The Horse Whisperer may be the stuff of Hollywood legend but the charismatic horseman who inspired the novel and the film is very real. For Buck Brannaman – a true cowboy who is also part guru and part philosopher – horses are a mirror of the human soul.
Buck is a richly textured and visually stunning documentary that follows Brannaman from his abusive childhood to his unusual approach to horse-training. By teaching people to communicate with horses through instinct, not punishment, we see him dramatically transform horses – and people – with his understanding, compassion and respect. The film is a truly American story about an unsung hero: an ordinary man who has made an extraordinary life despite tremendous odds. Hit the jump to check out our interview with Brannaman and director Cindy Meehl.
We sat down this week at a roundtable interview with Buck Brannaman and first-time director Cindy Meehl to talk about their remarkable film which won a Sundance audience award this year. They told us what inspired their talented collaboration, how they managed to capture some very challenging scenes on film, and why Buck has been so successful at helping horses with people problems by inspiring trust in both the horse and rider. They also talked about their upcoming projects including a feature film Buck is in negotiations to make based on his novel, The Faraway Horses.
Interviewer: Buck, how did it feel to be the focal point of this film and see your life and what you do for a living on the big screen?
Buck Brannaman: Well I guess I really haven’t thought about it all that much other than the fact that it gives us the opportunity to put this out there to people that aren’t necessarily horse owners, and that was something we’d talked about early on, that if it was just going to be something that appealed to horse people, there wasn’t a lot of point in doing it. But had seen early on that there was an awful lot of people that will never come in contact with me because they don’t have a horse and they’re not from that world, but she thought they’d enjoy and get something out of seeing this and realize that there are a lot of things that you can learn about horses that really does cross over to relationships with each other, especially with kids.
Cindy, what was the compelling thing about Buck that made you want to make this documentary?
Cindy Meehl: For me, because I’m a horse owner and I had grown up riding English, which is very different from Western or so I thought, and then when I discovered him, I realized he was teaching you how to speak horse, to speak and communicate with them in a way I’d never been taught. So that, for me, first and foremost, was so compelling that I thought everyone should know this that owns a horse. But I knew immediately too from being around him and the people that are around him that all of his lessons about the horses are really about your life and that it was such a people film as well. It would be such a great message for the world we live in today. I really feel like you almost go back in time where people communicate and they do care about the sensitivity and looking you in the eye. It’s just very real. You can cut through a lot of things that aren’t that important and you realize real quick sometimes and especially around a horse. It’s such a simple and yet complex and profound way of living just because it’s hard to get back to simple in this day and age, don’t you think. I mean, we’re so wrapped up in our technological world and everything moves at such a fast pace and you really can’t move that fast around a horse. You have to stop and take a breath and have patience.
Brannaman: Well, you know, I think too that the people that I’ve met, I mean, you’ll meet some people that’ll bring a horse there and you see how they get along with the horse or don’t get along and they’re doing everything that’s really contrary to a horse’s nature where they really don’t fit in with the horse. And it’s pretty easy to identify some things in their everyday life that gives them a bit of a hard time as well. What I’m saying is, the things that they might learn through working with a horse to where they become something really desirable to the horse, to where he accepts you and he wants to be around you and he’s even compelled to be with you, that there are some things within you that change. And then, if you’ve made those kind of changes within yourself, that horse really can’t stand to be away from you. There are things that change all through your life the way you deal with people, the way you approach problems. There have been so many times over the years where people have said “Man, I thought I was just coming to this deal to get a little handier with my horse” and I’ll say “Well, in the beginning, I thought that’s all you were coming for too. But it turns out it’s about something else, isn’t it?”
Sometimes it’s hard for people to hear the truth. What’s the range of reactions you get when you speak very straightforwardly to people like you did with that woman who had the damaged horse?
