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October 25, 2020

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People, animals help each other

In a new docuseries, a child who uses a walker meets a dog with its own version of wheels; inmates find solace training canines for adoption; and pigs strut their stuff in a “body positivity” celebration.

That and more is part of “That Animal Rescue Show,” an endearing project that reflects its unexpected creators as well as its stars, human and otherwise. All 10 episodes will be released on October 29 on the CBS All Access streaming service.

“What the series is about is people rescuing animals, and animals rescuing people,” said Oscar-winning documentarian Bill Guttentag (“Twin Towers,” “You Don’t Have to Die”), one of the big names behind this small gift of touching and quirky stories.

The other is Oscar-nominated filmmaker Richard Linklater (“About a Boy”), who acknowledges a documentary is a rare venture for him. However, he sees a connection to his films, which include “School of Rock” and the romances “Before Sunrise” and “Before Midnight.”

“I’ve often done films about people who are kind of obsessed or passionate,” Linklater said. “That’s what you’re looking for in a story.”

He and his collaborators, including Nayeema Raza, Guttentag’s writing/producing partner, committed to holding themselves and the series to a high standard.

“Rick said something to us that I thought was just great,” Guttentag said. “‘What I’d really like to do is come up with 10 little documentaries that could all make it to Sundance (film festival) on their own.’”

An episode of “That Animal Rescue Show,” which was largely completed before the pandemic hit, cleared that bar with an episode that was accepted by the Telluride Film Festival before it and other film festivals were canceled due to the pandemic.

The project found myriad subjects in and around Austin, Texas, where long-time resident Linklater has a farm and the idea for the series was born.

Networking credit goes to Dood, the Linklater family pig that drew the filmmaker into the company of the Central Texas Pig Rescue organization and managing member Dan Illescas, described by Linklater as “kind of a pig behaviorist.”

Besides being schooled by Illescas on pigs — “You want to treat them like dogs, but they’re not dogs. They’re pigs.” — Linklater was introduced to the volunteer operation that cares for homeless pigs. Many are given up by owners who find their so-called “mini-pig” is an underfed animal destined to grow, Illescas says in the series.

“I met another guy who had a pig rescue and I was like, ‘Wow, this is a whole subculture,’” Linklater said. Impressed by the commitment of the animal rescuers, “it just felt like something worth sharing.”

Among the gems showcased are “Safe in Austin,” created by a mom who saw a service dog help her autistic son blossom. The organization is a haven for a menagerie of abused and neglected animals, visited by children with challenges who “pet, love and heal alongside the animals,” as owner Jamie Wallace Griner says in the series.

The Guttentag-directed episode bound for Telluride highlights the “Paws in Prison” program at a correctional facility. Dogs in need of adoption are paired with inmates given the skills to train them.

And there’s a pageant to celebrate porcine heft featured in episode three.

The series’ approach is far removed from rote reality TV, Guttentag said, “where they cast you and you play that role, whether or not that’s who you are. In our show, the folks you see, that’s who they are.”

The soundtrack features local Austin bands playing cover versions of songs by artists including Paul McCartney, Carole King and Willie Nelson — all of whom made their work available at a “very reduced” fee, Guttentag said.

“Once you start moving down this track of trying to show compassion, I think people want to be a part of it,” he said.


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