The transformation from a
self-professed “artist and housewife” with no prior film experience to an
award-winning documentarian has been the journey of Cindy Meehl, 52, first time director of the recently released Buck (link to the trailer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IShjmWYuHZ0). Her metamorphosis began in 2003 after
attending one of Buck Brannaman’s riding clinics. Renowned for his gentle yet firm approach to
horse training (he was the inspiration for both the Nicolas Evans book The Horse Whisperer and the subsequent
Robert Redford film of the same name) those attending his clinics leave with
not only a greater understanding of their horses, but also themselves. As he says, ‘Horses are a mirror to your
soul. Sometimes you may not like what
you see, sometimes you will.” Recognizing his philosophies would appeal an
audience beyond the horse community was the catalyst behind Ms. Meehl’s start
as a filmmaker.
Emphasizing the importance of
taking risks and following your passion – and with talk of a possible Oscar
nomination - Ms. Meehl’s ‘second act’ as a filmmaker is both bold and
inspiring. I recently met with Ms Meehl at her farm in Connecticut, a property
that was the final home of Mark Twain, to discuss her journey:
Calder: What was your motivation for making a film, when you had no film
experience or training?
Cindy Meehl: My goal was to make something really
uplifting and inspirational. I didn’t NEED
to make a film; I really didn’t ever want to make a film. I needed
to make this film. I have a lot of people call me up say ‘“I walked
out of the theater just a changed person.”’ That sounds a little over the top
but still, to hear that someone feels that way, to feel that it hit them that
hard... People come up and say “‘I cried
through it and I don’t know why?’ “And I know why, because I see it happen over
and over -it just wakes up something, it just touches people.
JBC: Well, it’s one thing to have a
great idea, many people have great ideas, but it’s another to make them happen
and this is what I find most inspiring about you. Can you talk about your thought process?
CM: Well, I think you have to be doing things for
the right reasons. In this case,
especially, I didn’t go into it because I wanted to see my name in lights or
make the great American film. I went
into it knowing what this message was about and knowing if something moved me this much, to where I had that passion
in my heart, then I should really think about it. And I didn’t tell anyone – it was just this
little thing, a little voice in my head “‘this should be a film; this should be
JBC: And this was before you approached Buck?
CM: Oh yeah, yeah. I wouldn’t speak of it with anybody because I
knew they would look at me like I had two heads if I said “‘I’m going to go and
make a film.’” You know, at that point I
was an artist and a housewife. I really
appreciate that my friends didn’t mock me, to my face anyway (laughs). But it’s funny because in hindsight, I swear
no one ever seemed to raise an eyebrow about it, it just seemed like everybody took it in stride when I said ‘I’m
doing this’ and I just started doing it.
I think people who know me know that when I say I’m going to do
something, than I do it. I’m not one of those people who start talking about
doing something for a year and never does it – that’s something that annoys
Buck too. So that’s why I really sat on
it for several months, thinking about it.
And it was when I saw him again…it just hit me like a bolt of lightning;
this really needs to get done. And it
was very frightening too - it was really frightening - but I just thought, it
has to be done and I’m going to do it.
JBC: So it has to be done. What happens next?
CM: We were at McGinnis Meadow Ranch, which is really a great place
to go. They teach in Buck style and Buck
was doing a clinic there. It’s this huge
ranch in Montana. Beautiful, just
gorgeous. It’s where the opening scene
was shot with the horses running in. You
eat all your meals on this beautiful deck outside and it’s just incredible
weather and he was sitting by himself – which is rare. At that time, I had been
with him in Texas a few months before so he had met me and knew who I was. So I just walked up to him -gathered all my
nerve (laughs) - and walked up to him and I reminded him who I was and said
‘have you ever thought about making a documentary?’ and he said ‘no’ and I said
’well, what do you think about doing one? I’d like to do it’ and he said ‘I
think that would be a good idea,’ very simple, understated. I said ‘good, I’ll get to work on that and
I’m going to need your phone number (laughs)’ so we found some little scrap of
paper - I mean it wasn’t even real paper, it was torn and he handed it to me
and I said ‘ok, I’m going to get back to you’ and I KNEW from that moment, that
I had to figure it out.
JBC: Was he aware that you hadn’t made
a film before?
