Robert Redford’s ‘The Horse Whisperer’ may be the stuff of pat Hollywood drama, but Buck Brannaman, the quietly charismatic horseman who helped inspire both the 1998 film and the novel upon which it was based, is actually quite real. Cindy Meehl’s stirring ‘Buck’, then, is a soulful and delicately illuminating documentary portrait of the soft-spoken man — and a movie that also makes a persuasive and heartrending case for the ability of human healing. The Audience Award winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the film is a must-see for horse aficionados, of course, but just as accessible and interesting for those who’ve never sat astride one of the creatures. We had a chance to speak with Meehl one-on-one recently, and the conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: Given the movie’s tangential connection to Robert Redford, was it always a goal to premiere the movie at the Sundance Film Festival? And also, what was that experience and reception like?
Cindy Meehl: It was a goal. So much of this was shot out west, and it was very cinematic, so in my dream of dreams and heart of hearts that’s always where I thought of premiering. And I had read John Anderson’s book, ‘I Wake Up Screening’, (where) he talks a lot about the festival, and I learned even more about Sundance from that. It’s legendary. Some people on my team were like, “I don’t know if this is a Sundance film, because it’s in a different category.” But that was just another reason I wanted to make it. I thought this is a niche that you really don’t see a lot about — the American west. It was different, and so we did everything we could to get it ready and then we applied for Sundance. And so when that (acceptance) call came in it was like Christmas, a dream come true. I actually went in a couple days early… and Buck came for the whole time, my whole team flew in for the premiere. My producer looked at me and said, “Hey, be in this moment,” because you’re so frantic and doing so much when you get there. And then the film’s reception was so great, Buck was like a rock star there. So my very first time at Sundance was definitely a surreal experience.
ShockYa: A lot of first-time filmmakers come from very prescribed backgrounds, but your path is fairly unusual. How did you make the transition from painting to filmmaking?
CM: Well, I had always certainly been a fan of film… and I’ve always been in a creative field, whether it was art, photography or fashion. So I figured the only way to tell the story that seemed appropriate was to do a documentary. I couldn’t really write about it since Buck has written books, and I thought he needed a lot wider audience anyway, because I thought the message was so important for what our country could really use right now — those cowboy ethics could really go far on Wall Street right now. So I wanted to make a film, and it was certainly not easy, but I was able to slowly get together a team of amazing documentarians. It was an all-woman team, and they were very seasoned. (Creative consultant) Andrea Meditch had done ‘Grizzly Man’ and ‘Man on Wire’, and (producer) Julie Goldman had worked on ‘The Cove’ and countless others. Everybody on my team was very talented and mentored me and had faith in me, which was also a miracle. I think they just believed in the project and saw my passion for it.
ShockYa: What’s your thumbnail take on Buck? He obviously a very forthright, humble guy, but if you had to distill it, what are some of the qualities that make him so special or unique or interesting?
CM: One of the things that struck me about Buck if you’re around him very much is that he’s the hardest working person I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t complain, he shows up and expects a lot from people. And he is very tough. Sometimes I’m not sure if people realize that any person that is such an accomplished master, if you go to study with or learn from them, they’re not there to coddle you or tell you what a great job you’re doing. He expects you to watch him, to try, and he’s doing it for the horses, so if he doesn’t get your attention and change what you’re doing he’s not going to help the horses. So he works really hard at it and expects the same from you, and it really raises the bar of how you approach things in life. He wants you to be a leader to your horse, which is a huge but extremely sensitive animal. Then you start to develop tools of how to be a leader in other areas of your life, whether it’s your child or the business that you’re running or some committee.
ShockYa: The film has a delicate illumination to it, and doesn’t frontload Buck’s personal story to try to get its emotional hooks into an audience. Also, in something like the phrase, “God works in mysterious ways,” regardless of one’s personal faith, there’s often a pat, dismissive quality to that as it’s applied to maybe try to comfort those in grief. ‘Buck’, though, doesn’t lean upon these pat bromides, but instead shows that there’s a real role in adult care and choice and focus, and of course work, and how all those things can bring to bear a beautiful healing. Was there a lot of discussion of explicitly Christian faith in the making of the movie?
CM: Well, I can tell you that Betsy, Buck’s foster mom, is a devout Christian, and she and I would have phone conversations and I would go out and see her during the making of the film. She wasn’t real keen to be on film, but we did coerce her, thank goodness, [and] she definitely has a lot of faith. And really… to me, I think the best part of Christianity or any religion is to live a good life and to give back. Her first foster child was actually Johnny France, the sheriff (who rescued Buck as a child), which doesn’t get really revealed in the film. I visited Betsy’s home where she raised all these kids. It’s way off the road, there’s not a grocery store for 20 miles, so you think about how hard that was — four kids of her own and 17 foster kids over a period of many years. She’s the kindest, most open-hearted and giving person I’ve met in my life, and to me I think any religion, or for anybody that wants to call themselves spiritual, it’s about how you live your life. I like to see somebody practice what they preach. And she’s a shining example of that, of every godly characteristic there is.
ShockYa: I imagine Robert Redford was quite game to do the interview for the movie, but had he kept in touch with Buck, and how much work went into setting that up?
CM: They hadn’t seen a lot of each other. He was very willing to do, but he was working on ‘The Conspirator’, so we probably went back and forth with his office weekly for about an entire year, in a very nice way. It wasn’t like they were trying to put us off, but between my shooting schedule and his, it was sort of funny how long it took. We went off to Napa and filmed him there, and I studied him quite a bit. Knowing that I didn’t have much experience, I would over-research every single thing, so I watched all his movies and all these interviews, and he’s such a nice person and so articulate and smart. He doesn’t do a lot of interviews, so it was extremely special that he did for ‘Buck’. I was a bit of a wreck to do it, but he made me feel comfortable.
ShockYa: Buck is so at ease in the ring with horses, but was he reluctant as an interview subject?
CM: No, because he wrote a book called ‘The Faraway Horses’ in which he told his childhood story. We didn’t want to make this story all about childhood abuse, so I knew about it and he’d gotten comfortable talking about it by writing about it, which is how countless people (do it). But he’s a natural, that was the beauty of it. He has a lot to say about everything, and is very interesting.
ShockYa: The footage of just watching Buck teach even skilled owners how to better interact with their horses is fascinating. Were there any big moments of surprise for you there?
CM: You know, being a horse woman myself I could just sit there and listen to him all day. So sometimes it was very hard to think about the film, or I’d find my mind wandering, because I would be so amazed at what he was doing. If you know horses, you see the care in everything he does. Certainly the cases with the really diffcult horses are always exciting to watch, and I wouldn’t want to be in the front where he was. Toward the end of the film, of course, we see a rather unruly horse in there, and that was probably (the most surprising moment) for me.
ShockYa: I know you’re likely anxious and excited to get the film out there, but is there anything definitively next?
CM: After opening this week in New York and L.A., ‘Buck’ is going to be rolling out across the country all summer, so I’ll be traveling with it. And then I’m going to go with it to Europe as well. I am right now negotiating and in the process of starting something else, but I’m so dedicated to getting this one out there that it’s a bit of a balancing act right now. It’s another documentary, which I will expound on more when it’s a totally done deal. I don’t like to jinx things.
Written by: Brent Simon