by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN Contributing Writer
To many people, all they know about Buck Brannaman is that he was the inspiration for both the book and the movie The Horse Whisperer. After watching the new documentary Buck, audiences will get a far more intimate feel for the soft-spoken cowboy. On the road for nine months a year, including regular stops in Washington, the relaxed everyman was excited about being in Seattle for the city's annual film festival, eager to showcase the film as well as catch up with friends from throughout the state in a far more relaxed setting than your usual county fair or rodeo.
'In the fall, I'm always over in Spanaway,' said Buck in his typically relaxed drawl. 'That's my last clinic of the year. It's kind of cool. There are tons of people from around here that I know, a lot of come over from Ellensburg and all around the state and from Oregon. In fact, I'll probably see a lot of them while I'm in town when the film screens. It's always good to meet up and re with old friends.'
'A lot of these people have known me for years and years. A lot of them knew me back in the day when I was struggling and could hardly get arrested, let alone get a documentary filmed about me. It's been an interesting trip, and interesting life, that's for sure.'
As interesting as that life has been, and as interesting it has continued to be, Buck director Cindy Meehl wasn't the first filmmaker to approach the cowboy about making a documentary about his life. But for all their talents and good intentions, he'd always declined. He wasn't especially willing to put himself in that sort of spotlight and was perfectly content to keep living the life he'd grown comfortable with.
'Don't even ask me why,' Brannaman admitted candidly, 'but when Cindy asked me something, I just immediately responded by saying, 'Go ahead. Do it.' People had been asking me over the years to do it and I'd always [refused] and that was the end of. It's a gamble, having someone basically try and tell your story. I've devoted my life to do something good with horses and people, and a poorly told story can be something that follows you around forever.'
'But I trusted Cindy - can't really explain it, but I did. I thought she would do a good job and she did. I knew she in no way would try and disappoint me.'
'I give a lot of credit to our editor, Toby Shimin,' said Meehl, doing her best to not be too flattered by her subject's comments. 'She took 300 hours of footage and was able to create this beautiful ebb and flow of the story. We had this great team of women working on the film. We weren't going to phone it in. Buck really expects a lot of you. He expects you to give it your best. I went in with that intention and I in no way ever wanted to disappoint Buck. It's his story and I wanted to showcase it as best as I possibly could.'
'No one let their ego get in the way. We really had this goal in mind with the film and [everyone] understood the goal I had in mind and the message I was trying to send. They understood what I saw in Buck and why it was important to make this film. We developed this visual story and we took it frame-by-frame. This didn't happen by accident. It really was a labor of love.'
'If something really beautiful happens with a horse, you can't do it again,' added Buck. 'That moment is lost forever. It won't happen again. Not with that horse. You can't plan those things. So they had to shoot so much so that when something cool happened with a horse, they wouldn't miss it. I couldn't believe how much they were shooting, but in retrospect, and after watching the film, I get it now. I understand why it took them so long to finally show it to me.'
It's the human element, however, that makes the documentary such a treat. Not only did Cindy and her team capture Buck engaging in magical, beautifully surreal moments of intimacy with horses, but they were also able to grab snippets of him relating to their owners in a way that's transcendent. The level of honesty these scenes revel in, the directness with which Buck is able to engage people, are the sequences that allow the film to ascend to an even higher plateau.
'I knew these moments existed,' said Meehl. 'It was another thing trying to capture them and then conveying their meaning. Even though you might see something that was wonderful, if I didn't think audiences would get it or understand the meaning behind what was taking place, I had to let that go. It was a dance - just like him and a horse. We had to try and get all these elements together and get the message across. That's what it was all about. That's what he's all about.'
'If you really think about it,' interjected Buck, 'the movie gives people a little bit of a window into my life and what I do. You can imagine what it is like for me when I'm traveling around the country and people ask me what it is I do. Well, unless you live it, it's hard to explain. I just most of the time tell people I travel around and ride horses, and that's good enough for them.'
