For the next two weeks, award-winning filmmaker Chloé Zhao will be here in Eugene guest-teaching a cinema studies course on directing. Zhao recently won the inaugural Bonnie Award, which honors a mid-career woman director, at the 2018 Film Independent Spirit Awards. A glowing introduction from filmmaker Ava Duvernay preceded Zhao’s acceptance speech.
Last Tuesday, she participated in a discussion and Q&A on campus at Gerlinger Hall, moderated by Cinema Studies associate department head Priscilla Ovalle, that touched on topics of realist cinema, working with non-actors (both humans and horses) and her own personal history.
Born in Beijing, China, Zhao moved to London for high school, studied American Political Science in college, and eventually earned her graduate’s degree in film at NYU. Her debut feature, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” had a microbudget, a crew of only eight people, and took three years to make, but it was still met with acclaim when it premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Zhao’s latest film, “The Rider,” nabbed four Spirit Award nominations and a win at Cannes Film Festival, and is garnering heaps of critical acclaim, currently holding a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes.
During the Q&A, Zhao discussed how she comes from the “Terrence Malick school of filmmaking,” often employing realist techniques to produce documentary-like films that feel poignant and true to life. Instead of creating wholly original scripts, Zhao opts to find real people and build a story around them and their experiences. This often means working with non-professional actors, such as “The Rider” star Brady Jandreau, a cowboy living on the South Dakota Pinewood Indian Reservation. The film explores his tragic experience after a riding accident threatens to end his rodeo career.
“They’re giving you their real lives and their very personal struggles but they’re hiding behind a character that has a different last name,” Zhao said. “To see your story play out from a different character is a really powerful thing.”
Zhao also admitted that she initially harbored romanticized ideas of these Native Americans’ lives, and she had to unlearn the false labels that mainstream media had given them. In doing so, she became close with her actors — Jandreau even chose Zhao to be his daughter’s godmother.
“I was much more interested in portraying them as human beings rather than issues,” Zhao said. “The connection with them was like, ‘These are my kids. These are my friends.’ And they struggle with the same things that my friends back in China do.”
Zhao’s upcoming work includes directing and writing a biopic on Bass Reeves, the first Black U.S. marshall, and a Western historical epic centering on Native American territories of the 1800s. She has also been in talks to direct Marvel films — during the Q&A she said that her first passion was manga comics — but the indie filmmaker is more at home when working with realism rather than spectacle.
There will be a free screening of “The Rider” next Wednesday, May 9 at 7 p.m. in the EMU Redwood Auditorium, followed by a Q&A with Zhao. Seating is limited and first come first served.