Award-winning filmmaker Michael Samstag is best known for directing and producing special features for the first three Harry Potter DVDs and the Van Helsing DVD. He has also directed 30 shows for the Telly Award-winning Backyard Habitat series for the Animal Planet Channel. He is the founder/president of Knoxville Films and co-founder of the Knoxville 24-Hour Film Festival, which is in its fifth year.
Samstag’s work has taken him around the world and includes television shows, feature films, music videos, corporate productions and documentaries. However, there’s more to his filmmaking than just his love of the craft. There’s also a desire to touch viewers and make a difference with his work.
His latest documentary, Tales In Flight, follows the heroes of Pilots N Paws, a group of pilots who are dedicated to flying rescued dogs to the safety of new homes and new beginnings. Samstag began working on the project several years ago, and is now in the final stretch of fundraising on Kickstarter in order to reach the financial goal that will allow this important film to move forward into production.
With five days left to raise money, Michael Samstag discussed the making of Tales In Flight and how being involved with dog rescue has changed his life.
When did you first hear about Pilots N Paws, and what led to your decision to make a documentary about the organization?
I first heard about Pilots N Paws in December 2012 from a friend's dog rescue e-mail distribution list. The idea of pilots rescuing dogs immediately seemed like an incredible story to me. I went on my first very cold flight in January 2009. I'm not a great passenger in small planes, but it was immediately apparent that there was a story to be told, and I had just begun to get sucked into dog rescue, so this seemed like a great way to tie together two passions: filmmaking and dog rescue.
When did you begin working on the documentary and how much footage do you have?
That's an interesting question. My crew and I have been on around a dozen rescue missions. Somewhere along the line we got the idea picked up as a television series with a distribution company, so for the next few years we were working on pitches, contracts, and essentially stuck in “development hell” for a deal that has still not transpired. That deal was always for a television show and I was careful to make sure that I retained the rights to the documentary film in the event the show didn't sell.
During the course of four years, you traveled with Pilots N Paws as they transported dogs. What were those experiences like for you? As a dog rescuer, foster "parent" and active member of Big Fluffy Dog Rescue, as well as a filmmaker who has traveled the world and experienced so much, how was working alongside Pilots N Paws a life-changing experience?
Pilots will be the first people to tell you that the real heroes are the people working in shelters and rescues every day, working tirelessly to save a never-ending stream of animals with very uncertain futures. I've always seen this as a clever way of telling the entire rescue story in such a way that it has broad appeal. My work as a dog rescuer has changed every facet of my life. I'm a vegetarian now, I have four dogs — and a foster puppy at the moment — and I've probably sacrificed more than I care to admit relationship-wise because of the vast amount of fluffy dog fur in my life! There isn't one aspect of rescue that changed my life; it's the cumulative effect. Still, though, I've gotten so much more out of it than I've ever put into it.
Is Tales In Flight your first Kickstarter project? Why the decision to try funding it this way?
The wisdom of that choice is yet to be seen. The short answer is the "all or nothing" model with a deadline adds an immediacy very similar to an eBay auction. We figured with so many dog lovers who are so active on social media, surely we could find a way to connect with them and they would want to at least pre-order a DVD. My schedule is insane and I have a very small window to work on the project this year. If we can wrap up the financing this week, we can get the film done by the end of the year, which would be incredible! If not, it's a nights and weekends endeavor that has several other low- to no-pay projects competing for my time, so it's anybody's guess when we can wrap this up.
For those who don't understand the need for funding, please explain the expenses incurred and what lies ahead in order to financially finish the documentary. What happens if you don't meet your goal?
If we don't get financed through Kickstarter, there will definitely be a lot of tears and disappointed people. Our real motivation behind making the film is to give rescues a device with which to fundraise. In other words, we will supply the DVDs at cost and they can sell them to raise money for their rescues. The sooner we get this film made, the more lives are saved. If we don't meet the goal, we will try to raise enough money on our own to keep things moving, but it's a race until the busy season kicks in again, and then there's a film festival to be run, lots of clients with real budgets, and at the end of the day, we all still have to pay our bills.
You are no stranger to projects for a cause, from a fundraising video for Habitat for Humanity to your tribute to U.S. troops in your work with Darryl Worley to Tales In Flight. Why is it important to you to "give back," and where does this desire originate?
Most of my everyday work is for very large Fortune 50 companies, with layers and layers of approval, multiple project managers, and a myriad of style guides and general constrictions on the work. It pays the bills, but it's not always creatively stimulating. Passion projects are not just a way of giving back — they are a way of staying fresh creatively and reaffirming my love for this craft. Last weekend, we filmed in Hinesville, Georgia, as Pilots N Paws saved over 400 dogs. Nearly every one of those dogs was saved from being put to sleep and you could tell they knew it. It was absolutely overwhelming, emotionally. Once you get involved with something that powerful, it basically becomes an addiction that you can't get enough of. Just this morning I offered to foster a 10-month-old Great Pyrenees. That's a lot of paws under one roof, but I get paid in puppy kisses.
Where can readers go to learn more about Tales In Flight and contribute to the making of this film?
PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE go to:
EVERY DOLLAR HELPS!