A strong vibe of comfort, of serenity and reassurance, radiates from its frames. The fascinating, elusive subject matter of the documentary, the vast picturesque green vistas of the southern grazing lands captured so lovingly, so reverently, by the poised, perceptive lens, and the patient narrative that is thoughtful and romantic in parts yet alarmingly realistic in others render “Buck” a quintessentially American film devoid of the many trappings of American films.
Cindy Meehl’s debut feature about Buck Brannaman — the famous horse trainer and the inspiration for Nicholas Evans’ international best-selling novel “The Horse Whisperer” and Robert Redford’s 1998 film adaptation — was one the biggest success stories of 2011. The film premiered in Sundance, garnering the audience award at last year’s edition. Released in theaters in the summer, “Buck” provided a much welcome alternative for audiences seeking a break from the big, noisy blockbusters, steadily building steam on the strength of the raving critical reception. By the end of the year, “Buck” became the fifth highest earning documentary of 2011 and as it stands now, is one of the top 35 grossing documentaries of all time.
Born in 1962, Brannaman was a child prodigy of sorts; a trick rope performer who started learning tricks at the age of three. Under the mentorship of their strict father, Brannaman and his brother toured rodeos across America, occasionally performing blind-folded, and appeared in a number of TV programs and commercials.
Details of Brannaman’s childhood are kept under wrap, gradually unfolding as the viewer becomes more acquainted with the man and his world. A gentle, intelligent soft-spoken man with deep compassion for horses and people, the original horse whisperer comes off as a life coach guiding people to a better, more thoughtful life through his treatment and relationship with horses.
“When you’re dealing with a horse, you bring your own personal issues,” he says in one scene. “It becomes about how you treat your wife or children.”
“You hope you say the right things, to plant a seed and hope that they find the answers in their life,” he says in another.
The film follows Brannaman in one of his four-day travelling clinics. By getting up, close and personal to him, Meehl attempts to inspect his methods, decipher the mystery, the magic, behind them. Her endeavors prove to be fruitless; for Brannaman’s craft remains an unsolvable enigma, an extension of his personality.
The idyllic set of the film contrasts with Brannaman’s traumatized childhood. As a little boy, both Brannaman and his brother were subjected to years of physical abuse by their alcoholic father after the death of their mother. Family members and friends eventually found out and the two boys were later placed in a foster home before their aunt adopted them.
What emerges with these revelations is a tale about choice and redemption. Brannaman sought horses to overcome his past, heal his profound wounds and transcend the grave cruelty he was subjected to. Fate has no role in this story; Brannaman made and shaped his own life narrative, choosing the path of grace, of enlightenment, over self-destruction.
Brannaman understands the complexities, challenges and trepidations of life, but he also understands that ultimately, the life you end up leading is the life you choose and not the life you assume you’re destined for.
The film doesn’t hide its admiration for Brannaman, but it never descends into hagiography. “Buck” is enlivened by warm hues ideal for both the sunny setting and the subject at hand, but it doesn’t veer into tacky sentimentality — the sober, tough last act in which Brannaman deals with a wild colt is a wake-up call to a murky reality informed by our misgivings and fallacies.
The success of “Buck” is all the more remarkable considering that fact that it’s Meehl’s first attempt in filmmaking. I met with Meehl last year at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival as “Buck’s” lengthy theatrical was coming to an end. A passionate horse lover and a great believer in the power of film, Meehl discussed her transition from fashion to filmmaking, her relationship with Brannaman, and the unexpected success of her film.
“I was a fashion designer in my 20s for about 10 years in New York,” she said. “Then I moved to Connecticut where I had an art studio. I also had horses there, and I love horses.
“A friend of mine advised me to attend one of Buck’s clinics. He kept raving about him. I’d gotten interested in that type of horsemanship at the time. So I went with my horse to one of his clinics in Pennsylvania, and I was an immediate convert. He was everything my friend said and more.
“That was nearly 10 years ago. Fast forward to five or six years later, I went to a clinic in Texas. That’s when I started thinking about making a film about him. I didn’t tell anyone that I was thinking of making a movie. I’ve never made a movie. It felt I had to do something about him though, to get this message out, because the way he teaches about the horses translates into your entire life.
“I’m in my ‘50s now and I feel like at this age, a lot of the stuff you think they’re important when you’re younger really fall away. There was something about Buck that was so empowering, that would help people, and I thought what better thing to do than help people. At that point in my life, I realized that that is what really gives me fulfillment.
“So, without telling anybody, I just went up and asked him, and he agreed.”
