When Cindy Meehl turned 50, she was already an established fashion designer, artist and photographer, raising two girls and living on a Reading, Connecticut horse farm with her husband Brian. Then she decided to make a movie.
See also: Jeff Bridges talks about True Grit.
Buck, Meehl’s directing debut about real-life horse whisperer Buck Brannaman, has become one of this year’s “it” documentaries. In January, the story of the cowboy’s unorthodox, gentle method of training horses, interwoven with the tale of his own horrifying childhood and how it shaped that method, galloped away with the U.S. Documentary Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. The movie, which opens across the country this weekend, has garnered rave reviews and could emerge as an Oscar contender. Not bad for a 54-year-old first-time moviemaker with no film training or background.
We spoke to Meehl, who still lives in Connecticut far from the Hollywood crowd, about her road to filmmaking and the success of Buck.
Q: You spent much of your career in fashion design. How did you make the leap to film?
A: The fashion design piece has gotten picked up a lot in the publicity for the movie. But I was a fashion designer back in the ’80s, when I lived in New York. I actually moved to Connecticut in the early ’90s and so that was really quite a while ago. I’ve been doing fine art and photography, and raising a family, and so [film] wasn’t really anything I had ever gone to school for or contemplated on any level. I really backed in to it. The movie found me, and then I found my moviemaking chops.
Q: How did the movie find you?
A: I’ve always been a horse person, and I had taken a horse that I was having problems with to one of Buck’s clinics in Pennsylvania. As I watched him I thought ‘Everyone should know this. Everyone should know the way he teaches.’ I had been raised taking tons of lessons, and yet I felt like I had never learned that much about the horse. It’s such a kinder, gentler way to be around your horse, and it’s so much more effective. What was even more profound was that the way he was teaching you to be with your horses translated so much to regular life. I call it “Cowboy Wisdom.” So I realized there was a broad message here, that he had a way of empowering you and teaching you things that you didn’t expect to get when you went to a horse clinic.
Q: Beyond his gentle training methods, what are the life lessons that Buck teaches at his horse clinics?
A: I think a lot of people get comfortable being the victim, and so there’s a lot of empowerment that he teaches. The people who come are striving to really improve their horses but also to improve their own lives. I realized early on that you weren’t going to teach someone this type of horsemanship in a movie. That’s just not going to happen so what I wanted to do is engage people into what he does with horses and what he does with people and their lives.