We saw the forthcoming documentary “Buck” back at SXSW, and thought it was pretty great. The film chronicles the true life story of Buck Brannaman, the man who inspired the Nicholas Evans novel “The Horse Whisperer” and later the Robert Redford film of the same name (where Buck served as a consultant). It’s both an incredibly personal story of a man who overcame the psychic scars of his childhood to do something truly valuable, and a quietly mystical western, with sweeping vistas and high drama. But front and center of the film stands Buck, the kind of character you just can’t make up, whose expertise with horses and insights on life, have allowed him to develop a strong following and whose wise words will touch you even if you’ve never saddled up.
We recently got a chance to hang out with “Buck” director Cindy Meehl and, incredibly, Buck Brannaman himself, for the better part of an hour and talked in detail about the making of the film. That unabridged interview would probably test the patience of even the most loyal Playlist reader or horse aficionado, so we figure we’d deliver some bullet points from our outstanding conversation with the documentary’s maker and subject.
1. The Idea For The Film Came From Wanting To Capture Buck Brannaman’s Work As Accurately As Possible
“I met him eight years ago,” Meehl says. She had attended one of Buck’s natural horsemanship clinics in Pennsylvania, which is about as east as he goes (Meehl lives near this writer, on the former Mark Twain Stormfield property, in suburban Connecticut). “But the idea to do the movie only came about three years ago when I was in Texas. I was so entertained and enlightened by riding with him that I thought it would be a great movie.” This was, in part, because it’s sort of hard to explain the magic Buck weaves without seeing it yourself.
“It’s so hard to describe what he does to people – all that he teaches and the experience of riding with him. So I just thought that the only way to do this would be to capture it on film. We needed pictures. So it was about three months after the idea came to me, since I had dismissed it because I had never made a film and thought someone else should do it, that I thought, ‘I might as well do it!’ I stepped up and asked him and he was okay.”
2. Buck Signed On (Almost) Immediately
When Cindy came to him with the idea, he said yes. With a little prodding. “Our mutual friend [and fellow horse trainer] Vern [Smith] was really an advocate for Cindy. He called me and told me, ‘Buck, she’s gonna do a great job. And it’s a chance for people to learn about what you’re doing that aren’t horse people.’ The whole approach to working with horses has a broad appeal because it applies to how you treat your family, your friends, your kids. So Vern was very convincing but I had already made up my mind so I said, ‘Sure. I’ll give it a try.’ At some point I said to Vern, ‘You can stop lobbying on her behalf. I’m doing it.'”
3. Although Uncomfortable With The Biographical Elements of the Documentary, Buck Thought It Served A Purpose
“Some of the things earlier in my life aren’t that easy to talk about but it’s a story that really needs to be told,” Buck said about the portions of the film that detail the abuse he suffered at the hands of his perfectionist father. “Because I wanted people to not just accept the conventional wisdom that if you grow up in dire circumstances that it’s a given that you’re going to end up being in a prison or being a failure to society. We hear that story a lot and we’re not surprised when we see someone not living a very good life.” He saw a way, though, through the film, to be inspiring.
“I wanted the documentary to also be something that was encouraging to people that you don’t have to accept that wisdom. Maybe you’re a little dark in your life but there is a way out and maybe even a happy ending. A lot of that has to do with the choices you make and the responsibility you take on.”
4. Cindy Was Surprised By How Comfortable Buck Was In Front of the Camera
“I knew he had written a book and I knew he had talked all day long from the back of a horse while also riding, which isn’t the easiest thing to do. So I knew he had experience at talking. But you never know how someone’s going to be when you have mic’d them and you have a camera crew in front of them,” Meehl said about the magnetic Buck. “It was impressive to me that he didn’t skip a beat. It didn’t make any difference. We might as well have been invisible. He wasn’t nervous. He just allowed us to enter this world and enter his life and it didn’t seem to phase him.”
“I knew they were going to film every aspect of my life to get the whole story and I thought that was important,” Buck said, sounding completely comfortable with the scrutiny of the documentary. “Because people at the clinics, I wanted them to know that I’m not this untouchable horseman that is bigger than life. I’m the same as everybody else. There has to be that so people feel comfortable around me and open themselves up so that I can help them.”
5. Shot Over 2 ½ Years, With 300 Hours Of Footage To Work With, The Film Was Tough To Edit
Cindy admitted that, after shooting “Buck” for over two-and-a-half years, finding a narrative rhythm took considerable effort. “My editor Toby Shimin and I would sit and talk about what elements of the story were important and then try to excavate them out of the more than 300 hours of footage we had compiled. You had to shoot a lot of footage because the horses are moving very fast and things happen very quickly. We had several assistant editors and we really had a crew of people to comb through the footage.”
