Beijing-born, U.S.-based writer-director-producer Zhao Chloé received another award for her latest film The Rider, which premiered at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Her presence in the Pingyao Film Fest and the subsequent win also had a symbolic meaning, a sort of homecoming celebration.
The most efficient way to describe The Rider is to imagine Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler set in the South Dakota rodeo, but more authentic. Zhao worked on The Rider with locals in the South Dakota Pine Ridge Indian reservation. Besides a man relationship with nature and animals, she tackles stereotypical male psychés, broken dreams and reinventing and pulling through.
ScreenAnarchy: Watching THE RIDER, a train of thought may easily pass through one´s mind with keywords such as Hillbilly Elegy, Rust Belt, Donald J. Trump thus encapsulating a specific time and events. I wonder whether this situation sort of hovered over the production of THE RIDER?
Zhao Chloé: Well, literally, when I was working on the film, I was staying on a ranch in South Dakota where Fox News was playing the whole time while the people, the ranchers, who voted for Trump were feeding us dinner every night and making us the best meal. I am a democrat and yes, it was literally hovering over us during the production.
Half of my friends are Trump voters now, so sure it was on my mind but it never interfered into my filmmaking because especially now, for me as a storyteller, that is something I would not think about. I am focus on the human beings first because that is sort of all we are hearing about now. And I think it is really important that we would look at us as human beings and talked politics then which we do.
THE RIDER is set in the kind of small community that felt neglected, so there is this kind of sociological aspect.
Yes, there is. The film is set in a reservation, so this is a native American reservation. And I hope that the film shows that people have very similar hopes, dreams and struggles no matter for who you vote for.
On a personal level, I do think that it is a part of the country that has been ignored for a long time of which Trump was able to take advantage of. And as a Democrat myself, I found that were to be blamed as well.
I spent time with these people and I could see how some of these policies made by our Democratic presidents haven't really taken care of, say for the West Virginia coal miners. The identity is such an important thing that they do not want to go to work for a minimal wage in Walmart. They have been coal miners for generations and they are very proud of what they do.
Also THE RIDER touches upon the identity theme, more precisely you dissect the macho stereotype. How did you approach the changing male mindscape and psyché?
A lot of that comes from a real life. I did not come and say this the story I want to explore and I am going to find an actor that can play this. I met this young man who grew up in a very macho environment and who works in an industry as a cowboy. But he is also very feminine and vulnerable if you will, and sensitive as well.
So when he loses his abilities after the injury, it´s like a superhero lost his power, he can't really put that shield up that much. That to me as a storyteller felt like there is a drama. So that´s how I started. I think there is a man and a woman in every one of us, there is yin and yang.
Why did you decide to approach the story from the male point of view instead of female?
First, it happened by chance. If I met a young woman, it would be from her perspective. I wanted to make another film in the reservation and I wanted to explore native American rodeo-world. I am a feminist, and I believe it is very important to re-portray women in cinema since they are often portrayed by the male gaze but it is equally important re-portray male stereotypes that have been made by the male gaze.
So I will have a son some day, I would like my son to see reflection of himself in the media not only as heroes, you have to save the day, win the game and they always do but you can fail, you can have a broken dream. You can be someone like Lane [Scott] who has lost so much yet he still inspires people around him. I want more of this and I think this is also equally important to the feminism.
So that's why you picked Lane for the film, because you find him inspiring?
Because in real life, it has been four years since his injury and this kid has never given up to walk again and to ride again. And he is very positive and that is very inspirational to Brady and people around them. Well, he is no longer the type of traditional hero.
There was a group of filmmakers and I wanted them to make a documentary about Lane but they did not do it after he was hurt. But that was the better story.So I think in our culture, we are drawn more to the sterotypical heroes and I want to challenge that whether it is male or female.
How did the shooting with non-pro actors go, since you used locals for the film?
I am used to it since I have done it once before. I think there are two important things, one is to write the roles for them. When you are asking someone who has no method acting training to materialize your vision, you are in trouble. And it´s a shame to work with non-pro actors like that. The reason why you cast them is because they bring something professional actors might not be able to do. In this case, they are playing versions of themselves.
The challenge is actually more logisticals, you have to actually show up on time and more like hitting the spot, you have to raise your head so I can see it, things like that. I really enjoy working with non-pro actors and I would like to take what I learn with them into working with professional actors in the future.
Did you rehearse a lot with them?
We did not rehearse at all. They read through the script, I went through it with Brady. The day we are shooting a scene, they show up, while my DoP is setting up, I might go with them once just reading the lines and most of the time is for changing the lines to how they would say it.
Because of their accent, their local speech, it´s very different that how I speak. I would do a take and let improvise them saying let´s do the scene while the cameras are rolling then I would sort of sneak a line or two to see how it works. It is very much an intuitive process.
