TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I just saw a pretty remarkable film, called "The Rider," about a Native American rodeo rider and horse trainer who's recovering from a harrowing rodeo accident and might no longer be able to ride again. You won't know the people in the cast. They're not professional actors. They're all playing slightly fictionalized versions of themselves.
We're going to be joined by the film's star, Brady Jandreau, who was badly injured in a rodeo accident, and the film's writer-director, Chloe Zhao. Zhao is a Chinese-born, U.S.-based filmmaker who shot this film and her 2015 film "Songs My Brothers Taught Me" on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Before we meet them, let's hear film critic Justin Chang's review of "The Rider."
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "The Rider" is a stunningly lyrical contemporary Western, a hymn to the beauty of endless prairies, majestic sunsets and strapping young men on horseback. But the filmmaker, Chloe Zhao, doesn't drown the myth of the American cowboy in Hollywood gloss. She strips it down to its raw, aching essence. She steeps us in the rhythms of life on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where young Lakota men wear chaps and Stetsons and harbor dreams of rodeo stardom.
Zhao was directing her first feature, "Songs My Brothers Taught Me," when she met Brady Jandreau, a bronco rider of Lakota descent. Jandreau was well on his way to becoming a rodeo legend until April 2016 when a serious riding accident left him with a near-fatal head wound. Shortly afterward, Zhao began filming him and his friends and family, piecing together a story about a cowboy's tough physical and emotional recovery. The result is a seamless, collaborative merging of narrative and documentary storytelling in which every scene, even when heightened for dramatic effect, has a bone-deep authenticity.
As the movie opens, Brady Blackburn, as he's been renamed here, has just discharged himself from the hospital and is peeling off his surgical bandages. He has a steel plate in his head and a long gash running down his scalp. He also has alarming seizures that cause his right hand to tighten up uncontrollably. But he has no intention of listening to his doctors, who have warned him against ever riding again. Later that morning, he's practicing roping a dummy bronco outside his family's trailer home when his dad, Wayne, shows up.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE RIDER")
TIM JANDREAU: (As Wayne Blackburn) What the hell are you doing here? You're supposed to be up in the hospital. I seen Tanner at the bar. He said you escaped, huh?
BRADY JANDREAU: (As Brady Blackburn) Told you to check me out.
T. JANDREAU: (As Wayne Blackburn) Well, the doctor said you're supposed to stay up there. Give me a hug.
B. JANDREAU: (As Brady Blackburn) Why don't you go inside and sober up?
T. JANDREAU: (As Wayne Blackburn) Sober up? Let me see you rope that. Checking yourself out of the hospital like your Uncle Roddy. (Laughter). What the hell? Can't you rope anymore?
CHANG: That's Jandreau's real-life father, Tim, and you can hear the conflicting impulses in his gruff delivery - the clumsy, boozy affection, the impulse to scold his son for not listening to orders, but also to mock him for being damaged goods. It helps that the older Jandreau has a movie star's wily charisma, and he's passed that gift on to his son. Brady Jandreau may be playing a fictionalized version of himself, but few professionally trained actors could achieve the heartbreaking gravity that he packs into a single downward glance. No less than his horses, he's an extraordinarily magnetic camera subject.
Also playing herself is Lilly Jandreau, Brady's younger sister, who lovingly helped steer him through his recovery. She has Asperger's syndrome, and their mutual sense of protectiveness provides some of the film's warmest moments. Then there's Brady's close friend, Lane Scott, a former bull rider who's shown paralyzed and unable to speak due to a car crash in real life. Though, the movie doesn't specify, leaving us to assume another riding accident. Either way, Scott remains a spirited optimist, telling Brady in sign language to throw some dirt on his wound and not give up.
Zhao doesn't reduce her actors to their disabilities or milk their setbacks for easy emotions. Working with the cinematographer Joshua James Richards, she captures the feel of everyday life in this community with an almost unbearable poignancy. She turns a simple drama of personal struggle into a wounding portrait of masculinity in crisis. Brady tries to move on, getting a job at a supermarket, and, at one point, almost pawning his saddle. But when we see him leading a horse around its enclosure, riding it, talking to it and praying over it, we see a man doing what he was clearly born to do. How do you carry on when the only dream you've ever known has been ripped away?
