Interview: Director Charles Martin Smith Spins a ‘Dolphin Tale’

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CHICAGO – Charles Martin Smith has had a varied career as an actor and a director. He was one of the famous ensemble cast members of “American Graffiti,” directed by George Lucas, and broke out himself as a director in the mid-1980s. His latest work as a filmmaker was one of last week’s big box office hits, “Dolphin Tale.”

“Dolphin Tale” is the based-on-truth story of Winter (who plays herself), a female dolphin who lost her tail as a result of a fisherman’s trap. In the film she is discovered by a young boy (Nathan Gamble), is nursed back to health by a marine institute headed by Dr. Clay (Harry Connick Jr.) and fitted for a prosthetic tale by Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman). The ensemble cast also includes Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson and Frances Sternhagen.

Charles Martin Smith, director of ‘A Dolphin Tale’
Charles Martin Smith, Director of ‘Dolphin Tale’
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for

As an actor, Charles Martin Smith also has memorable roles in “The Buddy Holly Story,” “Never Cry Wolf” and “The Band Played On.” His first directorial effort was “Trick or Treat” (1986), produced by the Dino De Laurentiis. He has directed television (”Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) and a Disney film (”Air Bud”). He sat down for an interview with on the release day of “Dolphin Tale” last week. What was the genesis in your involvement in the project, and what did you want to study after you initially read the script?

Charles Martin Smith: The was Alcon Entertainment, and they encountered the story of Winter in a news segment on the ‘Today Show’ around four years ago. They got the rights, but after a couple of years they weren’t getting what they wanted. They contacted me about suggestions for it, and I was at first brought on to rewrite it. I began to follow another formula, the producers like the new story flow, and then asked me to direct it. You’ve worked with both kids and animals before when doing ‘Air Bud.’ What were the challenges this time in working with a different kind of mammal, a dolphin named Winter, and the title character in your film?

Smith: Winter is not a trained animal, she was a wild ocean dolphin. In her recovery, she is used to being around people, but it was people dealing with her medically. In Air Bud, I had two trained dogs, so it was different, in this movie it was all Winter. So what I decided to do was learn all about her. I spent three days in the aquarium watching her, trying to understand her personality. I knew the only way to make this work was to get her personality on the screen.

For instance, she has a blue mattress that she likes to float on, so I put that in the script. She likes playing with toys, so I made a rubber duck ring that I thought kids would identify. She makes a ‘Tweety Bird’ sound, so I wrote that in as a main communication element. I simply learned what she did, as if I was making a documentary about this wonderful animal. You worked with Morgan Freeman in this film, who has a reputation for being a ‘benevolent narrator.’ Is he aware of this image, and did he try to create a character that doesn’t necessarily follow that image?

Smith: I don’t really know, I’m sure he’s aware of it, because he does so many voiceovers in commercials. [laughs] He’s just an extremely good actor, one of our best. I had this character of Dr. McCarthy for him, he was sort of a curmudgeon, constantly calling Winter just ‘fish.’ It was just about doctors, and how they diffuse the difficulty of the day with humor. I wanted him to be that sort of guy, but also have the seriousness and authority to get the job done. What point-of-view did you want to communicate in your role as director of the film?

Smith: As it is written, it is the story of the boy and the dolphin, and the special bond that they develop. The other thing about point-of-view, I was worried a bit about the film becoming too sentimental. It’s unavoidable to have it in a sense, because Winter nearly dies, My approach was to tell it as truthfully as I could, as long as I did tell that truth, I wouldn’t fall off that tightrope between sentiment and reality.

Charles Martin Smith (left) directs Nathan Gamble and Austin Stowell in ‘A Dolphin Tale’
Charles Martin Smith (left) directs Nathan Gamble and Austin Stowell in ‘Dolphin Tale’
Photo credit: Jon Farmer for Warner Bros. Pictures You worked with many high level, award winning actors in this film. What impressed you about the way they came together as an ensemble?