Buck chimed in: “The raw material that they had to work with, that’s where the directing came in. Because it wasn’t an easy thing for Cindy to do; she had to know enough about what I do with horses and people to set up everything just right. When I’m doing a clinic I can’t be acting for the camera and I can’t position things perfectly. When you’re shooting a film, like I did with Redford on “The Horse Whisperer,” you can position everybody where they’re supposed to be and when you call action the camera doesn’t move, the people do. It was totally opposite on this documentary because I wasn’t going to change anything that I do for a living and not be in the way at the same time.”
6. At First, Buck’s No Nonsense Approach Clashed With Some Members Of The Crew
Buck said that some of the people that Cindy had working on the movie in the beginning didn’t really mesh with his no-nonsense style. “Early on, some of the people she had working on it, they would maybe not have it figured out and say, ‘Hey Buck could you do that again?’ And I’d say ‘No. I’m moving on.’ Because I’m not going to put a horse through that again – say the horse made a little breakthrough and I rewarded him for it, I’m not going to make him do it again when he did everything right, because it wouldn’t make sense to the horse. And if I’m not there for the horse – who is?”
7. The Breathtaking Finale Was Captured In A Lucky Moment By One Cameraman
“Buck” climaxes with a truly harrowing session where Buck tries to calm a wild colt that nearly scalps a handler. It’s wild, visceral stuff balanced by the presence of Buck whose work with the colt, brings a calm and heartbreaking close to the film. It’s an amazing, touching scene that shows the limitations of Buck’s prowess as a horseman and just how much humans can fail their animals. And when Cindy came across this moment, she knew it was a keeper.
“We were so lucky to be there at that moment because there was only one cameraman and not even a soundman, so it’s really a miracle. But we knew immediately,” Meehl said.
8. Buck Was Initially Hesitant About Getting Robert Redford Involved In The Film
Both Buck and Cindy have stories about Robert Redford’s involvement in the film, and how they went about roping him in (his interview makes for a crackling bit of journalism in the mostly very laid back movie).
“Early on, Cindy asked me if I would ask Redford to do a piece on the documentary. And I said ‘No.’ The reason why was Bob and I are friends and I don’t want to put him in a position that if I ask him to do something that he doesn’t really want to do, he would say yes because of our friendship. I want him to feel comfortable to saying no if he didn’t want to do it,” Buck said. “I’m just not one for leaning on my friends and asking them to do things. So I said, ‘If you guys want to contact him on your own, that’s fine. Because if he really doesn’t want to do it, I don’t want to ask him.’ And they did, which is where Cindy comes in.”
“I did have some other friends that knew him. They told me how to get in touch with him and we talked to his assistant and she was so patient with us and so nice. He’s very busy and we were busy and getting our schedules together was a near impossible feat. We’d call him almost every week and say, ‘How’s it looking?’ So we just kept in touch. He really wanted to do it,” Cindy explains about eventually roping in the legendary actor and director. “The important thing was that it was important to him. He had grown fond of Buck during the shoot [of ‘The Horse Whisperer’] and realized how important his message was. He was very generous because he hadn’t heard of me because I hadn’t done anything before. To put himself out there and let a first time director come in and interview him took a lot of trust. But I guess he trusted Buck enough to believe if Buck had entered into this, he was on board. We are forever grateful.”
9. The Sundance Premiere Of The Film Was A Trip Down Memory Lane For Buck
In one of those serendipitous turns, “Buck” ended up premiering at Redford’s Sundance Film Festival allowing Buck to reminisce with the actor/director. “I told him, ‘When I was watching your interview it kind of took me back to that summer we spent in Montana doing ‘The Horse Whisperer.’ And it was one of the best summers I’ve had. He said, ‘I felt the same way when I saw it!’ Because that was back in ’97 when we filmed it. He said it was one of the best times he ever had shooting a movie,” Buck told us.
Not that Redford had been totally out of touch. After Buck suffered a serious injury a few years back (playing basketball of all things), one that left him with the possible outcome of being confined to a wheelchair due to excessive nerve damage, Sundance himself came through. “I’ll be damned if somehow Bob heard about it and wrote me a long letter and gee, it really meant a lot. Because he was right in the midst of doing ‘Bagger Vance‘ so he didn’t have time to sit down and write somebody an epic letter. But he did anyway.”
10. You Want More? The Forthcoming DVD Will Have Scenes That Didn’t Make It To Theaters
Since they were working with more than 300 hours of raw footage, obviously some stuff had to be jettisoned. “We had lots of stories and lots of background people that had stories but at the end of the day it was a story that was meant to give inspiration and hope and I didn’t want to focus on the horror and trauma of his childhood. It was very much a part of his life and a part of the story and needed to be told – you can live through this and come out on the other side.”
But you will see more on the DVD. In fact she was in the process of submitting some deleted material to IFC for the eventual home video release. “We took out a lot of scenes that we loved, that broke our hearts, little snippets of this and that. The DVD will strike a good balance between deleted scenes and other material.”
“Buck” opens in New York and Los Angeles today and across the country next Friday.