There’s absolutely no way on God’s green-pastured, stallion-roaming earth you could POSSIBLY convince me that “Buck” would bring me to tears. I can’t stand horses. The thought of enduring 88 minutes with a boot ‘n bolo-wearing cowboy seemed like one big cinematic saddle sore. Before entering the theater, I was already smelling cow-pies and swatting flies.
During three weeks at the 2011 Seattle International Film Festival, I’d spent vicarious company with hyper-violent gangsters, abused women, and coke-snorting roadies. It was a tough slog. Worse yet, I’d failed to track down that one, stand-out gem that prompts a true emotional wallop.
Until a screening of Cindy Meehl’s “Buck.” Suddenly, the sun had come out.
Often referred to as the real-life “Horse Whisperer,” Buck Brannaman tames wild horses. Beatings and lashes don’t take up space in his tool-box of training tricks. Instead, this quietly commanding gentleman employs patience and trust to calm these majestic animals. The transformations are magical, impacting not only the horses, but their often-troubled owners.
In a distinctively deep, Johnny Cash-style voice, Brannaman describes spending forty weeks a year on the road, planting his traveling clinic in smalls towns like Pendleton, Oregon and Beeville, Texas. His mission? “Helping horses with people problems.” Honing in on equine behavior, the perceptive rider can often identify emotional ripples impacting the horse’s owner. “People bring baggage,” he confirms in the film.
Brannaman has his own baggage. From the age of three, the young roper took his talents on the road with dad and brother. In 1970, the two siblings appeared on television commercials as Kellogg’s “Sugar Pops” kids. It should have been a “fun time,” he reports onscreen, except for one horrific problem. “My dad beat us mercilessly.”
The abuse was brutal, dealt out on a regular basis. His voice trembling and eyes misty, a longtime friend of Brannaman reflects on these dark times. “Buck didn’t want to shower in P.E.,” explains the fellow cowboy in front of Meehl’s revealing lens, “because of the welts on his back.” A school coach intervened, assuring Brannaman that his father would never beat him again.
The abused young roper was soon taken into the custody of foster parents Forrest and Betsy Shirley. “Buck” spends considerable time observing Betsy’s life-changing influence. Thick brown curls and goggle-sized sunglasses can’t begin to hide a heart the size of Mt. Everest. Betsy raised 23 foster sons, describing the positive energy and controlled chaos as “a zoo.” She’s a wickedly wise wordsmith. Her matronly mantra? “Blessed are the flexible, so they don’t get out of shape.”
Brannaman’s astonishing skills are inspiring to watch. Brandishing only a short, flag-like training stick, he facilitates an almost spiritual dance with the horse. He’s firm, but not cruel. His boots step back. Hooves tentatively inch forward. Panicked whinnying soon dissipates into a calm silence. Clearly, this subtle negotiation between man and horse is rooted in trust.
He refers to colts as “youngsters,” pointing out that patience is the crucial element in bonding with a younger horse. “He’s never had a saddle on his back, or a bit in his mouth,” explains this fiercely empathic cowboy. “Then the hides of other dead animals are strapped around him.”
Surely Brannaman is a charismatic, compelling character. But “Buck” would never hit full gallop without Meehl’s brilliant balance of images both mystic and mundane. A well-traveled truck cab strewn with coffee cups and peanut wrappers. Brannaman’s teen-aged daughter lovingly referring to her doting dad as a “travel Nazi,” with his own stubborn way of doing things. Majestic, bird’s eye tracking shots of endless green pastures. Brown earth kicked up by a frantic white stallion. Meehl nails this striking contrast between tiring travel and breathtaking natural beauty with graceful control.
Amazingly, moviemaking is new frontier for Meehl. “Buck” is her first film. A reflection of my own, self-confessed personal bias, it surprised me that “Buck” was helmed by a one-time fashion designer from New York City, and not some saddle-savvy rider from Big Sky Country. Meehl collaborated with a predominantly female crew to bring her debut documentary to fruition.
“Buck” is an extraordinary movie. It’s a hopeful film, but not in a bland, saccharine kind of way. Darkness shadows Brannaman’s tough story. Prospective audiences with an aversion to the Hallmark Channel should be careful not to misread “Buck” as sentimental fluff. It’s anything but.
