Director Charles Martin Smith on Dolphin Tale 2

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After the surprise success of the original Dolphin Tale in 2011, director Charles Martin Smith has returned with a new installment that catches up with disabled dolphin Winter as she deals with the death of her companion while her 15-year-old champion Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) wrestles with whether to leave her and his family behind to pursue an opportunity.

The entire cast, including Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman returns for Dolphin Tale 2, and Smith talked to us exclusively about the true stories of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium that informed the story. He also talks about how his acting role in 1973’s classic George Lucas film American Graffiti influenced some of the themes of this enjoyable family movie.

CS: This time there’s no 3D, you had an onscreen role and you wrote the script yourself. Were all those key components for you coming back?
Charles Martin Smith:
Yeah, I suppose so. The idea of doing a sequel was something we all felt we weren’t going to do, myself and the producers. Then we started kicking it around and coming up with things we could maybe do. Then Andrew [Kosove template=’galleryview’]–> and Broderick [Johnson template=’galleryview’]–> came to me and said, “Listen, we’re open to it if you have an idea of what the story could be about.” So I started piecing together ideas for story. I knew it would all have to be based on true stories, because that was part of the charm of the first one, that it’s all based on truth. I know enough about the history of the Aquarium, I know they released Mandy and Troy, I know they do turtle releases, and the big story of Hope being brought in at the wrap party on the first movie, that was a big deal. I thought there may be enough to start building a story.

CS: A lot of times when a director has a surprise hit like “Dolphin Tale,” which performed way beyond expectations, they’re empowered and they want to go do a pet project. You dove right into sequel town.
Smith:
I did, but in-between I wrote two other scripts which are both set up and I may do them. You’re right, though, it wasn’t long after that I started into writing this one.

CS: Was the motivation that the kids ain’t getting any younger, Winter may only live x number of years??
Smith:
Yes, part of that, but a lot of the motivation was I thought there was a lot we didn’t tell yet that goes on there. I really felt like the first movie was so simple, it was about saving Winter’s life, but when I spent time around the Marine Hospital, particularly the staff and the vets and people that rescue these animals, this idea of “rescue, rehab and release,” I thought I didn’t do that enough in the first movie. I would like to make a “Dolphin Tale” movie where it’s more about that, our responsibility for the environment and our care for these animals. These animals, like Winter for instance, the reason she lost her tail is she got wrapped up in a crab trap. If there weren’t human beings putting crab traps out she wouldn’t have any problem, she’d be a healthy dolphin. Because we effect the environment and the oceans, we have a responsibility to the animals we’ve damaged. They really feel that there, and their responsibility is to release these animals if possible. I want to tell that story.

CS: It’s interesting because you did “Never Cry Wolf,” “Air Bud,” now these two “Dolphin Tale” movies. Are you okay with being the Doctor Dolittle of filmmaking?
Smith:
(laughs) I’m very okay with doing movies that are nature based. I’m very okay with doing family films, because I think you can put themes and ideas and make a point that you wouldn’t in a lot of other kinds of films. That’s one thing. I’m always interested in man’s interaction with nature, and I think that does stem from “Never Cry Wolf,” which had such a big impact on me. The way humanity impacts with the natural world is a fascinating friction, and I find that really interesting. Even “Air Bud,” what have we done to that dog? That dog was taught to do tricks, made into something else, and the boy finds in that dog the REAL dog. Not the dog that’s dressed in a clown suit and forced to perform. His love for the dog has nothing to do with that and I like telling that story.

CS: It’s also interesting that given your history with animals you made a “Boris and Natasha” movie with no moose and no squirrel.
Smith:
No moose and no squirrel! That was a difficult film to work on in a lot of ways, but I learned a good deal from it. My dad was a cartoonist and animator, Frank A. Smith. He worked at Warner Bros. doing “Looney Tunes” and “Merry Melodies” at first, then he worked for Fleischer where he did the “Gulliver’s Travels” film and “Popeye” and “Betty Boop.” Then he went to UPA where he won an Oscar for “Gerald McBoing Boing.” Then he did all the Charlie Brown/Peanuts shows.

CS: Those are all formative things for a lot of people!
Smith:
I know! That informs a lot of my filmmaking, like I know for a fact that in Rufus I’m probably channeling Snoopy. (laughs) My dad’s animating, and how characters move and what’s funny. If you have a shot of a window, Rufus has to go past. That’s classic animation stuff, and I learned a lot about that from my dad. The other thing is I actually like directing kids and animals. I know people always say the WC Fields quote, “don’t work with kids and animals,” but I like it because they’re pure of essence and heart. You film an animal it’s never gonna lie, it’s never gonna give a bad performance. One of the things I do with animals is I don’t want them to be too trained and to try to impose on them what they can do. I try to be more of a documentary filmmaker. I put Winter out there and see what she does and film that, and work it into the story. Anytime you try directing an animal to do something too specific? I hate that. The other thing I avoid is anthropomorphizing if at all possible. Keep it like a real animal.

CS: That’s a great approach. In the movie, Nathan’s dilemma is whether to stay in this small town or go out in the world reminded me of the themes of “American Graffiti.” I know it’s a universal theme, but did that parallel ever occur to you while you were writing?
Smith:
(laughs) Maybe. (laughs) Possibly crossed my mind. Yeah it did, actually. It didn’t start that way but as I was writing I was like, “This is kind of what George did in that.” It is a universal theme. I was somewhere in the middle and thought, “Yeah, that’s kind of what George was getting at in that movie.”

CS: Oh Terry the Toad, where are you now? Lost in Vietnam?
Smith:
Yeah, MIA.

CS: The movie has humor, but it’s also very earnest. Do you think audiences, particularly young audiences, are hungry for films free of cynicism and crude humor?
Smith:
I hope so. I’m not a fan of crude humor. I guess I’m as cynical as anybody, but I hope so. I try to strike a tone in this movie, both in the writing and directing, of that earnestness and emotion, and then let’s have some fun with Rufus and Mavis. Let’s have a few laughs, a turtle having an MRI. I try to leaven the seriousness of it so it doesn’t become too earnest, and it’s a tonal thing that I’m aware of from the script stage all the way through post production and composing the music and the sound effects, the final mix. Everything to me is about finding that right balance.

CS: Like a lot of good family movies this one sort of has a subtle subtext of corporate interests vs. human interests. Is that something that has played out in your own career?
Smith:
Not particularly, no. What that really comes from is the Aquarium itself, because I saw how the success of the first movie brought so many people and so much money in, and thought that’s interesting, they have to be careful over there that this doesn’t start to alter what their mission is. That actually really came from observing what was happening at CMA.

CS: If there was a third film, would you go full-Charlie Kaufman and make a post modern story about a film crew coming in and making “Dolphin Tale”?
Smith:
Oh wow, I have no idea. Let’s see how this movie does. I don’t ever want to talk about sequels before a movie comes out, it feels like I’m jinxing things. One of the things that’s really strong about both movies is that they’re all based on true stories. Mandy really was released, Hope really was brought in exactly the way I filmed her being brought in. That’s actually what happened.

CS: You have the real footage at the end.
Smith:
And the same people! That’s Dr. Julie and her stethoscope at the back of the truck doing exactly the same thing. They were extras and technical advisors all wrapped up. “What did you guys do that night?” If there were any other movies they would have to be based on true stories. I think it might be hard to find one. The other possibility is Winter becomes a superhero and solves crimes. (laughs)

Dolphin Tale 2 opens everywhere this Friday.