Chloé Zhao’s breakout second feature film, “The Rider,” is based on the real life of the film’s star Brady Jandreau – a young rodeo rider who, after suffering a massive brain injury while competing, faces an existential crisis about his place in this world. In the film, Jandreau draws on his life experiences and is surrounded by a cast of his real-life family and friends, but his quiet and introspective character (Brady Blackburn) is the polar opposite of his real-life personality.
“Brady Blackburn is very somber, Brandy Jandreau isn’t – he’s the happy kid trying to make everyone laugh,” said Zhao when she was guest on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast. “When I first saw him, I didn’t speak to him. I was in the basement and he walked in and I just immediately thought, what a great face and the camera was going to love his face.”
Not only did Jandreau have a presence, he was incredibly present. In the film, Zhao captures in documentary-like fashion, how Jandreau, a talented horse trainer, is able to convert a bucking, out-of-control animal into a rideable horse. “I thought if you could do that to a horse, that’s wild, maybe you could do it to other people and the audience,” said Zhao. “To have that sharp focus and be able to communicate with [horses] to get their trust is the type of presence [I’m] looking for in professionals and non-professionals [on] set and. Give me those spontaneous moments, because they are completely present and not thinking about a script or anything.”
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Zhao’s first feature, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” also utilized first-time performers – mixed with three established actresses – from the same South Dakota reservation where she met Jandreau, but she insists that too much is made of what is takes to get a big-screen performance from those who have never done it before.
“There’s not much difference how I look at actors and non-actors, because [the] way to discover a great actor once upon a time – it use to be someone you meet, ‘Oh, wow, maybe you should act,'” said Zhao. “Now these days a lot of people go to school for it and [so many] people are trying to get into it, but there was a time when some of our greatest actors were discovered, like Brady.”
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Zhao has two films in development, one set 3,000 years in the future, and the other a 1800s biopic about Bass Reeves (the first black U.S. marshal) that she hopes to shoot before the end of the year. Neither project obviously allows her to cast her real-life subjects, like she did in her first two films, but even in going through a more traditional casting process, she insists she’ll work with bigger name professionals the way she did with Jandreau.
“You can work with an actor in a certain way, you can create an environment like Terrence Malick has always done, so your actors can give you a very similar thing you get from a non-actors,” said Zhao.
The theatrical release of “The Rider” expands nationally today.
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The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.