Dolphin Tale 2 – Director Charles Martin Smith interview

F***: With these films, you often use the camera to show the point of view of some of the animals. Can you talk about that decision?

CHARLES MARTIN SMITH: I did it in the first film, but did more in this one. As I was finishing the first one and watching it, I just thought it was really effective. So, as I was writing the second one, I thought of how I could get more of that in. So it was a bit of trial and error, which was really interesting.

And, just on a technical note, we shot the first movie in 3D and had these underwater cameras that were massive. They were like a refrigerator. And this time, I had little cameras that I could really move around. So I could shoot those POVs a lot easier. I had more mobility and I had the ability to do more with the camera.

Dolphin Tale was the first time we learned about Winter and her plight, but in this we become very engaged in the cause of what these animals can do and how we interact with them. Can you comment on that?

Absolutely. That was one of the main things that I wanted to do, even in just cooking up this story and trying to figure out what this movie could be about. At first, I was skeptical about doing any kind of sequel, but then I began to think of it and come up with other ideas.

I shot a dolphin release scene for the first movie and ended up cutting it out because it didn’t really fit in with Winter’s story. But as I started to work on a sequel, I thought, ‘I want to put a dolphin release and I want to do it right; I want to make it part of the story.’ Because what they do: Rescue, Rehab, Release. I wanted this movie to really say, ‘That is their mission and that should be all of our responsibility.’ These animals should not be kept in captivity unless it’s the only way you can save their lives. I really did want to make that point.


I wanted to ask about the little dolphin Hope and her back story. Can you tell us a little about the real dolphin?

Yes, she was found beached, and, actually, Dr. Julie, who was the veterinarian that brought her in, she was the one that rescued her. They put her on the truck and she almost died like four times on the way to CMA [Clearwater Marine Aquarium].

The rescuers couldn’t find a place to take this baby. They were calling around to the various facilities: ‘Does anybody have room for this baby dolphin?’ The only place that had room was CMA, and the only reason they had room was that we built an extra pool for the first movie. I’d just wanted a better looking pool, so I built an extra pool out there so I could have more visual variety around the aquarium, and that pool happened to be empty. And they said, ‘You know what? We’ve got a pool.’ And they brought Hope in. It was really serendipitous.

How did that feel for you as a filmmaker to not only have brought this story out, but to have helped bring attention to dolphins and the aquarium’s work in a lasting way?

I was floored. Obviously, I was pleased that the movie was a success, but I never expected that. And it’s kind of humbling. The growth of the CMA is great, but just to see the people that are flocking there to see it and to see how it moves these children and various people with disabilities and so on, to see how they are affected by it and how much the movie means to them. That’s fantastic. I don’t think very many filmmakers ever get that kind of connection with an audience. And that’s pretty humbling.


Did you feel a sense of responsibility to come back to CMA to make the second film?

Yes. And, again, as I was trying to figure what this movie was going to be about, I thought about how things have changed around the aquarium. For good, maybe. Maybe there’s a chance that some of it might not be so good. Maybe big crowds—they change things. And you have to be careful that you don’t turn the place into an amusement park, because it’s there to look after the animals. I think they’ve done a very good job of that at CMA. But I wanted the dangers of growth to be in the script, and how you have to be careful that you keep to your mission: Rescue, Rehab, Release. It’s not a place to come just for entertainment.

I also knew, by the way, that the kids who were 12 in the first film were now going to be 15, and that’s a whole new ballgame. [Laughs] So, I thought, ‘Let’s embrace that.’ I’ll make the story about time and how it changes things, how the aquarium has grown and is now different; it’s inevitable. Kids are grown; they’re now different. Time passes, old dolphins die, young dolphins are born. And I ended up wrapping up on the scene with Morgan [Freeman], when he gives the watch to Sawyer. Really, I was just thinking about how much the aquarium changes. That’s really where that came from.


Other than the obvious physical changes, how different were the kids, Nathan Gamble and Cozi Zuehlsdorff, when you first got back together for this film?

