Stand Up and Cheer for the Underdog

How does a television show about animal rescue go from concept to completion? We interviewed two-time Academy Award-winning documentarian Bill Guttentag on the making of THAT ANIMAL RESCUE SHOW.

by Anna Cooke for The New Barker Dog Magazine

The entertainment industry has always been aware of the positive effect animals have on people. Some iconic movie examples include classics like Old YellerBambi and My Dog Skip, and remakes of The Call Of The Wild and Black Beauty.

The human-animal bond is a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship, positively influencing the health and well-being of both. In the docuseries, That Animal Rescue Show, the healing power of animals is the common thread in every species of animal showcased across all 10 episodes.

From Richard Linklater—the five-time Oscar-nominated filmmaker behind Boyhood and School of Rock—and two-time Academy Award–winning documentarian Bill Guttentag, this heart-tugging series tracks the animal rescue community in and around Linklater’s hometown of Austin, Texas. 

The subject matter and gentle tone of That Animal Rescue Show are a bit of a departure for Guttentag’s body of work, which includes Twin Towers, Nanking, and The Last Days of Kennedy and King. He told the Hollywood Reporter, “I think when you see people rescuing animals and animals rescuing people, it’s still meaningful. It’s part of our relationship with the natural world. And in this time, when people are encroaching on animals more than ever, I think we should be focusing on our relationship with them. Animals are extremely therapeutic. They’re important and they literally change people’s lives.”

Bill Guttentag and his dog Pingo. Photo credit: Marina Brodskaya.

We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Bill Guttentag via a video conference meeting. The beauty of this technology is that it allows us to see one another; to capture emotions as we speak to people across the country. Bill always had a subtle, gentle smile on his face and a sparkle in his eyes as he spoke about the animals in his latest project.

Anna: How does a concept go from light-bulb-over-the-head to a 10-part series about animal rescue?

Bill: A mutual friend introduced me to Rick Linklater. Rick has a pet pig named Dood, whom he adopted from Central Texas Pig Rescue. I thought, this is a real interesting world here, this world of pig adoption. Among other things, I learned about the whole issue around micro pigs, which is a myth. People think pigs stay small. Over a number of weeks, as Rick and I continued to talk, it became clear what an interesting place Central Texas Pig Rescue is, which we cover in episodes two and three in our series. 

But, there is a bigger world out there beyond pig rescue.  The series is more about how animals are rescuing people and people are rescuing animals. That’s where the human-animal bound is most profound.

Take Austin Pets Alive. The woman who runs it, Ellen Jefferson, came up through the ranks working at traditional animal shelters, where animals came into the shelter for a couple of days and then were euthanized for space. Ellen looked at the situation and wondered, why should it be this way? She became instrumental in creating Austin Pets Alive, now one of the largest no kill shelters in the country. Through their efforts, Austin Pets Alive has managed to save between 80,000 and 90,000 dogs and cats since 2008. And, their message is spreading across the country.

Anna: There is an obvious inspirational component to the series, which will hopefully motivate more people to become involved with rescue.

Bill: I think that stories like these really do inspire people, and give us hope. Another episode, Paws In Prison, is about women inmates who take in dogs from shelters. Most of the dogs have likely been scheduled to be euthanized. The inmates train and care for the dogs to make them adoptable. Right before your eyes, you see how the dogs are saving these women while the women work to save the dogs. It’s a really wonderful reciprocal relationship.

Pictured: Inmates and Catherine Laria of The Paws in Prison Program at the Lockhart Texas Correctional Facility on the CBS All Access docuseries THAT ANIMAL RESCUE SHOW. Photo Cr: CBS 2020 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Anna: Referring to that old W.C. Fields quote, “Never work with children or animals in film” did you have any doubts about creating a show around animals?