Brannaman: You sort of measure someone when they’re a student as to how you might approach them, but that’s not so different. That’s the same way you might measure a horse, you see, because there are going to be some horses that, like some people, they might be a little inclined to tune you out, kind of shut you out. Of course, that’s going to be relative to how they’ve been handled before I met them, and for those kind of horses, you might need to have your presence change in a way that you appear to be ten times your size in order to be effective. And yet you might have another horse that you know is very timid and very fragile, and it just wouldn’t take much to get him really lost and really afraid and you might have to appear to be one tenth your size. Theoretically, the human is supposed to be the smart one. Well, if we are, then we need to be able to adjust to fit the situation rather than just think “Well this is how you work with horses. I’ve done this on 500 just like you.” No, as you get acquainted with a horse, you explore what it’s going to take to get the point across and for him to understand what you’d like him to do and you’re trying to have as little trouble as possible. You’re trying to avoid conflict. You’re not trying to create it. Forty, fifty years ago, sort of the conventional wisdom is that you create conflict and you win. You conquer them. And unfortunately, that’s how some people deal with each other still. They might be critical of how the old cowboys worked with livestock a hundred years ago. Yeah, well people still deal with each other that same way. They’re just not cowboys. You can’t make something happen with a horse, but you can fix things up and let it happen. You think of setting things up in a way that eventually your idea becomes his and that’s a hard thing for some people to get through their head at first because they seem to think that the harder they push and the more they try to impose their will that that’s going to pay off. Well it doesn’t. And when they learn that about horses, that it’s not going to pay off, well then pretty soon they start to rethink how they might approach situations with other human beings as well. So it’s been an interesting thing. I had no idea what I was getting into when I started this deal but it sort of picked me and now it’s all I do.
Meehl: When that happened, because it is so unusual at his clinics, it was so traumatic for everybody that was there to be there and witness it. It was gut wrenching and I wasn’t going to use the footage. I just thought I can’t use this because I’m worried people are going to be afraid of horses. I’m worried that they’re going to take away a different message, that they’re going to think they’re going to come to a Buck clinic and this is going to happen when they come like a car race and I just thought it wasn’t what normally happened. I had seen him take that kind of horse a million times over and turn it around and the owner was riding it and everybody’s happy. We thought that’s what would happen but there was so much more to the story and the brain damage with this horse and it was so tragic. And yet that woman, I think, really loved that horse and had done the best that she knew how. That was what was in her toolbox so to speak.
Just not a very big toolbox, I guess?
Meehl: Yeah, we all have that. We all have the baggage. We all make bad choices. Who hasn’t? So I was very proud of her for letting us tell that story. Because then we realized as we were telling the story that placing it where we did people would then understand what they had learned earlier from Buck and how he was dealing with the horse. If we had put that at the beginning, you wouldn’t have had a clue what was going on with those flags.
Brannaman: The interesting thing too is, and it surprised me how few people have picked up on it, the most difficult horse you saw through the entire documentary is not that horse. It’s the sorrel horse that Bill Seaton rode for the girl named Paige. That was actually the most difficult horse of all the ones that you had the opportunity to see.
Meehl: But he wasn’t aggressive.
Brannaman: No, he wasn’t so lethal on the ground but he really wanted to buck somebody off. He thought there was absolutely no point in a human getting on his back and doing anything. And it worked out great. And, of course, Bill rode him around and just had a big time. But that was the most difficult horse. With this yellow horse, for me, the big picture was that I wanted everybody to learn through this was, whether you’re going to have horses or dogs or kids, with that comes responsibility. It’s not just a matter of putting a roof over their head and keeping them fed. You have a responsibility to be their caretaker and take care of them and teach them how to fit into the world and teach them what they need to do to survive, teach them right from wrong, and I’m happy about that, because of the fact that of the people that have seen this already, they really do get the bigger point to it. They get the big picture to that. And the other thing that was interesting to me that actually a person interviewing me the other day pointed out and I said “I’m real glad that you noticed that,” is he said “You know, I saw your foster mother in that documentary and I saw what she meant to you and what she did for you in your life.” And he said, “You know, that horse could have just as easily been you,” had I ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. And I said “I’m real pleased that you saw that.” So, if through this, in telling this story, if that yellow horse makes people think about responsibility, how maybe they would raise their kids or how they would raise a young horse, that horse will probably get more done in his brief life than a hundred horses would that died of old age. So, for the greater good, it was a story that needed to be told. If you noticed when I was working with the horse that first day, we got quite a bit accomplished. We got him saddled and he got ridden around, but as long as I’m there to sort of run things, the margin of error on a horse like that is so paper thin, if I wasn’t there every day with that girl, it was a guarantee that she was going to get hurt or killed, or worse yet, an innocent person. Maybe someone’s child would be somewhere near the horse. As attentive as a mother can be, she could look away for a few seconds and have that kid right there with that horse. So you look at something like that and for her to make the choice to put the horse down was the best choice for her and there wasn’t anybody more sad about that than me, believe me. Because it didn’t have to happen had someone taken care with that horse early on in his life. But I think some good could really come of it.
