Chloé Zhao Is Rethinking the Western

Photo: Getty Images

When you picture what a modern auteur of the American West should look like, Chloé Zhao isn’t the stereotypical choice by a long shot. But now with her second, Spirit Award–nominated feature film The Rider, the Beijing-raised writer-director has established herself as a distinctive poet of the Plains, particularly of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and the dramatic Badlands National Park that intersects it. Her 2015 debut, the coming-of-age feature Songs My Brothers Taught Me, was her first dispatch from the region; now The Rider, which opens in limited release this week, announces her as a major filmmaking voice.

Like Songs before it, The Rider is a vérité hybrid, starring ex-rodeo cowboy Brady Jandreau as Brady, a Lakota ex-rodeo cowboy coming to terms with the head injury that has forced his early retirement. His family and friends also star as themselves, including Lane Scott, another real-life rodeo star who suffered significant brain damage after an auto accident. The world of rodeo riding will be exotic to many viewers, but Zhao’s film immerses the viewer rather than overexplaining its world. “I’m not an intellectual and I can’t make films from an intellectual perspective,” she told me when I talked to her this week.

But make no mistake: Zhao is not a passive filmmaker, and there are sequences she has composed in The Rider that will stand as some of the most breathtaking of the year. I talked to her about her intuitive approach to filmmaking, rethinking the Western, how an adolescent obsession with Mongolia brought her to the Dakotas.

I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but I went to school with Alex O’Flinn, your editor.
Oooh. Alex is so great.

Totally. And it’s such a great editing job too. I think this time, watching it again, I had a new appreciation for it.
I’m so happy he got nominated for that. [Note: O’Flinn was nominated for a 2018 Independent Spirit Award for Best Editing.] With my first film it was such a difficult thing to have a film [shot] like this, and then to have someone come in later [to edit it.] Because we never got money before we made the film. That was after editing it, showing a cut to people, and then they come in with money. So my first conversation with Alex, I was like, “Oh, I feel really good about this. He’s gonna get it.” Because his process is very … a traditional, conventional editor is not going to thrive in this sort of situation. The way me and Alex collaborate, and our temperament just works so great together.

There are many aspects of the film that walk up to that line of documentary, but I think the editing might be the most important. It’s so integral to communicating these sort of unspoken themes and making these connections between the characters and their environment.
You really find moments in the editing, because when you’re shooting … I mean, one thing that me and my DP [Joshua James Richards] have learned is that when these amazing moments happen spontaneously, just calm the fuck down. And then get coverage, because we can use that. That’s what I learned from my first film.

The scene that makes me think of that is the one where Brady is trying to break the horse. It feels like it’s almost one unbroken shot, and it’s so tense, but also intimate in a really unexpected way. At the last screening I was at, I heard a woman behind me exhale once the scene was over — it’s that gripping. Did that moment take you by surprise at all?
No, I mean that horse, Jim — we know that horse. I’ve known that horse for a year. I knew that horse was gonna be like that, and Brady’s been training that horse for a while. But when we were editing, it was me and Alex, and we were really trying to figure out how long we could keep these moments going. Is the audience going to get bored? We really want to show him [working with the horse], but how long can we show it? Because we’ve seen it so many times. But we really wanted people to see that he’s doing it for real, you know?

But a person, say, stepping off a New York City street to see this in a theater is getting thrown into this completely different place and tempo. It automatically kind of resets your clock, and makes you sit up and pay attention to everything.
That’s what Alex was so great to remind me of. He’d always say, “Chloé, I know you feel like this is a lot, but people are just seeing it [for the first time] … You think this is boring, but don’t take it out because people are going to [get it.]”

I’ve been thinking about how you shot this landscape, and in general, the way images of wide open country and pastoral America have been used over time. I think as critics we tend kind of use the same language over and over to describe it. Like “stunning landscapes,” “big skies.” But I sense that there are a lot of unique choices going into how you shot The Rider. It has a depth to it that not every movie about the American West has.
I think sometimes you have to be very specific to be universal, and we were in this little area that I know, which is the Badlands in the southwest of South Dakota. And that didn’t come from, like, “I have an idea of what America should look like; I’ll call a location scout and find something that looks like what I think America should look like.” I ended up there, so that’s what America gave me. And so when you have a very good relationship with that landscape, you just show up to shoot. And so do the people in it. So I think all [those relationships] build up these layers that might be the reason why it feels different.