Dressed casually in blue jeans and white rancher’s hat, Brannaman is promoting “Buck” from a press room during a frantic round of SIFF interviews. Sitting alongside this temporarily urban cowboy is the blonde Meehl, sporting a navy-blue blouse. The unlikely duo behind “Buck” were kind enough to engage me in a lively discussion touching on the pain of film editing, how modern technology has crippled human communication, and the admirable act of “feeding the cows.”
“Buck” is a film about much more than horses. It’s about people. But I would imagine it was difficult to sell the project to producers.
Cindy: That was the big challenge when making the film. We kept cutting more and more out of it, because we realized that we weren’t gonna teach everything that Buck does in an hour and a half. We brought in more people, making it a human story. It’s about them. No matter who you are, or whether you like horses or not, this film relates to you. That’s what we’ve heard over and over at film festivals. People want to see it more than one time, because it’s about them.
After going through a trauma – for example, soldiers returning from war – there is often a certain hyper-vigilance about interacting with other people. What are the most crucial ingredients for re-gaining that ability to trust others?
Buck: When you’re put into a situation (working with horses), to where the table is turned… where the only way that you can be successful is for YOU to be trusted, then by the time you come out the other side, you trust THEM. But you have to make some changes within yourself to be able to approach the horse, especially a horse that is unsure, and thinking he might need to save his life, rather than accept you. These changes can then make you more trusting and more open -maybe have a better way of communicating than what you did when you started. So it sort of works in reverse, oddly enough.
We live in an age where much of our communication is virtual – Facebook, and so on. There’s less focus on nuance or face-to-face interaction. Is there something lost in that? Something gained? What are your thoughts?
Cindy: I think we’ve lost SO much to high technology. We’ve gained a lot, but at the same time, it’s so easy to type out an answer to somebody, or put out a message that goes out to a lot of people very quickly. We’ve lost some of that personal, sensitive communication, like you would have with a horse. There’s sensitivity about being in its presence. It’s the same with people. I would love to see more of that come back, where people don’t do everything automatically and electronically.
Buck: In working around horses, when you get to where you’re pretty comfortable around them and understand how to set things up where your idea becomes theirs, there’s an awareness that has to become pretty finely honed. A keenness about the horses. Because of where we are in this modern day and age, people have lost something in that. It’s not really primal, but it is a keenness. I don’t think that a disconnect with nature does people much good. Through working with these horses, I think people really do connect a little bit more with nature. This should have never been lost in the first place. When you get some of those skills and some of that knowledge, then you can take it and you can use it somewhere else. You don’t necessarily have to have a horse. It’s amazing how those things apply to life in general.
Cindy, after shooting “Buck” you ended up with 300 hours of footage. You had to cut it down to 88 minutes. This was your baby, but the story has to be told in a manner that’s palatable for viewers and condensed for theatrical release. Are there specific examples of things you reluctantly had to cut from the film?
Cindy: There were so many things we had to edit out. There was a story that Buck told, that was one of my favorites that I filmed. I fought for it until the end, but it didn’t make it in. I asked him in an interview, “So if you have the flu or something, do you still have to go to work?” He kind of rolled his eyes (laughter) and said, “Of course. If I’m sick, there’s nobody there to take my place.” He’s dedicated to his clinic. He knows that people have saved up to come there, or have planned their vacation around it. He said that when he was young, even if he had the sniffles or it was twenty below outside, the cows still needed to be fed. I thought that was so powerful, because in this day and age, you will skip work for a hangnail. People are so whiny about everything. I thought it was a very powerful message. So if I’m as tired as I can possibly be, after a super-long day, after this film I kind of think to myself, “You have to feed the cows.” I loved the story and the way he told it. That’s one of the many stories I had to cut.
Buck, with your support group of family and friends, has anyone given you a piece of life advice that you’ve applied over the years – a mantra, or self-talk phrase? It sounds like with Cindy, it’s now “Feed the Cows” (Laughter).
Buck: Through all of the years of studying horses and people, (horse trainer) Tom Dorrance once said, “You can learn anything with these three words – observe, remember, and compare.” He said that beyond that, learn to adjust to fit the situation. That always meant so much to me. The last time I was around Tom, he said, “Don’t treat them like they are. Treat them the way you’d like them to be.” At the time, I didn’t know whether he was talking about horses or people. Later, I realized that he was talking about both. I remind myself of that from time to time. Because sometimes, people might come into a clinic defensive, scared, upset, or emotional. The best part of the person isn’t gonna come out the first day. But if I do my part and help them along, I get an opportunity to see the best part of the person as time goes by.