Beijing-born filmmaker Chloé Zhao’s acclaimed, Indie Spirit Award-nominated feature THE RIDER is in theaters now. The film follows a Lakota ex-rodeo cowboy dealing with an injury and like her first film, SONGS MY BROTHERS TAUGHT ME, is set in South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and Badlands National Park. Vulture’s Emily Yoshida talked to Zhao about making a modern Western:
I’ve been thinking about how you shot this landscape, and in general, the way images of wide open country and pastoral America have been used over time. I think as critics we tend kind of use the same language over and over to describe it. Like “stunning landscapes,” “big skies.” But I sense that there are a lot of unique choices going into how you shot The Rider. It has a depth to it that not every movie about the American West has.
I think sometimes you have to be very specific to be universal, and we were in this little area that I know, which is the Badlands in the southwest of South Dakota. And that didn’t come from, like, “I have an idea of what America should look like; I’ll call a location scout and find something that looks like what I think America should look like.” I ended up there, so that’s what America gave me. And so when you have a very good relationship with that landscape, you just show up to shoot. And so do the people in it. So I think all [those relationships] build up these layers that might be the reason why it feels different.
And also because I lived in that landscape for so long, as a city girl, I understand that there’s nothing romantic about it. It’s scary and brutal and beautiful at the same time. There’s both violence and nurture in that nature, and these people live their lives and risk their lives and are nurtured by it every day. So I can’t pinpoint the exact plan, but it was both me and the cinematographer, who has really an eye for finding both the beauty and the roughness in that landscape. And even in the editing, we tried to show this landscape from Brady’s perspective. So the people are really part of that landscape.
The light and the time of day I noticed a lot — the quality of light.
Yeah. People were asking me about, like, “How do choose which part of the Badlands to shoot and all that?” One thing with the Plains is, it looks the same wherever you point the camera. It’s all about the time of the day, and how much moisture there is — the season. I know I’ve gotta shoot in September or October. It’s one of the most beautiful times. In November, you risk a storm coming in, the Badlands change color. So that will dictate our shoot — we don’t shoot until 2 p.m., and we shoot until the sun goes down, and we look at the clouds.
It’s very similar to how Brady works with the horses. They would come out later in the day because it’s hot. They would make this decision based on weather, and so would we. Sometimes film shoot [schedules] don’t make these decisions.
I wouldn’t have even thought about that. I mean, I grew up in the Midwest, and not too far from there, but I never went to the Badlands the entire time I lived there.
It’s called the Badlands for a reason. It’s very interesting, I saw in a little booklet in one of the gas stations, it says it’s the kind of place where it really attracts a specific type of people, and it’s either for you, or really not for you. And those people have remained there for generations.
Your previous film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, was also shot there. What brought you to that region initially?
There were a lot of things that lead to it. It’s very much … there was a lot of luck involved, you know, and it definitely goes back, way back. I lived in Beijing and I fantasized about Mongolia, inner Mongolia. I had been there before and it was something very freeing to me — with the sunsets, all that stuff. This was all in my head.
But I ignored that completely until I was about to turn 30, and I was in my senior year of film school, and I realized, I don’t really think I can do a film in New York. I’ve gotta go somewhere else. I wanted to go somewhere where time has a different value than here, because you have to change your lifestyle completely to of rediscover yourself. You can’t just go out of town on a weekend. So I kind of got myself out of New York and got a driver’s license and drove west. Also, at that time, it just so happened that the media was really interested in Pine Ridge and all the struggles young people there were going through at the time.
And I saw these images [coming from Pine Ridge,] and I just was struck by the contradictions of a young man on a horse — a dark-skinned Lakota boy on a horse, but he’s in an urban hip-hop culture outfit, and he’s next to this really terrible government housing that looks like part of the projects, but then behind him is the most gorgeous sunset in the Badlands. So you’re like, “What is happening here?” And also, you know, seeing light-skinned Indian cowboys, you see these images and you’re like, “Okay. Something is going on there.”
To read the full interview, go to Vulture: Chloé Zhao Is Rethinking the Western