This article about Chloé Zhao first appeared in the TheWrap magazine’s Oscar Nominations Preview issue.
“If an animal around here gets hurt like I did, they’ll get put down.” That key line from “The Rider” didn’t come from the mind of the film’s writer-director, Chloé Zhao. It came from her star, Brady Jandreau, whom she worked with to weave one of the most personal tales of the year — and a movie that was the surprise winner of the Gotham Award as the year’s best independent film, beating out contenders that included “The Favourite,” “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “First Reformed.”
After meeting Jandreau during the filming of her first movie, “Songs My Brother Taught Me,” Zhao knew she wanted to make her next project about him, but didn’t know what the storyline would be.
Then an unexpected tragedy provided the inspiration. A few months after Jandreau’s career as a rodeo star was cut short by a fall from his horse and severe head trauma, Zhao and a small crew of five set up in South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation to shoot a drama about a rodeo cowboy who must find a new identity after a similar accident.
“I would say that about 65 percent of the story is Brady’s real life, but even the 35 percent that is fiction had a lot of input from Brady, too,” Zhao said. “As we were shooting, we were following the natural pattern of his life, training horses and other jobs around the reservation. And as we’d go over the script, Brady would change some of the lines to make them like how he would say them.”
There is a separation, though, between the real Brady and the Brady of “The Rider.” The character is a quiet, almost brooding figure, gazing out into the colorful Dakota dusk as he tries to figure out how to move forward after his body has betrayed him. Zhao said that the real Brady had his own period of introspection and reevaluation after his injury, but he’s far more lighthearted than his character, always with a quick smile and a good joke to get the crew laughing.
“He’s very religious,” she said. “For him, there’s a given purpose for everything. For a horse, it’s to run. For a cowboy, it’s to ride. To transition away from being the cowboy that he’s wanted to be all his life was a big process for him. And I still talk with him after we shot the movie. He’s a father now, and it’s been so inspirational watching him find himself again after that accident.”
To read more of the Oscars Nomination Preview issue, click here.