Real-life fiction

Chloé Zhao and Brady Jandreau on the script, sound design and horses' eyes in The Rider

by Anne-Katrin Titze

The Rider director Chloé Zhao on Joshua James Richards: "It's done so well by the cinematographer that it feels like we just happened to be there. That's where the authenticity of the film comes from. It's actually that you have to do so much more work to make it look natural."
The Rider director Chloé Zhao on Joshua James Richards: "It's done so well by the cinematographer that it feels like we just happened to be there. That's where the authenticity of the film comes from. It's actually that you have to do so much more work to make it look natural." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In the final instalment of my conversation with Chloé Zhao, the director of the 2018 Gotham Independent Film Award and National Board of Review winner, The Rider, and the star of her real-life fiction film, Brady Jandreau, we discuss the injuries Brady and his best friend Lane Scott have dealt with on their long road to recovery and acting with his father Tim Jandreau and little sister Lilly Jandreau as the Blackburn family.

Brady Jandreau as Brady Blackburn with Lane Scott in The Rider: "Well, me and Lane have been like brothers since I was two and he was three."
Brady Jandreau as Brady Blackburn with Lane Scott in The Rider: "Well, me and Lane have been like brothers since I was two and he was three."

Chloé speaks about her screenplay, the cinematography, and the South Dakota wind in the sound design for both Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, which was a highlight of the 55th New York Film Festival. The film also won 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 in 2017, where a friend told her after the world première "I don't really believe in God, but I feel that there's God in this movie, because look at the horses' eyes."

From New York, Happy New Year 2019 to all.

Anne-Katrin Titze: The communication between you and Lane Scott in the hospital is great. There is such palpable friendship in these visits. I think audiences will feel jealous. If they are ever in a hospital, they'll want you to visit.

Brady Jandreau: Well, me and Lane have been like brothers since I was two and he was three. Lane lived with us from basically 8th grade, all throughout high school. We've been best friends and family since as far back as I can remember.

AKT: How is he now?

BJ: He is progressing. He can stand with help and walk with help. He started to say some more words. It's been a long slow process. Lane's injury, he actually didn't fracture his skull at all, there was a minor brain bleed. Because Lane went two hours without medical attention, the pressure in the brain - because there was no fracture, there was nowhere for the pressure to go and that's why Lane's brain injury was so much more extensive than mine.

Chloé Zhao on Brady Jandreau as Brady Blackburn in The Rider: "The interactions of the majority of the film, the interactions between people - maybe not Lane or Lilly - but these are scripted scenes and they are acting."
Chloé Zhao on Brady Jandreau as Brady Blackburn in The Rider: "The interactions of the majority of the film, the interactions between people - maybe not Lane or Lilly - but these are scripted scenes and they are acting."

The actual impact of the injury, my injury was much more extensive. It took me eleven minutes to get prepped for surgery. It was 11 minutes. If Lane had been in the hospital in 11 minutes, he would be fine today. There's countless things that almost killed Lane - between ant bites and pneumonia, staph infection, a piece of a tooth in his lung, the injury itself.

AKT: During a scene where you sit around a fire, are the people talking about their real injuries?

Chloé Zhao: Yeah, I asked them to talk about something that happened to them.

AKT: So what is the most fake thing about The Rider?

BJ: My mom is not dead.

CZ: I'll put this on the record. I don't personally like the doc-fiction title, because I'm very happy people feel like this is really authentic. Because it's so inspired by real life and it just happens to be played also by the people the film is inspired by. But the interactions of the majority of the film, the interactions between people - maybe not Lane or Lilly - but these are scripted scenes and they are acting.

Brady and his dad [Tim as Wayne Blackburn], they are acting in these moments. It's come to a point where people actually thought we just literally showed up when he was riding the horse and the sun was setting.

AKT: Sure, not your work but magic.

Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) with Apollo (Peppy) in The Rider
Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) with Apollo (Peppy) in The Rider

CZ: Or like, we were at the rodeo and he is deciding whether he is going to ride.

BJ: It's all scripted.

CZ: It's all scripted and I want to give that credit to the actors because it's very little that we just showed up and shot it. We painted the rooms, we shot it like a traditional film. Maybe 20%, 15%, stuff with horses, with Lane in the hospital - but even Lane was acting. We were giving him scenarios. And Lilly, too, is not all…

BJ: We told her what to say and sometimes she wouldn't say it and then sometimes she would.

AKT: She changed it?

CZ: Yeah, to how she would say it. I was very honoured that Lilly agreed to do it.

AKT: By the light alone you can see that this is not a matter of pure chance.

CZ: But it's done so well by the cinematographer [Joshua James Richards] that it feels like we just happened to be there. That's where the authenticity of the film comes from. It's actually that you have to do so much more work to make it look natural. But if it's just natural, try to record with your iPhone, it does not look like what it looks like there.

Chloé Zhao on the sound design for The Rider and Songs My Brothers Taught Me: "I wanted the wind always going. That's how you feel on the plains, it's part of the air."
Chloé Zhao on the sound design for The Rider and Songs My Brothers Taught Me: "I wanted the wind always going. That's how you feel on the plains, it's part of the air."

AKT: That is very clear.

CZ: You know, when they call it documentary, that doesn't give credit to my actors or my cinematographer.

BJ: It's just extremely based on a true story. More than a documentary, I'd say.

AKT: This is a point, the director of Call Me By Your Name, Luca Guadagnino, was making when I talked with him about the costumes which were so authentically 1983. And he said, yes, the greatest artifice is to try and make it completely real. The same thing here.

CZ: Yes, it's a kind of fiction heavily inspired by real life and played by those it is inspired by.

AKT: What stuck with me the most are the horses' eyes. The eyes of horses are simply magnificent. You could just stare at them forever.

CZ: I spoke to my DP [Joshua James Richards] and he reminded me of a line from one of our friends who saw the film in Cannes [Film Festival 2017]. It's like the best comment I've ever heard anybody say about the film. She said "I don't really believe in God, but I feel that there's God in this movie, because look at the horses' eyes."

AKT: That's it. That and the wind. The sound of the wind and the horses' eyes.

Chloé Zhao on The Rider: "You know, when they call it documentary, that doesn't give credit to my actors or my cinematographer."
Chloé Zhao on The Rider: "You know, when they call it documentary, that doesn't give credit to my actors or my cinematographer."

BJ: The wind never stops blowing in South Dakota.

CZ: That's definitely a choice in the sound design. In my first film [Songs My Brothers Taught Me] as well, I wanted the wind always going. That's how you feel on the plains, it's part of the air.

AKT: Are you working on something together after this?

CZ: Hopefully. I think I've got another one in South Dakota but I'm not sure what it is yet. He should keep acting!

AKT: Definitely. And your family, too. Say hello to your sister!

BJ: Lilly absolutely loved it. Ever since she's been tiny, she's been constantly recording things, taking pictures.

Read what Chloé Zhao and Brady Jandreau had to say on Brady's family, autism, training horses, and cinematographer Joshua James Richards for The Rider.

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

The Rider is screening in the Oscar film series The Contenders at MoMA in New York on January 2, at 7pm.

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