CM: I always wondered for sure, and don’t think I ever got a real
straight answer. I’m not sure that he knew I WASN’T a filmmaker already. He knew I was some girl from the East Coast
and so isn’t everyone doing something in fashion, the movie industry or finance
(laughs)? I don’t know but he didn’t
seem to skip a beat when he said yeah, I could do it.
JBC: I know you say you were just an
artist and housewife but is there anything in your background that helped give
you the courage to try this?
CM: Well, through my life, I
have had a precedent of doing things like that. You have to learn not to listen
to people because everyone is going to tell you can’t do something. I had gone to Miss State Univ, so my fashion
education – it was a GREAT school – but it really wasn’t high fashion. I went to NYC and people said ‘you can’t just
go and be a designer’ when I was 22 and I was like ‘Well, why not? I have these
great ideas’ and I had these guys I was working with and we kind of just barged
into Bergdorf Goodman one day with an armful of dresses and we were in their
window a few months later! So therefore, I’ve sort of learned don’t listen to
people who tell you that you have do things a certain way, go through these
certain stages. And I think I have some
JBC: Why did you stop designing?
CM: I ended up getting
disillusioned with the business. I was
doing pretty well, better than ever, but I just realized that I either was
going to grow the business and take this huge leap - and I was already working
really hard, around the clock. I just realized it would suck everything out of
my life and my soul to do it.
JBC: Your story is certainly very
inspirational. Did you ever get
CM: I’m a very big proponent of - and this is one of my favorite
quotes - ‘where your mind goes, energy flows’ and its true. I mean, if you REALLY focus on something and
you want it …my whole life is like that – things come to me in this very
magical way and it’s hard to describe.
It’s kind of about the law of attraction and what you really focus on,
what you really want, you attract. And
if you start thinking about all these things that you DON’T want – which a lot
of people do – you just get more of THAT.
I think about what I DO want and then that comes to me. I don’t think about why I shouldn’t make a
movie and why that’s a crazy, impossible, stupid idea. I think about why I want to do it and that
brings it to me. I mean, it’s just – I
think it’s obvious by the fact that Julie Goldman [Producer], Andrea Meditch
[Co-Executive Producer/Creative Consultant]and this incredible team of people
who are SO seasoned in documentaries, I mean Oscar winning documentaries, the fact that they would even entertain the
idea of making a film with me just blew my mind. I mean, that shouldn’t happen.
JBC: So you ask Buck, he says yes then
what was your next step? How did you go about finding someone to produce the
film, as a first time filmmaker? Did you
know Julie Goldman before (Producer)?
CM: I didn’t start with Julie,
actually. I started with a friend of my
husband’s who was a wonderful woman who had done documentaries for CNN and we
pulled in a camera crew and started shooting and I just, I realized that things
weren’t [being done] really the way I saw it - I had a vision. There were a
couple of teams that helped me, helped me grow and learn along the way. But, and this is what I think made the
difference and what, if I had to give any advice to any young person, is that
sometimes you have to follow your heart and you have to trust that little voice
in your head and the knowledge you have and if something’s not working, you
change it. And that’s a big message of Buck’s: If something’s not working,
you change it. Life is all about
your choices…you can’t control a lot of things and bad things happen but you
can still make good choices. And sometimes you take a risk.
JBC: It sounds like you’ve taken a lot
of risks – what was the scariest part of this for you?
CM: The scariest part for me
was often making changes - making changes when you feel like things weren’t
JBC: So you replaced your original
CM: Well, I had a couple teams
and – again – wonderful people, talented people, good people – but not matching
my vision and so I was introduced to Andrea Meditch and Julie Goldman at a
Were any of them horse people?
CM: Well, that was the key, I think.
Andrea like horses and Andrea had ridden and rides occasionally and so
finally, I think she saw what he was doing, she realized that it was unusual
whereas I think if you didn’t know something about horses that you may not
quite catch how remarkable he is and some people just think, ‘well isn’t that
they way everybody does it?’ and it’s not.
JBC: Also, from an aesthetic point of
view, I imagine it was helpful to have someone that understands horses.
CM: Yeah, oh yeah, definitely.
You do need to track in front of the horse and shoot wide. And I had a lot of trouble because I wasn’t
really directing the camera. I’d look at film and see how they had totally
missed the horse doing something. And it
was my fault. I totally blame myself –
it was not their fault – they were shooting the man or whatever, but I knew
from a horse person’s standpoint that you HAVE to get the horse. The whole horse. His feet, don’t cut him off at the knees,
don’t cut his ears off, the ears mean something. As a horse person, you are going to look at
the eyes, you’re going to look at the ears, you’re going to look where they are
stepping. I mean, somebody else may not ever
care to see that but I’m trying to please everybody.