I absolutely love those kids. I was surprised at their maturity, but they’re both so centered. They were the only ones I had rehearsal time with, so we were prepping, and I was going over the script and explaining why I’d written the scenes the way I’d written them and what I was trying to get at in the script. I was talking about their relationship with the parents, and I think it was Nathan that said, ‘You know, there was a moment when I realized as a kid: Maybe my parents aren’t always right. Maybe they don’t really know everything, you know? That was just earth shattering.’ [Laughs]

Because as a little kid, you think your parents know everything. And Cozi said, ‘I had that too.’ So, we started talking about that. That’s what this movie is about, and you see it in the scene where she goes up to her dad and says, ‘I’m not a child anymore.’ I raised a daughter, and I remember when she was 15. I wanted to capture the essence of what that is, and I love the way Harry [Connick, Jr.] played that, too. He looks at her like, ‘Wow.’

I think we always have a tendency to treat our children as though they’re a couple years younger than they are just because they move so fast and it’s often tough for us to catch up. That’s a line I gave to Ashley [Judd], ‘Kids grow up so fast. It’s hard for us to keep up.’

Did the scenes shift or changed based on that rehearsal period with the kids?

No, actually. The film I shot was the script I wrote. I didn’t really make that many changes to it. And I almost cut nothing out either in post. I left just about everything in there. I was really happy about that. But, then, I worked really hard on the script for a long time and polished it a lot, so it worked well. I was happy.

What do you think is the risk of broadening out the story from Winter’s plight and not doing what people might expect?

I don’t know. To me, it’s not a risk at all; it’s a blessing. I wanted to avoid that. I didn’t want Harry’s and Ashley’s characters to get together. I knew everybody would expect something with the kids. But then I thought it would be fun, because girls grow up a little faster than boys, if she’s got a crush on him and he’s not aware of it. But I hope it wasn’t heavy-handed.

And Cozi is so good. I love how she plays those looks when he’s talking to the other girl in those scenes. I wanted to give a little taste of that, but I didn’t want to go down any of the obvious roads.

Again, I’ve raised a daughter. I remember this. The love of Nathan’s life is Winter. He’s not thinking about girls. It’s still a boy and his dolphin, you know? And he’s wonderful when he talks to Winter, just the gentleness and the tenderness. Where do you find a 15 year-old boy with that amount of heart and soul? That’s the primary relationship of the movie, Sawyer and Winter.


How much science factored into the writing?

Tons. I tried as much as possible. I talk all the time to the people at the aquarium, and to vets like Dr. Julie, and try to get as much authenticity into the film as I can. When they paired Hope and Winter, I was already starting on the script.

They actually did pair the two, so I flew out and was there for the pairing and took notes about it. In the speech before they tried the first pairing, they say, ‘Listen, they’re wild animals; they can hurt each other. This is how they establish dominance in the wild.’ That’s all taken from what they actually said at the time. And this business of the guy standing there with the nets and there’s a safety person, that’s all real. That’s exactly how they did it and how they do it.

They do this because a dolphin has to be paired with another dolphin or they get depressed. Is that right?

Right, they’re very, very social animals. They always live in a pod, and they’re always around each other. So, to have them isolated is bad for them and no one is supposed to do that.

Were there ever any days where the dolphins just didn’t seem like they wanted to shoot?

Yeah, absolutely.

How do you work on those types of days?

I had lectured everybody on this before we started filming to tell them that the first priority is the animals. The second priority is the movie. So, I work very closely with the staff and trainers there at CMA, whom I know very well, and they’re great. I said to them early on, ‘If you see that the dolphins don’t want to be in the movie for this moment, anything at all, your word is law. You come and tell me and I’ll go shoot something else. I’ll go up on the roof with Cozi and the balloons or something.’ [Laughs]

And that happened frequently. They’d come over and say, ‘You know, Winter’s just not with it today. She doesn’t feel like it.’ I’d say, ‘Okay.’ And then I’d get together with the crew and we’d go to go do something else. Somebody would stay in touch with the trainers and they might come back later on and say, ‘She seems to be coming around and feeling a little better.’ But the animals’ priority was always, always our priority.