And also because I lived in that landscape for so long, as a city girl, I understand that there’s nothing romantic about it. It’s scary and brutal and beautiful at the same time. There’s both violence and nurture in that nature, and these people live their lives and risk their lives and are nurtured by it every day. So I can’t pinpoint the exact plan, but it was both me and the cinematographer, who has really an eye for finding both the beauty and the roughness in that landscape. And even in the editing, we tried to show this landscape from Brady’s perspective. So the people are really part of that landscape.

The light and the time of day I noticed a lot — the quality of light.
Yeah. People were asking me about, like, “How do choose which part of the Badlands to shoot and all that?” One thing with the Plains is, it looks the same wherever you point the camera. It’s all about the time of the day, and how much moisture there is — the season. I know I’ve gotta shoot in September or October. It’s one of the most beautiful times. In November, you risk a storm coming in, the Badlands change color. So that will dictate our shoot — we don’t shoot until 2 p.m., and we shoot until the sun goes down, and we look at the clouds.

It’s very similar to how Brady works with the horses. They would come out later in the day because it’s hot. They would make this decision based on weather, and so would we. Sometimes film shoot [schedules] don’t make these decisions.

I wouldn’t have even thought about that. I mean, I grew up in the Midwest, and not too far from there, but I never went to the Badlands the entire time I lived there.
It’s called the Badlands for a reason. It’s very interesting, I saw in a little booklet in one of the gas stations, it says it’s the kind of place where it really attracts a specific type of people, and it’s either for you, or really not for you. And those people have remained there for generations.

Your previous film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, was also shot there. What brought you to that region initially?
There were a lot of things that lead to it. It’s very much … there was a lot of luck involved, you know, and it definitely goes back, way back. I lived in Beijing and I fantasized about Mongolia, inner Mongolia. I had been there before and it was something very freeing to me — with the sunsets, all that stuff. This was all in my head.

But I ignored that completely until I was about to turn 30, and I was in my senior year of film school, and I realized, I don’t really think I can do a film in New York. I’ve gotta go somewhere else. I wanted to go somewhere where time has a different value than here, because you have to change your lifestyle completely to of rediscover yourself. You can’t just go out of town on a weekend. So I kind of got myself out of New York and got a driver’s license and drove west. Also, at that time, it just so happened that the media was really interested in Pine Ridge and all the struggles young people there were going through at the time.

And I saw these images [coming from Pine Ridge,] and I just was struck by the contradictions of a young man on a horse — a dark-skinned Lakota boy on a horse, but he’s in an urban hip-hop culture outfit, and he’s next to this really terrible government housing that looks like part of the projects, but then behind him is the most gorgeous sunset in the Badlands. So you’re like, “What is happening here?” And also, you know, seeing light-skinned Indian cowboys, you see these images and you’re like, “Okay. Something is going on there.”

It’s a kind of cultural fusion that isn’t exactly the first thing you think of when you think of the American “melting pot.” You talk about knowing that you needed to leave New York to tell a story, even having come there from somewhere else. It seems to me a lot of people come from all over to New York or L.A. to start their careers as filmmakers, and in some ways that’s great, but also a lot of diversity of perspective can get sanded away.
I was living in Williamsburg, you know? It’s not New York’s fault, but it’s more like when everyone is so conforming to a style and a trend, and when there’s so many of them, it’s hard to keep track of who you are. And as a filmmaker, even just the noise itself, the industry, the constant opinions. Who are you really underneath? And I’ll go on retreats into the mountains and come back to New York. There’s nothing romantic about it — it’s literally just so I can be with myself, without the phone, and without a signal.

For The Rider, how much formal research did you do on the life of a rodeo cowboy, and how much were you just sort of immersing yourself? Maybe there’s a lot of overlap between the two. But how much did it feel like you had to do homework?
Very little homework. Because again, I’m not an intellectual, and I can’t make films from an intellectual perspective. I can’t, I wish I could. So research wouldn’t help me. A lot of watching, listening, spending time with people, and just also trusting that you are gonna stay true … It’s all in how you conduct your set and how you plan on making the film. If you’re gonna do it in a way that everything has to stop for you, then [the defense] of your authenticity is going to be dramatically weaker. But if you know you don’t have money, you don’t have a lot of support … then you just go with what’s there. That’s a good gatekeeper. It’s difficult, because you’re making a movie. You need some things to show up on time and to be happening on time, so you have to write a story that doesn’t rely on these huge plot points.

