Filmmaker Chloé Zhao is the Accidental Realist

Filmmaker Chloé Zhao, the inaugural winner of American Airlines and Film Independent’s Bonnie Award, is pioneering how life is depicted on screen. 

Filmmaker Chloé Zhao is the Accidental Realist

Photography Zach Anderson / Hair & makeup: Donna Gast

Seeking direction after film school, Chloé Zhao followed the advice of American lore: go west.

After reading newspaper articles about an epidemic of teen suicides on Indian reservations, the soft-spoken Zhao, who was living in the hippest part of Brooklyn at the time, earned her driver’s license, packed up an old car and set out in search of a story to tell.

Having spent a dozen years living in the U.S., the Beijing-born filmmaker, then 29, wanted to explore themes of identity and belonging. She ended up at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation just south of Badlands National Park in South Dakota­—a rugged land of buttes and grassy prairie where inspiration hit her “like a tsunami.” She connected deeply with the landscape and the people of Pine Ridge, a place that inspired her first two feature films and ultimately shaped her creative approach: using natural environments and non-professional actors to tell stories that reflect real life. Often, the characters in her films are based on the people playing them.

“Sometimes, stories present themselves to me; things happen that you don’t ever expect, that you could never write,” says Zhao, a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “The job is to put that into a fictional setting and make that into a film.”

It seems to be working. In January, judges from Film Independent endowed Zhao, now 35, with the inaugural American Airlines Bonnie Award, an annual $50,000 grant earmarked for promising female filmmakers. The award is named for Bonnie Tiburzi Caputo, the first female pilot to fly for a major airline in the United States. Caputo was 24 when American Airlines hired her as a flight engineer in 1973.

The airline, a longtime sponsor of the Film Independent Spirit Awards, wanted to go beyond traditional sponsorships when it created the endowment. Caputo’s trailblazing career made her the ideal namesake. The award is specifically for mid-career female filmmakers, on the understanding that, in a field dominated by men and obsessed with the Next Big Thing, women can find it harder to gain funding and distribution with each successive feature.

Zhao’s latest film, The Rider, is set for release on April 13. The story of a Native American rodeo cowboy was nominated for four Spirit Awards this year, including best feature and best director. Inspired by and starring a horse trainer Zhao met in Pine Ridge, The Rider has been hailed by critics since it premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. As with Zhao’s first feature, the 2015 release Songs My Brother Taught Me, the plot revealed itself to her as she spent time on the reservation.

In the run-up to that first film, Zhao knew she wanted to tell a story about a young person deciding whether or not to leave home; she just didn’t know the specifics. It was her story, too. She’d left China for boarding school in Brighton, England, when she was barely a teen.

The budding filmmaker spent months at a time at rural Pine Ridge, which isn’t the kind of place where a visitor can just rent an apartment. “I lived everywhere on the reservation, from motels to the basement of a church to teacher housing,” she says. Even so, Zhao immediately loved it. “That’s the kind of place Pine Ridge is,” she says. “It attracts those who really want to be there and repels those who don’t.” Her focus kept changing as she learned more about the community, but her inspiration never wavered.

“The only thing that remained was the story,” she says. “I actually learned a great lesson about gut instinct: A story is universal. It doesn’t have to come 100 percent from within that culture.” She filled in the particulars based on the people she met.

After life on the reservation, Zhao didn’t want to go back to the pace of New York. She moved to Denver and returned regularly to Pine Ridge “just to hang out.” Eventually, she met Brady Jandreau, who would go on to star in The Rider.

Quietly charismatic, Jandreau is a gifted horseman, someone who can transform a wild animal into a docile one after an hour in its presence. The Rider, based on Jandreau’s own experiences, shows how a cowboy redefines his career and identity after a riding accident puts an end to his rodeo dreams.

“I knew I wanted to tell a story about an Indian cowboy, but I didn’t know what it was going to be,” Zhao says. “Then, when I met him and he got hurt, it all just happened.” She had always been fascinated with American life, but she hadn’t expected to make movies about it. She’d come to the U.S. as a senior in high school. How could she tell stories about a place she hardly understood?

After high school Zhao went on to study political science at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, with hopes of entering public service. “When you’re 18 years old, you feel very passionate and also try to understand how we treat each other and why things happen,” she says. “But I just felt discouraged about the idea of working in politics.”

It was the work of Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, particularly his 1997 film, Happy Together, that most inspired Zhao. She thought movies could be a more tangible way of making a difference, so she signed up for graduate studies in film production at New York University.

“It feels like you can change things on a ground level, to tell stories,” she says. “They’re so powerful—how we see ourselves on screen and what that says about who we are and how that shapes us. I thought maybe if I can tell a story that can affect someone—just one person—at least you see the results.”

