This week in theaters the extraordinary tale of “Winter” the dolphin who lost her tail and with the help of some beautiful people was able to learn how to swim again and inspire an entire new kind of invention for prosthetics for dolphins and humans comes to theaters in A Dolphin’s Tale. Director Charles Martin Smith who started as an actor and then moved behind the camera, found out about this story and felt it was his time to help bring attention to this amazing story. The idea has managed to snare a number of top tier talent into the project, Morgan Freeman, Harry Connick Jr. Ashley Judd, as well as new-comers Nathan Gamble and Cozi Nuehlsdorff. Find out what it took to make below…
What was it like working with the two children on screen Nathan and Cozi?
Charles Martin Smith: You should sit in the cutting room and look at these kids daily and just see that from shot to shot, take after take, scene after scene, they’re really solid. They are the real thing and Cozy (Zuehlsdorff) had never done anything. A little theater, productions of Annie in Orange County but she’d never done anything but community theater. I’m telling you those kids are one in a million gifted.
How many kids did you see for the role?
CMS: Probably saw about 100 kids for each role.
Did they stand out?
CMS: There was a final three for each, but really in my mind there was a final one for each. One of the things with Nathan (Gamble) he’s got that real blond hair it was really long, it was kind of into the eyes and I kept thinking, I know there’s something going on in this kids eyes but I can’t see them. And you can see that he’s a really good actor. He’s quite accomplished, he’s done a lot of stuff. He’s quite experienced.
So when we had the final screen test and I was presenting them to the producers, to Andrew A. Kosove and Richard Ingber and all those guys, I kept telling him to pull his hair back. And finally I took my baseball cap and put it on his head and told him to do the scene again. Let me pull your hair out of your eyes. So what I did was I darkened his hair for the movie so that his eyes would stand out. Cut it, darkened it and then we actually darkened his eyebrows a little bit and gave him a little bit of eyeliner just to bring his eyes out. It makes him look quite different. He has so much going on in his eyes.
How was it working with the animals in the film?
CMS: I’ve done movies with animals before and kids, and non-actors. I did a film in the Arctic called The Snow Walker that, my female lead was a 19-year-old Inuit girl who had never done anything and I had caribou and geese and an owl, squirrels. And I did Air Bud who had a dog as a lead too, and a kid. They were great. These kids were great and Winter (dolphin) was great. She’s a really amazing – have you met her? She’s a sweetie, she really is.
The first thing that I did when I started on the project because they had been working on it for a while now when I came in. I came here and went to Clearwater Marine Hospital and watched her for three days just to see what she does, watched her behavior and wanted to create a character based on what she does. I didn’t want to come in and impose on a dolphin what to do. I wanted the dolphin to do what she does.
She had this blue mattress that she loves to float around on and I said, “Great, put that in.” She likes to play with toys and she’s got these rings, she puts her rostrum through these kind of rubber rings. We made a special toy, we had a little rubber duck on it, we’ll do like the iconic rubber duck and that will be cute. She makes this tweedy bird sound all the time. The trainers call it, “Oh she’s doing her tweedy bird.” And I said we had to write that in. I ended up adding in all kinds of things to make her be her and bring her unto the screen. It’s the only way to do it with animals. I don’t think you could force them into being something they’re not. You have to, more or less, shoot a documentary on their terms.
What was the inspiration for Rufus?
CMS: I did a lot of things. The earlier draft of the script didn’t have the magic in it, I wanted to put more, slight, little magical-ness to the movie. I wanted the inside of the aquarium to be this wondrous place when the boy first walks in and have this crazy Rufus thing around there as a kind of slightly hyper magical pelican to be in there. I wrote in that she lives on a houseboat and she had this crows’ nest and so on to give Hazel this kind of interesting life and that the boy flies helicopters. All of this, I was trying to bring a slightly heightened sense of fantasy to it, just a little bit. That was the whole thing behind Rufus, and of course I had to add the scene where he goes after Lorraine and I had to have him watching people. I had to put the kids on the mattresses, you know the show where they are floating on the mattresses. I had to add Rufus too. And that mattress shot too, all those things, I’m trying to bring a slight fantasy, magicalness to the proceedings .
What were the challenges of filming under water?
CMS: Yeah, filming under water was a challenge. I wanted the audience to feel like they were under water also, swimming with Winter and bringing them into that world. We got a wonderful underwater cameraman named Peter Zuccarini who does lots of big films and he was terrific. I could put him underwater and he could chase the dolphin and the kid around and again, this sort of documentary idea that I had, I told Pete, you just got to be there, you got to find them, do what they do. After the time, Winter was so interested in the camera that she’d swim right over to it and he be trying to film her, but she’d be coming around behind him and he’s trying to chase her because she was trying to see what he was doing back there. That was a challenge.
With your experience as an actor, does that give you an advantage working with younger actors?
