In The Rider, an exemplary hybrid drama and the second feature from filmmaker Chloé Zhao (which opens in Toronto and Vancouver on April 27, Montreal on May 4, and throughout the rest of the spring in select cities), cowboy Brady Jandreau plays a slightly fictionalized version persona that mirrors his real life experiences. Although some key details have been embellished, skewed, and artistically reimagined by Zhao (Songs My Brothers Taught Me), and Jandreau’s last name has been changed to Blackburn, viewers could easily be forgiven for thinking that The Rider was a straight-up, close-to-the-heart documentary about a rodeo rider struggling to cope with impending obsolescence and the after effects of a debilitating injury.
In The Rider, the fictional Brady Blackburn has grown up on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge reservation and rose to prominence in rodeo riding. When a head injury caused by a bucking bronco leaves Brady with neurological damage, everyone – including his developmentally disabled sister and alcoholic, insolvent father – tells him to leave his bull and horse riding days behind. But without riding, Brady feels lost, out of place, and without purpose. Interactions with his close friend Lane Scott – a paralyzed former rider – exemplify the push and pull Brady feels to riding.
Zhao befriended Jandreau during the production of her previous film. A member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, Brady works as a horse trainer and tamer, a job his character also performs in the film. He’s also a saddle bronc rider. On April 1, 2016 during a rodeo in Fargo, North Dakota, the horse he was riding bucked him off, stomped Brady in the head, and nearly killed him. His professional rodeo career was over, much as it was for his friend Lane, who also plays himself in The Rider. (Brady’s father and sister also appear more or less as themselves, along with many other locals from the area.) Now with a metal plate in his head and still struggling with the side effects of some brain damage, Brady has returned to work training ornery horses, despite doctors admonishing the still young man that another severe blow to the head could kill him. Filming for The Rider began almost five months to the day after Brady’s accident.
It’s hard to fully discern just where the fiction of The Rider begins and the reality ends, leading to a film that’s equally empathetic and haunting. That line blurs further upon meeting Brady Jandreau for an interview last fall during the Toronto International Film Festival to help promote the film. Every inch of Brady looks to be exactly the person that’s up on screen, although the non-acting actor is quick to point out that Zhao didn’t follow his life to the letter for the story. Wearing well kept, ornate cowboy boots up to his calves, a belt buckle as big as his fist, a bolo tie, and a cowboy hat that can’t fully hide the scar from his rodeo accident, there’s an authenticity to his appearance that makes me feel like I’m currently acting like an extension of the film itself. It’s absolutely surreal.
But unlike his reserved on-screen alter ego, Jandreau is a bit more talkative and resoundingly humble. Frequently bursting out into an ear-to-ear grin whenever he hears some sort of praise about his performance or the film, he’s clearly proud of his work, humbled that anyone would like it, and gently baffled that he was even able to pull it off. He might not be a professional actor in the traditional sense, and one of the least likely people to star in one of the year’s most critically acclaimed films, but immediately upon meeting Brady Jandreau, it’s clear that no one else on Earth could have portrayed Brady Blackburn.
We chatted with Brady Jandreau about life imitating art, his working relationship with Zhao, and his past and present careers in a downtown Toronto hotel room this past September.
So how did you strike up a professional, working relationship with Chloé Zhao and how did you inspire her to make you the main character of this film?
Brady Jandreau: Well, in the film the guy who buys Gus, the horse in the film, his name is Todd O’Brian. He runs Muleshoe, which registers and raises Angus cattle on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Chloé was shooting part of her first film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, on Todd’s land. She came back to Todd’s one time because she was researching something she wanted to do on cowboys in the heartland of America. I was working there when she come back, and that’s how we got to know each other. We had met two and a half years before that when she came through, but I only really got to know her when she came back to work on what she was working on. I knew she was a filmmaker, and she would come out with us on the ranch, and she’d ride horses with us and stuff. Me and Chloé always had a pretty close connection from the beginning. I was always able to trust her and know that if I wanted to tell her something about my life, I could. Of course, the more I would tell her, the more she would ask. She basically told me that she wanted to put me in a movie, but she was waiting to find a more powerful story.
So on April Fool’s Day, 2016, which is the day I was injured and stepped on by a saddle bronc, I fell into a coma for three days or so. I had a three-and-a-quarter inch long break in my skull and an inch-and-a-quarter deep puncture in my skull that was literally shaped like a horse hoof. There was all sorts of horse shit and dirt in there, so they had to clean it out immediately and do immediate surgery. When I woke up from the coma, I had a lot of physical issues. My walking, balance, and perception were all off; emotional troubles tied to my mental perception of the world around me, seizures that I had to be put on medication for. I had an infection from all the contaminants that had found their way into my brain.
I was going to be on antibiotics and painkillers for a long time, or so they said. But basically – with the exception of the antibiotics because you don’t want to stop taking that – I stopped taking all of the medication I had been given. No one wants a brain infection, so I made sure to keep that treated, but after about a week of being at home, I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to ride again.
So I rode Gus, who’s a horse that we owned and trusted roughly two weeks after I had left the hospital following my injury. About two months after that, I was back training horses. Chloé had heard about this, and she contacted me because she was worried about me. When I told her I was riding horses again, I could tell that she thought I was crazy, but I said, “Chloé, that’s me. That’s who I am.” Riding was everything to me, and she understood it. I think it was that understanding that led to what she was looking for in a story.
