As TV viewers look for uplifting content this season, CBS All Access has launched a new docu-series simply called That Animal Rescue Show. The program details stories in and around Austin, Texas that happen within the city’s animal rescue community. Over a slate of ten episodes, audiences learn more about awesome animals and the people who both take care of them, and are cared for by them.
Nayeema Raza is the series’ showrunner, and joined me for an in-depth conversation about why the project appealed to her, why it’s worth watching, and her experience as a first-time showrunner. Learn more below and start streaming That Animal Rescue Show on CBS All Access here.
Brittany Frederick: How did you get involved with That Animal Rescue Show? What made it appeal to you originally?
Nayeema Raza: The original show concept really came though Rick Linklater, who’s my partner in this project, along with Bill Guttentag. Rick has a couple of pigs amongst a menagerie of other animals that he and his family rescued – pigs, donkeys, chickens of all kinds, I believe hens. And they actually have a few pigs from Central Texas Pig Rescue, which is one of the rescues that we spent some time filming at for this series.
So when Rick originally had the idea, it really came to him around that particular pig rescue. He reached out to Julia Eisenman, who was a mutual friend of his and Bill’s, to put them in touch. And Bill, who’s my writing and producing partner and my former professor at Stanford, brought me into the project.
We all met. We went down to Austin and we spent time at Central Texas Pig Rescue. But we also were introduced to this entire world of animal rescue in and around central Texas. And so we decided to make this an anthology series, really, because we just met so many incredible people and so many incredible animals that we felt we had to tell those stories.
We really came at it with a filmic perspective because all three of us are filmmakers first. Rick had at one point said it would be amazing to make ten short films that could play a festival. Short documentary films, where you can spend some time in these environments, and with these animals and with these people. That’s really what we aspired to do.
BF: How did you decide on the tone and style of the series? There are a lot of animal-focused shows and projects, but many can either be too cutesy or just kind of sad and depressing, and this is neither.
NR: In terms of the tone, we didn’t feel the need to editorialize very much. We wanted to capture these animal and human relationships as they happen. Yes, there are moments of sadness. There’s loss, there’s some drama, there are moments of humor, quirkiness, and we just wanted to capture all of that. We didn’t go in with a particular editorial objective in that sense, except to be honest [and] honor their truth.
We did make some choices which were important for the series. One of the choices we made is that we really wanted to represent the equality between the humans and these animals in their relationships, which is what captivated us. These humans are rescuing these animals and often the story you’d see on TV would stop there, but really these animals are rescuing these humans – helping them heal from trauma, from pain, from a sense of loss.
That’s really a reciprocal relationship, and that’s how we thought about everything when we were filming. We had what we called pig level or animal level, where we filmed a lot of hand held and low to the ground, following the animals at the level in which they’re living. Not everything was shot at human level….When we could get time to know the character of an animal, we would spend time to do that, too.
BF: On a personal level, this project is important to you because it was your first time as showrunner. So what was the experience like for you in that respect?
NR: It was amazing. I got to do it in partnership with Bill and Rick, two fantastic filmmakers, so I was just so grateful to have that opportunity, to learn from them. When you’re showrunning for a documentary, you’re also learning from your field producers who are on the ground every day, and you’re hearing and helping them, trying to get a sense of what’s happening.
I was in the field every day we were filming. I was in the field for four months straight in Austin. But we had multiple episodes shooting on [certain] days, and so I’m making choices about what day are we filming somewhere and what day are we filming somewhere else. I think that was the hardest part of the job, is that you’re trying to figure out what’s going to be captured. But I loved it.
I really can’t speak about Rick and Bill highly enough in terms of the opportunity they gave me, but also what I learned from them and from how they think about filming and shooting. They’re incredible directors to work with. I don’t know if I have anything profound to say on that, but I really enjoyed the role.
Bill and I really enjoyed working down in Austin, where Rick is based. Outside of post-production – which we ran out of LA and New York, remotely during COVID-19 – we were based in Austin. Our producers are from Austin, our crew are from Austin. We had a couple of directors of photography, like Buddy Squires, Arlene Nelson and Rich Wong, [who] would come in for certain episodes, but we had an Austin-based DP, EJ Enriquez, who was very talented and who we relied on intensely.
I was really proud of the team that we built for their hard work, but also the joy with which they approached their job. We had hard days on set. We had to grieve losses sometimes because some animals didn’t make it or stories didn’t unfold to plan, as is the risk and beauty of verite, especially when working with animals. And we were also very lucky to have gotten through most of our principal photography by the beginning of COVID. We had 50, 55 days shot at that point, and we went straight into edit. And I think all of us are grateful for the fact that the three months before lockdown, we were in the field with all these animals and all these people that are uplifting and life-affirming.
BF: Did your background in journalism help you in this new role at all?
NR: All storytelling comes down to character, emotion, and narrative. I think those are the things you’re looking out for. When I make a video at the [New York] Times, that’s a different format. But I am often looking at what are the stories we’re trying to tell for the people, individuals whose voices you’re hearing. I don’t think it’s diametrically opposed. Substantively, I wouldn’t want to underplay or overplay the importance of any of my work for TV or the Times. I see them as two different formats with similar motivations that I’ve been grateful to have the opportunity to make.
BF: Is there anything else that you want people to know as they dive into That Animal Rescue Show? Anything they should be aware of, or that you hope they take away from the series?
NR: I do think it’s interesting, the timing of it. Our show [came] out October 29, five days before the US election. And we live in a world where there’s so much content about our differences, and so for me, this show was really about what’s universal. Not just universal between people, it’s universal between ourselves and other species – animals — and in all kinds of life. It’s kind of cheesy to say that, but it is nice to remember that.
And I hope that people enjoy it. We just wanted to put it out to the world and share some of the stories and people and animals that we found fascinating and we hope you find fascinating.
One of our episodes, “Paws in Prison,” was accepted to Telluride Film Festival as a short. So we did realize Rick’s earlier idea of a TV show as a collection of short films that could go to a festival. Of course, because of the pandemic, the festival was canceled!
One thing I would say is that a lot of our filmmaking, or show-making in this case, was just organic. The way we met these characters – our field producer Amy Martinez telling us about Austin Wildlife Rescue. We’d spend time at one place and hear about Sam Grayhorse. We spent time with Central Texas Pig Rescue and we learned about Chris and Angela Fuller-Wigg, who are running the Austin Farm Sanctuary, and that would be the couple who took us on a multi-day road trip to save cows for Wanda.
So it was really a fun and exciting journey that unfolded, in terms of the characters we got to know over time, and the transformation of their stories into episodes in the series. But the way we discovered it was, in many ways, beautifully organic.
That Animal Rescue Show is now streaming on CBS All Access.