The Rider is the most extraordinary film of the year
One of the films of the year, The Rider is about the recovery of rodeo rider Brady Jandreau from a terrible injury - remarkably he acted in it himself only 5 months after the accident.
Rodeo rider Brady Jandreau was on a bucking horse in the saddle bronc event in front of a large crowd when he was slipped suddenly from the horse, fell under its back hoofs and had his head stomped on It crushed his skull an inch into his brain. While many thought he was dead, he didn’t actually lose consciousness until he got to hospital and had a seizure on the table. He was put into a coma while doctors removed skull fractures and horse manure from inside his head, then fixed in a metal plate.
It was a sudden and horrible end to Brady’s rodeo career, but it was also the answer to his friend’s question of what to make her next film about.
Director Chloe Zhao was a frequent visitor to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota where Brady had grown up, and where she’d shot her acclaimed debut film ‘Songs My Brothers Taught Me’. Having got to know Brady in that time and seen how unfazed he was about being on camera – about everything really – she’d been wanting to make a film with him as the lead for a while. But it was the accident which provided the answer – after Brady uploaded a video of himself training horses just three weeks after the accident, Chloe went from shock to realisation: the film could be about his recovery. They started shooting a mere five months after Brady’s accident; part scripted part improvised but all based on Brady’s real life, and shot on his ranch, with a cast consisting of his family and friends, including his dad and sister.
The result is The Rider, one of the most remarkable films of this, and any other year. It is a story about trauma, identity and masculinity. It’s as real as a movie gets. Footage of Brady’s real accident is featured, and it will bring tears to your eyes, a will several other moments in the film for other reasons.
The Book of Man met Brady in London a couple of times during a fast and sleepless tour of the UK. Dressed in classic cowboy gear including a white hat – removed whenever he’s introduced to a lady – he’s as cool a human being you could ever meet, far from the Crocodile Dundee type a lot of the white wine-chugging London folk seem to assume – “Is this your first time abroad?” “Nah, I was in Paris last month.” – just a smart, articulate and yes, tough as anything 22 year old. His performance in the film is as exciting a debut as you’ll ever see, with the sensitive masculinity of a James Dean or River Phoenix.
After a Q&A on stage we hosted with him and Dr Chloe-Paidoussis (who gave insight on recovery after traumatic events), we sat down with him the next day to get some more info on the film.
What do you remember about the accident?
My skull on this side was shattered into fragments which the doctors had to remove, and I also had horse manure in my brain from the hoof. I was awake from the accident all the way to the hospital – they thought it was just a neck injury until I had a full body seizure on the table. I was put in a coma. They test you when you bring you out. First time they tried it I didn’t know who I was. The second time, I knew who I was, but I couldn’t move properly. The third time, I got up, pulled out the ventilator, and all the tubes, and walked out and never went back. I was back riding a horse after a few weeks, I couldn’t stand not being out there, I was going crazy.
How did you get to know Chloe?
I dropped out of college, out of my rodeo scholarship to ride bulls and saddle broncs in 2015, and I went back to work on a ranch on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, near Sharps Corner in South Dakota. That’s where I met Chloe in April of 2015. And she was really drawn to me by my ability to work with young horses – she noticed that even if people were around, and she was videoing me, I was still able to keep my connection with the animal. That was the first thing that made her think I could act, and she talked to me about being in her next film. Her first film ‘Songs My Brothers Taught Me’ was partly shot on the ranch, so she came back there to research ranch lifestyle, and learn more about cowboys and western heritage. She wanted to come out and learn to ride horses with us and move cows – we thought she was cray but we put her on a gentle old horse and she did just fine.
The cinematographer Josh Richards came out several times throughout the summer as well. One time Chloe came out and said I want you for the lead role. So we played around with all sorts of ideas for a film, from one following me down the rodeo circuit, to a romance, to a documentary, to me as just a horse trainer or a cowboy on reservation. But nothing seemed to fit until after my head injury.
Basically the whole film idea was put on hold because she didn’t know if I could even act never mind ride horses and continue to do what I used to do, which is what the film was going to be based on.
She’d check on me once a week when I was recovering but she didn’t bother me much, she knew I was healing and going through a lot, emotionally and physically.
But I posted a video of the successful training just a month and a half after my head injury. They’d told me not to jog or even lift over 10 pounds for three months, but I was quickly back training wild horses. And so I posted this video on Facebook and Chloe called me that day and said, ‘you miss it huh?’ And I said, ‘Well yeah but that was from this morning.’ And she chewed me out over it, she was really mad, ‘Brady you could die, you’re engaged now, you got to be careful,’ and I was like, ‘Well Chloe this is what I was born to do, and through my connection to the animal I believe I can keep myself safe.’
So she says, ‘well do you think you could still do the movie? Do you think you could ride horses and act?’
