Saddling back up

Chloé Zhao and Brady Jandreau on autism, training horses and The Rider

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Brady Jandreau on The Rider director Chloé Zhao: "When Chloé found out, a month and a half after my head injury I was training horses again, putting my life at risk, she wanted to capture that."
Brady Jandreau on The Rider director Chloé Zhao: "When Chloé found out, a month and a half after my head injury I was training horses again, putting my life at risk, she wanted to capture that." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Gotham Independent Film Award and National Board of Review winner The Rider stars Brady Jandreau as Brady Blackburn with his sister Lilly Jandreau and father Tim Jandreau, and friends Lane Scott, Cat Clifford, and Tanner Langdeau playing variations of themselves. Chloé Zhao's follow-up to Songs My Brothers Taught Me was also a highlight of the 55th New York Film Festival, winner of the Grand Prix Award at the Deauville Festival of American Cinema and the Art Cinema Award in the Directors’ Fortnight of the Cannes Film Festival.

Joshua James Richards films Brady Jandreau as Brady Blackburn with Chloé Zhao directing
Joshua James Richards films Brady Jandreau as Brady Blackburn with Chloé Zhao directing

Shot by Joshua James Richards (Francis Lee's God's Own Country), The Rider looks out at life on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota for a severely injured rodeo champion and his struggles to get back in the saddle again.

Brady's father, Tim (Wayne Blackburn), confronted with his son's accident, first takes the I-told-you route and plays tougher than he is to distract from his own weakness and devastation. We learn that the mother is no longer alive. Brady visits her grave where he holds in his hands a small plastic toy horse. Who put it there, and when, is not important. And yet, its presence seems absolutely necessary.

Brady's little sister, Lilly (Lilly Blackburn), who is on the autism spectrum, does her best to protect her brother. She serenades him, listens, and loves. When their father brings home a bra for her to wear, because she is already 15 years old, she resents it. The Dakota Mart, a supermarket where Brady finds work, is not presented as hell. The Rider does not need dramatic exaggerations. It is painful in comparison to what he cannot do anymore.

Anne-Katrin Titze: The family situation in the film - I am not sure how much of it is scripted, how much real family connections play into it - what I noticed is the classic structure. A father who is angry because he has to deal with his own feelings of failure, his own emotions, a wounded son, a sister who we feel needs to be protected and who herself wants to protect her brother as well, and a dead mother. That is the classic situation of a fairy tale. Can you talk about that?

Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) at his mother's gravesite in The Rider
Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) at his mother's gravesite in The Rider

Chloé Zhao: Very quickly, his [Brady's] mother is not dead.

Brady Jandreau: My mother is alive. My Mom and Dad are not together. Shooting with both of them would have been very, very, very difficult.

CZ: It would have been hilarious. But when I met Brady, a lot of these boys they really spend a lot of their time with their dads. Just because of the rodeo and fathers working every day. I have to say this archetypal thing you are talking about - almost when I met him, I was talking to our cinematographer [Joshua James Richards]: I feel like I met the quintessential American family. You see a lot of classic drama that has this type of story. And then I have the perfect actors for these roles.

BJ: Me and my dad would like argue our points in front of people and stuff. Like when she first met us, we weren't scared to argue in front of her. And she knew we were going to be able to act.

AKT: And then you got to know each other better?

BJ: Then she got to know us better, more about my life.

AKT: Lilly is your sister. She is great. She has some wonderful arguments against being 15.

Brady Jandreau: "The injury was more than portrayed in the movie, I would say. When I first got home from the hospital, I could hardly walk straight."
Brady Jandreau: "The injury was more than portrayed in the movie, I would say. When I first got home from the hospital, I could hardly walk straight."

BJ: Yeah, she wants to be 14 again so she doesn't have to wear a bra.

AKT: She just states that she doesn't like 15, she wants 14.

CZ: Lilly has autism. Sometimes when people with autism are in a film, it's always about autism. You know, It's got to be about that. Or, let's say Lane [Scott], who is disabled, it's got to be about the disability. But they're just part of our life, walk of life. Why can't they just be there because they're human beings in someone's life? It doesn't have to always be about their issue.

AKT: Exactly. It's being to being. That's what I meant. I sometimes think I'd like to be 14.

BJ: Yeah.

AKT: There is a moment at the bar when a guy is talking to Lilly and you, Brady, notice. It is a bit scary and large. It's a large moment in the film, though brief. Where were you going with this moment? Nothing happened in the film, and yet.

CZ: Tanner's character is giving Lilly's character a beer to drink. But almost out of just having a good time with Lilly. For Brady that moment is not really about that, what's bothering him. It's something much bigger. His own inability to ride at the rodeo.

Tim Jandreau with Lilly Jandreau in The Rider
Tim Jandreau with Lilly Jandreau in The Rider

It's building up, his own frustration. At that moment it just came out. Like Cat's character said "We love Lilly. What's going on? Why are you acting like that?" Because they all see Lilly as their sister. But it's more about Brady's own issue at that moment, I think.

AKT: You see it that way too?

BJ: Yeah. Tanner was supposed to be basically joking around with her. But because of my internal frustrations it escalated beyond something it should have been.

AKT: The Dakota Mart!

CZ: Brady's favourite scenes! I'm being sarcastic.

AKT: I could guess that. What I liked about the Dakota Mart is that it's not hell. It's not nice working there for him, but you didn't make it into what other filmmakers might have done, namely showing it as hell, while sorting deodorant. It isn't. It is simply very far away from the horses.

CZ: Because we're not judging someone working at Dakota Mart at all. It's more again what Brady's character is feeling at that moment.

Brady Jandreau on Brady Blackburn riding off on Gus (Mooney): "In the movie, I swing up on Gus like nothing happened. In real life, I stood on a bucket and crawled up there."
Brady Jandreau on Brady Blackburn riding off on Gus (Mooney): "In the movie, I swing up on Gus like nothing happened. In real life, I stood on a bucket and crawled up there."

BJ: When Chloé found out, a month and a half after my head injury I was training horses again, putting my life at risk, she wanted to capture that. That's another thing that inspired her to write this. What gave us the ability to shoot the horse training scenes was that I was training horses again before I was supposed to be.

So, the Dakota Mart scenes - she was like "Okay, you started training horses again a month and a half after your injury, what if you didn't? What if you had to go work somewhere else and didn't have that source of income? That's why that was included.

AKT: You head injury was less severe than that of your fictional counterpart?

CZ: It's the same.

BJ: No, more. The injury was more than portrayed in the movie, I would say. When I first got home from the hospital, I could hardly walk straight. I had balance difficulty. I would wake up and I was having all kinds of night terrors.

AKT: Did you hesitate to ...?

BJ: I just did what I had to do.

The Rider poster
The Rider poster

AKT: I mean, doing the film?

BJ: No, you know, through rodeo and through selling horses and stuff, you have to present yourself in a certain way. And I just felt like just presenting myself in a certain way.

CZ: Also, I think, him getting back on a horse. Seeing him riding Gus [played by Mooney, the horse] for the first time, waiting there for him to ride him, that's what inspired that scene. He would ride away from the hospital if he could. You know, I think sometimes for a brain injury like that, you really need to find who you are again.

BJ: Like in the movie, I swing up on Gus like nothing happened. In real life, I stood on a bucket and crawled up there. And I just sat. In the movie, I move off like I'm fine. In real life, I just rode him around a little bit. It was a pretty devastating injury.

Read what Chloé Zhao and Brady Jandreau had to say on Werner Herzog and filming The Rider.

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