The closing night of the 22nd Ojai Film Festival was capped off by a live Q & A appearance from an extraordinary director who, despite not being on the scene for very long, has already proven herself to be one of the foremost directors in Hollywood — Chloé Zhao.
The Beijing-born and Ojai-resident Zhao, who won Best Director for “Nomadland” at the 2021 Academy Awards (one of only two women to do so in the history of the event), is also currently in the news as the celebrated director of the No. 1 movie in the world at the box office for the second straight week, Marvel’s “Eternals.”
Although some questions were subsequently fielded about “Eternals” and the Best Picture-winner “Nomadland,” the central topic at hand was a special-event screening of Zhao’s 2017 film, “The Rider,” at the Ojai Art Center on the evening of Saturday, November 13th.
“The Rider” is an exceptional film not because of what it accomplished with only a five-person crew, or its Terrence Malick-inspired storytelling (whom Zhao admits to having been influenced by), but because it strikes a beautifully delicate line between real life and fiction. It tells the story of Brady Jandreau, a rodeo star and talented horse trainer, who suffers a devastating brain injury and is forced to wrestle with the dilemma of continuing his dream but risking permanent paralysis, or making the probably mature decision to walk away. What is remarkable is that Brady, who is an untrained actor, plays himself, and takes cues as an actor would, as do his father Tim Jandreau and sister Lilly Jandreau, along with his best friend Lane Scott, who had his rodeo career curtailed by a car crash that sadly left him paralyzed.
Without knowing the backstory of “The Rider,” one would never surmise that the actors aren’t really actors, and are actually echoing their true-to-life histories and motivations on celluloid. However, even taking this into account, lauding the film’s South Dakota-bred participants (all of whom are of Lakota Sioux ancestry) for their “performances” would be a tricky notion. Truthfully, “The Rider” is not quite a documentary but, to the informed observer, it captures different shades of ambiguity masterfully and exists in an uncharted gray area of cinematic history.
Fortunately, the attendees were in for a treat when Zhao showed up after the credits of “The Rider” to provide further analysis on the film and about her career. Laura Ward, the publisher of the Ojai Valley News, hosted the Q & A, which proved to be illuminating.
For instance, as a flourishing auteur, it was refreshing to hear Zhao admit that she still doesn’t know who she is as an artist. She does admit that she’s most at home as an editor, despite also writing, producing, and directing. She also readily concedes that she was not brought up in the theatre world, and can be a little unconventional. In fact, among the four films she has directed thus far (excluding her short films), there have only been roughly 10 hours of rehearsal combined, which, in its own idiosyncratic way, is categorically impressive.
There are undoubtedly perks to being the writer and director, as Zhao can dictate her stories as she sees fit and write dialogue that is inspired by, and oftentimes for, the people she meets. One of these individuals was Brady Jandreau, whose magical way with horses, in tandem with the breathtaking South Dakota landscape, helped strengthen her relationship with nature after living in New York for so long.
“I got out of New York and went to South Dakota as I needed to feel like I was a part of something bigger,” Zhao said.
It took relinquishing her cynicism by truly observing Brady when he acted naturally around wild horses, and listening to him when he spoke of the higher-power influence of a special bone on the back of horses that was seemingly made to accommodate saddles. For Zhao, it’s all about being in the moment.
“You need to be observant and see what’s in front of you instead of always following your vision, which could be dangerous,” Zhao opined.
For those curious about why a woman raised in China would be drawn to something as diametrically opposite as Westerns, Zhao hints that it could be her connection to Daoism.
“The leading principle in Daoism is inaction and harmony [with nature]. In my films, the leading character decides not to do what he set out to do,” Zhao explained.
The idea of not doing something being just as powerful as actually doing it is a unique statement, but it’s also a philosophical belief that Zhao is careful not to heavily impose as she feels it’s best to give her performers the leeway of following their own instincts — as they’re often hired to do just that.
In reference to “Eternals,” Zhao said, “I had 11 characters to cast and I decided to find individuals who had [some of the character] in them. I rely on my actors to tell me who their characters are and to even decide their costumes. My job is to navigate and tweak.”
Evidently, it is Zhao’s courageously unorthodox approach to filmmaking that got her hired as director of “Eternals” even before “Nomadland” started filming.
That said, Zhao noted that there’s a considerable difference between directing an individual who is basically depicting their own likeness versus a professionally trained actor portraying a persona they have less in common with.
“A professional actor needs my attention much more. When I say cut, Brady is thinking about pizza, not his career as an actor.”
Despite becoming significantly more mainstream, part of what separates Zhao from her contemporaries is that she’s self-conscious about keeping the “flame” in herself as a storyteller alive. Ultimately, for Zhao, it comes down to making something that an audience would be interested to see in light of the slew of entertainment options available.
“It’s a very competitive industry; why should they come see your movie?” Zhao rhetorically asks. As a producer, you have to make logistical decisions based on that and make something they’ve never seen before. As soon as you get comfortable, it’s over.”
Maintaining her focus is paramount for Zhao who chose Ojai not only for being off the hustle-and-bustle-beaten path of Los Angeles and New York, but because of the “sanity” it has given her.
In late 2017, Zhao was driving from Denver with her boyfriend, Joshua James Richards, who is also her cinematographer, looking for a place to rent, when she saw a “beautiful light over the mountains.”
Of course, another glance revealed something that was the antithesis of beautiful — the Thomas Fire, which had engulfed the coast, threatening the homes and lives of countless residents.
“I loved how the community came together; this made me feel like this is a place that I’m going to call home for a while,” Zhao recalled.
Needless to say, the residents of Ojai are quite proud to have Chloé Zhao among them and look forward to watching her grow as a renowned artist of the silver screen for years to come.