How many takes on average?
Mostly with the dad, there are scenes where he would start laughing so that would be around ten but with Brady, most of the time one or two.
When you say you tinker with the linguistic side, is there a chance you would rewrite a scene on the set?
In this film, we actually followed the script pretty tightly. In the editing room, the scenes changed but it is very different than my last one which is an ensemble. The Rider is more of a one character kind of a thing.
For example, I had a different ending in mind but as soon as we shot the scene with Lane, I knew right away that is gonna be the ending. I am watching dailies at the end of the day and I may need to add another scene here for that ending to work so there is a lot as me as an editor to think. So after I watched the dailies, I might re-write something we are going to do tommorrow.
If you work with actors this way, you never know, there are things they may not give you. There are scenes they could not achieve. It would not make sense. Then you have to go by instead of pushing them. You go back and see if there is something else, a scene I can create to send the same message. If it does not work, it means you are not truthful to Brady, the character. He is the gatekeeper of the authenticity.
You said you did 30 drafts of the script for you feature debut. Did anything like that happen in the case of THE RIDER?
I did 30 drafts but threw all of them out, I shot the film with a treatment. I lost money for the film, so I just shot with the treatment which was a huge mistake. When you go from one scene to another in the treatment, it makes sense but it is actually missing a bunch of stuff. Regarding The Rider I made one draft which I started writing two weeks before the shoot.
Does it mean an in-depth research preceded it?
Well, I knew Brady for two years before filming so I knew a lot about him, his family and friends. Then he got hurt in April ...
...so that is an authentic injury...
...oh yeah, the video of horse stepping on his head you saw in the film is the actual footage. Between May and August, I talked to him a lot how he felt. In August, we said we would make the film, we quickly put together a six people crew, wrote the script and shot it last September.
You were able to get funding for production so fast?
Well, the budget for production is very low but we did bring in a help from a company that works in commercials. Weirdly enough, such companies are willing to take risks right away where I think, if it´s a small independent production company, it is a little harder for them to jump in.
But you were also producing THE RIDER.
I did, my company did.
How do you then juggle all the responsibilities of a writer, a director, a producer, an editor...
...I also cooked meals for the crew, I did the make-up...
...so it is a true auteur film...
It is. I would not want to do it again. During the first film, I lost ten pounds. Al lof this is out of necessity. I do not know how we pulled it but we had to. If I end up being just a director, I would always want to write my own stuff. What I learn as an editor, a producer, an AD...
...do you have formal training in those fields?
I do. I went to NYU and you have there courses in editing, producing, directing, cinematography which is basically an auteur training. I got bored in the sound class and then I wished I learnt more. The experience of working as AD, and I am also my own script supervisor.
Going forward as a director, I would be very realistic and keep all these things always in mind so hopefully that means there would be less conflict between me and these departments because I understand where they are coming from. And what is realistic...
...you have the bigger picture...
...I think it is important for a film because the age of you sitting in a director's chair, that's over. It is not anymore monopolized function, you have to be flexible.
You mentioned you want to shoot a sci-fi film.
Right, I would like to shoot it in the North-West of China. It will revolve around humanity´s last pilgrimage to search for its past. That´s all I can say about the project now.
Why did you decide to set it in China?
The Silk Road, that area was the place I had a lot of fantasies as a girl growing up in Beijing like an American kid would have about West. It is the place where culture came together, it is a first great migration of the planet. The story, set into a future but it is very grounded sci-fi, it is actually a low-fi, explores kind of the same kind of situation so it is like a tribute to that part of the world.
Is it going to be local production or Chinese-American co-production?
I do not know, we have to see. It could be an U.S. production...
...the reason I am asking is that one of the aims of Pingyao Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon International Film Festival is to bridge Eastern and Western film communities and film industries, so I wondered whether you as a Chinese filmmaker working in U.S. are in touch with the domestic industry?
Sure, I am in touch with some people and I think there is a desire for these two countries to work together. But there is also a cultural difference and a struggle to understand each other and I think festivals like this create much more bricks for the bridge we need so badly.
It depends, you know, what makes sense for this specific film when the time is right. I hope it will be a co-production because that would be a great contribution to the cultural exchange. But if it does not make sense...
You are currently working on two other projects...
...I have one, a historic western set in an Indian territory in the early 1900 and is about an African-American chief and another one is my third South Dakota film about a small town living in a reservation and their daily life dealing with a pipeline. I do not think I will make documentaries anytime soon since it is such hard thing to do, it takes a lot of guts...
...but it is cheaper to make though...
...that´s true. But if I manage to make a documentary, I might hide it behind a fiction like I did on The Rider instead of going for a documentary. I believe it takes a certain personality to be a documentary filmmaker and I am not ashamed to admit that I do not know if I have that kind of a personality.