'Horses and people aren't that far removed, and I deal with both equally. I treat everyone with respect and tell them what I believe to be the truth. If Cindy or others what to call that sort of thing 'magic,' that's up to them. So be it.'
Another focus of the film is the relationship between Buck and his teenage daughter Reata. This loving father doesn't get to spend as much time at home or with his family as he would like. At the same time, the bond between the pair is amazingly strong, and Meehl was able to capture many of these moments in the film.
'That's just great, isn't it?' Buck said with a smile. 'That's the best. I just love seeing me and her together. I could see those [scenes] a thousand times. Even though I'm gone a lot, when we're together we really do have some quality time. I got to thinking about it, and I've maybe had more quality time with my daughter than most people do. These days, most couples have to work, the both of them, so the kids don't get to see them. At day, they're in school. At night, everybody's tired and either doing their homework or making dinner or getting ready for the next day, so that's not really quality time. On the weekends, everyone is busy with projects or with this or with that, so that's not really quality time, either.'
'Well, for all these past years, Reata would go with me every summer. We were around one another 24 hours a day, but it was in an environment where there is no monotony to it. We're traveling and seeing cool places and we both like to ride horses and we both like to rope. We enjoy all the same things. So, during that three-month period every year, it's just the best. That's quality time. Next year she's going to be a [high school] senior, so this will be the last summer. She's going to have to go to college and push away and do her own thing. Let me tell you, letting go is hard, especially when it's someone you love so much. But it's got to be done. Got to be done.'
On the topic of things that must be done, one of the most poignant and affecting parts of the film deal with a horse Buck is sadly unable to save, and the owner who must take accountability for how it turned out. The whole sequence becomes a meditation on the choices life puts in front of people and how the decisions we make have lasting impact on both ourselves and the world around us. It's a moving sequence, one that speaks volumes, but one that isn't entirely easy to sit through.
'With a horse like that,' said Buck with a sigh, 'one that is brain-damaged and very spoiled, it was such a backwards existence that it had. The horse had so many things going against it that you could go for a long, long period of time, but every day that you started with him again, you'd never have known he'd learned anything the day before. Even if he had quit on a good note and seemed to learn what you were trying to teach him, it was all gone the next morning. But while he just might be as dangerous the next day as he was on the first, it might be weeks or it might be a few months, but one day, even if he is less mentally capable as another horse might be, something might carry over and you could be on the path to teaching him.'
'The problem is, without those weeks or months of intensive care and teaching, who can send that horse home with an owner who might not be aware enough of things that they might get themselves injured or killed? That would have been an easy horse to die with, and the margin of error was so paper-thin. With that [owner], it was almost a guarantee she was going to get hurt because of her having this horse.'
'For me, the big picture I hope people get is that if you're going to have a horse - or a dog, or a cat, or a child - with that choice comes responsibility. The responsibility of raising them and teaching them the difference between right and wrong. The responsibility of working with them and being with them no matter what afflictions they might have. A horse like that doesn't have that internal editor that says, 'Maybe you shouldn't do this,' and that's in many ways no different than a handicapped child being able to recognize the difference between right and wrong. It takes a little more effort, a little more guidance. It's a bigger challenge, but I just hope people realize there's a greater responsibility in life and if you don't rise up to meet them sometimes, the consequences are tragic.'
In the end, both Brannaman and Meehl couldn't be happier with the finished film, and their hopes that audiences will be moved are obvious. 'I love the film,' beamed Buck, 'I really do. I think Cindy did an outstanding job.'
'I want people to take a message of hope and inspiration away from this film,' said Meehl. 'A part of what I really love about what Buck teaches is that if something isn't working, then you change it. You don't have to take all of the baggage you have in your life with you. You can leave it. Just let it be. I love that.'
'[A mentor] told me one time,' mused Buck, 'probably before I was even ready to hear it, he said, 'Don't treat 'em the way that they are, treat 'em the way you'd like 'em to be.' The day he told me that I wondered if he was talking about horses or people. Or course, years later I realized he was talking about both. I had to digest on it for a while before it had some meaning. Now I remind myself of that as often as I can.'
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