Smith: They came together because they wanted to tell the story of Winter, and was so moved by it. The first day Morgan came onto the set he wanted to meet her, because she was a very cool Dolphin. Harry [Connick Jr.] and Ashley [Judd] knew each other because they’ve worked before, and Morgan also said Ashley was one of his favorite human beings. And the two kids [Nathan Gamble, Cozi Zuehlsdorff], who we must not forget, everyone just loved working with them. It was a good feeling all around. You had to work with many of the elements of today’s filmmaking – underwater cameras, computer generated imagery and 3D. What was the learning curve you had to go through as you were shooting with all this technology?

Smith: One of the challenges is that of course Winter lives in the water. It was hard to get a close-up of her, because she was half in and half out. They would get the camera at eye level, and the camera rigs for 3D were enormous, with lots of motors and gears. My Director of Photography [Karl Walter Lindenlaub] was familiar with all this, but he also has done some smaller and more intimate films. We had a lot in common and he understood the way I wanted to shoot it, and he did a terrific job.

The challenge with the 3D cameras is I couldn’t shoot quickly, run and gun as I like. Things play differently in 3D, your eye tends to hold a scene longer. If you see it in 2D, it might feel like I’m hanging on shots too long. What is the story behind your first big directorial break, the horror film ‘Trick or Treat,’ produced by the legendary Dino De Laurentiis?

Smith: I had always been a directing student, more towards theater, but I was a university kid even when I was acting. It was after ‘Never Cry Wolf,’ where I not only acted in it and helped write it, but stayed all through the production with Carroll Ballard, who directed it and was a genius. He really taught me an enormous amount about film directing. I made a couple short films, which led to Trick or Treat. But I think no one can even begin to think about directing until they know editing, because post production is so important. Did you meet the great De Laurentiis?

Smith: Yes, and he really loved the movie because it turned a profit. He would come up to me and say, ‘Charlie, Bravo! Bravo!’ [laughs] Orson Welles called filmmaking the best train set a boy could ever have. What element of the train set do you like working with the most?

Candy Clark and Charles Martin Smith in “American Graffiti’
Candy Clark and Charles Martin Smith in “American Graffiti’
Photo credit: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Smith: I particularly love the post-production process. You’ve got all this stuff shot, which is stressful, and you finally get to the editing room. I had this great editor, Harvey Rosenstock, who had worked with the company that did ‘My Dog Skip,’ he cut the Al Pacino film ‘Scent of a Woman’ just a wide range of things. We had a great time, the cutting room is so interesting and the reward for shooting all this stuff.

What else I love is the music part of it. Mark Isham wrote the score, and I think it is gorgeous. Beautiful, wonderful music that we went to London to record. There was the train set part I liked. There were 70 musicians, some of the best in the world, playing music that was tailored by a talented composer. When I was listening to that, it didn’t get any better. We last met talking about ‘American Graffiti.’ What has amazed you the most about the longevity of the film, and of course the amazing careers of most of the cast members and George Lucas?

Smith: Yeah, it was great. We loved the movie when we were making it, and would have walked across hot coals for George, still would. It was a great experience, very low budget, and I think we all thought it would be a great movie, but at the same time thought no one would notice because it was so small. George is very proud of it. I’ve joked with him that he’ll show up in a living room to introduce it. [laughs]

People talk a lot about the careers that came out of it. I think that it’s the other way around, I think the people who came out of it would have had great careers whether they did Graffiti or not. Richard Dreyfuss was pretty hot actor at the time. Ron Howard of course had the long career in television already. We all got a boost from it, and that really reflects how well it was cast. Finally, what type, style or specific story are you intent to do someday as a director?

Smith: I look for something that has emotional content. I must be crazy, but I’m one of the few guys who love kids and animals. [laughs] I would love to do something in an exotic locale, to bring an audience into a world that wouldn’t normally visit.

I joked that ‘Dolphin Tale’ is a science fiction film. It’s about an alien that comes from another planet and washes up on the beach. The ocean is another world. I find that aspect of the exotic world very fascinating.

“Dolphin Tale” opened everywhere on September 23rd. See local listings for 3D showings. Featuring Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson, Frances Sternhagen and Morgan Freeman. Screenplay by Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi. Directed by Charles Martin Smith. Rated “PG.” Click here for the first interview with Charles Martin Smith. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2011 Patrick McDonald,

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