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Dolphin Tale's Healing Bonds Warm Hearts

<i>Dolphin Tale</i>'s Healing Bonds Warm Hearts

Heartwarming love stories between creature and child are certainly nothing new. But they sure seem to “get” us every time.

Over the years, we’ve seen stirring portrayals in The Yearling (1946), Old Yeller (1957) and Where the Red Fern Grows (1974)—films that are simple yet profound in message and theme. A bond grows deep while the child and creature have a set of obstacles or challenges they must overcome. There is warmth and joy in a journey that is also accompanied by suffering and loss. Still, in the end, character is built and life lessons are learned while the audience is uplifted and deeply moved.

In similar fashion, director Charles Martin Smith (Air Bud) says he was inspired when he watched The Black Stallion (1979) before working on Alcon Entertainment and Warner Bros. Pictures’ newest inspirational family film, Dolphin Tale, which depicts the tender relationship between a young boy named Sawyer and a dolphin called Winter.

Releasing in theaters in both 3D and 2D on September 23, the movie is based on a true story that began when an injured three-month-old Winter was rescued and then miraculously rehabbed at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, Florida in December of 2005. But even as she began her journey to recovery, no one was sure that Winter would actually survive.

The young dolphin’s tail had been badly damaged due to being caught in a crab trap and severe wounds inflicted from rope entanglement. Eventually it just detached naturally. But how would this dolphin be able to swim without a tail? What kind of quality of life would she have? And how long could she live?

Those familiar with the remarkable story of Winter know that she is very much alive and well today, thanks to the care of her trainers, a team of specialized veterinarians and a prosthetic and orthotics company which stepped in to help design a special artificial tail and gel sleeve (called "Winter's gel") to fit over Winter’s peduncle. And because of the advancements in technology developed to help Winter swim with a natural up-and-down motion once again, human patients are now being helped more effectively with their special prosthetic needs as well.

Winter stars as herself in Dolphin Tale, and it’s a moving story to be sure. But to connect with audiences even further on the big screen, the film’s producers felt Dolphin Tale would benefit from a backstory with a little something more—namely an introverted boy named Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble) who was facing some challenges of his own and needed a creature like Winter to bring him some hope in his life.

An only child of single mom Lorraine Nelson (Ashley Judd), Sawyer is emotionally withdrawn. He struggles with the fact that his father abandoned their family for reasons unknown and has a hard time concentrating in school or putting forth any sort of effort toward anything in life—until he encounters Winter while riding his bicycle along the beach one day. He witnesses a fisherman who has just discovered the young dolphin as she is washed up on shore. And almost instantly, Sawyer’s spirit is ignited as he joins in the rescue efforts. It seems he has found something bigger than himself that has given his life some purpose and meaning.

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.

In using 3D and other special effects in different scenes, you were certainly subtle with your approach. It wasn’t overload, and it was just enough. 

Exactly. And I don’t want it to feel gimmicky which I think it can. What I really wanted to do with the 3D was to use it to draw the audience into the frame, and I particularly wanted to use it for the opening and then for the night ballet—the times that we’re underwater in Winter’s world and swimming and to kind of give the audience the feeling that they’re underwater with [Sawyer] and the dolphin, and they’re in that world. The only time that I really thought well I’ll just have some fun with 3D was when the toy helicopter escapes. I thought the little kids will love that . . . but I wanted to try to be subtle with the use of [3D].

Talk about the moments of lightness or comic relief in Dolphin Tale such as Rufus the pelican, the dialogue of the characters or even some of the set design.

That was exactly what I was thinking. I wanted to lighten things up a little bit. I was concerned that you know it’s a very kind of dark and sad story at times. I wanted to have the flip side of it. One of the first things I did when I got involved, I wanted to make the world of the aquarium fun for children so that kids in the audience, or adults for that matter, would think what a wonderful place this would be to have all your own dolphins and turtles and all these wonderful animals. And put Hazel on a houseboat which was so fanciful with her own crow’s nest, you know? Things that little kids would look at and really enjoy.

And then that was the same idea with Rufus. I wanted to kind of think of a character that would be fun and would be around there and would be kind of commenting on things and lightening it up, but still be just on the edge of believability. Actually, you know originally my idea for Rufus was to make him a seagull. I thought it would be funny to have a seagull around that does funny things, but then the producers said well they had a pelican in a film before. They said what about a pelican instead, and I said that’s a great idea and so I changed him from a seagull to a pelican. And I just think it adds an element of fun that is a nice counterbalance to the sadness of Winter losing her tail and Kyle’s story—you know the soldier coming back.