Zhao captures the exhilarating sense of liberation that rodeo riders must feel, even if only for eight seconds at a time. But she also conveys how few other options there are for a community whose traditions have been codified into ritual. At times, she makes these wide open plains feel downright claustrophobic. "The Rider" may be a movie about someone literally trying to get back on that horse, but there's also a subtler metaphor at work. Throughout the movie, we see Brady repeatedly using his good hand to assist his injured one, prying open his clenched grip. It's a fitting, heartbreaking image for the pain and necessity of letting go.
GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for The LA Times. "The Rider" opens Friday in New York and LA and will continue opening in other cities over the next few weeks.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Let's hear the interview I just recorded with the star of "The Rider," Brady Jandreau, who was a Lakota Indian from the Pine Ridge Reservation where "The Rider" was filmed. We'll also hear from the film's writer and director Chloe Zhao.
Brady Jandreau, Chloe Zhao, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on this beautiful movie. Brady, I want to ask first, how are you now? Have you fully recovered from your head injury? Are there lasting effects you're still dealing with?
BRADY JANDREAU: You know, I mean, I struggle with a little bit of, like, short-term memory stuff. But other than that, I mean, I've pretty well recovered.
GROSS: And so you're riding?
B. JANDREAU: Not in rodeos, but I'm training wild horses again. I was a month-and-a-half after my head injury.
GROSS: Wow. What actually happened to you?
B. JANDREAU: I was participating at the PRCA rodeo in Fargo, N.D., and I was riding in the saddle bronc riding, and I was nearing the whistle and trying to stay on for the eight seconds to get a score. And I come off the side, and my foot hung in the stirrup and caused me to swing underneath the horse. And then the horse stepped on my head while it was bucking and pulled me out of the stirrup, and it crushed my skull. It was a comminuted fracture, meaning shattered. And it was 3 and 1/4 inches in length, 3 1/4 of an inch wide and about 1 and 1/4 inch deep into my brain cavity.
GROSS: Oh, my God.
B. JANDREAU: Caused a significant amount of bleeding. I actually didn't lose consciousness until I went into a seizure at the hospital, which was only, like, 11 minutes away.
GROSS: So now you have a steel plate in your head?
B. JANDREAU: I don't think it's made out of steel because it doesn't beep when I go through the monitors.
B. JANDREAU: I believe it's actually, like, titanium, or something.
GROSS: I see. I see. You mentioned the whistle. I don't think most of our listeners will be familiar with the eight seconds. Can you explain the eight seconds and the whistle?
B. JANDREAU: Well, when participating in the rough stock events rodeo, either bareback riding, saddle bronc riding or bull riding, you're required to stay mounted on the animal with your free hand in the air for eight seconds from the time the horse's or bull's head breaks the plane of the chute once the door is opened, the gate. And there's a whistle blown at the eight-second mark to notify the rider that he has made a qualified ride and is free to dismount the animal.
GROSS: And then riders come up, and you can mount one of their horses to get off the bucking bronco.
B. JANDREAU: In the bareback riding and saddle bronc riding, yes. They're called the pickup men. They're in the arena to make sure that nothing goes wrong. In the bull riding, there are two or three bull fighters in the arena, and they get the bull's attention so that when the rider dismounts, the bull won't be right on top of them when they hit the ground.
GROSS: Do you have memories of the actual accident?
B. JANDREAU: I remember the horse bucking away from me. I remember the bull fighter coming up to me who was helping and telling me to stay down, they're bringing a stretcher, and all that. And I was trying to get up, and they were like, no, you've got to stay down. You've got broken neck. And they started treating me for a broken neck, and I said, no, my head. It's my head. I can feel my feet. Look, I can move. They were like, don't move your legs, don't move your legs. I was like, I can move 'em. It's my head. And they started to kind of look at the wound on my head. I had very long hair at the time, and the step actually didn't puncture my skin very much. It was like, a small cut. And the bleeding - about 90 percent of the bleeding, if not more, was going on inside of my brain cavity.
B. JANDREAU: And because of the small puncture, not very much of it was able to come out. My wound was listed as contaminated because it had horse manure and sand and hair and other things in there. And I was conscious clear to the hospital. And when - like I said, when I got there, they started asking me questions and I went into a full-body convulsive seizure and they induced coma and did surgery.
GROSS: Wow. Now, you know, in the movie, your character, who's kind of you - I mean, you're playing a version of yourself - watches getting thrown and stomped on a video that was made of the event. Is that the actual video of what happened to you?
B. JANDREAU: That is 100 percent the actual video.
GROSS: What was it like for you to watch it?