Bill: The beauty of working with animals is that they don’t take direction. Animals are very spontaneous and are going to do what they’re going to do. We were always surprised in good ways. We tried to capture them in the way that kept it all very authentic. You know, in filmmaking, you don’t really want people looking direct into the camera lens. But with animals, the whole idea is to see them at their level. So, we put the camera very low to the ground where you’re seeing the animal eye-to-eye. It was a little challenging for the camera person, especially when we were working with a small to medium size dog. But, it really looked good. It helped that everyone who worked on the series really loves animals.

Incidentally, most of the people who worked on the show are women and the main characters in the show are women. It’s a legitimate issue that people say there aren’t enough women in television. Well, here is a show that features women both in front of and behind the camera.

Anna: As you started researching stories, I’m sure you quickly realized the proliferation of inspirational stories about animals. How did you manage to narrow the subjects down for the series?

Bill: Yes, there are so many more stories. Rick said something to us which I thought was just great. He wanted to come up with 10 little documentaries that could all make it into Sundance Film Festival on their own. So, we narrowed the list down to the most compelling stories; the ones that really touched us – like more heart than head in a lot of ways. We were looking for a diversity of animals as well. We have a couple of episodes on pigs, a few on dogs. Cats factor into the show. We have a coyote episode and a goat episode. We have a couple of episodes on horses. We were looking for variety, in the same way that we didn’t want to do the entire series on pig rescue, we didn’t want to do an entire series on dog rescue. Although, my dog would have happily watched each episode on dogs. 

Rick and I just thought it would be interesting that every episode the audience tuned into would feature a different animal. And, hopefully for the viewer, they’re all compelling stories.

Anna: What’s the take away you hope to have conveyed to the audience? 

Bill: I hope people will connect with the show. There are a lot of pet owners in this country. But, that’s not reason enough to convince people to watch the show. We still, as filmmakers, have to deliver an emotional story in order to connect with our audience. One of the gratifying things about doing this series, is what I’m hearing from from people who are crazy about their dogs and people who don’t currently have pets. They have all told me that, while watching the series, they were able to really connect with our storytelling. So, I think there is something very profound about our relationships with dogs and cats and all animals, really. 

Anna: To get the idea off the ground and find support, how was it presented?

Bill: The entertainment industry is a combination of art and commerce. And, the art of it all is, ‘hey, this would be a pretty good series.’ Then, the question is, who’s going to do it? It turned out CBS All Access wanted to do it, which is a great home for the series. That connection came through our friend Julia Eisenman, who had a deal with CBS All Access and her production company. 

Once you say you’re going to do it, it’s like a startup in a way. You have this idea and you have someone backing you, but, you still have to deliver the product, in this case, the shows.

Anna: The entire series takes place in Central Texas, primarily Austin, completed in large part before the pandemic hit.

Bill: That’s right. We also used a lot of folks from Austin. There is a lot of Austin music in the show. I think around a hundred songs performed by Austin musicians. Again, we wanted to keep it authentic. I think too often a lot of people focus on the coasts for stories, as if the coasts are only places where things are happening. Austin is an enormously popular destination city and it’s not from coincidence. There’s a really rich culture, including Austin’s big music scene. There’s fantastic food. And, there are a lot of people who love and rescue animals. It was nice to be in a city like Austin to be filming. It’s a first rate city, and a first rate city to film in.

Anna: The show has an educational component as well.

Bill: Yes, and it’s presented in a warm, genuine way for a great experience. You’ll learn about the world of no kill shelters. You’ll learn about programs that help physically disabled children learn how to walk with the help of horses. You’ll learn that wildlife rescue is a growing phenomenon. You know, there was a time when people would swerve while driving to hit an animal on the road. Now, they pull over to rescue an injured animal. There are places like Austin Wildlife Rescue that rescue all manner of wildlife – whether it’s a hawk or a turtle or a coyote.

Anna: We’re finding our empathy in rescuing all manner of animals. There are more people who want to help rescue animals, but they aren’t aware of the resources available to help guide them.

