Talking to Cindy Meehl, you wouldn’t guess that she had once been a designer of high fashion or that she spends most of her time on the East Coast. She speaks with a Western twang, and her manner of talking is so relaxed, so comfortable, that you can slip into conversation with her as easily as you can slip into a pair of worn jeans.
Cindy is the director of Buck, the documentary film about a real-life horse whisperer named Buck Brannaman that was a runaway hit at True/False 2011. Since the theatrical and home video releases that followed, this debut film has also become an international sensation. Now this inspirational story, perfect to share with friends and family over the holidays, is available through Netflix Instant, iTunes and Amazon. We interviewed Cindy by telephone awhile back, where we talked about Buck, horses, the lure of the West and how Americans need to get tough.
-Nancy West and Jess Bowers
TRUE/FALSE: Why were you drawn to the subject of horse training?
CINDY MEEHL: I was a horseperson myself, and I have spent a lot of time with horses and horse trainers. Being with horses is therapeutic. And horses, you know. . . they reflect their owners. If you’re nervous or anxious, your horse will show it. When you start out with horses, it’s natural to think you’re going to dominate the horse, but you never do. It’s a fascinating process. You have to learn to understand the horse and, in doing so, you come to understand yourself.
And I’m in love with the whole culture of the West. It’s a misconception to think that horse trainers service only wealthy people. Most of the people Buck sees are ordinary folks who are really struggling to keep their horses. He charges $600.00 for his four-day clinics, and a lot of his clients have to scrimp and save to hire him. They work hard, they struggle, to keep these animals.
T/F: Why were you drawn to Buck himself?
CM: Buck is the most focused person I’ve ever encountered; when he works, he is totally, completely, focused on the horse.
And the way he lives his life is so different from most people. We’ve gotten so soft. The conditions under which he works are harsh—it can be miserably cold or rainy, or the middle of a snowstorm, but he’ll drive 1200 miles to do his horse clinic. He’ll stay four days, get in his truck, drive another 1000 miles, and do it all over again.
T/F: In the film, he seems very gentle with the horses and very tough with the owners. Did you find that to be true?
CM: Buck expects a lot out of the people whose horses he trains. He pushes you. And you realize your limit is far beyond what you thought you could do. . . Coddling is way too pervasive in this world (she laughs) and Buck doesn’t coddle. He’s with you for four days, works you hard—and then he’s gone. Then, you’re on your own.
T/F: Much of the film seems like mythmaking. Were you trying to make Buck into a mythic or heroic figure?
CM: I never wanted to create a hero. Rather, I wanted to create someone who is inspirational—who knows how to focus in a world where everyone else seems to have lost that ability. Buck is also someone who used the trauma of his childhood to create a new identity for himself. He recovered from his childhood abuse and became a better person for it. He used his own pain to understand the pain of horses. He’s a powerful role model for many of us.
(She pauses). But at the end of the day, he’s a human being. He loses his temper occasionally. If you’re screwing up your horse right in front of him, he’ll just leave, or he’ll yell at you (though he never sees it as yelling). He’s there for the horses, and there to keep you safe. He is very, very stern, and you just have to understand that—it’s part of the agreement.
T/F: One striking element of the film is your use of photographs and old film clips from Buck’s life. Why are these important to our understanding of the film?
CM: Those photos give us a fuller feeling of where Buck came from. His father was a lot older than most fathers during that time. He was in his 50s when the kids were small, and perhaps that’s part of the reason why he was so distant and stern with Buck and his brother. You can see that emotional distance in the photos.
The photos all came from Buck or his stepmom, Betsey. I looked through each of them myself, selected them myself, and when I was done, I returned them personally. Betsey and Buck had given me this very personal look into their pasts—and I wanted to make sure they knew how deeply grateful I was to see and use them.
T/F: How would you describe the visual style of the film? What kind of a documentary were you hoping to create?
CM: I’m from an art and design background, and so I’m an extremely visual person. I knew what was really yummy to me sensually. . . I wanted to convey the openness of the sky, the flavors, the smell of leather. And I wanted Buck to look like a feature film. I wanted people to be so engaged that it felt like a story even though it was all true.
T/F: Can you talk about your experience filming the horses? The film seems so absolutely attuned to the rhythm of the horses. How did you manage that?
We got in really, really close for many of the shots. The idea was to get inside and behind the horses as much as possible. I didn’t do much of the actual shooting. . . that went to Guy Mossman and Luke Geissbuhler, the cinematographers, who were really creative and very unusual in their strategies for getting good shots. They knew what I thought would be beautiful, striking.
We also had a terrific sound editor. Sometimes, dialogue was really hard to hear. . . Buck is very soft-spoken, for one thing. So the editor worked every little sound, even the squeak of leather.
T/F: Would you describe this film as nostalgic? If so, what is it nostalgic for?
CM: It’s nostalgic for a way of life that I think the West still represents. Out west, there is no self-service. People help you. People communicate. There is a greater, old-fashioned sense of community. They’re not looking at their Blackberries. Just having a conversation is nice. After every clinic, it’s the same thing. . .everyone just sits around, hangs out, tells stories, listens to each other.
I took my editor out there once because she was curious about that world, and she just loved sitting around, watching and listening to everyone. And how often does a New York editor want to fly out west just to hang out?
T/F: The wonderful thing about this film, as everyone keeps saying, is that you don’t have to be into horses to love this movie. How is Buck a film for everyone—even those who don’t know a thing about horses?
CM: When we did a test film, everyone was crying afterward. I think it’s because, ultimately, this isn’t a film about horses; it’s a film about relationships. You can take the horse out of it, and put in your child, your spouse, your friend. Watching Buck inspires people to be more accountable. It makes you ask “What am I doing wrong? What can I do to make this relationship better? To make myself better as a human being?”