A little over two years ago, Chloe Zhao was in the badlands of South Dakota, working with a crew of five people and no professional actors, shooting real-life cowboys. The end result, “The Rider,” changed her life.
Her naturalistic Western, about a rodeo rider named Brady (Brady Jandreau) who suffers a debilitating head injury, won the top prize at Cannes’ Directors Fortnight section in 2017 and scored distribution with Sony Pictures Classics. It landed a Best Film nomination from the Independent Spirit Awards in early 2018, before it even hit theaters, and closes the year out with a Gotham nomination in the same category. And Zhao suddenly found herself in the unlikely position of fielding studio offers, one of which she accepted — Marvel’s “The Eternals,” a superhero movie about immortal beings.
So much has happened that Zhao, who grew up in Beijing and moved to the U.S. as a teenager, still can’t process it. “We made this film without anybody knowing about it,” she said in a phone interview. “I was very nervous because I wasn’t sure how people would react to someone in a cowboy hat.”
This has been a crucial aspect of “The Rider” that has allowed it to linger as a critical favorite in year-end discussions some 18 months after it first generated heat: As America reels from one of the most divisive chapters in its history, and artistic communities recede to cosmopolitan bubbles, one of the year’s most celebrated breakouts presents an unorthodox collision of worlds — a Chinese immigrant sets her gaze on the nation’s oldest genre, and finds renewed intimacy in its depths.
To that end, Zhao has become the ultimate cause celebre of the film community, and “The Rider” provides an antidote to Trumpian ignorance even if its existence predated the concept. She may be a long shot for Best Director in this year’s Oscar race, but the degree of admiration she found from contemporaries supersedes the value of any potential trophies. Above all, the movie represents a kind of collaboration at odds with the current historical moment—largely thanks to the performance Zhao extracted from her star, Jandreau.
“I think ‘The Rider’ became the type of film it is because of a man and a woman, because the two of us wanted to work together and understand where we were coming from,” Zhao said.
The movie presents its sweeping, empty landscapes and wistful characters as hovering in a perpetual state of melancholy, as Brady contends with the possibility that he must turn his back on horseback riding for good. In his insular world of yawning skies and windswept fields, divorced from politics, the endless cascade of media and technology, the idea of retiring from his field comes like a death sentence. Zhao burrows into that aspect of Brady’s struggle to reveal a man coming to grips with emotions he’s suppressed his whole life. The simplicity of his milieu has made it easy to ignore the big questions. “The Rider” depicts the process of waking up to the wider world for the first time. “There’s a feminine and a masculine side to everyone,” Zhao said. “There are times that we don’t feel comfortable showing one of those.”
Sony Pictures Classics
Zhao’s movie gained currency by the end of 2016, as the results of the presidential election drove conversations about the influx of conservative voters in rural America. In South Dakota, Donald Trump took 65 percent of the vote. “I think it’s a shame that people never paid attention to the heartland,” Zhao said. “After the election, people have been paying such negative attention to it. I’ve seen Brady connecting with audiences at Sundance, at SXSW, in France. I don’t know what it could do, but for me, humanizing a person in a cowboy hat is righting the boat a little bit.”
Zhao never approached the movie in political terms. She first came across Jandreau while working on her directorial debut, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” on a Native American reservation. She was drawn to his James Dean-like features, which seemed at odds with the tenderness he brought to his relationship with animals.
“I just couldn’t stop saying I want to make a film about Brady,” she said. “I didn’t have a message I wanted to convey. I just wanted to put him on screen, somehow.” The reception to “The Rider” around the world has reverberated on the Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota Reservation, where Jandreau grew up. (Members of his family, including his father and his sister, also appear in the movie.) “The community is very moved by it,” Zhao said. But Jandreau receded from the spotlight after the initial wave of attention at festivals. “I hope he has a career as an actor, because I think he’s incredible,” Zhao said. “But when these people they go home, they forget about going to Cannes or Sundance or any awards. They jump straight back to the corral. They have horses to train.”
Zhao herself approached the wave of interest from studios with caution. “‘The Rider’ got a lot of attention when a lot of people were looking for female directors,” she said. “I had to make sure when projects were offered to me, that it was actually because they wanted me. It wasn’t really difficult for me to say no until the right project came around.”
She managed to shoot an under-the-radar project with Frances McDormand this year, but declined to offer details about it. As for “The Eternals,” she insisted that despite the weighty expectations of franchise filmmaking, she settled on an opportunity consistent with her experience to date. “When I grew up in China, I didn’t really have a lot of access to film,” she said. “The first creative storytelling I encountered was Japanese manga. I wanted to be a manga artist for the longest time. I didn’t draw very well. But comic books and animation were always a passion of mine. It wasn’t a huge part of the dialogue at film school. I was very curious to get into that.”
She cited Werner Herzog as a key influence on her filmmaking approach (“I often ask myself, ‘What would Werner do?’”) but fellow Chinese immigrant Ang Lee has been her gold standard for ages. “Ang Lee’s career has been very inspiring to me — how he’s able to bring where he comes from to all the films that he makes,” she said. When she was a film student at NYU, Lee visited to give a lecture, and she was too shy to approach him.
“I’m still learning about this process,” she said. “As directors, our voices are being heard more than ever before, but we need to be seen as individuals. It’s going to take time.”