Bill: We developed a website that correlates with the show that has more information. Where to take sick or injured wildlife for instance, and how to become a volunteer. (www.ThatAnimalRescueShow.com). The site has links to all of the rescue organizations featured in the series. It also has a way for people to look up local organizations by typing in their zip codes. 

Anna: Was there one thing that really struck you as moving, while filming the series or in editing?

Bill: In our first show, we feature a puppy without paws. We filmed the dog being fitted for prosthetics at the veterinary hospital. It was tough for this dog to adjust. The dog’s human companions were the most caring people, doing everything they could for the dog. With the prosthetics on, she was being encouraged to walk by a group of little girls. When the dog starts running and the girls start cheering, it’s just a beautiful moment.  Completely real. Completely authentic. It’s touching to see kids and animals interact. And, let me tell you, once you see the dog running with the prosthetics, it’s pretty clear that this dog is going to be okay.

Anna: In other episodes in the series, physically challenged children are encouraged by an animal’s resolve to overcome its own challenges.

Bill: Yes, that’s absolutely right. In our first episode, we meet Jamie Wallace. She and her family have a farm called Safe In Austin. There is a scene of a little boy who uses a walker with wheels. He encounters a dog in a wheelchair. There is something that really connects the two of them. Here’s a dog relying on wheels to get around, and here’s a little boy that gets around with the help of wheels. It’s quite touching, and very real. 

Ace and Francis meet for the first time in an episode of THAT ANIMAL RESCUE SHOW on CBS All Access.

Bill: You know, there are a lot of television shows presenting fake reality. Our show is real reality. Nayeema Raza, who is an executive producer on the show, has said that this show is so different in terms of tone from a lot of what we’re reading and consuming now. 

“So much of the content we’re consuming right now is about differences. I think this is really a show about the universal elements of humanity. There’s something equalizing when you know a story is real, and for us, there’s something equalizing when you see a human and animal rescue each other.”

Nayeema Raza

Anna: Everybody has a dog story. How about yours?

Bill: I have a three-year-old Labradoodle named Pingo. His name is derived from the Portuguese word for macchiato, which I’ve been known to enjoy, every now and then.

You know, like a lot of people in the world of COVID, I’m spending a lot more time in my home office. My life is definitely richer for having a dog sleeping at my feet while I work. Or, going out on walks with him on a regular schedule. I’m hearing similar stories from friends and associates. One of Pingo’s most endearing traits (I don’t know if all Labradoodles do this) is the way he sort of flops his paw over my arm when he’s sitting down.

All of this time at home has been great for the dogs, but I wonder if they’re going to be disappointed when we all head back to work, away from home. On the other hand, I’ll have had the experience all these months of spending extra time with him. I’ve never heard anyone complain about having to spend more time with their dog. 

These are unusual times, and this goes back to the show. None of us has ever lived through something like this. As a result, there is stress everywhere – in the political world, in the medical world, and just stress in general. I’d like to think we’ve created a show that is a bit of a balm for people; an escape from the stress and all of the anger. I hope the audience will be able to take a step back and see that this is a show about people and animals, and the profound relationships we have with each other. ###

Note: Guttentag directed the Paws In Prison episode, which was accepted by Sundance Film Festival. That episode was bound for the festival in Telluride when it was canceled due to COVID-19. 

Watch the trailer for That Animal Rescue Show here. 

Hear what Dr. Phil McGraw has to say about That Animal Rescue Show here.

Access That Animal Rescue Show at CBS.com/all-access

Author: THE NEW BARKER

Briefly, about The New Barker... In our 15th year of publishing original stories with award-winning photography. Reaching 30,000+ dog lovers in print each quarter. Each cover features an original work of art by a different Florida artist. Over the last 11 years, we have donated over $210,000 in cash, product, media space and money to animal welfare organizations across Florida. 30 days after the magazine is distributed and mailed, the digital version is uploaded. The New Barker: Where to stay, play, dine, and just have fun in Florida with your dogs.