Sara Hemrajani chats with The Rider director Chloe Zhao…
Beijing-born filmmaker Chloe Zhao returns to the Directors’ Fortnight (La Quinzaine des Réalisateurs) at Cannes with The Rider, a soulful and intimate portrait of a young South Dakota cowboy struggling to let go of his rodeo champion past after suffering a major head injury.
Based on actual people and starring them as well, The Rider follows Brady Jandreau (playing a lightly fictionalised version of himself called Brady Blackburn) coming to terms with the fact that his glorious bull riding days are behind him. Zhao gently observes the 20-year-old readjusting to a very different future with his family and friends in the remote prairies, and the resulting feature is quietly powerful and life-affirming.
Flickering Myth’s Sara Hemrajani spoke to Zhao earlier this week at the festival…
SH: This is your second time at Cannes and it’s the 70th year of the festival – how does it feel to be part of this, and what do you make of some of the arguments that Cannes is no longer relevant?
CZ: I’ll start with this, I had the opportunity to be at a lunch [in Cannes] with Werner Herzog. And I went up to him and told him – you’re the reason why I survived so much hardship in my short career. Because I put the documentary on the making of Fitzcarraldo on repeat, to remind myself, I’ll cry to it, you know that’s how important he is in my life. And he said when does your film screen, I said tomorrow at 5.15pm, and he said – I have a lot of things going on but I’ll try to make it. And he did, he showed up last night. Afterwards, he was very complimentary of me and we talked a little bit, but then he said to one of the critics, which is quoted by the critic in the review, he said – Just when you think cinema is entering a stage of stagnation, a film like this comes along and it’s very encouraging. I bawled. I literally cried, I mean I tear up thinking about it. And that can only happen at Cannes…I mean I feel like I owe my career to Quinzaine. That only happens here.
SH: It really seems like Cannes went all out with getting female directors involved in the festival this year – yourself, Claire Denis, Sofia Coppola, Lynne Ramsay.
CZ: Yeah, we have 37 percent at Quinzaine this year, which is a pretty good number. It’s still low but it’s pretty good. And I also feel like there’s another complicity to that – I can’t speak for the main selection – but, for example, at Quinzaine they’re trying to say find films from all regions of the world. That’s also a consideration, on top of male/female.
SH: Your story is set in the American West, in the American heartland. There’s this image of the macho cowboy, popularised in cinema by John Wayne and more recently Clint Eastwood. Did you go in thinking you wanted to knock that idea on the head and bring it into the 21st century?
CZ: I’ve probably seen three Westerns my whole life. It’s just not my thing. I mean there are some amazing Westerns, especially in the revisionist Westerns of the ‘60s and ‘70s…But I was never interested in watching a lot of them just because it’s hard for me to relate to the characters. It’s hard for me to see these very stereotypical perfect, one dimensional kind of person…As a female filmmaker I get asked this a lot, how come you portray a lot of male characters? I think it’s, maybe not equally, but almost as important to tell our daughters they can be strong, as to tell our sons, our boys, they can be vulnerable. I think it’s very important because the male figures are portrayed by males as well…The male figure is also romanticised as what a hero should be like. To me, the American Dream is really the American Broken Dream, and those who have the broken dream but continue dreaming are the true American dreamer.
SH: I watched the film and I was so stunned to find out that the cast weren’t actors. I thought their performances were so nuanced. Was it that they naturally had chemistry on screen or did you have to give them much coaching?
CZ:It was all me! (Laughs) No, I can never say that. So, for example, with the Dad, who’s a real wild cowboy, that is a man who doesn’t take orders from women. So it would be like 16 takes on Dad because you’d be laughing and goofing around. With Brady, he was cast first before there was a film. I met him, I was so – I mean I’m a creep like that, I can’t help it, I see a face and I go – can you be in my movie? The camera loves his face, that’s something he was born with. He just translates his feelings so well, his facial muscles. And so he, right away, he’s the one. And everyone else – I mean Lane [Scott] just loved to act. When Brady was imagining riding with him – he can barely lift his head – and he just lifted his head and closed his eyes. I mean he’s acting, I got lucky with that. But the most important thing is to write characters and write scenes that your actors can achieve.
SH: I found Brady to be very sensitive. He has to redefine his identity and deal with the fallout of his injury, he realises he can’t even train horses. Was he nervous about being emotional and crying on camera?
CZ: The crying scene? Yes, it was interesting because his fiance was like, he hasn’t cried in seven years. Brady said, I’ll never cry, I can’t cry. I took three minutes to get there, because there’s so much built up, that kid’s seen so much tragedy…That’s the power of fiction filmmaking, when you give them a safe place, your character is crying, not you. That’s why for kids from difficult communities to do community theatre, it’s so empowering because they get to express themselves in a safe place.
SH: So there was a barrier between Brady the character and Brady the person?
CZ: Right. And the camera is, weirdly enough, a permission for him to do it…He was very proud of that.
SH: As an outsider looking into that part of America, which is often neglected in favour of the coasts, did you get a sense from the community – the cowboys and the Native Americans – about whether they believe their way of life would continue or did they think it was coming to an end?
CZ: I mean that’s a great question. I always use the West Virginia coal miners as example. They shut down their coal mines, obviously I agree with that, I’m a liberal environmentalist, but when something like that happens, you can’t sit in your air conditioned office in New York and say that’s the right thing to do because we need clean energy. You’ve never been to West Virginia, you’ve never seen these people – generations and generations of coal miners – then to go to work at Wal-Mart with no healthcare, no minimum wage guarantee, no free education. These are class issues that need to be solved…The only way to defeat Donald Trump or prevent Brexit or an administration like that is to sympathise and use love and compassion to bring people from that side over, to help them to get to a place where they can maintain their lives and some sense of identity. That’s the danger of liberal politics these days, how do we allow people to be who they are? That’s the foundation, and then maybe change policies around that and to get them together, not to decide for them because we think we’re smart and know the right thing…But now the knee jerk reaction is pushing them even further away because it’s demonising them – you’re the reason why we have Donald Trump – no, we’re equally responsible. Divided we fall.
Many thanks to Chloe Zhao for taking the time for this interview.