I first saw Buck, the documentary about Buck Brannaman, at the SXSW film festival in February. Last month, LOPE hosted a special sneak previewing screening of Buck in Austin, too. The film depicts the horsemanship philosophy of Buck Brannaman, as well as his own compelling life story. It’s beautifully shot and very thought provoking (in a good way). LOPE highly recommends Buck — and you don’t have to be a horse person to appreciate its entertaining combination of classic cowboy lifestyle, rugged scenery, pretty horses and quiet humor.
Cindy Meehl, the director of Buck, has quite an interesting story herself. She first met Buck when she brought a troubled horse to one of his clinics. The experience (and Buck) made a deep impression on her and she decided to make a film about him. Cindy was a first-time director and had no traditional filmmaking experience — but her passion for the project and for Buck’s horsemanship philosophy carried her through the long process of creating the documentary.
Please tell us about the mare you took to your first Buck clinic — you described her as troubled. How did Buck’s clinic help you and her?
She was a Rocky Mountain Horse. I often ride alone and had heard that the Rocky Mountain Horses were good for trail riding. At the time, it didn’t occur to me that the breed was less important than how the horse had been handled when it was young. My mare had been trained to be a flashy and extremely spirited show horse and she was quite troubled as a result. But I didn’t take any of that into account — I guess you could say that I bought into the breed propaganda (laughs). Plus she was very pretty — which is another classic reason people buy the wrong horses.
My mare was very fearful and would bolt easily. She was challenging for me to handle and I knew I needed some help. I had heard about Buck and took her to his clinic. It was a very humbling experience. We all bring our own baggage and fears to the table at the clinics — and Buck is very clear about pointing that out. Instead of blaming the horse (or her early training), I had to learn to support her and give her what she needed to be less afraid. It was my responsibility and I had to own that fully.
The film especially captured the stoic, “no excuses” element of Buck’s horsemanship philosophy. It reminded me of the saying, “there are no shortcuts to any place worth going.” How did that aspect of Buck’s horsemanship influence you as a filmmaker (particularly as a first-time director) and as an equestrian?
It influenced me very much, especially as a first-time director. Directing the film was the hardest thing I have ever done. Although I had strong visual skills (from my work in fashion and fine art) as well as a good sense of the importance of story structure, I didn’t have any traditional film experience. I was driven by my pure passion for the subject and my desire to capture Buck’s philosophy that I knew would help not only horses, but people, as well.
So many things that Buck teaches in the clinics translates to other areas of your life. For example, he often talks about having “presence” with a horse — where your sense of confidence and leadership is apparent to the horse. Because of my passion about the subject, I was able to project a certain presence that helped me “hold my own” with more seasoned filmmakers — I felt sure that I could make this film and that I had a compelling person at the heart of it. The film project soon attracted an incredible team, including Andrea Meditch (Man On Wire, Grizzly Man) and Julie Goldman (The Cove, In The Shadow of the Moon).
While working on the project (and particularly the editing phase), this incredible team of women came together in such a synergistic way. They really supported me and this film throughout every phase. As human beings, we often resist change and fear the unknown that it represents. But because of my experience with Buck’s clinics, as well as the values my parents had instilled in me, I felt confident about making some of the tough choices in the filmmaking process. The film team was so talented and I am very grateful to them (and to Buck).
Riding with Buck makes you tougher in a good way — you learn to own your mistakes and figure out what your horse needs. Sometimes in today’s culture, there is more of a tendency to evade, rather than take on, responsibility. I wanted to share Buck’s approach with a larger audience through the film.
There must have been many good stories you had to cut from the 300 hours of original footage. What story do you wish could have stayed in the film (or was one of your favorite stories)?
We filmed Buck talking about his childhood pet, Sampson the bull. Buck loved Sampson and had even trained him to be ridden. One day, his father took him outside and told him he needed his help with a chore. He then shot Sampson between the eyes, right in front of Buck. I wanted to keep this in the film, as an example of his father’s extreme cruelty — it was such a powerful moment, to see Buck relate this story. But we instead chose to include a story about Buck hiding from his father in the doghouse. The Sampson story showed his father’s mental abuse of Buck and the story we kept in the film was more about his physical abuse. They are both heart-breaking stories.
I wanted to include another story about Buck. One day, during the filming, I asked him if he does clinics when he is sick or has the flu. He responded, “Of course I do. No one can take my place. When I was a kid and it was 20 below outside, I had to go feed the cows every morning. It didn’t matter if I had the sniffles or wasn’t feeling good. The cows still needed to be fed.”
That was a special story for me and I think of it often. Now, whenever I’m not feeling well and still have to do something, I just tell myself, “hey, I gotta go feed the cows.”
I’ve audited two of Buck’s clinics and ridden in one. One thing I noticed right away was Buck’s dry sense of humor — he made me laugh many times. What are some of your favorite examples of Buck’s humor?
Sometimes when I’d be watching the film footage from one of the clinics, I would just crack up at something Buck said. At the clinics, I would always be the person laughing the loudest. My favorite moments are when he gently mocks someone who is being overly solicitous about their horse — as in, “Oh, poor Fluffy is sweating! Poor baby.”
If you are a wimp about riding, Buck might tease you in the clinics. Buck spends 8 hours a day teaching from the saddle. Many of the clinic riders might only ride their horses for 20 or 30 minutes at a time — which is barely a warm-up for Buck.
Buck’s humor often helps people who are nervous in the clinics. While he rarely singles out someone specifically (unless something unusual is happening), he often will make humorous remarks about certain types of riders in general. I’ve found it’s best to assume he is talking about me and adjust my riding accordingly (laughs).
A few months ago, I was invited to give a talk at a juvenile detention facility here in Texas. I was surprised at how much the boys related to my work with the ex-racehorses at LOPE. They especially seemed to identify with the ex-racehorses (who are often viewed as “pitbulls” in the horse world: damaged, aggressive and unwanted). I can only imagine how deeply they would respond to Buck and your film. Are there any plans to use the film as a teaching tool in juvenile or other types of detention facilities?
I would love to see the film become a teaching tool in prison and other institutions (for substance abuse, mental illness and so on). A professor who was teaching a philosophy class wrote to me and asked if he could show the film to a class he taught at a prison. My response was, “Hey, let’s screen the film for the whole prison, not just one class.”
One of the reasons I did this film was to give people a sense of hope. As a culture, sometimes I think we have lost sight of what is important. There are certain basic principles in life that can’t be ignored or avoided — such as integrity, hard work and purpose — no matter who you are or where you come from. You might think you are fooling people or that you have a shortcut — but in the end, you are only hurting yourself.
I’m 54 — and at my age, I hope I have some wisdom and perspective to share. I wanted the film to touch people, to uplift and inspire them.