It wasn't a film fest that helped director/screenwriter Chloé Zhao launch her filmmaking career. It was her first sundance, the Native American religious ceremony practiced in the Black Hills of South Dakota near the Pine Ridge Reservation. It "was life-changing."
Observing that sacred ritual launched her creative career. Her first feature, 2015's "impressionistic love film" "Songs My Brothers Taught Me," followed a Lakota brother and sister rediscovering the spirituality and strength of their roots. For her second movie, she reinvented the western in "The Rider," a no-stereotypes portrait of a Native American cowboy that took the top prize at the 2017 Cannes Directors' Fortnight.
"I always fantasized about the West," Zhao said in January after her film's U.S. debut at Robert Redford's Sundance movie gala. "Not the American West. I grew up in Beijing. We also have some of our most famous literature about journeys to the west. Adventure. I think that is in every culture to have that."
She attended high school in London, college in Massachusetts, then studied filmmaking at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. After seven years in New York City, Zhao, by then thoroughly fed up with big cities, "didn't feel like there was a story for me to tell."
American politics was her major as an undergrad, and "I learned about the reservations and all that." She went to Pine Ridge to find the story she wanted. Drawn by "the landscapes, the images I'd seen, and also the contradiction of seeing these Lakota kids sitting on horses bareback, wearing this urban, hip-hop culture clothing."
"The Rider" concerns the crisis faced by Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), a young "Lakota cowboy" recovering from a near-fatal rodeo injury. It opens with imagery that's both realistic and spiritually charged. Brady is treating the gash that the bucking horse left behind his right ear, calling to mind the sacred piercings during sundance ceremonies.
Life on the Great Plains "makes sense to me," Zhao said. "That's where America is. It's not on the coasts. The coast of any country is heavily influenced by what's on the other side of the ocean. The middle is where the core of the country's identity is."
At Pine Ridge, she found "the most beautiful landscapes, but they're right next to their government project housing. This is America in a way that's complex."
Visiting Pine Ridge after her first film's premiere in 2015, Zhao met Jandreau and "immediately I thought he had star quality. He has charisma and I could see him acting when he's with horses. He's acting with the horses to literally manipulate them to listen to him. If he can do that to a 3,000-pound animal, he can do that to a human being."
The idea of the film didn't come until a year and a half later, inspired by Jandreau's real-life rodeo injury. Less than six months after being treated, he was drawing on the experience in front of the camera.
Jandreau, who came to the Twin Cities last month to appear at the film's closing night screening at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, said that making it felt natural and positive. While he runs a successful business training horses, he wouldn't mind balancing that with more film work.
"I really enjoyed acting," he said. "With horses, there's a showmanship aspect to it. You've got to present yourself to them in a way they'll understand, and be appealing. In rodeo there's all this screaming and cameras pointing at you and you've got to stay focused. It's very similar."