Winter is quickly transported to the marine hospital where Sawyer meets resident marine biologist Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.), his extroverted young daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) and her grandfather Reed (Kris Kristofferson) who each play important roles in the lives of both Sawyer and Winter. Another integral character is Dr. McCarthy (Morgan Freeman), a prosthetics doctor who works at the local VA hospital and whose efforts benefit both the rehabilitation of Winter, as well as Sawyer’s older cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell), an injured soldier returning from service who has lost the strength of his leg and possibly his hope.

As everyone rallies to save Winter, Sawyer learns lessons he probably wouldn’t have learned otherwise in the classroom. But little does he know as he reaches out to help Winter, that this dolphin will be the instrument of healing for him.

I talked with Charles Martin Smith recently about important themes such as these healing bonds—both human and animal—as he shared about the making of Dolphin Tale, shooting scenes with the real Winter and what makes this story such a special film for families to see together this fall season.

How did you decide to begin the film with whimsical scenes of Winter playing underwater instead of when she was found on the beach by the fisherman?

You know that’s something that I thought about quite a lot. And one of the things that I wanted to do at the beginning of the movie was to have the audience meet Winter the way she was before she was injured, before she was so badly hurt and lost her tail. I also wanted to do something that would contrast the underwater world that she lives in with the above-water world where we live. It’s sort of where it’s one planet but two worlds on the same planet. I wanted to get that sense. And then the water also kind of carries that sense all the way through in a way in the marine aquarium which is like an extension of her underwater world when she pulls [Sawyer] into the water for what I always call “the night ballet” [scene]. I wanted that to be as if she is taking him to give him a little feeling of what her world is like, and I thought that was a very important thing to do to help us feel for Winter and to really try to understand where she’s coming from, so to speak.

Since Winter stars as herself in the film, what were your thoughts about working with an untrained dolphin?

She’s a wild animal, and she’s 250 pounds or something probably more by now. On the other hand, because she has been around humans all of her life since she was injured at such a young age, she’s very used to being around people and she’s very friendly, very playful, very personable. You know she’s actually not fully grown. She’s still a kid. She’s not a baby. But she’d be the equivalent of a human 10-year-old. So she has some of that playfulness and some of that mischievousness, and I wanted to try to capture that on film.

But I think with an animal like that, as a filmmaker you just kind of just let her do what she does and film her almost as if she’s the subject of a documentary. And then you find interesting things. When I first started on the film, I sat with her for about three days at [Clearwater Marine Aquarium] and just watched her and I saw things that she did. She interacted with people. She loves to float around on her blue mattress. She plays with these toys, and she likes to put her rostrum through them. So then I designed this [toy] and put the rubber duck on top just to make it more fun for the kids in the audience. And the “Tweety Bird” sound that she makes all the time, I thought well let’s take the things that she does and then write those into the script . . . and amplify them and get Winter to be herself. I didn’t want to teach her how to be a dolphin. I wanted her to just be herself and then try to bottle that and catch it on film.