CMS: I think so. I hope so. I think so. I remember what it was like when I was that age. With Cozi, because I knew she’d never done any film but she’d done theater, I talked to her in theater terms when I was directing her a lot of time. The idea of hitting a mark and playing to the camera was something I didn’t want her to learn or to know about or to care about. I would talk to her about being upstage or downstage. I would use different terminology for her. I told all the camera people that I wasn’t going to ask these kids to repeat the same thing take after take, I’m not going to ask them to be careful about their marks, I’m just going to have to follow them. I want them to be spontaneous and real. I know that an inexperienced actor like that, you start putting too much on them they start to get in their heads too much.
What was your relationship with the two trainers like?
CMS: They were with the aquarium. They are Winter’s mothers and they have raised her. Abby and Elena. They were there all the time. They were constantly with me and all of our shooting days were arranged around Winter, what she felt like and when she didn’t feel like. If they came to me and told me that Winter wasn’t feeling into it today, we’d go shoot something else. They were there all the time. In fact, they’re in the movie. I used a very clever device. I dressed both of them as volunteers and used them as extras so in some of these scenes when they’re putting the tail on, you’ll see one of the volunteers kind of helping, that’s actually Abby. So if Winter, anytime during the scene was uncomfortable, Abbey is sitting two feet away from her on camera. She could jump right in.
What’s Winter’s attention span? How long can you shoot at one time?
CMS: It would depend on the day. Some days she’d feel like it, some days she’d feel like it less. But she normally felt like it. She’s a very funny animal. She’s got a lot of energy, she’s a kid basically. She’s about the equivalent about a human 10-year-old, she’s not a baby but she’s not a grownup either. She has a kind of child-like way about her. She’s got a lot of energy, she’s noisy as hell. She’s this tweedy bird. I made part of the story. She does that all the time. On other actor’s dialogue. I’m constantly trying to get this tweeting thing out of there. We’d be shooting a scene that she wasn’t in, she’d still come over to the edge of the pool, be watching and tweeting, as if to say, “Wait a minute, this movie’s about me, what are you guy’s doing? Come back!”
She seemed to really enjoy it. The marine hospital has said that that was one of Winter’s happiest times and she really thrived in that whole experience, the attention. Dolphins are so bright, I presume, they get bored. That’s a lot of what they do. They give her toys, they give her things to play with, activities, challenges because their mind’s have to be constantly worked. That’s one of the things that we did for Winter.
What kind of activities are involved in your creative process? Like singing in the shower, but you’re thinking about the movie?
CMS: I get great ideas in the shower, something about hot water in the back of your neck, I think is great thinking. Music. I like to sit and just play the piano for a while. It helps me think. When I was writing, I was in Vancouver for about 6 months, just at home. I’ve taken long walks on the beach and out in the woods. That’s really, really helpful for me.
Can you talk about the importance of the message of hope and what that means? It seems to me that you’re a filmmaker that doesn’t just like to entertain, but also leave people with something that they could feel good walking out of the theater.
CMS: Thank you. I hope so. It’s too hard to make a movie to make an empty one. I want to make a movie that somebody stays with them and that people will take something away from the film and maybe it’ll stay with them for days, weeks, years, one could only hope. I look for that and just how you construct a story and how you go about doing it.
Is that important to your voice as a filmmaker?
CMS: Absolutely. It is. I want to bring something positive into this world. My mother use to say to me, “The whole idea is to try to leave the world a slightly better place than you found it.” And that really is important to me. To put something positive out there without being preachy. We want to make an entertaining thing and something moving on a personal level, but that’s what attracted me to the story in the first place, was how much of a positive message it is without beating people over the head.
You really did give into it like a documentary, but there’s some 3D. Did you resist the CGI or 3D at all? Or was that something you wanted to add into the ‘documentary meets this new technology’?
CMS: Exactly. I wanted to combine those things. CGI was essential. There is no way around it because a lot of things you couldn’t get Winter to do. The electronic too. When the boy rescues her off the beach, we can’t get a real dolphin and plop her down, wrap her up in rope. That was an electronic with CG enhancement to make the eyes look right. The 3D was, I thought, what would be cool about it was to use it to draw the audience into this underwater world. I was really trying to contrast two worlds. The underwater world which I wanted to make kind of a paradise, design this whole opening sequence where, the credits, where we meet her tail.
I wanted that to be 3D to really bring the audience in and then in the middle when the boy and the dolphin swim together, and what I call a night-ballet, that 3D will really bring you in and you really feel like they are swimming with the dolphin, but yet kind of shot like a documentary as well. I thought it would be cool to try and combine those two things. It wasn’t easy. The 3D cameras were huge, they are like the size of small cars. They are massive. It’s not like a documentary, where you just grab the camera and go and shoot that although I kept trying. I kept saying, “Oh over there, look what the dolphin is doing.” This big camera, but we did the best we could.
See the A Dolphin’s Tale in theaters now!