Meehl: In the afternoon, we had people stationed around the round pen because Buck went off and did his afternoon clinic, and every person that walked by, that horse would try to come over. And if we had just all walked away and didn’t leave people posted there, some little kid could have come up to that and said “Oh Mommy, look at this pretty horse, this cute horse,” and I have no doubt he would have just taken a hand or something like that. He actually bit Dan’s hand at one point when he was trying to get him back off the fence and he came over and he got his whole hand. We didn’t have that on tape but I was standing there when it happened and I’m like “Oh my God, I almost thought he took his whole hand off.”
Brannaman: See, when you work with troubled horses, if you have any experience at all, what you accept with it is, if you noticed when he left the corral the first day, there had been a change in the horse and things were better. But when you’re working with one that first of all, mentally even, isn’t a normal horse, you have to accept that it could be hundreds of days in a row that each day when you started off with him, it would be as if you hadn’t done anything the day before, like you’re starting from zero. Maybe it would be 100 days, maybe it would be 500 days, one day if you kept doing the right thing, one day some of it would carry over from the day before where you weren’t starting from zero again each day. It’s hard telling with a horse like that how long that might be. So there could have been a way out for the horse, but the only thing is, the margin of error was so thin with that horse, I can guarantee you that she couldn’t have survived a hundred days in a row dealing with that kind of situation without making a mistake. Dan made a mistake and he has a lot of experience, not near what I do, but he has a lot of experience and that horse was so far over Dan’s head. And she’ll never be as experienced as what Dan is, so there’s a moral choice there that you just kind of go, you know what, you’re not going to survive. And it is sad, but you’d be surprised how many horses around the world really that people just don’t do the right thing by the horse and some kids too.
Was there one scene that was particularly difficult to film?
Brannaman: Well, not for me. (laughs) Really throughout this thing, and this is what’s been interesting to me, the way it started off with typically for someone who’s going to do any kind of a film, they’re already a filmmaker and then they try to find something interesting to film. And the way this worked was, she had already found something that was interesting to her that she wanted to share with everyone else, and because of her passion for this, it created a filmmaker, so it was sort of the opposite order. So it started off kind of unique and then early on I just said “Cindy, this is the deal. I’m not delusional about any of this. I remember the people that came to the dance with me when the music started to play, the people that have been loyal to me all these years and have studied and worked hard with this.” I said “I’m not going to compromise anything about my clinics and these people that have been with me all along. So I’m not gonna go stand on a mark and let you do your thing and do things over and over again and say the same thing over and over again like we’re shooting a feature film. You need to find a way to anticipate what I’m going to be doing and what you think is going to be happening, because with a horse, when something special happens, it only is going to happen once. And if you missed it, well that moment is over forever. You can’t redo it.” She had to be real clever at being able to anticipate what was going to take place in real life. There was nothing really made up and there’s no way you can script that.
Brannaman: Yeah, it’s a lot.
Were you always filming with one or two cameras?
Meehl: Sometimes three. Toward the end, I realized we needed two cameras on Buck because so many people wouldn’t catch what he was doing. They’d go “Oh, that horse over there is acting up.” Well, as soon as you do that, Buck would do something brilliant. I just thought “Man, I can’t keep missing these things.” It’s very difficult filming moving targets. They were always moving. With horses, you never know which way they’re going to move, especially when it gets active.
As a documentary, this film has a terrific mythic Western feel to it with beautiful shots and a great style. Was that something you worked hard with your cinematographers to achieve?
Meehl: Here again, I learned as I went and we did shoot one whole clinic that was inside in Washington in an indoor arena and it was so dark. It was wonderful stuff. What he was saying and what he was doing was so amazing and everyone said this was one of his best clinics and all his students were great. But you just looked at it and every time you tried to fit it in…we kept trying to keep some of it in, but we finally cut it because it just looked like a cave compared to Betty Staley’s where it was so gorgeous. Some of it was trial and error and I really wanted it to look cinematic. I just thought in my head that I wanted it to look from the get go like a feature film. This isn’t a little cubicle TV documentary. I’m not knocking TV but I wanted it to be very cinematic and very much feel like a feature film and I think we’ve accomplished that because we have kids that often ask if those are actors and is this a movie. Some kids can’t quite tell the difference so I love that.
