Director Charles Martin Smith discuses Dolphin Tale

Dolphin Tale director Charles Martin Smith discuses working with the dolphin Winter, this diverse cast, shooting in 3D, and much more

There are many directors in Hollywood who are referred to as "actor's directors," because they know how to connect with and communicate with their actors better than other directors. Charles Martin Smith can be considered an "actor's director" because he actually is an actor, with a career spanning 40 years. As a director, Charles Martin Smith has quite the cast to work with in his new movie Dolphin Tale, which is based on the true story of a town trying to save the life of a wounded dolphin named Winter. Dolphin Tale hits theaters on September 23 and stars Morgan Freeman, Kris Kristofferson, Harry Connick Jr., and Ashley Judd. I recently had the chance to speak with Charles Martin Smith about Dolphin Tale, and here's what he had to say below.

Could you start out by talking about your initial familiarity with this story? Were you aware of Winter's tale before reading Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi's script?

Charles Martin Smith: No, I was not, actually. I've been trying to figure that out, actually. I think I was making a film in Scotland when this happened with Winter. I didn't ever actually hear her story. Alcon Entertainment, the producers, had optioned the rights to the story and were working on the script. They brought it to me, at some point. They weren't sure if they were going to do it or not, and they brought it to me for a rewrite and to direct the film.

You have a very interesting career in both acting and directing. Can you talk about how you balance that, and what kinds of things you look at when you're deciding on projects for either acting or directing?

Charles Martin Smith: Well, it's difficult to bounce back and forth. Actually, I've found in the last few years, that I really don't have much time for acting anymore. I should knock on wood, because I've been so busy doing other things, making my own films, but it is a bit tricky to balance those things out, just because of time.

You shot this in Florida, near the actual home of the dolphin Winter. Was that always important to you, that you set it where the story takes place?

Charles Martin Smith: Yeah, and it really did revolve around Winter. There was a little bit of a discussion with the producers, early on, if we could really shoot it somewhere else and use a different dolphin. But her story is so unique, having lost her tail the way that she had, having had to learn to swim a different way, there really wasn't any other way to find a different dolphin that could do that. The other thing about Winter which is so wonderful is that, because she has grown up in captivity, she's very used to being around people. She is, as I call her, very 'user-friendly.' She's very good with people and she also has an amazingly charming and playful personality. With that, I just thought we had to do it with her. That's the only way to do it.

With a lot of these movies involving animals, you often hear about these horror stories about getting the right performance out of them. Did you have any of that, or did it help that she was so comfortable around people?

Charles Martin Smith: It did help me a lot. One of the first things that I did was go to the marine hospital and get to know her, watching Winter and seeing what she does. She's very playful. She has this blue mattress that she loves to float around on (Laughs). She loves to play with these toys that she spears with her rostrum. So I invented a rubber duck version of it, because that's something that she really does. She does that all the time. I looked at her, spent three days watching her, and then just started putting things into the movie which are things that she does. That makes it easy enough to film her. When she doesn't feel like working or if she was tired or didn't feel like it, I simply stopped shooting or would shoot something else. That was a bit of a difficult thing, because you always have a schedule you try to stick to. In this case, I went ahead and told everybody at the beginning that we were going to shoot around her schedule. If Winter doesn't feel like working, we'll go do something else. The funny thing about her, of course, if you were shooting some other scene, and the actors were talking and she wasn't in it, she'd come over to the edge squeaking, as if to say, 'Hey look at me. I'm the star of the movie. Why are you shooting these humans?' (Laughs). She loves attention. You can see how much she blossoms.

Could you talk about assembling this cast a bit? Was everyone here your top choice while you were going through the script? Was it difficult to pull everyone together?

Charles Martin Smith: Oh, they all were, the adults. They all responded to the script and it was such a surprise. I was delighted that they said yes, because you never know, when you offer an actor a role. It's a lovely script and everything but, really, it's about a kid and a dolphin. You don't know, but I was just delighted about that. Another thing that was a big issue was finding the two kids. That took a great deal of effort and time. We must have auditioned hundreds of kids for those roles and we found two remarkably gifted young actors. I can't tell you how happy I am with Cozi (Zuehlsdorff) and Nathan (Gamble). They're really, really wonderful.

Can you talk about your background as an actor, and how that aides or informs your work as a director, especially working with younger kids?

Charles Martin Smith: Yeah, it really does have a lot to do with it. I really like working with kids or inexperienced actors, which I have done quite a bit of. I can kind of be an acting teacher, an acting coach, and a director all at once. I actually really like that role. One of the things that I always tell the crew on a film like this, when you have kids, is that I'm the only one that can talk to them. They can't hear other voices coming in, everything has to be channeled through me. I think it does, in fact help, and I think it helps with grown-up actors as well. They know that I've been there and had experience and understand their process.

I am also curious about your approach to the 3D process. How did you have to adjust to this whole new way of filmmaking?

Charles Martin Smith: Yeah, that was a bit of an adjustment. What I decided to do early on was to use the 3D to draw the audience into the film, rather than use it as a gimmick to push things at them. I wanted it to be something that would bring the audience into the frame. I thought (James) Cameron did a great job of that in Avatar. In some ways, I think this one has similarities, when you're underwater and you see the dolphins swimming together. I wanted to use the 3D to enhance that feeling. When the audience is with her, when they're underwater, they really feel like they're swimming. The problem, of course, is that the cameras are so big. We filmed this last year, and the cameras have gotten smaller since then. Basically we were using these cameras to shoot 4K resolution, which is really good, and we were under water with these things. We actually built a housing for the underwater stuff. I think it was something that nobody had done before, and I love that idea.

Is there anything that you're lining up to direct after this that you can talk about?

Charles Martin Smith: No, I just finished this about three weeks ago, the final color corrections and putting everything together. I took about two weeks off and went back to Vancouver where I live, and now I'm out promoting this. In another week or two, I'll start thinking about what to do next.

Finally, what would you like to say to anyone who is curious about Dolphin Tale about why they should check it out in theaters this weekend?

Charles Martin Smith: More than anything else, is there are some lovely messages about conservation and things about family and healing and all those things. Other than that, it's just a lot of fun. It's a really good story, it's emotional, it's funny, and I think you'll have a really good time. It's an entertaining film, and I think that's the most important thing.

Great. Well, that's about all I have. Thanks so much for your time and best of luck with the film this weekend.

Charles Martin Smith: Thanks so much. Fingers crossed! I appreciate it.

You can check out director Charles Martin Smith's Dolphin Tale in theaters across the country on September 23.