Brady Jandreau cannot remember a time before horses.
“I could actually ride and control a horse was before I was potty-trained,” says Jandreau, who is of Lakota Sioux descent. “As far as my ancestry goes, we were always a horse people. So a lot of stuff has been passed down. It’s in my blood. My wife is a horsewoman. My daughter is 13 months old and she can already control a horse by herself.”
Jandreau may be new to cinema, but the 22-year-old cowboy is a born storyteller. Without pause, in his soft Midwestern brogue, he talks me through the near-fatal accident that ended his career as a rodeo bronco.
“April Fool’s Day 2016,” he says, wryly. “I sustained a skull fracture at the Professional Cowboys’ Association rodeo. My skull was crushed. It didn’t knock me out initially, but then they took me to the hospital and there I had a full body convulsion seizure. They did brain surgery and put a big old plate in my head. There were three parts of my skull broken, two regions of my brain significantly damaged, and there was a lot of blood on my brain. The break was a fracture, so there were many small fragments in my brain cavity and then there was horse manure and sand in my skull as well. They had to clean all that out and put me on really high-grade antibiotics.
“About five days later I started to wake up on my own while under induction. I freaked out and tried to pull my tubes out, I didn’t know who I was or where I was or what was going on. The longer I was in hospital, the worse it seemed to get. There was depression and mood swings and coming to terms with not being able to rodeo again. They couldn’t legally hold me. And once I went home and went back to doing the things I used to do, I became the person I used to be.”
The incident would ultimately inspire The Rider, one of the best films of 2018, the winner of the top prize –the Art Cinema Award – at Cannes' Directors' Fortnight, and the product of an unlikely creative partnership.
Chloé Zhao, the Chinese film director, screenwriter and producer, grew up in Beijing before relocating to London and then the US to finish her schooling. Her 2015 debut feature film, Songs My Brother Taught Me, was shot at the Pine Ridge Reservation, an Oglala Lakota Native American reservation in South Dakota. And that's where she met Jandreau.
“I’d known Chloé for about a year before my injury,” recalls Jandreau. “Part of her first film was shot on my uncle’s ranch and he introduced me. She was interested in my work with wild horses and the more we got to know each other, the more she talked about possibly bringing me in on her next film. She wanted to make a movie about Native American cowboys in the heartland of America. After a while, she started talking to me about actually starring in the film. I’d never acted before or anything like that. But she came out and learned to ride and move cows with us. And I figured: why would I be scared of a camera if she’s not scared of a horse?”
Everyday I'd train horses in the morning. And at one o'clock I'd go inside and shower and get ready to shoot
Together Zhao and her future leading man tossed around ideas from comedy to drama to a rodeo documentary. “But nothing seemed to fit,” says Jandreau. Six weeks after his accident, the filmmaker got back in touch, to see how he was coping away from his equestrian life.
“She asked me if I missed it and I told her I was riding horses again,” he says. “I’m just not the kind of person who is going to ask for money or anything. And Chloé said: you’re crazy, you could die. And I said, well, I don’t feel alive if I’m not able to ride. That hit the nail on the head in terms of the story for the movie. So on September 3rd, 2016, we started shooting the movie, and we were finished October 9th. Everyday I’d train horses in the morning, riding from 5am to noon. And at one o’clock I’d go inside and shower and get ready to shoot.”
He chuckles: “So I was working two jobs after my injury. When I wasn’t even supposed to be jogging.”
Small details have been changed for the screenplay. Jandreau's character is called Brady Blackburn in the film. In real life, his mother is still alive and he has never worked in a store. Otherwise, about 85 per cent of The Rider is Jandreau's own life. Tim Jandreau plays his screen father; Brady's teenage sister Lily plays his character's sibling with Asperger's syndrome. Brady's best friend and ex- bull rider Lane Scott, who is recovering from a debilitating brain injury following a car crash back in 2013, appears as himself. Jandreau's wife, Terri Dawn, also makes a brief appearance. It all makes for an extraordinarily poignant portrait of a young bronco rider coming to terms with a life-changing injury.
Next time I'd like the chance to play someone who is different from my actual self
“We all felt: well, what have we got to lose?” says Jandreau. “This is something that could be fun and different and challenging. We felt comfortable with Chloé and, by the time we started shooting, we felt comfortable with Josh [cinematographer Joshua James Richards]. So there was a sense of trust. I would definitely act again. I enjoyed it.”
He laughs: “But next time I’d like the chance to play someone who is different from my actual self.”
Since making The Rider, Jandeau and Terri Dawn have founded their own horse-raising and training business, Jandreau Performance Horses, and they have had to get accustomed to rapturous applause on the festival circuit, as the film has travelled from Cannes to Sundance and beyond.
“And Paris and now London,“ says Jandreau. “It’s funny. I didn’t even have a passport before. I’d travelled around a lot for rodeos. But they don’t have rodeos in Paris.”
- The Rider opens on September 14th