You also did a nice job with the narrative. You don’t give away everything at the beginning and the reveals were very nice.
Meehl: Toby Sherman was my editor and she was very much in charge of that pacing – the horse – human, horse – human. The childhood stories really call up the horse stories. It was very deliberate.
Brannaman: There’s a couple of ‘em they didn’t wanna let me in. (laughs)
Everyone coming out of the theater was so happy. It was obvious it was quite an emotional experience for the audience. How was that experience for you guys?
Brannaman: For me, I had never been to anything like that before so I didn’t really know what to expect and after the first screening or two, every time we’d get up for a Q & A after, there’d be a standing ovation after every single screening.
Meehl: Even the high school screening.
Brannaman: Yeah, even the kids. We had 2,000 kids. You know how high school boys are as far as focusing on anything and even they liked it. So, right then, I thought, you know, she might have hit a lick with this in that we wanted it to be something like you say that sort of touched the hearts of just people in general, because people aren’t so different. I was even apprehensive about doing this whole New York thing a week ago because I thought I don’t blend in all that good in New York City. But I couldn’t have been received more warmly by everybody and I realized that there are some things about all of us, no matter where we’re from, that we are connected and we are all still humans, and we are all still looking for the same sort of contentment in our life in one way or another. Some people are searching a little harder than others, granted. But we’re not so different. So now we’ve been bumping around here long enough that I don’t much mind where we go because I know I’m going to be around people that seem to care about the same things I care about. But that was the taste, at Sundance. Gee, I enjoyed it. I did. I had a big time. It’s a nice place to visit although I wouldn’t want to live there.
Meehl: It was exactly my dream to premiere there. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to premiere a film that had cowboys in it and people just loved the film. And here again, being my only frame of reference, I feel really totally blessed and jaded, all at the same time because I’d never been to Sundance. I’d never made a film. And so, to go to Sundance which I thought was the best film festival I could ever wish to be at to premiere the film, I just felt it couldn’t have gotten any better. I kept saying “Is this how it always is?” I remember asking my publicist, Cynthia, when she was taking us down to an interview, “Is this how it always goes?” I just didn’t know, I was so naïve about the whole thing. I was like “Is this how it usually works?” I don’t know if I should tell this story, but Cynthia never looked up. She went “Cindy, as long as I’ve ever come to Sundance, I’ve never worked on a hotter film.” And then I thought well, this must be good then. This must be special, because I didn’t know.
What’s next for you, Cindy?
Meehl: I have some things brewing. I’m going to really promote this film and we’re going to do some DVDs that are more educational from the same footage which are more for the horse people because I realized we couldn’t really teach the horsemanship in an hour and a half. I wanted to expose them to it and all the great things that come from this horsemanship, but this is going to be a lot more detailed and it will still have a lot of great Buck-isms and all that in there. We call them Buck-isms. :So we’re working on that and then I’m looking into something else that somebody’s asking me to do.
Meehl: Well we could do a TV series with this footage actually. There are so many great stories that didn’t make it in because we wanted to make it Buck’s story.
What’s next for you, Buck?
Brannaman: Well, probably in about a month, I’ll be back to being me driving down the road, working with horses and people, and I’m not really running away from anything. I’m running to it. I wrote this book, The Faraway Horses, a few years ago that really tells the story of my life in depth. We’re actually fairly close to making a deal on doing a feature film on my book.
Meehl: It’s not me.
Brannaman: But Cindy’s documentary has brought up the interest in the story and it’s not so much going to be a horse film. Of course, there’ll be some of that because the horse really defines me and has been such a great salvation for me and a rescue for me that there has to be a part of that. But we really wanted to tell the story in depth about me and my brother as kids and going through some of the very dark things that we went through as kids in order to encourage people that it’s not always a bad ending. You might have sort of a bad beginning but I just don’t accept that that’s the way it has to turn out. So I don’t feel like I’m really done with The Faraway Horses until we finish by doing this film. So it looks like that’s probably going to happen in the next year or two.
Does your brother still work with horses?
Brannaman: You know, he does a little bit. He spent his life in the Coast Guard. Right out of high school he joined the Coast Guard and spent 25 years at that and retired. He had a very distinguished career in the Coast Guard. He married and raised a family and he’s retired now and lives in Wisconsin. He rides a little bit here and there but doesn’t have to make his living off of riding horses. He really does it more as just something that he enjoys doing.
Buck opens in theaters on June 17th.