B. JANDREAU: I've watched that, you know, dozens of times. To be honest, that phone is broken now. So the only time I can watch it is when I watched that movie.
B. JANDREAU: But I don't have much of a problem with that.
GROSS: With watching it?
B. JANDREAU: It kind of - honestly, I kind of like to think of it as it didn't really happen to me. It happened to Brady Blackburn (laughter).
GROSS: Oh, to your character in the movie. Yeah (laughter).
B. JANDREAU: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guests are Brady Jandreau, who plays a slightly fictionalized version of himself in the new film "The Rider" and Chloe Zhao, the film's director. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF NATHAN HALPERN'S "THE LAST RIDE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, I have two guests. Brady Jandreau plays a fictionalized version of himself in the new film "The Rider." He was a rodeo rider and horse trainer who two years ago was in a rodeo riding accident that resulted in a brain injury and a plate having to be placed in his smashed skull. It meant having to rethink his life, which was based around riding and training horses, which is exactly what his doctors told him he should no longer do, at least not for a while.
My other guest is Chloe Zhao, who directed the film and conceived of the film. It's the second film she made on the Pine Ridge Lakota Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. In the opening scene of "The Rider," you're waking up from dreaming about horses. We don't yet know that you're waking up from - I don't know if you're first waking up from the coma or not. But you look in the mirror, you see the bandage on your head. You take a razor, you cut off the bandage. There's a long row of staples holding the incision together, and it looks to me like you take out a couple of the staples.
B. JANDREAU: I took out the - there were staples that were holding the bandage on.
GROSS: I see. OK, OK.
B. JANDREAU: Yeah, in real life, I didn't actually have staples in my head. I had sutures. But there were staples that stapled the bandage on my head. I had six staples I had to remove. And I removed those with my knife, the same knife that I used in the film, actually.
GROSS: Wow. And then you wrap your head in plastic, you know, like, plastic wrap that you'd use to wrap food.
B. JANDREAU: You've got to keep the wound dry otherwise...
B. JANDREAU: I was on a lot of high-grade antibiotics and, like, because my wound was contaminated, I had to keep it very, very clean. And actually, believe it or not, water was one of the main things that could cause it to become more infected.
GROSS: Oh, I believe that.
B. JANDREAU: Soap in kind of.
GROSS: Yeah. So you wrap your head in plastic wrap so that you can take a shower. Chloe, why did you start the movie with that scene, with him taking off the bandage, taking out some of the staples, wrapping his head and stepping in the shower?
CHLOE ZHAO: Well, the film starts with a dream. And that's a dream Brady had in real life when he was, you know, in...
B. JANDREAU: In a coma.
ZHAO: ...The coma. And he dreamt that he's a horse himself. And that horse is being trained and being, you know, a saddle's being put on the way they put a neck brace on him. So I was really inspired by that dream. And we filmed actually some hospital scenes and was going to intercut it. And it didn't really work for me. It feels like it wasn't in Brady's perspective. So we decided to have him wake up from the dream. And to take off that bandage, I think, is, you know, it's just to put the audience right there - bam - in the middle of his experience.
GROSS: Right in the middle of the wound.
ZHAO: Yeah, right in the middle of this is what this film's about. There's a dream of a horse and there's a wounded cowboy. And then we start a journey from there.
GROSS: Now, I mean, your doctors told you you couldn't ride again and that you certainly couldn't do rodeo again. I know someone with a relatively minor concussion who had trouble riding the train afterwards 'cause it was such a dizzying experience because of the concussion. Real concussions are so much worse than they're always made to seem in movies, like where the detective gets whacked on the head with a pistol, he's knocked unconscious, he wakes up with a headache and that's the last we hear about the concussion, you know?
It's not that way in real life. But it sounds like you started riding, like, long before your doctor said that you should do it. What did the doctors tell you? How soon did you start riding and did you do it sooner than they said you should like I think you did?
B. JANDREAU: OK, so on April Fool's Day of 2016 was the day I was injured. And like I said, I went in there and they did surgery and they induced coma. About three - well, it was over a five day span because I woke up officially on the 5th. But on the 4th, I woke up and under the induction of coma and pulled the respirator out of my chest and started to pull my IVs out. And they did a breathing test to see if I could breathe on my own. And I failed the first two tests, and then I passed the third one.