In depicting some sadness and the stories of animals on-screen, Dolphin Tale brings to mind beloved films like The Black Stallion, Where the Red Fern Grows and Old Yeller. Were there any past films with animals that you drew inspiration from in the making of Dolphin Tale?

Well, you know that’s great that you mentioned The Black Stallion because that’s a movie I’ve always been inspired by. And I actually looked at it again before starting on this because of how beautifully that film deals with children and animals. I acted in Never Cry Wolf which was also directed by Carroll Ballard, the same director that made The Black Stallion. And in Never Cry Wolf . . . it’s  another beautiful film of man and nature. We did put some comedy in, and you know I was certainly to blame for that but so was Carroll Ballard. You know with the guy eating the mice . . . and all the various things that he was doing. There were a lot of nice little comic moments, and I think I sort of drew from having worked on that and tried to capture some of that same contrast between the serious stuff and a little bit of a lighter tone [in Dolphin Tale].

One of the more serious lines that stood out is when Dr. McCarthy says to Kyle, “Just because you’re hurt, doesn’t mean you’re broken.” Would you say that summarizes Dolphin Tale pretty well?

You know, it really does. It does. I think that’s one of the lines that I hope people take away from this film and remember that . . . because it’s important, you know. I think there are a lot of nice messages in here . . . and certainly you know the idea that we all have a certain obligation to the planet. And I was very moved working on a film by being around these people at the marine hospital whose lives are dedicated to rescuing animals, rehabbing them and releasing them to the wild. It’s great work. I loved being able to make a movie to call attention to that.

I visited the film set at the tail end of your production last fall, and a term that kept coming up was “wounded healer.” Winter was wounded physically while Sawyer was wounded emotionally, yet they reached out and helped one another. That's a great message.

It absolutely is, and that’s one of the things I wanted in this film. Every character . . . they’re all, forgive the expression, but they’re all kind of missing some pieces, you know? Whether it’s an emotional thing, Sawyer’s father, Hazel’s mom, and the way Kyle becomes injured . . . they’re all fighting and we all have obstacles. And that’s one of the things that one can take away from this film is that Winter sort of never gives up. And you know we can learn a lot from that and about courage and also about the fact that we’re all in this together, and it’s by helping to heal her that [the characters] all heal themselves.

I loved the inclusion of the footage during the end credits of real-life visitors who have come to see Winter at Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Why are those images so powerful for people to see?

I hope it helps to hit home that this is real. This is a true story. This really did happen and although there are a lot of cute characters and Rufus and so on—of course they’re fictional—the core of what happened to Winter is true. You know they’re people who . . . just like the little girl in the wheelchair in the film and Kyle’s character, how they are moved and inspired. And this happens every day at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and you can see it in the film.

Now that you're done making Dolphin Tale, how hard would you say was it to make a film that appeals to both children and adults?

It’s tricky. We have to be careful about tone a bit, and I was always maybe a little concerned that the Kyle subplot might be a little challenging for kids. But it doesn’t seem to be. Children are a lot brighter and have better attention spans, as long as you tell a story well and tell it honestly. So I think it’s possible to do that, certainly.

Thankfully you didn’t go the potty humor route which I know a lot of parents will be thankful for. Was that intentional?

That’s the kind of humor I don’t care for. I wanted to keep it seeming like real kids that act like real kids . . . sometimes a little petulant, sometimes a little goofy or a little hyper. I wanted to make them feel like real kids, and that was always my goal.

Sounds like you had a wonderful time making the film and working with the cast. Especially the main star, Winter.

It was so much fun, particularly really getting to know Winter and getting so close to such an intelligent and interesting and wonderful animal. And the cast was wonderful. The kids were terrific. And for everybody I think it was really a special movie for us because of Winter and of what she means to so many.

To learn more about the amazing true story of Winter the dolphin, please visit Clearwater Marine Aquarium's official site here.

Rated PG for some mild thematic elements and starring Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, Nathan Gamble and Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Alcon Entertainment and Warner Bros. Pictures’ 
Dolphin Tale releases wide in theaters on Friday, September 23, 2011. For more information, please visit the official site here.

Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.