A Visual Language

Chloe Zhao’s The Rider tells the story of young cowboy Brady, a once rising star of the rodeo circuit, who following an accident he is warned that his competition days are over. Back home and no longer able to ride and compete, he finds himself confronting his loss of purpose and searching for a life beyond that which he had envisaged. Zhao discusses the compromise of understanding cinema, its form and its purpose, as well as her desire to imbue reality with poetry and the consequences of her poetic approach to filmmaking.

ASFF: Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
CZ:
It is an accumulation of things, but if I had to think of a film that changed my view of what cinema could do, it was Happy Together. I remember I watched it when I was a child and it just had such a profound effect on me. I definitely didn’t want to make films the next day, it took about 15 years, but looking back on it, that is the only moment I have a memory of.

ASFF: From the experiences of directing your short and feature films, how has your perspective on the filmmaking process changed?
CZ:
I have learned by making things. I did go to film school and I was very fortunate to be able to have some education in it, but I think I had a lot of ideas of what it does and what filmmaking is. Those ideas were completely crushed when I actually went out to South Dakota, to Pine Ridge and tried to make a film in a place that had no infrastructure, and with actors who had never acted before.

I feel quite fortunate that my first two films were very much of a deconstruction of a lot of things that I have learned are the challenge of the institution that I am a part of. So, I think everything that I knew has broken down, and I have had to pick up the pieces that I needed in those moments to survive, which has been a great learning process.

ASFF: The Rider strikes one as a very simple film, and yet the emotions of the story and the characters create a complexity around its simple core.
CZ:
I think the simple story part of the film is because a lot of times I find in real life things are quite simple. Especially when you look at someone who is in the world of rodeo, a young cowboy, their lives aren’t as exciting as what movies will make them out to be. Or the struggling with achieving a dream isn’t always like, we shall die trying;  90% percent of the time it is broken dreams and recovering slowly, one step at a time. I have seen a lot of that and it is not a complicated story, it is a simple one. But because it is so relevant to a lot of people and it’s more like what real life is, then the complexity comes from how much the audience are able to put something from their own lives into that situation, which is a very common one.

ASFF: A film has the capacity to help us to understand ourselves and our world. The universal themes explored in Brady’s story speaks to the power of cinema to not only create connections, to not only feel, but find that deeper emotional connection.
CZ:
As a civilisation we are not that different from each other. It doesn’t matter how much we disagree on politics or we may have a different language, we are still all on this very basic level, and I like the idea of cinema as some kind of bridge that is like looking in the mirror to see yourself. I have learned a lot about shaping things as to how life is but giving it a more poetic spin so there is part truth and part poetry, which is the cinema I love. Without the truth, I can’t really relate to certain types of films that are made that way, because I am so authentically inspired by life.

ASFF: What you have crafted here is an example of patience, trusting your instincts that you will reach that place where metaphor, message and intent blossoms. This is an almost cinematic form of poetry.
CZ:
Unfortunately, this is why with what is going on with distribution here, it has been very difficult to release in America, and for us to attempt that type of cinema. I mean things are better now, but six years ago it was very difficult because it’s like poetry, right? You have to read the whole thing; you are feeling something, but it isn’t like a paperback novel for example where every paragraph is giving you some thrill. A poem is one piece that you have to complete it and then that’s when you feel. Occasionally people would say: “Okay, in this scene what does the character want?”

It is really powerful when you talk about it that way because you do have to finish it, but when people don’t go to the movie theatres anymore, they’ll turn it off the moment it gets uncomfortable, or they get bored because we have such a short attention span. I myself am guilty of that and we don’t have the same kind of protection Europe does in terms of what movies goes into theatres. So yeah, it is a struggle, but I do think things are better now. It’s in the screenwriting stage when I find myself being pushed away from that poetic approach of filmmaking. So, if you want to do it like that, you have to sacrifice a little bit of the money you are going to get to make a film like this, and so it is a tough one to juggle.

Paul Risker

The Rider is distributed in the UK by Altitude Film Distribution and was released theatrically on Friday 14 September.

Credits:
1. Stills from The Rider. Courtesy of Vimeo.