I ran into Buck Brannaman on the main drag at Sundance this January, decked out in his cowboy boots and hat, spreading warmth and cheer as he moved down the street. The guy's a star: the magic charisma that works on horses, no matter how disturbed, shines out of him in person, too. He's the guy who inspired Robert Redford's 1998 The Horse Whisperer; he hit it off with the filmmaker/star on that film during "one of the finest summers I can remember," and was delighted to hang with him opening night in Park City. For the past decade Brannaman and Redford have been busy "doing our own thing," Brannaman says. "We have not been able to spend time. This was a great reunion for us." The two men hope to go fly fishing this summer.
IFC's Sundance Selects acquired Buck, which won audience awards at Sundance and the Provincetown Film Festival, and is releasing it in theaters around the country; critics have raved (it's 87% fresh) and it has grossed more than $1 million since June 17. More from Brannaman and the trailer, below.
The doc is a heart-tugger that could win Academy voters' hearts. Even Brannaman can't watch the film "without getting all teared up and emotional," he says. "Maybe spending my life in a worthy cause is really touching for me. I've been doing this for 29 years. I don't always do it right but I try every week to do the right thing. Sometimes with a tough horse, working with people, something happens on a personal level to effect someone in a positive way. It's a humbling thing to be a part of the fabric of a person's life."
Filmmaker Cindy Meehl found out about the horse whisperer by taking a few of Brannaman's horse clinics, which he conducts 40 weeks a year. Others had approached Brannaman over the years with various film ideas that didn't pan out, so he told himself: "'We'll see if she can follow it through and get it done.' She damned sure did."
The moving part of Brannaman's story is how his own abusive upbringing forged his attitude toward both horses and humans. In his 2001 memoir, Faraway Horses, "I wanted people to realize that sometimes there's a happy ending to a life," he says. "You can start out in despair, and the conventional wisdom says that with a dark beginning you follow the same cycle as the parents. Sometimes people make good choices. I wanted the book to be encouraging to people who are having a tough time: it might not always be that way."
By participating openly with the documentary, Brannaman wanted people to "know more about me and empathize and understand, the way I empathize," he says.
The most disturbing story in the film shows Brannaman failing to heal a damaged horse and owner. "That choice she made in her situation [to euthanize an untractable horse] was the best choice. You can see that as long as I was there in the corral we were progressing. I didn't have to be gone but a few minutes when Dan, who has experience, found the horse to be more than he could handle. If I couldn't be with the horse every second of the day, without me, someone could have gotten hurt or killed. That horse's life shouldn't have ended up that way. There's a responsiblity to helping them get along in the world."
Brannaman found out recently that the girl was returning to his California clinic "with a horse more suitable for her," he says. "She has to continue her search to help herself. I'm thrilled and excited she's going to be back, we have more to talk about."