And I did have to train horses while I acted. It’s not like I got paid an exponential amount for the actual shoot of the film, it’s very low budget film, so I had to train horses to get myself out of a month and half worth of debt [while laid up].
Every morning I still had to work with horses from 5am till noon. Then I’d shower and go shoot the movie from one to the magic hour and even after dark in some of the scenes.
You didn’t think about never riding again?
When I thought about it, one thing that pushed me over the edge was I’d sure feel like shit if I walked out my door, tripped over a rock and hit my head and died. Having never ridden a horse again. So I figured I’d go back to being what I know how to do. That person who I used to be.
You hadn’t acted before so how did you prepare for ti?
There are things that Chloe did – she’d film me and tell me to go in the bathroom, wash your face, look in the mirror, think about something bothering you, ok now shake it off…little exercises like that a few times. We didn’t rehearse we’d just read through the lines a little bit. And we didn’t watch dailies or anything, we didn’t have time. The shoot was 36 days.
Did you ever think it would get to this stage? Did you take it seriously?
I took it very seriously as I was shooting it out of respect for Chloe, and everybody else who’s time was at hand. I’m always the kind of person who doesn’t ever half-ass things – I’m all in or I don’t even think about it.
How was it working with your Dad?
It was hard for my dad to talk it seriously the first couple of times – it would be 15 takes of joking around and then my dad would nail it because he’d get tired of doing!
Tell us about how you do rodeo riding?
The original event of rodeo is saddle bronc riding, which is what I did, and goes back to how horses were broke in the old days. Someone would wrap a rope around a horse’s neck, they’d get a halter on it, and then they’d cover its eyes with blinds. A rider would get on top, and then they’d take the blinds off. And he’d either get dumped off and the horse would run over the pasture or else he stayed on it and got it to ride around somewhat. It’s not the best way to train a horse, its more of the way to break a horse. To breaks its spirit so that’s its forced to.
I don’t like to do that, it makes horse never able to meet their full potential because there’s no connection. Only fear.
Here’s Brady on how to train a horse:
When did you first get started with horses?
My dad said he first put me on a horse on my own when I was ten days old. I could completely control a very well trained older horse when I was just a year and a half. With my dad and brothers help I started to break miniature ponies that had never been riden when I was 5 or 6. And at age of 8 I was able to start my first 2 year old full size colt horse. Basically I’ve been going that for 15 years now. It was a great learning process to be able to do it at such a young age.
And I participated in my first rodeo when I was 2. I rode a sheep at a rodeo in a diaper at the Mutton Busting event! I hit the ground pretty hard – I was a baby, but so began my love of rodeo.
What technique do you use? The film shows it’s not just about hanging on?
Riding a saddle bronco rodeo – yeah, you only use one hand and it’s on a rein. You can’t just hang on. That horse’s head goes down every time it bucks and their head weights 80 pounds, and then add the weight of the neck is 250 pounds, and then add momentum and gravity and it’s like 750 pounds of pressure. So if you pull on that you’re going over the front, and where is the horse going to go? Right on top of you. So you can’t pull, you can’t just hang on. You don’t want to pull on your rein and you don’t want it to be slack, you want it to be taut not tight. And what you actually do is you’re going to get in timing with it with your whole body, your hips, your legs, your feet, with your chin against chest, so you’re moving with the animal and taking the animal’s power away using your spurs and the reins.
If you incorporate your body and get your position right there’s actually no pressure on your body at all. It’s like you’re in total control, and totally connected. In the rodeo world they call it being ‘tapped off’ – it makes you feel like you’re walking on water.
There’s scenes of you slowly rebuilding your identity in the film – like putting your hat back on over the scare for the first time. Was that how it really was?
Yeah it was like that in real life. Chloe thought of some things to put some Hollywood in, but we tried to keep it as real as we could, because it’s the truth! It’s a real story that happened so why fictionalise it, and make it less real?
How supportive were your friends? In the film they say ‘cowboys ride through the pain’…
I’ve definitely been told to suck it up my whole life, but I’ve definitely told a lot of people to suck it up too. With this particular injury there’s a few people who tell me I should rodeo ride again but tmost of my close family and friends don’t want me to at all. And I do think about it. I probably will.
It’s going to be more of a hobby. I’ll go to an event in a city where I know the owner of the horse. And I’ll wear some sort of helmet. I might buy a helmet then put on a very large hat over it! Because in saddle bronc riding you have to have a hat on or else they’re gonna dock you.
My wife already gave me the all clear to ride again if I want to. The doctors gave me the all clear sort of – I never returned to hospital but when I was there I asked them how long it takes for an injury like this to completely heal. He said it’s hard to tell but after about 3 years there won’t be much change. It’ll be 3 years next April so I’m thinking about riding next summer. At least one or two bulls or a saddle bronco, depending on how I feel about it. Maybe I’ll never ride again after that.
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