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Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | "Buck" Director Cindy Meehl

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire January 7, 2011 at 4:02AM

A living legend in the horse world, Buck Brannaman was the inspiration for "The Horse Whisperer." For this true cowboy, horses are a mirror of the human soul. Reared by an abusive father, Buck eschews violence. By teaching people to communicate with horses through instinct, not punishment, he frees the spirit of the horse and its human comrade. Crisscrossing the world with Zenlike wisdom, Buck promulgates grace in the bond between man and horse. The animal-human relationship becomes a perfect metaphor for meeting the challenges of daily life, whether they consist of raising kids, running a business, or finding your flow with a dance partner.
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A living legend in the horse world, Buck Brannaman was the inspiration for "The Horse Whisperer." For this true cowboy, horses are a mirror of the human soul. Reared by an abusive father, Buck eschews violence. By teaching people to communicate with horses through instinct, not punishment, he frees the spirit of the horse and its human comrade. Crisscrossing the world with Zenlike wisdom, Buck promulgates grace in the bond between man and horse. The animal-human relationship becomes a perfect metaphor for meeting the challenges of daily life, whether they consist of raising kids, running a business, or finding your flow with a dance partner.

What is extraordinary about Buck Brannaman, the man, leaps off the screen in this strikingly cinematic film by first-time director Cindy Meehl. Part guru, part psychologist, the adult Buck, who was once a beaten kid, has now beaten the odds. Buck Brannaman could transform your troubled horse. "Buck" the movie may transform your soul. [Description courtesy of the Sundance Institute]

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the World Dramatic & Documentary Competitions and NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

"Buck
U.S. Documentary
Director: Cindy Meehl
Producer: Julie Goldman
Associate Producer: Sofia Santana
Cinematographer: Guy Mossman, Luke Geissbuhler
Editor: Toby Shimin
Creative Consultant: Andrea Meditch
Line Producer: Alice Henty

Responses courtesy of "Buck" director Cindy Meehl.

The influence of photography and fashion.

I was drawn to filmmaking by a passion to tell this story. I knew if I could be so moved by this man and his message, then if I did it right, others would be moved, as well. I believe that where there’s a will, there’s a way, and certainly I knew I had the will. My background in art, photography and fashion helped to define the visual sense of the film.

A debut film that stems from a profound impression.

I met Buck at one of his clinics about 8 years ago, and he made a profound impression on me. Coming from a different discipline entirely, I didn’t think there was much I could learn from a cowboy. I was astounded to realize that no one had ever taught me as much about a horse as he did in those four days. However, there was also something even more compelling about him that was hard to explain. While his techniques are spectacular, it’s the life lessons he slips into his teachings that really seep into your soul. One of his big messages is, “If it’s not working, change it!” He doesn’t want excuses. He doesn’t let you be a victim. He makes you tougher.

I also read his book and discovered the powerful story of how he overcame his incredibly terrifying and violent childhood and now dedicates his life to helping people and horses. I had never made a film before, but it seemed the only way to share this man and his philosophy. I approached Buck at a clinic and asked him if he would be interested in making a documentary. He said he thought it was a good idea and I said I’d like to do it. It was a brief conversation of about two minutes and that was the beginning of well over two years of work that created "Buck."

More to the story than just riding and training horses.

I started by just filming Buck at his clinics. He is a born orator and is very entertaining and amusing when he is trying to tell you about horses. I also realized there was a lot more to his story than just riding and training horses. We traveled around the country filming Buck at work and met the people who are drawn to his clinics. We also met, and interviewed, Buck’s inner circle, his friends, his wife & daughters and his remarkable foster mother. We were able to film frequently enough to gather a great deal of intimate footage.

"Buck" director Cindy Meehl. [Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute]

I was well aware that in order for this story to be told, I would need to make a film about this very specific subject that would be accessible to a wide audience. It was producer Julie Goldman and our creative consultant Andrea Meditch who were able to see my vision and make it a reality. They were very brave to go the distance with me knowing I had not made a film before. The dedicated team that Julie and our Line Producer Alice Henty brought together was amazing.

Life, horses, and editing.

The biggest challenge was taking 300 hours of footage and cutting it down to 84 minutes. We had so many wonderful interviews with amazing people and so much of Buck on the subject of life as well as horses that editing the film was a difficult process. It was extremely hard to lose great scenes and stick to our story arc. I had an incredibly gifted editor, Toby Shimin, who is a master craftswoman and was tireless in cutting and re-cutting until we got it right.

Brannaman Luck.

Most of the people on my crews were from New York or CA. We would go to these shoots and suddenly be immersed in a culture that was totally foreign to them. Everyone really got into it. They were wearing cowboy hats and Western boots and they were in awe of the panoramic views. Another weird thing was that the weather always smiled on us. We could shoot all day without a problem and as soon as we would wrap, we’d get a torrential hail storm or lightning storm. We called it Brannaman Luck!

A fresh perspective, from a cowboy.

I think Buck’s story has a freshness that, if done right, could be very moving, especially in a time when the world is looking for direction. I would hope that the audience will come away from the film with a renewed sense of hope and inspiration. Buck has a unique way of encouraging people to do and see things that they thought were impossible. He can also make you see things in your own life that you may or may not want to see. He’s pretty straightforward in a tough cowboy kind of way, but maybe that’s what we all need right now.

Focusing on character and landscape.

I'm drawn to stories about people whose lives have been shaped by their passion. "Man on Wire," "The Cove," "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control," "Grizzly Man" -- they all have such strong characters who draw you into their worlds. I also appreciate how some documentaries have a real sense of place that takes on a character all its own and serves as a backdrop for the story. Herzog's "Encounters at the End of the World" or David Sington's "In the Shadow of the Moon" have a real sense of place that serves as a window into the character's lives. We consciously let the American landscapes take on a life of their own in "Buck" to set the tone and draw audiences into Buck's world and love of horses.

"Buck" at Sundance

I’m exploring a few projects, but right now I’m focusing on getting "Buck" out into the world. I am thrilled to be taking it to Sundance!

This article is related to: Interviews, Buck