Female Filmmaker Friday: Chloé Zhao, Re-Imagining the American Western

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"The search for identity is a hard battle to win."

Chloé Zhao is a Chinese-American director, writer, and producer. She was born in Beijing, went to school in London, and then moved to Massachusetts where she studied political science. Zhao’s desire to meet new people and learn about their individual stories is what led her into the world of film. She enrolled in New York University’s Graduate Film Program. Zhao eventually moved west and fell in love with the Western genre, particularly stories centered in Native American Reservations.

Her feature directorial debut came in 2015 with Songs My Brother Taught Me, which was also produced by Forest Whitaker. It premiered at Sundance and later played at Cannes as one of the Director’s Fortnight selection. It received a Best First Feature nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards.

In 2017, Zhao’s next film, The Rider, premiered at Cannes and won the Art Cinema Award. It also earned nominations for Best Feature and Best Director at the Independent Spirit Awards. The film stars real-life rodeo cowboy Brady Jandreau as an ex-rodeo cowboy coming to terms with early retirement. The film is not a typical Western, meaning it shies away from the “tough guy, shoot-outs, and bar fights” that plague the genre. Instead, Zhao’s approach is very emotional and dives into the psyche of each character. It is this reason Zhao has been credited with “re-inventing the Western” to show a more realistic vision of the people and circumstances of the time and environments.

Amazon Studios recently announced that it has picked up the Bass Reeves biopic; the first African American marshal in the American West. Chloé Zhao will write and direct the piece. No release date has been given.

Be sure to watch this interview with Chloé Zhao about where she finds inspiration and her thoughts on filmmaking.