Dolphin Tale - Director Charles Martin Smith with Morgan Freeman
Director Charles Martin Smith with Morgan Freeman on the set © 2011 Alcon Film Fund

Director Charles Martin Smith began his career as an actor playing in such prestigious movies as American Graffiti, The Buddy Holly Story, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Starman and The Untouchables.

In 2003, he wrote and directed the feature The Snow Walker. In addition to that he directed the family hit Air Bud, the horror flick Trick or Treat and the inaugural two-hour episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, launching the successful TV series.

His new movie Dolphin Tale tells the true story of Winter, who as a young dolphin was caught in a crab trap, which injured her tail so badly it had to be amputated. With the help of 12 year old Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), who initially saved the dolphin, Dr Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr), who runs the Clearwater Marine Hospital, Reed (Kris Kristofferson), Clay’s father, and Dr Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman), a brilliant prosthetics doctor, Winter’s prognosis is hopeful as she waits for a miracle.

They always say never do a movie with kids and animals – what’s wrong with you?

Dolphin Tale - Director Charles Martin Smith with Nathan Gamble and Austin Stowell
Director Charles Martin Smith with Nathan Gamble and Austin Stowell © 2011 Alcon Film Fund

I’m crazy. I really like working with kids and animals. It’s a little bit of a documentary impulse. With the kid you want them to bring what they are and who they are and you want to create an atmosphere where they’re relaxed.

We changed lines all the time. I’ll rewrite on the set constantly, because I want the kids to be able to be real and be who they are. As soon as you start imposing a performance on a kid you get a lifeless performance.

And I think the same is true with an animal. I wanted to see what Winter really does, and I wanted to capture that. Everything she does in the movie are things she really does.

When I first came onto the film, the first thing that I did was go to Clearwater and sit there for three days and watch her to see what she did. She makes this tweety sound all the time, so I wrote that in. She has this mattress that she loves to float around on, so I wrote that in. I noticed that she loves to swim around with these toys, so I designed this rubber duck for her.

Did Winter enjoy playing herself in the movie?

Dolphin Tale - Winter
The dolphin star Winter © 2011 Alcon Film Fund

Winter is a total ham. When the cameras weren’t pointed at her, she would come to the edge of the pool and squeak and tweet as if to say, ‘What about me? I’m the star!’ I kept telling her that the director is the one she had to be nicest to if she wanted more close ups.

And she’s not only funny, she actually knows when she’s being funny. She loves to make people laugh and when you do, she’s delighted.

You also have a very disagreeable pelican named Rufus in this – how hard was it shooting its scenes?

These were really well trained pelicans. There were two identical ones named Ricky and Lucy. My favorite scene is Ashley being attack by Rufus. The way that we managed to do it was they filled her handbag with fish and the pelican trainers worked with the pelicans for two weeks training them that this bag is full of fish.

On the day that we shot there weren’t any fish in the bag, but they didn’t wash the bag and it reeked, but as far as the pelicans knew there were still fish in there, so that’s how we got that scene.

Can you talk about working with Kris Kristofferson forty years after Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid?

Dolphin Tale - Ashley Judd and Director Charles Martin Smith
Ashley Judd and Director Charles Martin Smith © 2011 Alcon Film Fund

It was terrific, forty-something years later. When I did Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid I was 19 and had done very little.

I had just filmed American Graffiti but it hadn’t come out yet. It was a bunch of rough cowboys, and I just felt out of place, and Kris was so good to me, he was so welcoming on that film, he was great. And I have never forgotten his kindness. So I reminded him of that.

What was Morgan Freeman like to work with?

Morgan is terrific. He brought so much warmth and humor to his character. But, at the same time, he gives Dr. McCarthy the wisdom and authority to make you believe he is the one to help Winter.

I always wanted McCarthy to be kind of quirky and funny in an irascible way, having him call the dolphin a fish all the time. He knows he’s a mammal, but it’s a joke and that’s his running gag.

How many actors can really play off the believability of him being a scientist and being a very accomplished guy who makes and designs these tails, but also can be that [quirky] fellow. It was Morgan’s idea to wear a bowtie and a little hat, and he was terrific.

Why did you decide to have a hurricane during the movie?

Dolphin Tale - Director Charles Martin Smith with Nathan Gamble
Director Charles Martin Smith with Nathan Gamble © 2011 Alcon Film Fund

I couldn’t figure out how to get real jeopardy to this animal. If it’s Black Stallone the horse gets loose and runs away, but this dolphin is not going to get loose and run around. So I brought the jeopardy to her, and had a hurricane.

I began asking people around Clearwater what they were like? I knew I was going to use some stock footage. I had planned to shoot most of it inside and one day we woke up and there were dark clouds and this howling wind.

I said, ‘Scrap the Call Sheet, we’ve got to shoot the hurricane sequence today.’ It was crazy, nature had given us exactly the weather we needed.

What would you say the message of this movie is?

I hope audiences come away from this film being entertained, but also inspired by the notion that, ‘If Winter can, I can.’

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.