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A New Career, Found on the Range

First-time moviemaker Cindy Meehl has a hit with Buck, her new documentary

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.

Cindy Meehl and Buck Brannaman at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival

Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Cindy Meehl and Buck Brannaman at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

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?

"You may think that because you’ve gone that far in life and you haven’t ever tried something, that it’s too late. And it’s never too late."

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.

Next: Counsel from an Oscar winner. >>

Q: Were there lessons from your previous careers that translated to the filmmaking process?

Cindy Meehl at the NY premiere of Buck

Photo by Chance Yeh/ Press/AP

<i>Buck</i> director Cindy Meehl.

A: Whether it was fashion design or photography or art or even setting a table, to me everything is creative. So I looked at it, and perhaps naively so, as, ‘Well, this is just another creative endeavor. I’m going to create this movie.’ Now, a year later, if you had asked me if I knew what I was getting into, I probably would have said no. It was a tremendous amount of work. But every little door just kept opening. Every little thing just started going right, and you start to think whatever this is, this is bigger than me, and I’m just going to go with it.

Q: What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome?

A: The movie took two and a half years to make, and I shot 300 hours of footage. I really enjoyed the filming process and going on the shoot, but I think that the editing — trying to take those 300 hours and be able to represent what Buck is about and to convey it — was really tricky. My editor Toby Shimin is just a genius. It took much longer than we thought it would, but we just wanted to get it right.

Q: Robert Redford, who consulted with Brannaman when he directed The Horse Whisperer, appears in the movie. Were there other established filmmakers you consulted with?

A: Redford was great and very generous, but he didn’t get involved in the actual filmmaking. [Oscar-winning Rain Man director] Barry Levinson lives in Reading, and there were a few times when I was just stuck and I called him to get some neighborly advice. That was really nice.

Q: If you had started your filmmaking career at a younger age, do you think you would have told this story any differently?

A: I think that I told the story from my heart, so I don’t think the story would have been different. In a way, I think [inexperience] was to my advantage I would hear these negative things, and perhaps if I had been in the business a while, I could have talked myself out of doing it. People always want to give you reasons not to do something, and I think that in this case, it was such a great lesson. I felt like — I don’t know how I’m going to do it exactly, but I feel confident that I can, and I’m just going to persevere.

Q: What was it like to win an Audience Award at Sundance?

A: It was amazing. Just getting into Sundance was incredible. I couldn’t get over it. I was so hoping that’s where we’d premiere. And from the first screening, we had about 500 people in the audience and they were on their feet, crying and clapping, huge standing ovations. I had never been through any of this, and I thought it was great.

Q: For many reasons, these days so many people over 50 are contemplating new careers and new directions in their lives. Given your success, what advice would you give them?

A: I think that you really need to be open and seize the moment. You may think that because you’ve gone that far in life and you haven’t ever tried something, that it’s too late. And it’s never too late. You have to get in there — and you also have to realize that it’s going to be hard. I think people give up too easily. You can’t do that. There’s great reward in hard work.