And then they figured, OK, it's time to drop the induction, see if you can wake up. You know, they had a pretty good idea I could because I was waking up under the induction. So they dropped it, and I woke up. I couldn't talk right at first. I had very blurry vision in my left eye. And I couldn't - it sounded like my left ear was filled with water. I'm not sure if that was blood in my ear or what. But after that, they told me that I needed to stay there. I have to stay in the hospital. And I told them that I'm not going to. I'm not going to lay here and rot.
And they said, OK, well, we can't legally hold you if you can take your medication orally, go to the bathroom on your own, perform daily tasks such as walking, dressing yourself, other things like that, take your medication in pill form. And I walked the line like I was 17 walking for the cops, you know, after I had too much drink.
B. JANDREAU: And I just - I told them my eye was good. And I told them everything felt great and they needed to let me out of there. And I took the pills, and then they walked out of the room and I threw them up in the trash can. And I was out of there. So I got down the road a little ways, had a pinch of Copenhagen, ate at a chuck wagon and I've been pretty well good ever since. But I never returned to the hospital at all. And then I couldn't take it any longer. Two weeks after I got home, I rode Gus again, a very well-trained horse that was like a brother to me growing up, I mean, if you can imagine an animal being like a brother to someone (laughter).
So I had a lot of trust in him, you know. I knew I was pretty well safe. And a month and a half after the injury, I actually went flat broke. And unlike in the movie where I work at a grocery store, I went back to doing the only thing I know how to do and what I love to do, which is training wild horses for the public.
GROSS: But the thing is, like, you're supposed to - after a head injury like that, you're supposed to, I think, prevent your brain from getting jostled. But the point is you've been ignoring (laughter) what the doctors say. And it's not advice I'd give other people, but I'm really glad that you're OK. Was giving up rodeo hard? Because that, you never went back to. Like, that was too risky even for you to (laughter) think of doing again.
B. JANDREAU: Well, to be completely frank with you, Ma'am, I'd say training horses...
GROSS: Oh, is more dangerous?
B. JANDREAU: ...Is more dangerous because it's so unpredictable. The only thing that you can predict their actions through is your connection with the animal. And like I say, I mean, even if the horse stumbled and fell down, like, my dad a few months ago broke his leg when a horse slipped and fell down on him. If, like, say a horse were to fall down and I were to hit my head off a rock or a post or anything, you know, typically I'm about 55, 60 miles from any reputable hospital when I'm training horses. And a lot of times, it's just me out there so...
GROSS: OK. You haven't reassured me. But that was a very interesting answer.
GROSS: My guests are Brady Jandreau, the star of the new film "The Rider" and Chloe Zhao, who wrote and directed the film. After a break, we'll talk about Brady's work training wild horses and how he was filmed doing that for "The Rider." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS THILE AND BRAD MEHLDAU'S "INDEPENDENCE DAY")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Brady Jandreau, the star of the new film "The Rider," and Chloe Zhao, who wrote and directed the film. Jandreau plays a slightly fictionalized version of himself. Like his character in the film, Jandreau was a rodeo rider and horse trainer who suffered a skull and brain injury after he was thrown and stomped by a horse in a rodeo event. When the film opens, he's come out of a coma and faces the question of whether he should continue riding in spite of his doctor's warning not to.
In real life, Jandreau had to give up rodeo riding after the injury, but he continues to ride horses and raise and train them. The film was shot on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Most of the cast of the film lives on the reservation and plays fictionalized versions of themselves. Brady grew up and continues to live on the reservation.
The scenes in the movie where you're training horses are so beautiful to watch. And, like, are we seeing you train horses for real in those scenes?
B. JANDREAU: Yes.
GROSS: Wow. It's just beautiful. And, you know, one of the things interesting to me is that the first thing you do in those scenes when you're training a new horse is put out your hand for the horse to sniff. And that's something that a lot of us do when we're meeting a new cat or a new dog. And it's interesting that that's the first thing you would do with a horse.
B. JANDREAU: A horse, you know, they can't say hi? How are you? I'm so-and-so, you know? So they communicate through typically smelling or, you know, just body language. And when a horse approaches another horse, the first thing they do is they smell noses. If I were to put my face up close to a horse, he'd probably be a little bit intimidated. So, like, a horse's neck is long, like an extension, just like my arms. I'd put my hand up to their face and let them smell it, just like I'm another horse approaching them to, you know, smell their nose as well.
GROSS: And then, other things that you do, you get closer to them. You kind of pet them. And, slowly, you put a little bit of your weight on the horse without fully mounting it. Can you talk a little bit - can you describe for us, for those of us who have never seen a horse broken, just a few of the steps that you take to do it and what it's like for you to be experiencing this growing relationship between you and the horse?