Is Winter a diva now that she’s a movie star?

[Laughs] She does ask for high quality herring now and in particular, she has a bowl of red M&Ms and really good herring. No, she’s such a social animal. She’s probably the easiest dolphin to film with in the world, or that has ever existed, because since she was so badly injured when she was a baby, she’s been around people all her life. And it’s just her natural personality; she loves people. She’s great.

Her only issue is that this Tweedy Bird sound that’s in the movie, that’s the sound that she really makes. So, I put it in the first movie, and she makes that noise all the time, even if she’s not in the shot. I’m convinced that she’s so intelligent, she wants attention.

If I’m over here shooting Harry’s close-up or something, and suddenly she’s coming over to the edge and tweeting and tweeting, it’s like, ‘Hey, the movie’s about me!’ And sometimes if I was doing a shot where I needed her to be holding in the middle of the pool, and the trainers would ask her to come out, she’d wait in the middle of the pool. I’d say, ‘Cut,’ and she’d swim over. She could hear me say ‘Cut,’ and then she’d swim back over to the platform and things. She knew when I was shooting. I mean, I’ve got actors that don’t do that. [Laughs] Really, that’s a pretty amazing dolphin.

When you are using animatronic dolphins or visual effects, do you have to shoot knowing the editing of a sequence ahead of time?

Yeah. As I’m shooting it, I’m mentally cutting it all the time. So I think, ‘Okay, I’ve got this shot. I know what I need here. I can use the animatronic here.’ Any time the dolphins are out of the water, it’s an animatronic. Or, ‘In this shot, I’m going to have to animate the dolphin, so let’s frame it this way.’ A lot of the times I just had one dolphin in the tank, then the one next to it is actually a CGI dolphin. But I’ve got to frame it this way.

So, Harvey [Rosenstock], the editor, is saying, ‘The framing is really weird on some of these shots. You’ve got a big empty space on the right.’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, it’s because we’re going to animate a dolphin, Harvey; you just do the best you can, and when I get into the cutting room, we’ll sort it out.’ It was very funny.

Did the success of the first one open you up to doing more with visual effects?

No, we did a ton of visual effects on the first one. But, of course, the goal is that the audience should walk out thinking there were no visual effects, and that was the goal here, too. And, actually, we learned how to make the animatronics much better in this movie. We learned from mistakes in the first film, so we used an animatronic dolphin any time the dolphin’s on a stretcher—although the close-ups were a real dolphin in a stretcher in the pool—and in the release of Mandy, when she goes out and swims. It’s way better than the animatronics in the first film. So again, it’s a constant shell game of different pieces from this cut to that cut, drawn from all over the place.


This story can get a little serious. Did you decide to do more with Rufus just for some fun comic relief?

Exactly. Rufus is my creation from the first movie and I’ve always loved Rufus. I wanted some comedy relief in the first movie, so I wrote Rufus into the first film. Everybody really liked the character and I liked the character. So, when I was thinking of ideas for this movie, I thought, ‘What am I going to do with Rufus?’ Then: ‘I know. Rufus falls in love.’ [Laughs] Then I thought, ‘But falling in love with another pelican’s not that interesting. How about if he falls in love with a turtle? That sounds like something Rufus would do.’ And, actually, I had a blast doing it. It was so much fun just writing it, and then actually shooting it so that it worked out.

I had imagined Mavis to be smaller when I had written it, but the only turtle I could work with at CMA was this giant, 50-pound turtle, which is what we ended up with. It’s actually a lot of fun, I think, that Mavis is that much bigger. And we had a really good animatronic for Mavis from Howard Berger and the guys at KNB.

It’s amazing.

Thanks. Yeah, it’s really good stuff. But I had so much fun writing that, and then I thought, ‘Let’s make this a little poignant.’ That’s fun stuff to write. My father was an animator, so I have a big background in cartoons, which probably seeps into my treatment of Rufus and Mavis.

Dolphin Tale 2 opens on 2 October 2014. Read the review here.