“It’s on there,” Brady Jandreau says, pointing to his back, assuring me that the tattoo he received during a scene in “The Rider” is the real deal.
“Cat gave me a tattoo too,” Chloe Zhao, the film’s director, is quick to add, pulling up her left sleeve to reveal ink on her shoulder.
It was put there by Cat Clifford, a Lakota cowboy that Zhao got to know on the rodeo circuit in the Badlands of South Dakota while making her first film “Songs My Brothers Taught Me.” (Clifford’s ability to wield a pen not only inside his tattoo parlor, but also to write songs has made him a star in both her productions.) She would also meet Jandreau, a member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, as he was taming wild horses, captivated by the young man who appears as if he stepped out of a John Ford Western, tipping his hat as a means of introduction and giving grace to the restless animals that he rides with ease.
Zhao knew a movie star when she saw one, though what movie that would be was an open question until fate intervened – see below – but after broaching the idea with Jandreau, the rodeo rider had mentioned that he had long wanted to get a tattoo as a tribute to his friend Lane Scott, yet was short of how much it would cost.
“Chloe was like, ‘What if we do it for the movie?” Jandreau recalls with a grin, noting that Zhao had already made Lane a key figure in “The Rider.” “It was something I wanted, but I couldn’t afford and she’s like, ‘Alright, we can get it for the movie,’ and Cat was actually giving this tattoo in real time, and we had to do it in two different sessions because [he] did the whole outline and then he did the shading.”
“Did he ever touch up the…?” Zhao starts to ask, before Jandreau shakes his head slightly.
“I got another one that same day,” says Jandreau, pointing to his right arm. “This is the one I got that day, [and] you got that one, remember?
“Yeah, we got it all on the same day,” Zhao laughs. “Everyone’s getting tattoos!”
As it turns out, that’s more true than even Zhao is probably aware of since “The Rider” is one of those movies that becomes a part of you as soon as you see it. Using Jandreau’s broad shoulders to carry a film every bit as majestic as any of the classics shot in Monument Valley, the writer/director displays a contemporary savvy in achieving it, drawing on personal details from her star’s biography — and real people, like his father Tim and sister Lilly – to create a gripping drama around the cowboy who loses his way after a suffering a devastating fall at the rodeo, putting his livelihood of breaking horses, as well as his general joie de vivre, as he recovers. While Jandreau has natural charisma and a compelling story, it’s his obvious compassion for others, unfiltered by Zhao’s unique way of working, that makes “The Rider” such a pleasure to watch, as he tends to horses confused by their circumstances with new owners including one particularly unruly buck named Apollo, his sister Lilly, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, and his friend Lane, who saw his bull-riding career cut short, all while healing himself.
Shot by “God’s Own Country” cinematographer Joshua James Richards, “The Rider” is exquisitely beautiful, yet it is as much for how it presents the geographic grandeur of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation as it is for simply casting an eye on Jandreau and his community, and following a whirlwind worldwide tour after premiering at Cannes last year, the film’s star and director were in Los Angeles recently to talk about how “The Rider” came together, filming with unpredictable horses and how Zhao devised a shoot to facilitate as much naturalism as possible.
Brady’s joked that as soon as he went down with an injury, Chloe saw an opportunity for a film. How did this come together during the recovery time?
Chloe Zhao: [The idea for a film] started before he got hurt, about a year before when I met him.
Brady Jandreau: While I was recovering, Chloe called me once a week to see if I was okay. She didn’t know if I could start riding horses again, and the thing that drew her to me to make a movie was my ability to ride horses, so it put a damper on the whole thing for a minute. But she found out I was riding horses again a month-and-a-half later [after the accident]. Actually, I think it was on Facebook, I put a video of a horse that was responding very well to my training, and she’s like, “That’s an old video, right?” And I’m like, “No, that was just yesterday.” And she’s like, “What?!? What are you doing even riding horses?” And I told her those were horses I trained. She was like, “Well, Brady, you could die.” And I was like, “Well, I didn’t feel alive not being able to ride anyway.”
Chloe Zhao: Seeing him with horses for the first time, for someone like me — you know, the closest connection I have to the wilderness and to nature is petting my dog — is just incredible. [laughs] To see how wild the horse was and to see how the two of them just tuned everything out, like [how] Brady got the horse to focus on him and to see him playing different roles to the horse, from a father to a dance partner to a friend, to get the horse to understand what he wants and to make the horse wants it too, I knew right away, “We’re going to make a film together.” I thought not only that [Brady] has such strong conviction to his way of life, but he’s also a great actor just to a horse. (laughs) So we talked about different ideas, but until he got hurt, we didn’t really have a story.
In that first scene with Apollo, were you breaking him in the moment? That horse has such personality, too – how did you find him?
Chloe Zhao: That’s Jim. We have two horses play Apollo – Jim and Peppy.
Brady Jandreau: Yeah, [Jim] was wild. He’s an outlaw.
Chloe Zhao: Peppy is Brady’s family’s horse, who was going to be nice.
Brady Jandreau: Jim was the horse I was training for another person. He’s damaged. That horse got away with some things with another rider…
Chloe Zhao: Yeah, he threw someone off who didn’t get back on, right?
Brady Jandreau: Yeah, that’s the story Apollo came from.
How’d you film those scenes? The camera appears to be so close.
Chloe Zhao: We were actually outside the corral, by the way.