B. JANDREAU: It's all through the connection. And the only way that they know how to communicate is through body language, you know, things like that. And I can't just whiny to them, and they come running, you know? So, like, a horse, typically, if they show their rear to you it's because they feel threatened by you. They want to escape from you, and they might even kick you because, like I said, they feel threatened. They're going to protect themselves.
When a horse offers their face to you, they're interested in what you are, what you're doing. They're paying attention. And, typically, like, when I would let a horse smell my hand, then the first thing I would do is, like, pet them on the nose. And then, I would, like, I wouldn't just reach back and grab them on the leg after that, or else they'd kick my head off.
But if I slowly pet and slowly work my way back - but as soon as - you know, say I'm getting by a horse's shoulder, and he gets nervous. I have to go back to the nose and restart. Typically, back to the shoulder will be easy. And then, from that point on, you know, you've got to keep that connection and slowly work your way back. Eventually, horses will let me touch their hind legs or tail and slide off their butt and crawl underneath their belly, do whatever because they trust me.
But it takes some time - I wouldn't say some time. You have to do the proper things to communicate with them for them to allow you to do everything because there's no way you could force, you know, a thousand-pound, 1,500-pound, maybe even more, you know, animal to do what you want to do. You have to make what you want look appealing to them. You guys have to make an agreement on the matter.
GROSS: You know, we use the expression to break a horse. That sounds kind of violent, like you're - you know. So that's not what you're - you're kind of taming a horse...
B. JANDREAU: OK. Yeah...
GROSS: ...Or creating relationship with a horse. But what does that - do you like using that word? And...
B. JANDREAU: No, I don't. You know, I mean, honestly, like, I grew up and that's what people, you know, around horses they usually say. They call it breaking them. And there are many, many trainers who still break horses, meaning, like, almost break their spirit to the point - and subdue them and submit them, cause them to submit...
GROSS: Right, break their will. Yeah.
B. JANDREAU: Yeah, by tying them certain ways or working them so hard to where they're so tired they cannot, you know, they can't resist. What I choose to do is just like I'm hanging out with them and it's just training them through the connection. I wouldn't - yeah, breaking is not the right word for it, but it's just the word - the terminology that I'm used to.
GROSS: Do you think there's something in it for the horse when the horse develops a relationship with a human and learns to accept that the human's going to ride them and also feed them and care for them? Like, I know what's in it for the people. What's in it for the horse?
B. JANDREAU: Well, you know, when a horse connects with you, there is something in it for them because, like, for their health and I believe also in a relationship with a person. Like, many horses we save off of kill trucks. They take horses - well, there's no legal slaughter of horses in the United States now. But there's still legal slaughter of horses in Canada. So, like, typically when a horse - say there's, like, a horse that has never been trained and he's much too wild or much too old for your average trainer to have a go at him, they'll typically sell him and nobody can ride the horse, so he typically goes and becomes glue or dog food or whatever, you know, sent to France.
And, you know, the horse Apollo in the movie was one of the horses that I actually saved off of the kill truck.
GROSS: Oh, you're kidding. This is one of the horses you tame in the movie, a beautiful horse.
B. JANDREAU: Apollo, he actually had passed away by the time the shoot began. He was probably 8 or 9 years old. And he was really wild and really big, you know? Most people wouldn't have messed with him. But I seen something in Apollo that you don't see in every horse.
ZHAO: Beautiful buckskin.
B. JANDREAU: Yeah. Even though he was - he was big, yellow. Even though he was wild, I felt as though he had a lot to offer. He had a very, very - like, when I look into a horse's eyes, they say more to me than you have said to me in this entire conversation.
GROSS: Thank you (laughter).
ZHAO: (Laughter) No offense.
B. JANDREAU: Yeah. No offense to you, but that's...
GROSS: No offense taken.
ZHAO: That's how Brady relates. He relates to horses more than people.
B. JANDREAU: Yeah.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's OK.
B. JANDREAU: So, yeah, and Apollo, he would have had to go to a kill truck, but I knew there was good in him. And so I broke him. He was difficult to break. And for the first, you know, about two months we owned him, nobody else could ride him but me. But once he was finished out, he was probably one of the best horses I ever rode. Like, say he were to get...
GROSS: What happened to him?
B. JANDREAU: He got into the wire, just like in the movie.
GROSS: In the barbed wire.
