×

10 Directors to Watch: Chloé Zhao Pioneers Native American Portrayals in ‘The Rider’

It was a long road that brought Chinese-born Zhao to a Lakota Indian reservation, but once there, she created a pair of essential portraits.

Born in Beijing, before escaping to London and then Los Angeles for high school, NYU-educated Zhao eventually found her way to South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where she made her first two features, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” (which premiered at Sundance in 2015) and “The Rider” (nominated for four Film Independent Spirit Awards).

“I knew I was searching for something I couldn’t find in New York City, looking for stories I want to tell,” she says. “I grew up in big cities my whole life, and in my late 20s, I just felt like I was looking for something else.”

Raised an atheist, Zhao was drawn to the sense of spirituality practiced in the American heartland. Plus, armed with an undergraduate degree in American politics, she was fascinated by the legacy of the Lakota people, who had suffered so greatly at Wounded Knee.

Zhao spent three years and more than 30 drafts on “Songs,” receiving significant support from the Sundance Institute’s various grants and labs along the way. It was during that stretch that she met Brady Jandreau, a Lakota ranch hand and horse enthusiast who had never acted before, but agreed to appear in her sensitively rendered debut.

“The Indian cowboy is such a uniquely American contradiction,” says Zhao, who based “The Rider” on Jandreau’s personal experience — namely, a rodeo accident so severe that mounting another horse could mean the difference between life and death. “I had been writing different scripts for him to be in, but everything felt forced. Then he got hurt, and it was like a lightning strike. I realized this kid is literally risking his life to keep his identity.”

Zhao hasn’t finished with the Lakota just yet, planning another feature designed to deepen and question the portrayals of Native Americans in the media. “I joke that this is my prairie trilogy,” she says. “I’d been working on this script for about two years before [the protests at] Standing Rock broke out.”

Influences: Werner Herzog, Terrence Malick, Wong Kar Wai
Agents: William Morris Endeavor
Lawyer: Lichter Grossman Nichols Adler & Feldman

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Mickey Mouse waves to members of

    Spider-Man, Spicer and Splashy First-Looks: Everything We're Looking For at D23

    As if Disney hasn’t owned enough weekends this year at the box office, the biennial D23 Expo will light up Anaheim, Calif. over the next three days to celebrate the content monolith. From a new Netflix-competing streaming platform to scores of movie and series reveals — along with a few hot controversies to confront — [...]

  • Angel Has Fallen

    'Angel Has Fallen' to Dominate Modest Box Office With $20 Million Weekend

    Gerard Butler and Morgan Freeman are leading the way at the North American box office with “Angel Has Fallen” on its way to about $20 million, early estimates showed Friday. Should forecasts hold, “Angel Has Fallen” will take in about double the next title, Universal’s second weekend of raunchy comedy “Good Boys” with about $10 [...]

  • Aracne

    Sanfic Standout ‘Aracne’ Filmmakers Discuss the State of Chilean Genre

    A key project at this year’s Santiago Lab, the Santiago Intl. Film Festival industry forum for promising Latin American projects, Florencia Dupont’s “Aracne” is representative of a push from the next generation of Chilean filmmakers into genre cinema and the themes it can explore. “Aracne” turns on Beatriz, a young journalist at a small Santiago [...]

  • Eduardo Machuca

    Chile’s Eduardo Machuca Unveils Machuca Films Slate (EXCLUSIVE)

    SANTIAGO, Chile – Eduardo Machuca, the former film co-ordinator of Chile’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has launched his own production company, Machuca Films. “After 25 years at the ministry, I felt I needed to tap my creative side,” said Machuca, who is also tying the knot on Saturday (Aug. 24) with a former Sanfic staffer, [...]

  • Robert Downey Jr. Disney Legends Ceremony,

    Robert Downey Jr. Reveals He Was Busted for Smoking Pot at Disneyland

    Robert Downey Jr. celebrated his Disney Legend status by sharing the endearing tale of how the first time he visited Disneyland, he was arrested. The Iron Man actor was being honored in Anaheim at Disney’s biennial D23 convention. After a brief introduction by Disney chief executive officer Bob Iger, Downey felt he had to come [...]

  • Thandie Newton Reminiscence

    Thandie Newton Reteams With 'Westworld's' Lisa Joy on 'Reminiscence' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Following her Emmy win for her performance on “Westworld,” Thandie Newton is joining the feature directorial debut of the show’s co-creator. Sources tell Variety that Newton is set to join Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson in Warner Bros.’ “Reminiscence,” directed by “Westworld’s” Lisa Joy. WB acquired the rights to the package after this year’s Berlin [...]

  • Ming-Na Wen poses at the Disney

    Original 'Mulan' Star Ming-Na Wen Weighs in on Remake's Controversy

    Ming-Na Wen, who played the leading voice role in the original 1998 version of “Mulan,” has spoken out about the recent controversy surrounding Disney’s forthcoming live-action remake, which has been co-opted by China’s authoritarian regime to attack Hong Kong protestors. “We are living in a world right now where there’s so much change and confusion [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content