Before filming, Meehl read Brannaman’s autobiography “The Faraway Horses” in which he discusses his childhood tragedy. “In the book, he doesn’t dwell on the childhood part so you don’t feel sorry for him. It’s the exact opposite. What he teaches you, through the horses, is that feeling sorry for something is only going to promote the same behavior. What you need to do instead is give them self-worth, give them a job, give them something to do. It doesn’t help to pity people.”
“Did you try to push him further in that area, to learn more about his childhood?” I asked her. “Well, since he’s already written about it, he’s actually quite open in that area, but he doesn’t make a big deal out of it. There were lots of stories in the book, lots of stories on tape, but that’s not the story I wanted to tell. It’s an important piece of this puzzle, of how he became who he is, but I didn’t want to create a sad story. I wanted to create an inspirational story.”
The world of Brannaman, the American South, is unlike anything you’ve seen before; a placid, scenic retreat functioning with its own set of rules.
“I grow up riding English, which’s the hunter/jumper style, small saddles, different outfits … much different than Buck’s, but yet it’s not really, and that’s what he taught me,” Meehl said. “I came from my world into this world where it was so moving on so many levels. The people who follow Buck are what you see on screen. They really care for him; they really care for their horses. They really work hard to get this type of horsemanship.
“They’re very giving, generous people. This was a part of the whole package that moved me to make this film; it wasn’t just Buck. It was this way of life, where things seem a little bit simpler. And it’s not as if they’re not living in today’s world. They have problems and lives like anyone else. They’re not quite so guarded though; they’re open and they all striving to reach the same goal.”
“Buck’s” commercial success came as a surprise to most industry observers, outperforming several high-profile productions by veteran filmmakers such as “Project Nim” (James March), “Tabloid” (Errol Morris) and “The Interrupters” (Steve James) among others. “Were you surprised by the huge success of the movie?” I asked her.
“That’s a good question,” a smiley Meehl answered. “You know, in a way, it was a good thing I hadn’t made a film before, because all my expectations were about this man and this story and that’s all I wanted to do, to get his wisdom out there. I didn’t have any boundaries.
“We were told that this is not a Sundance film, that horse films don’t do that well. I actually thought that was a good thing, because there weren’t anything like this out there. I simply worked it hard and didn’t care about anything else. There’s a lot of dark stuff in the world right now. You turn on the news and you just want to cry. I just wanted to give people hope; I wanted to do something different.
“I didn’t put any particular expectations on it. Not a lot of people impress me, and not a lot of things impress me. I’ve seen a lot in my life, and for someone to impress me and inspire me as much as he did…. I had an art background; I had a lot of confidence and creativity to go out and do it, but in reality, there were a lot of things that could’ve went wrong. I think it was all meant to be. This story chose me; this is the story I was meant to tell. I wasn’t surprised because I didn’t have that frame of reference that could’ve driven me to say this is impossible, but I felt that is important to me; that if I told the story right, it would be important for other people. There was something magical that worked on this film that was way beyond me.”
There’s a fine line between warmth and sappiness, a line Meehl brilliantly treads, never falling into the latter. How did she keep these tendencies in check, I asked her.
“Part of it because of Buck himself,” she said. “He’s got that cowboy mannerism, he says it like it is and it’s always what you want to hear.
“Interesting thing happened this morning. A teacher came up to me in a screening from Egypt and she told me that I should make more films like this in Egypt because they’re terrible with their animals and donkeys and that I should show that.
“Thing is, it doesn’t really help to show the beating of an animal, to milk that sentimentality. If people don’t know that it’s terrible beating an animal, then me showing it will simply make people cringe and go away. I don’t want to preach the people, and I think that unfortunately, many filmmakers fall into this trap.
“I simply used Buck to tell his story instead of forcing any particular message of mine. Buck can sometimes be very understated, and sometimes you go, ‘I wish he could just tell me exactly what I should do.’ But in a way, it’s more powerful that he puts it out there and let you seek it out, just like the way he does it with horses. He gives them a choice. I also think that people need to search for it a little bit.”
Every nuance of Meehl’s words indicates a close attachment to Brannaman’s world. I asked her if it was difficult to let go when she finished shooting.
“I have not let go,” she smiled. “I still talk to my crew all the time. In August, we all went to this ranch in Montana. We’re like this family now. We talk all the time. I have not left this film at all.”
“Buck” is currently available on DVD in the US. The film is scheduled for European release later this year.
Celebrated horse trainer Buck Brannaman in a scene from the film.