And all throughout shooting, I was still training horses. From six in the morning until noon, I was training, and from one until dark, we were shooting. And all this is only a few months after the injury. I wasn’t supposed to jog or lift anything heavier than ten pounds over my head. Six months after the injury, I had another appointment to make sure things were healing okay, but I never went back to the hospital after that. Ever. So we don’t really know what’s going on in there right now. (laughs)
Well, you seem pretty healthy at the moment.
Brady Jandreau: I feel pretty healthy at the moment, yeah! (laughs)
The film feels like a documentary, and I know you’re going over things that you’ve been through yourself. We you surprised that Chloé’s approach was as realistic as it was?
Brady Jandreau: Well, you know, there was a script, and there were certain lines that we had to follow, and certain things that we had to say. Sometimes we would change things up based upon the lighting that we had that day. We did have to stage a lot of it, but the thing is that it’s really hard to stage things when you’re training and dealing with horses. Sometimes you have to desensitize a horse to things like that, but I always found a way to make it work, I guess. (laughs)
But all the control in the world is no match for the natural world. I think that’s where my instincts come from, and Chloé’s, too. There were some times where I would kind of accidentally become a co-director. I’d be telling my dad how to say a line, and Chloé would just say, “Brady! Let me do my job!” (laughs) But there would be times where we would correct each other. She had a feel for it, but not all of the terminology, which she was kind of picking up on the fly. If there was a line where she wrote, “Hand me that lasso,” I would say, “We don’t call it a lasso, we call it a rope.” Just general stuff like that. We both wanted this to be authentic not only to the location, but to both of our lifestyles, as well.
Could you explain how much rodeo meant to you before you couldn’t do it anymore?
Brady Jandreau: There was a time in my life when rodeo was literally everything to me. My dream since I was little was to be a world champion. I got on my first sheep when I was three years old, and I was hooked from that point on, so to speak.
Throughout this whole deal, I’ve been able to get past it, and realize that dream won’t ever happen. I realize that God’s got a plan for everyone. I’ve got a wife. I’m a father now. I got an eight week old baby girl. I believe everything happens for a reason. I hope someday to ride saddle broncs again, though. I hope to get a custom helmet that I can wear under my hat. Something with a chin strap and no face guard so I can see what I’m doing.
And another thing I want is for young bronc riders to maybe start wearing something similar. You see, back when I used to ride bulls, I wore a vest and a helmet because lots of people were doing that to protect themselves. When I switched to broncs, I didn’t wear either one because they were uncomfortable. The face guard on the bull helmet gets in the way on a bronc, and the vest is just uncomfortable. I would love to design a helmet that could work for bronc riders.
If you want to be a good bull rider – this is what I’d always tell people – you gotta protect yourself. Lane would always give me crap for saying that to people, and we’d argue back and forth about it because he said only pussies wore helmets. And I always told him that if I was going to be riding bulls, I was going to wear a helmet because I can’t ride a bull without my brain. (laughs) Then when I switched to broncs, I thought that it wasn’t quite as dangerous. It can be dangerous, and sometimes more dangerous. The wake-up call for me was getting injured on a bronc far worse than I ever had riding bulls and with a lot less protection.
I have no idea because I’ve never been on either, but I would imagine that horses are faster, but more controllable than a bull would be.
Brady Jandreau: Yeah, that’s more or less how it is. Horses are what we call a flight animal, and bulls tend to spin a lot more. Actually, people want that bull to spin, because these days in modern rodeo, if a bull don’t spin he gets hammered, if you know what I mean. Riding a bull is like climbing on a dragon. Saddle bronc riding is all about style, while bull riding is about conquering a beast. Bronc riding is an art and a dance. It takes finesse, but you have to be doing everything right. The second you slip up is the second you lose control. A bull will try to get you off because he wants to get to you and get at you for riding him. A horse is always trying to get away from you. In some instances, that flight instinct can be much more dangerous that a bull, even if a bull is right on top of you. There’s nothing that a bull can do that has as much pressure, force, and quickness as getting kicked by a horse.
Lane also appears in the film as himself. How far do you guys go back?
Brady Jandreau: Lane’s mom and my dad call each other brother and sister, so we go back about as far as two people can. I’ve known Lane since I was a baby. I call him my brother because he’s just as much my family as anybody else. Me and Lane, when I was riding bulls, we would travel everywhere together. We were inseparable.
And honestly, after Lane’s injury, it was hard for me to keep riding bulls anymore. What happened to him was in my head. On top of that, my hip was starting to come out of place from riding bulls. Whenever I would get on a bull, I would feel something in my hip pop out. The entire joint down there was coming apart. All that force can ruin your body on its own. It got to a point where if I was on a bull, took ahold, and use a spur, my whole hip would come out. On a bronc, you have a saddle, and the positioning was such that my hip wasn’t coming out.
But Lane also taught me a lot of what I knew about horses. I used to compete in roping events and team competitions, and Lane put me on to all of that. I wouldn’t be doing any of this if it weren’t for the fact that we did it all together for so long. When I was successful, I owed that in part to Lane and his friendship, and I owe him a lot.
Is it cathartic to do something like this and look back on what happened? Does it help at all to relive a lot of what happened?
Brady Jandreau: I’m sure it was, but I’m still figuring out how. I’m sure I’m always going to carry with me some of what the head injury caused, but through my own work and the film I’ve been able to persevere and push forth. I might not know how much this helped, but I’m sure some of it did. It was a whole new experience for me. I just keep going, man.
The Rider opens in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox and in Vancouver at Cineplex International Village on Friday, April 27. It opens in Montreal on Friday, May 4, and expands to other Canadian cities throughout the spring.