B. JANDREAU: Yeah, that was not a - that was a re-creation. That was a fictional - that was makeup on the horse in the movie. But Apollo's injury was much, much worse than the horse in the movie. It was much higher in the thick part, the gaskin of the horse's leg. And it sawed completely to the bone before he came in the next day. And I had rode him the day before that. It's not like he'd been out getting neglected or anything. He just - he went out and he probably walked by a patch of bushes, and a coyote was sleeping there and he probably jumped out. And he probably took off running, nervous, you know, and got into the wire in a bad way.
And like I said, it was - it caught him in, like, a loop. And it had - and from him trying to free himself over those few hours, it had actually sawed the barbed wire into his, you know, down to his femur basically.
GROSS: Did you have to put him down?
B. JANDREAU: No, my dad did it, like in the movie.
B. JANDREAU: But, yeah, I loved Apollo. I really hope to get to see him again up in the sky someday.
GROSS: That must be so hard. I mean, like, with a cat or a dog, at least, you know, where I live, you take the animal to the vet and the vet puts the animal down. But with horses, it's often, you know, like, the human who shoots the horse. It's an instantaneous death, I guess. But that must be so difficult to be part of.
B. JANDREAU: If you've ever seen, like, a cow or a horse die of natural causes, it's probably the most sickening thing you could ever imagine.
GROSS: Mmm hmm.
B. JANDREAU: Die on their own from natural causes - literally, when a horse become - or a cow gets down, meaning they are to the point where they cannot get up under their own will, they will keep attempting to get up. And when their legs aren't working for them, they will use their head, and they will literally hit their head off of the ground until they die. So that is probably the least humane thing to do, is to just let them die on their own. If I were to load Apollo on the trailer, I mean, could you imagine walking up a flight of stairs with one leg? That's about what it would have been like. How would've had to stand in that moving trailer all the way to the vet for an hour and 10 minutes or so and - where he would have to be unloaded, put in a separate pen, wait until the vet was ready, because obviously, there was no way to predict this injury. And there, he would be euthanized, which is not instantaneous.
GROSS: See, I didn't know all this, so I wasn't able to think that through. And it seems much more humane to just put him down yourself and spare the horse all of that.
B. JANDREAU: There was only one thing to do.
GROSS: My guests are Brady Jandreau, the star of the new film "The Rider," and Chloe Zhao, the film's writer and director. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF NATHAN HALPERN'S "HIGHWAY (BONUS TRACK)")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Chloe Zhao, the writer and director of the new film "The Rider," and Brady Jandreau, who stars in the film. Jandreau used to compete in rodeos. He had to give up the rodeo after a serious head injury. He now raises and trains horses.
So Chloe, what you do in your films - at least, in the first two films that you've made - is cast people to play slightly fictionalized versions of themselves. It's not just Brady who plays a fictionalized version of himself. His father is in the film playing his father. His sister is in the film playing his sister. His friends are in the film playing his friends. Let's start with his family. Did you have to work hard to convince them to be a part of the film? And I'll mention that his father isn't always painted in the most flattering light in this. His father has gambled away the rent money, so, like, the family is totally broke in the movie. I don't know if it happened that way in real life, but, you know, people will confuse real life with the fictionalized version. So how is his father with playing this role?
ZHAO: Well, this is why - Tim Jandreau is his dad's name, and he's - his character's name is completely changed, not just the last name. It's Wayne Blackburn because Tim in real life, I think, is a better father than I've portrayed him in the film, you know? But I think, you know, this is a fiction film. And I - this is how I explain to the - to everyone who's involved. You're free to keep your real name if you want to, and you can be as comfortable to be yourself as possible, but you are playing fictionalized characters. So, you know, Tim would probably feel comfortable with me saying that he's made some mistakes as a parent, like all parents do, but it's not like that in the film.
B. JANDREAU: Yeah, my dad - I mean, we've had our ups and downs, you know, just like any father and son probably has. But, you know, we get along really good, honestly. You know, I mean, everybody makes mistakes. But, I mean - that's what I mean - you know, everybody, you know? So I don't know. My dad is, for lack of a better term, not as much as of an ass [expletive] as he is in the film.
ZHAO: He's old-school. He's old-school.
B. JANDREAU: Yeah.
GROSS: Chloe, how did you first get the idea of combining real people and real people's lives in a fictionalized version?
