there is a blend of melancholy and grandeur that seems to call back to epic Westerns but also tries to be intimate. What influenced the score?
CZ: I didn’t really have a lot of money to shoot the film, so I had to raise money for post. In the future I would love to work with a composer beforehand. I used a lot of temp music of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ scores for The Proposition and The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford. Then I heard Nathan Halpern’s score for the beautiful documentary Rich Hill. The final music in The Rider is also in Rich Hill. We talked about taking some of the nostalgia of the Western and putting it in the film. He found an old Western song that’s been sung by Pete Seeger and Johnny Cash—one of those that everybody’s sung. He took the melody and played with it so that it’s more current.
MM: When coming into the reservation to make your films about people living there, did you ever feel like an outsider going into an unknown community or terrain?
CZ: I don’t really buy this idea of “outsiders” and “insiders,” because I always felt like an outsider when I was in China, when I was in my own family sometimes. I’m sure you know someone who’s felt like they don’t belong even if they were born and raised in a place and have been there their whole lives. There are people that suddenly walk into a new community and feel like that’s their home. My college roommate from Connecticut went to Japan one day and realized that’s where she belonged. For me, the only thing was that I didn’t know the lifestyle and I don’t know what it’s like growing up there, but you have to be a good listener, and you have to really go there trying to relate instead of going there thinking you know. Being a urban, liberal, educated person, there is a danger when you go into the heartland because you have an idea of what it is and sometimes you romanticize it. I definitely did that, but I made sure I stayed long enough so that they felt like family and so I’m allowed to speak the truth, to show both the good and the bad.
MM: There is a touching parallel between Brady’s own accident and the fate of the injured horses in The Rider.
CZ: The moment I said, “We have a film” was when we were just chatting after his injury and he said, “We had to shoot Apollo because he broke his leg.” He was referring to the real Apollo, which was played by the other horse for the film. The real injury was a lot more severe than what I could pull off with my little budget. He said to me, “I had to shoot Apollo,” and then he literally said to me, ”You know, if any animal around here got hurt like I did Chloé, they would be put down. I’m only alive because I’m human.” When he said that I thought, “I’m going to write that line down, it’s going to be in the movie, and we have a story.” That line is actually word-for-word from Brady. MM
The Rider is now playing in Los Angeles and New York, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All images courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.