Brady Jandreau: [Cinematographer Joshua James Richards] got the camera lens through the corral. That’s why it’s from one angle, because he’s just got it between the bars.
Chloe Zhao: The way it’s edited together, it actually looks like we’re in a corral.
Brady Jandreau: Depending on each horse, we would do [different] things. If I would say Chloe, I don’t think it’s going to work, we wouldn’t even try it because we wouldn’t want to pressure the animal in any way or risk anything. But there was one scene where Josh was in the [corral] with me, but this horse was very, very calm. She was a docile horse…she was unbroke, but halter broke, like she had been groomed. Her feet had been worked with, so on that scene we were able to actually get Josh in there with me and it was completely safe. But there were other scenes like the scene you mentioned before [with Jim] where we’d use precautionary measures. With Cool Breeze, that was the first time that horse had ever had human hands on him…
Chloe Zhao: The baby one.
Brady Jandreau: He was a two-year-old, so he was of age to start breaking. You don’t want to break them earlier than that because it can damage their joints, like a five-year-old playing football or something.
Chloe’s said before one of the toughest scenes in the film to shoot was where you’re working in the supermarket because Brady just wants to be out there with the horses – what was it like performing scenes outside of your experience?
Brady Jandreau: Well, I didn’t work at a supermarket. I went right into training horses, so that was completely acting. After the first few days of shooting, Chloe was giving me all these tools, right? It was like boot camp. She worked with me the way I work with the horses. [laughs]
Chloe Zhao: He’s a fast learner.
Having made your previous film “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” with a non-professional cast, did that shape how you went about working on this one?
Chloe Zhao: I learned from the first film not to be too ambitious – just keep it intimate and keep it with one family. My first movie was a miniseries – not really a movie. [laughs] Just trying to do too many storylines, and we had such a small crew and very little money to make the film. But in terms of working with non-actors, I always say it’s amazing that [when] people watch a movie and feel that authenticity completely, they’re just being themselves – and that’s called really good acting to me. I worked with [Brady] as I would with any actors, except the horse training stuff. He had his stuff down [there].
One of the scenes I liked so much was the scene with the campfire where Brady and his friends are just telling stories to each other, and I noticed the song they break into was actually composed by Cat, one of the cowboys there. What was it like to build that scene?
Chloe Zhao: It was scripted exactly how it was shot, actually. It was one of those things where my cinematographer and I walked away and we’re like, “Oh wow, we got that exactly how we wanted it.” The boys have been sitting around the campfire telling stories about their rodeo [days], their battle wounds — I’ve seen them do this, but the idea was to have them each individually talk about their own story, how they got hurt and transition that into a fictionalized scene between [Brady] and his friend Tanner arguing and have Cat jump in to try to break it up by telling him about Lane [their fellow rider, who’s paralyzed], sort of like the scene in “Jaws” where they start talk about [the shark] and they all get sunburn.
Brady Jandreau: Tanner is an example [of how Chloe helped get me into the role]. She [asked me before making the film], “Well, which one of these guys have you spent the most time with? Like you feel comfortable…
Chloe Zhao: …Getting in a fight with. [laughs]
Brady Jandreau: Yeah, getting in a fight with. And I was like, “Me and Tanner, we’ve kind of hooked it a couple of times.” [laughs] But we’re good buddies. When me and Lane were out bull riding, Tanner was packing his rig along and he rode bulls for a little while. We were always around each other — [we’re] actually like fifth cousins, so we’re really good buddies.
At what point did you know to include Cat’s song “Gamblin’ Man”?
Chloe Zhao: Actually, Cat showed me the first phrase of that song while doing the shooting of my first film because he’s in it, and he and I actually talked about it and worked on it for that song while I was shooting that movie. He finished writing it by the end of the shoot, and we shot him playing that song at a rodeo for the first film, but never used it.
Brady Jandreau: Oh, you already did?
Chloe Zhao: Yeah, so this time, it was like, “We’ve got to use ‘Gamblin’ Man’ again! And this time it’s going to make it!” [laughs]
Have you actually had a screening for the community in Pine Ridge yet?
Chloe Zhao: Not yet. The kids, the boys and the family came down to Telluride and they saw the movie there. There’s one theater in Pine Ridge called Nunpa Theater and they screened my first movie…which is the only place people went to see it. [laughs] Actually, it did really well at Nunpa Theater, so I’m dying for it to open wide and even though the theater’s really small, Sony’s really good [about booking it there]. It’s probably going to run there for a week or two.
Brady Jandreau: And even a couple other ones in South Dakota.
Chloe Zhao: Hopefully in Rapid City and Sioux Falls. The reality is for people of Pine Ridge to really see it, it will be on Netflix. [Looking at Brady] That’s when you’re going to be famous.
Brady, what was it like to see yourself on the big screen for the first time?
Brady Jandreau: Honestly, the first [few] times I chuckled. The first couple times I watched it on a laptop, so it was just like the warmup to it and actually the first time I watched it on the big screen was at the outdoor theater in Telluride and…
Chloe Zhao: Incredible.
Brady Jandreau: Yeah, I forget from time to time that we did this. It was hard to grasp. I don’t know how it came together. I should say I didn’t doubt it in anyway. I just didn’t expect it to be like that.
Chloe Zhao: He took a leap of faith.
“The Rider” is now open in Los Angeles at the Landmark and in New York at the Angelika Film Center and the Landmark at 57 West and will expand in the coming weeks. A full schedule of theaters and dates is here.