So you can be more flexible.

I did a Q&A with [The Florida Project director] Sean Baker last fall, and he makes such a clear point of distinguishing between first-time actors and nonprofessional actors. He had an experience with an actor years ago where people in the press were calling him a “nonprofessional actor,” but the guy was in fact trying to break into acting. But there was this underlying attitude of, “Well, he’s not a real actor.”
And what’s a real actor, you know?

Sean’s a longtime friend. I’ve heard him saying that. We’ve talked about this. Werner Herzog said it best. He said, “There’s no such thing as actors and nonactors, there’s only authentic performances and non-authentic performances.” You have somebody who went to, like, Strasberg School or wherever, Juilliard, and then try to play a cowboy. And, look, Paul Newman did a great job of it back in the day, but that person could just as easily do a terrible job. So the idea of an actor being someone who can act is … What’s a professional actor? Does it mean that person can act better than the other person?

It feels more like a professional delineation. Like, you decided to act, as opposed to being a rodeo rider, for example.
Yeah, so I guess therefore you’re SAG maybe, if you are an actor, and then you are … I guess this profession should be respected … I can understand that for the purpose of unions and stuff like that. If you’re going to get technical. But to suggest … I guess it’s sad for someone who wants to act to be called “nonprofessional.”

Yeah, there’s some invisible line where people believe that you’re serious about it.
Well, when it comes to the horse training, you have professional horse training and then you have every shade of horse training below that. So I think acting’s the same. Where do you draw the line? Is Brady a professional actor now or is he still a nonactor? Because he’s not pursuing this full time, but now he has acted.

I was going to ask about him pursuing it.
He should. I think the right role needs to come along and he’ll see if it makes sense, but would you call him a nonactor, or …?

I mean, no. But when I first saw the film last year, I definitely left thinking of it as a “nonprofessional actor role.” And then the second time, what really hit me was the scene late in the film after he visits [Jandreau’s real-life friend] Lane again in rehab, and he just breaks down in the car. And that performance, I mean, you couldn’t create that any other way. But it’s a real work of acting and directing, and it’s not some piece of found art.
That also was shot a week later. You know, he’s getting in the car, we’re chatting, and I have to get him into the mood. That’s acting, you know?

Did he have a really instinctive feel for that? How to bring that emotion up?
Well, we were going use Lane [as a focus for the emotion of the scene.] But he was actually so happy after seeing Lane the week before — “Look at the work he’s done, I’m so happy.” So we had to go back to … it’s a lot of memory stuff. Same with working with professional actors, no difference. Childhood memories. But the environment maybe was a little bit different, in that it was just me and him. No cameraperson, no sound person. We were just driving around by ourselves. And if we had a professional actor that would have maybe been [different]. But even when I’m working with professional actors, I would still want to clear the set when it comes to very personal things.

So, The Rider has just been on a nonstop festival tour this past year. I’m sure you’re totally exhausted, and I don’t know how much you’re thinking about where you’re headed next as a filmmaker.
Yeah, The Rider came, as I told you earlier, as such a quick turnaround, so I’ve been developing stuff along the way. I’m working on a historic Western about Bass Reeves, who was a U.S. deputy marshal working in Indian territory. He was born into slavery but escaped in the Civil War and lived among the tribes. So it’s his life story. And then a small little road movie, and a little sci-fi.

Nice. It’s been so interesting, between your film and Dee Rees with Mudbound last year, and a few others, seeing these genres like the Western or the historical drama getting a new perspective from artists that don’t usually tell these stories. I think that’s been really a joy. Because I’m not the number-one historical-drama fan.
Me neither.

But if there’s new perspective on it, I’m all there for it.
Well, there’s a reason why we’re not a fan of it. It’s the same as me not watching a lot of Westerns growing up. There’s a reason, because there’s not much we can relate to.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Chloé Zhao Is Rethinking the Western