Redford's Real Horse Whisperer Stars in 'Buck' Doc

Sundance Film Festival - Buck Movie Still - 2011
Courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival

Cindy Meehl's Buck, a Cedar Creek Productions documentary about the amazing, revolutionary, almost spiritual horse trainer Buck Brannaman, made the Oscar shortlist and Roger Ebert's list of the Best Documentaries of 2011. Meehl tells The Hollywood Reporter how she made a hit her first time in the director's saddle.

THR: Brannaman inspired the novel and the 1998 film The Horse Whisperer, and Robert Redford explains in your film how as a consultant, Brannaman helped him nail some of the trickiest scenes in his movie -- including a sensitive scene with a horse that did great things for young Scarlett Johansson's career. But why do this movie so long after Redford's film?

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Meehl: Because when I was trying to describe to people what this man does, I'd say "The Horse Whisperer," and they'd go, "Oh, yeah, I understand." We use The Horse Whisperer in the movie, but it's not just about that. I met Buck by taking one of his horse training clinics, and I realized how much better his method is than what I'd been doing all my life. I was taught you squeeze every step out of the horse, by being tight on the reins -- I used to have very large arm muscles, and I'm not that big of a girl. But Buck is the opposite of that. He's all about, "A horse can feel a fly land on his butt in a rainstorm." And of course that's true. Once you get a dialogue going with a horse, you don't need that pressure. It's an enlightening way to ride, and it's basically common sense.

THR: Buck reminds me (and Ebert) of the Emmy-winning Claire Danes HBO movie Temple Grandin, about the cattle-chute designer who revolutionized that industry by being in psychological sync with the animals.

Meehl: Yeah, that's a good analogy. It's just realizing how they think and learn.

THR: But the movie is also about the experience that made Brannaman grow up to be so sensitive: he was abused by his violent father. Your telling of his family story reminds me of the traumatizing father-son story in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.

Meehl: I haven't seen that, but my husband's in the Writers Guild, and that screener just arrived. I better watch it. The real message of Buck's story is you can overcome what's in your past.

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THR: Brannaman shows a lot more understanding for his abusive parent than Christina Crawford did in Mommie Dearest, another movie yours reminds me a little of. He really is wise. But for a movie about men, how come everybody involved in making Buck is a woman? Like your editor Toby Shimin, who got an Emmy nom for Seabiscuit?

Meehl: We had a great team of women. Toby -- I don't think she slept for eight months. We had 320 hours of footage, with two or, one time, three cameras. Buck has all these wonderful stories, and he speaks like a sage. You don't want to cut any of it. She made a story out of it.

THR: Did you ever think you'd ride your first movie so far?

Meehl: It's going around the world. We've sold the Middle East, Germany, New Zealand, the UK today. I had a guy from Africa come up and say I should go to Africa and do a movie there, because the way they train elephants is so cruel. We need an elephant whisperer to make that documentary.