Zhao didn’t consider her gender an obstacle, but she’s aware of the varying expectations and norms for men and women in business. “I’m constantly watching myself—how I should behave in settings because I’m not sure,” she says. “As an Asian, woman and immigrant, one of the most important things for me is to not become guarded.”

Zhao feels at home in the United States, largely because it is filled with people who aren’t quite at home. “I didn’t feel 100-percent Chinese or English or American,” Zhao says. “I like being here because there are a lot of people like me.” She also felt like she fit in at Pine Ridge. A slight woman with light brown skin and long dark hair, Zhao says she could be mistaken for Native American. The community welcomed her right away. “That place has such a strong sense of identity, and you just feel like you’re part of that.” This sense of belonging has not faded with time. Zhao was a bridesmaid at Jandreau’s wedding, and is Auntie Chloé to his three-month-old daughter.

Zhao has also been embraced by the filmmaking community. Forest Whitaker supported her Songs My Brother Taught Me as a producer. Last fall, Werner Herzog’s foundation awarded The Rider with its annual grant for “a special achievement in innovation, courage and vision.”

Now, as Zhao prepares to enter the next phase of her career, there’s the Bonnie Award. She accepted the prize in January, at the Film Independent Spirit Awards brunch. Before announcing Zhao’s name, actress and presenter Alia Shawkat said the judging committee was “blown away by the winning filmmaker’s latest films and can’t overstate how eager they are to support this artist on her path to her next project.”

As for what her next project might look like, Zhao is working on a futuristic sci-fi film set in China—which will provide her with a novel way to explore the relationship between who we are and where we live. “One of the identities I feel like I’m questioning is my identity as a human,” she says, “not even as a woman or a woman of color—but as a human being.”

Meet the Bonnie Award Finalists: Lynn Shelton

Lynn Shelton always knew she was meant to make movies, but she didn’t feel ready to direct until she was in her mid 30s, and then she worried that it was too late. Her feature debut, 2006’s We Go Way Back, is about a 23-year-old aspiring artist communing with her ambitious and endlessly creative 13-year-old self. “I’ll never forget the experience of directing on a feature film set for the first time,” she says. “The first few days, I was filled with this feeling that I’d never experienced before. It was completely transformative. It’s like: This is what I was always meant to do, and I don’t think I could have done it any sooner.”

The 52-year-old writer-director has consistently worked since, directing her own screenplays (Touchy Feely), others’ scripts (Laggies) and dozens of episodes of popular TV shows, including Fresh Off the Boat, The Mindy Project, Master of None and New Girl.

Meet the Bonnie Award Finalists: So Yong Kim

The director considered film a “sculptural element” as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago. After helping her husband, writer-director Bradley Rust Gray, make his debut feature in 2003, she decided to give narrative filmmaking a try for herself. The 49-year-old writer-director’s latest feature is 2016’s Lovesong, which stars Riley Keough and Jena Malone as best friends who might be something more. “I’m drawn to intimate stories about women and relationships,” Kim says, “and how you as a person fit within this texture of family dynamics.”

Kim has directed in television recently, where she’s enjoyed experimenting with bigger budgets and action sequences and helming episodes of Queen Sugar, Transparent and American Crime.

Meet the Namesake: Bonnie Tiburzi Caputo

Bonnie Tiburzi Caputo is well-known in aviation circles as the first female pilot to fly for a major airline in the U.S. Her dad and brother were both airline pilots and flight instructors, and she never doubted that she’d follow the same path—even though her high school guidance counselor told her, “Women do not fly airplanes.”

“My only thought was, ‘Why not?’” Caputo recalls, “and nobody could ever say why not.”

Caputo joined American Airlines as a flight engineer in 1973 at age 24. While her new colleagues were polite, it was lonely being the only woman in the job.

“I felt like a freak at a sideshow,” says Caputo, now 69. “The first few years were difficult in that respect. Not in my flying—once I got to the airport and sat in the cockpit, life was great.”

Because of her position as a lone female airline pilot, Caputo was always curious about the lives of other professional women. How did they navigate their road to success? She belonged to an aviation industry social club called Wings, where she launched a luncheon series called Women of Accomplishment. Caputo invited all kinds of professional women to the monthly gathering, where the featured speakers included author Betty Friedan and actress Maureen O’Hara, as well as opera singers, executives and a female rabbi.

“When the airline said they wanted to name this award after me, I thought this is my opportunity to again meet women in different professions,” she says. “It was like a resurgence of what I had started for myself in the early ’80s.”

Caputo sat among the nominees for her namesake award at a brunch earlier this year and got chills when the $50,000 grant was presented. “I’m so happy, so proud, so honored,” she says. “All of us bonded and that brought tears to my eyes.”