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Filmmaker Letter

Filmmaker Letter

The Rider

by writer/director Chloé Zhao

The Rider began with a chance encounter. I was visiting a cattle ranch in 2015 on the Pine Ridge reservation where I made my first film Songs My Brothers Taught Me. I was playing video games with the rancher’s son in the basement when a young cowboy walked in, sweaty and muddy from working cattle all day. I was immediately drawn to his presence. That same evening, I saw him training a wild horse in the corral alone. He was wearing an old shirt, a cowboy scarf around his neck, a feather in his dusty hat. Yet what kept me the most transfixed was his interaction with the horse. It was like nothing I had seen before; both man and animal had their sharp focus on only each other, tuning out their surroundings, as if they were the only two existing in the world. I watched as Brady patiently and firmly established a connection with the horse; a mutual respect was formed before my eyes. He was playing all kinds of roles to the horse, a father, a mother, a teacher, a friend and a dance partner.

After he finished the day, I asked him questions about his life and work. At some point, I asked him what the pointy bone at the end of the horse’s neck is called. Without irony, Brady told me, “It's what God put in the horse to hold a saddle.” Brady has absolute conviction in his way of life, and because he believes in it so completely, I found myself believing in it too. Almost immediately I said to him “let’s make a film together.”

For more than a year after meeting Brady, I wrote numerous story ideas, but nothing seemed to work. Then in April 2016, Brady suffered a severe rodeo injury in which his skull was crushed by a bucking horse during a saddle bronc competition in Fargo, North Dakota. He was in a coma for three days and a metal plate was permanently placed in his skull. He was advised never to ride again. But the next time I saw Brady (his hair having barely grown back from the surgery) he was back training and riding wild horses. He shrugged his shoulder, and softly explained—“if any animals around here got hurt like I did, they’d have to be put down. I’m only kept alive because I’m human. And that’s not enough.” He swung his saddle blanket on a buckskin horse’s back, “I don’t feel alive if I’m not riding.” And just like that, we had our story for The Rider.

I feel very fortunate to have been able to make this film with Brady Jandreau, who had the courage to open up his life to us, and the rest of the incredible cast; his father Tim Jandreau, his sister Lilly Jandreau, and his best friend Lane Scott and all the cowboys, ranchers and friends from the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe. I’m thankful to my cinematographer, Joshua James Richards, who has been my partner on the road since day one, and my supportive team who worked so hard to bring this film to life and into the world.

Brady lives a way of life very different from my own, yet when I watch him alone working with his horse in the distance, a storm brewing over the badlands, the Great Plains unchanged since its ancestral time, I understand why, despite the dangers and warnings, Brady chooses this way of life. Or perhaps it chooses him? Either way, I’m grateful to have gone on this ride, and to have the opportunity to share his story with you.

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