ZHAO: It sort of happened both by just the natural flow of things, but also by accident because it was very difficult for me to raise money to make my first film. And it ended up - I had a traditional script, very conventional, and I was casting on the reservation. And I met a lot of young people who were great to play these roles, and I, in the process, has been rewriting for them. But then I lost the money, could not make the film after three years. So I ended up making a film with a tenth of the budget, and some friends and a treatment, and that was a really hectic and messy learning process. That's the result of my first movie. And through that process, I discovered something I really love to do, and I was kind of wanting to go deeper with the characters for the second one and may keep it small. So when I met Brady, I thought I found the perfect person to carry the film.
GROSS: So was it, in a way, a result of your resourcefulness when faced with, like, no money, how do you make a movie?
ZHAO: Yeah. Actually, you know what? Yeah. Because, like, you either work with limitation or you let it work you, you know? We, as women - Chinese women filmmaker with not much connections and to come to America and say, like, I want to make films on a reservation with kids there - back in 2010 to '13, it was a tough time for the country, financially, and for the industry, for everybody. No one was going to just throw me money to do it. So, you know, it was a blessing in disguise because that style come out of - to - for us to be friend with the limitations that we have, including the way we shoot, the time of day we shoot, you know, and who we cast, and all that stuff and how we run the set.
GROSS: So Brady, what is your life like now? I know you're still working with horses. Like, what exactly are you doing?
B. JANDREAU: Actually, since the shoot, I've started a breeding program called the Jandreau Performance Horses. We raise American quarter horses, all registered through the AQHA. And we train them to do everything from rodeo events to - not the bucking events, of course, the other events such as the timed events where you ride a very well-trained horse to perform a task. And I also train them to do, like, mounted shooting, hunting horses, just pleasure-riding horses. About anything that you could name, we could train, so...
GROSS: And where do get your horses from now?
B. JANDREAU: Well, I raise them.
GROSS: Oh, so it's a breeding...
B. JANDREAU: And I also take in horses...
GROSS: Right, it's a breeding program.
B. JANDREAU: Yep. And I also take in horses from the public to be trained for a set number of days for a specific amount of pay.
GROSS: How many horses do you have now?
B. JANDREAU: We have around 20 registered broodmares, so that means about 20 babies born each year. You cannot break a horse until they're about 2 years old. You can halter break them, meaning teach them how to lead and stuff, if you choose to, but you can't really break them until they're 2 because there aren't developed enough, you know what I mean? It would be like a 5-year-old playing football or something, you know?
GROSS: Are you around when the horses are born? Are you there for the birth?
B. JANDREAU: Yup. Typically. Some of them, they go off and hide, and they've had, you know, numerous babies. But sometimes, mares, you know, especially on their first baby, their first foal, they'll need a little bit of assistance.
ZHAO: One of the reasons why he didn't come to Cannes when the film premiered. He's very devoted to his horses.
GROSS: Oh, so you were home with the horses during the Cannes Film Festival.
B. JANDREAU: Yeah.
ZHAO: They were giving birth.
GROSS: It must be amazing to witness that. I guess you're used to it.
B. JANDREAU: Yeah, it's pretty - it's something else, though. I mean, it gives you the chills every time. I don't know. Horses are so - they're almost like a spirit rather than an animal to me, you know?
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you both. If you're just joining us, my guests are Brady Jandreau, who plays a slightly fictionalized version of himself in the new film "The Rider," and Chloe Zhao, the film's director who also conceived the movie. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, I have two guests. Brady Jandreau plays a fictionalized version of himself in the new film "The Rider." He was a rodeo rider and horse trainer who two years ago was in a rodeo riding accident that resulted in a skull and brain injury. It was so severe that he now has a plate in his head. It meant having to rethink his life, which was based around riding and training horses, which is exactly what his doctors told him he should no longer do. But he still trains horses. But he no longer rides on the radio - in the rodeo.
So, you know, to sum up, like, your life was profoundly changed by your head injury from the rodeo. And it looked like maybe you'd have to change your identity altogether, that you'd have to give up riding, that you'd have to give up rodeo. And you've taken, like, a curve, but - you know, because you're no longer doing rodeo. But you're still riding. You're raising horses. Horses are still central to your life. And I guess you must be so grateful for that.
B. JANDREAU: Yeah. I mean, it makes you feel close to God - you know? - just to be in their presence.
GROSS: Did you ever think you'd really have to give it up?