Can you talk a little more about that, how you set up shots? Did you
storyboard it or did you just let things play out?
CM: Well, it depended on what
we were shooting. If were shooting
horses at a clinic we would just let it flow because you don’t know what’s
going to happen. He always talks at the
beginning of each clinic – there are two sessions and he wraps up with a talk –
I knew that there were just pearls all through that, these great “Buck-isms,”
and cowboy wisdom. And, here again, you
had to really keep on it because some of the camera men would say ‘we’ve done
this clinic’ and I would be saying ‘no, no, no.
You’ve got to keep shooting’ and that was tough. Early on I didn’t quite have the chutzpah to
say ‘go down there and shoot that…’
JBC: I imagine that would be pretty
CM: I was a bit timid about it but I definitely picked up steam as I
JBC: So getting back to your team, you
get introduced to Andrea Meditch and Julie Goldman and they brought in the
CM: Yes, she [Julie] brought on Alice Henty [Line Producer] and Sofia
Santana [Assoc Producer] and everybody was great - the hardcore team was all
that intentional or did it just play out like that?
CM: It played out like that
but I also was really comfortable with it.
I’ve seen how it works and I’m not trashing men at all - I love my
husband of 23 years (laughing) but guys a lot times just want to take over and
sometimes bulldoze their way through something and - I know it’s not all men I
don’t want to make any blanket statements - but I have found that as long as
you get women that don’t want a lot of drama- it can really work. And that’s what I loved about this team. Nobody wanted drama. We were very non-drama orientated. We were all about the work.
JBC: And everyone had different
CM: Yes, definitely. And Toby
Shimin [Editor] is a woman. You know,
people may think she’s a man but she’s a woman and she was phenomenal. She really structured the story and the
pacing. The pacing was really terrific -
and that was Toby.
JBC: Beyond the pacing and the
narrative, everything was so beautifully filmed, that pivotal scene with the
predator horse, for example.
CM: That was another one of
those miraculous things. That was ONE
cameraman who had gone out on sort of a scout shoot. He was very much a verite’ shooter and he
didn’t have a sound person, so all the sound you hear of Buck when, as they
say, he gave her the dressing down while standing there – that was mostly just
from his camera.
JBC: That’s amazing.
CM: It was amazing. To be in the right place at the right time
and that attack – I mean, you would only get that once in a lifetime.
JBC: The woman in that segment
was very brave, to allow that to be filmed and shown.
CM: She was very brave and she loved that horse and it was so tragic.
JBC: You could tell she loved that
horse, it came through and you made it clear that she had done the best she
knew how and maybe her tact wasn’t the right one but her heart had been in the
CM: And here again, we get back
to choices. A lot of people make choices
with the best intentions but if they are not working out then you really do
need to change something. Look at what’s
going on and change something and take that leap. And you know, maybe that won’t work either
but at least you’ve got to get off that path.
And it’s scary and often frightening and I think that’s why people don’t
change as much.
Do you now have the bug to make more films?
CM: You know, I have the bug for doing something that would be
inspirational and help people. To me that’s what it’s all about. My frame of
reference is this film, period, which is really kind of scary because I know
that this will be almost impossible to duplicate - it’s just become a phenomenon.
seems like there is a market or need for that, when you see how this film has
CM: I think so and to be able to do that with a film … rarely does
any film get off the ground. Any
film. And a documentary? I think this film
resonates with people with horses and without horses – it really doesn’t matter
at all. And that is something. I don’t think I would ever work that hard
again unless I thought I could have that kind of outcome.
JBC: Again, the film is so beautiful, especially
the opening scene with the horses running in from the field and the three
cowboys, one of which is Buck, in the background.
CM: Well, that shot really takes you into that world immediately. I felt that it showed this is what you’re
about to see and what it’s about. These
natural moving horses in a really beautiful surreal setting and there’s these
cowboys coming in because that’s what they do.
And he is a real cowboy, at the end of the day. He’s not posing and I love it.
The DVD of “Buck”
was recently released with additional footage and interviews and the film was
the winner of the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, along with many