EXCLUSIVE: Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao is making her second trip to the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight this year, with sophomore feature The Rider. Born in Beijing, Zhao went to school in the UK and college in the U.S. before settling in Denver, basing her first two feature films on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation.
Zhao’s 2015 drama, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, was developed at the Sundance Institute and premiered in Park City that year. It centers on the bond between a Lakota Sioux brother and his younger sister. The Rider — produced by Carnival and Zhao’s Highwayman Films, with Protagonist handling international sales — focuses on a young cowboy who suffers a near-fatal rodeo injury and undertakes a search for a new identity, and what it means to be a man in the heartland of America. Check out an exclusive clip below.
Of her decision to seek out such stories, Zhao says she “definitely felt stuck creatively” in big cities. And, “when you’re stuck, historically you go west… Coming from a country that’s rapidly changing, I love the idea of a place like South Dakota where nothing has really changed.”
Non-actors Brady, Tim, and Lilly Jandreau, Lane Scott and Cat Clifford star in The Rider. The main character is inspired by the real Brady, whom Zhao met two years ago.
“I would love people to meet him,” she says, “as he represents a lot of people in that part of the country which today is demonized for probably voting for Trump, but they are humans. I find my calling more in telling the story of that part of the world.”
Was it a challenge working with non-actors? “I thought my last film was hard,” Zhao laughs, “but for a Chinese woman to try to wrangle a bunch of young cowboys?”
Just don’t call the movie a Western. “What defines a Western?” Zhao says. “I’ve probably seen three my whole life. The film is really my version of a feminine gaze on one of the most masculine images in American culture.”
Although she hasn’t yet worked as a filmmaker in China, Zhao says that her desire to do so is growing. “I think I have a Chinese sci-fi in mind. I was born and raised in China, Mandarin is my first language, and I definitely know America. I think that will be my strength, to try and bring the two worlds together.”
Zhao explains of the clip below, “After we finished filming on a ranch, the owner offered Brady some money to break a young horse he had bred for racing. We ended up filming the process without interrupting them. We did two continuous takes that were each around 40 minutes long while Brady was inside the corral breaking and getting on a wild horse that had never been ridden before.”