Saturday, September 24, 2011

Interview with Charles Martin Smith, Director of Dolphin Tale

Today I had the pleasure of sitting down with Charles Martin Smith, director of the movie Dolphin Tale, which opened this weekend. Dolphin Tale is based on the true story of a dolphin named Winter, who loses her tail after being caught in a net. She receives a prosthetic tail, and becomes an inspiration to others with her perserverence and positive attitude. She plays herself in the movie, with a cast that includes Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, Kris Kristofferson, Austin Stowell, and child actors Nathan Gamble and Cozi Zuehlsdorff.

View the trailer/web site

What was it like for you personally when you first met Winter?

I was so surprised at how personable she is. She has so much personality - she's playful, she's mischievous. She's not a fully grown dolphin yet, she's about 5 years old, which is in human terms like an 11 year old kid. So she has some of those personality traits. She is funny, she's very noisy and vocal and very curious. She's the one who will decide if you can get in the pool with her or if you can't. She likes people around, so sometimes she gets mad if you get out of the pool too soon. She's got so much personality. I was really surprised.

Did Winter need to go through any kind of training so that she could take direction, or was there anything that you did to help her in her role?

You know, not so much. What I decided to do from the beginning is to take things that she does naturally and put them on film. She does work two dolphin specialists that put her through various regular exercises to help correct the problem with her tail. So I use those kinds of things she does - they have taught her to come over when they need her, which they do for medical treatments, daily massages, therapy and so on. So she has a certain amount of that, but really she's still pretty much a wild animal.

In the preview, she has an immediate special connection with Nathan Gamble's character Sawyer. When she met the actors, how did she react to them?

She really bonded with Nathan. But she liked all of them, she loves children, maybe because she's a kid herself. It was funny, when we cast Nathan we couldn't officially offer him the part until he met Winter, just on the off-chance that when he went to Clearwater she didn't like him for some reason. Or, on the off-chance - I mean, she's 250 pounds, she's a big animal - that he'd be a little skittish around her.

If they didn't get along, if they didn't have good chemistry, then we couldn't cast him. But as it turned out, she liked him immediately, and vice versa, and you could see it in the film. They really, really enjoyed being together. It's like chemistry between two humans.

Are there any restrictions with filming with animal, with Winter?

One of the things that we all talked about going into this shoot, and that I was adamant about, was that our number one priority was Winter's wellbeing. Making the movie was number two. So if there were days when she didn't feel like coming over, or if she was a little tired or something, we wanted the people who work with her to let us know, and we would immediately shift and shoot something else. And that's difficult to do in a movie schedule, to totally change the plan for the day when it comes to filming. But we did it with her because her wellbeing was our main concern.

There are a number of scenes in it where we use an animatronic, so for anything that was difficult or stressful that we wouldn't want Winter to do, we used the animatronic, or used CGI.

Are there any days when Winter was having an "off" day, where you had to cancel things and not continue?

Yep, absolutely. There were days when she just wasn't feeling like it. We had a couple of days where we were working on scenes that she wasn't in, and she would come over to the edge of the pool - we call it "spy hopping" - she'd kinda stick her head up and look around and go "Tweet! Tweet! Tweet!" and make all this noise, which was ruining the dialogue track. And she's making so much noise as if to say "Hey! What about me, I'm the star of this movie, why don't you come film me?"

What made you decide to make this movie in 3-D?

We wanted to use the 3-D to give the audience the feeling that they're right there in the water with Sawyer and Winter, and bring the audience into this underwater world. I always had the idea that I wanted to open the movie with Winter in her natural habitat, with the other dolphins, swimming out in the ocean, and by shooting that in 3-D, you really feel like you're there under the water. That was really the main thing, to use the 3-D to draw the audience into that world.

There must be some funny outtakes from this film. What were some of the funniest things that happened while working with Winter?

She's hilarious. She actually stole Abby's [dolphin specialist] cell phone once, and stuck it to the drain at the bottom of the tank, where the suction holds it to the drain. It took Abby three days to find her phone.

And the first time that Winter wears the tail in the movie, she shakes it off and doesn't want it anymore, and then she goes and gets it and hands it back to Abby. And that really happened the first time they tried the prosthetic tail on Winter, she didn't want it. But she got it and brought it back and handed it to them like, "You want this more than me." She actually fetched it and came back and gave it to them.

What positive impact from this film have you seen on people with disabilities or with prosthetics?

When I first went, I spent 3 days there with her, just swimming with her, watching Winter, talking to the biologists and people that work with her at the hospital there. And I saw a little boy, he was about 6, and he'd lost a limb to cancer and he'd just gone through chemo. His mom had brought him to see Winter, and when he got in the water with her, she was so gentle with him. I think she understood that he was sick and that he was wearing a prosthetic, and he was so moved, and his mother was so moved and inspired.

And I saw all the letters that children write. One little girl had written "Once I visited, I said to myself, if Winter can do it, so can I." That happens every day. Every day, physically challenged people, veterans who have lost limbs… it's so, so moving. So I wrote in the script the scene with the little girl in the wheelchair. And we have a character who is a veteran, who is badly injured and paralyzed, so Winter means so much to him.

She's an inspirational animal. She never feels sorry for herself. She has this very indomitable spirit, a good sense of humor. She's clever, smart and optimistic. You just feel that from Winter.

I have some questions from kids for you now. First - What does Winter like to play with when she takes a break?

She's playful, she's funny - she does have toys that she likes. She loves to get up on her mattress. And she likes to roughhouse - she'll wrestle with you! We have a bunch of documentary footage at the end, and you see her using her rostrum to kind of wrestle with and play with one of the dolphin workers. She likes to roughhouse, swim - loves to grab you and go swimming with you.

Next Kid Question: What kind of food does Winter like to eat?

Winter, like all dolphins, eats Fish! And there's two kinds of fish that she gets. One are called capelin, they're a small fish; and the bigger fish are herring, which have a little more fat. And she really likes the herring.

And do you know that dolphins don't chew? They have all these sharp teeth which they use to grab the fish, then they gulp them down whole. And they're very picky about the food they give Winter. They get her food from the same place that restaurants get their food, only they are even more picky about what they give to her. If something doesn't look quite right about the fish, then they don't give it to her.

Last Kid Question: Was there really a soldier in the story, or was that only part of the script?

It's part of the script, as are the kids. They're part of the script that we used, but they represent all of the different soldiers that have come and been moved by Winter. And Morgan Freeman, who plays the scientist that designs the prosthetic, represents two guys actually - Dan Strzempka and Kevin Carroll, who work at Hanger Prosthetics. They're the ones that made the prosthetic. So it's kind of like you take a bunch of characters and roll them into one to tell the story.

This is such an inspirational movie. How do you think this movie might affect what you do down the road?

I always look for something that's got some inspirations, or is at least about something - something that has something positive to put out in the world.

View the official Dolphin Tale web site

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