B. JANDREAU: You know, there was a point when I definitely had to think about whether or not I was going to. You know, there was a lot of thoughts that went through my head after my injury - you know, I mean, a lot of different emotions and, you know, some of which were very nearly impossible to control. But, yeah, like I said, it was something I thought about. And I rode - like I said, I rode Gus again just two weeks after my head injury just to make sure that my balance was OK, that I was able to mount them. And then it started eating at me to the point to where I knew what I had to do, and I knew what I was going to do. And the rest was up to faith and my connection with the animal.
ZHAO: And just to, like, add to earlier, when we were talking about his injury and what he chose to do, I think the brain injury is just such a individual-based experience and is so specific. And the - one of the hardest thing, you know, is, you know, when your identity's challenged and when you cannot just do the thing that get you up every morning and give you a sense of who you are. And that's really tough. Even the physical stuff is difficult. So in Brady's case, I think, luckily, getting back on the horseback and be able to keep his way of life was very healing in the process.
GROSS: Brady, what was your first horse - the first time you had, like, a close relationship with a horse?
B. JANDREAU: The very first time that I ever could control a horse on my own - like, my daughter, she's already ridden 22 horses - you know, us holding her up there, you know?
GROSS: How old is she?
B. JANDREAU: She's only 9 months old.
GROSS: Oh, God (laughter).
B. JANDREAU: She will be 9 months old in two weeks, and she's ridden 22 different horses, ridden about 45 times. And, you know, I grew up the same way. But I could actually control a horse - he was a very well-trained horse. His name was Pardner (ph), and he was a full-size horse. He was probably about 18 years old, which is pretty old. Usually, they've calmed down quite a bit by then. And he would actually - like, I would ride him bareback because there was no saddle that would fit me because I was only a year and a half of age. I'd still...
GROSS: Wow, you were riding bareback at a year and a half.
B. JANDREAU: Yeah, because there was no - I, you know - and if - my dad said if I would start to go a little bit off to - you know, this is without any lead rope, nobody on there with me. Like, this was literally me riding alone with nothing - on a horse with nothing but a bridle and reins. And my dad said I would start kind of falling off to one side, and that horse would go right back underneath me, and I'd start falling off the other. He'd go back underneath me the other way and...
ZHAO: To keep you on him.
B. JANDREAU: Mmm hmm, to keep me on his back.
GROSS: And here's a question for you, Chloe. You capture, like, the beauty of the landscape in South Dakota. And the outdoors is so - just, it's so open, but the indoors are so cramped. You know, like, the family lives in basically, like, a trailer. Were you looking for that contrast between the indoors and the outdoors?
ZHAO: Yeah, I am. And if you go to the reservation, I think you will find a lot of that. And again, you know, it's that thing that happened historically when you discontinue people's culture and their connection with the land. Even though this beauty happening right, you know, in their backyard, not everybody can see it. And this is why I really want to tell Brady's story because he sees it, and he works with it, and he make it a part of who he is and does some healing that these young people could start doing, you know, for their people. So it's so important for me to - and for my whole team to be able to capture the reservation, South Dakota, the Badlands in a way that you understand why he'd choose that lifestyle. And he's not even given the opportunity moving to a big city.
GROSS: Chloe, did Brady teach you how to ride?
ZHAO: Yes. Yes, he did. And I had some really great lessons and then made me really cool when I go back to my friends.
ZHAO: And then there are times where I - you know, it's one thing looking at a horse in the movie or in a picture or have a - like, a teddy bear growing up, but when I'm sitting on the horse, you know, and looking down at his ears and I - it's a powerful animal. You know, it really is. It's a powerful animal, and the only way that they're going to let you on their back is this mutual understanding and respect. And Brady always tell me, don't be scared, Chloe; they can smell your fear. And I was like, yeah, I can smell my fear, too.
ZHAO: Because you feel it, you know, between your legs. It's so powerful. And gosh, and it just - again, you feel so close to nature through these animals. And if I have kids - and when I have kids, I really want them to be around horses and animals.
GROSS: I want to thank you both so much, and I want to congratulate you on the wonderful film. Thank you.
B. JANDREAU: Thank you.
ZHAO: Thank you so much. Thank you.
GROSS: Brady Jandreau stars in the new film "The Rider." Chloe Zhao wrote and directed the film. It opens in New York and LA this Friday and then will open in other cities over the next few weeks. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the escalating trade dispute between the U.S. and China and the possible consequences with Robert Kuttner, author of the new book, "Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?" We'll also discuss the connection he sees between global capitalism and the rise of the far right in the U.S. and abroad. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
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