Dolphin Tale 2 Set Visit: How the First Movie Earned Its Sequel

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While at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, Florida for the Dolphin Tale 2 set visit, a popular topic of conversation was the shock and thrill of getting the opportunity to make a second film. When you think about it, how many movies that are based on true stories really do wind up getting sequels? Not very many, but Dolphin Tale earned it in more ways than one.

The first Dolphin Tale focuses on Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble) and his relationship with a bottlenose dolphin named Winter. After getting caught in a crab trap, Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.) and his team have no choice but to amputate Winter’s tail. She manages to figure out a way to swim without it, but they soon discover that her new technique puts too much stress on her spine. That’s where Morgan Freeman’s Dr. Cameron McCarthy comes in. He puts together a prosthetic substitute for Winter, but there’s still some serious frustration and trial and error involved in developing a design that Winter feels comfortable with. However, thanks to the support of her new family at CMA, Winter pulls through and inspires millions in the process.

Dolphin Tale enjoyed a strong run at the box office. It opened with $19 million and then went on to accumulate about $95.4 million worldwide, but the film’s financial success isn’t the only thing that paved the way to the sequel.

Winter Changed Lives

The very first day Dolphin Tale hit theaters, CMA received 10,000 emails. The aquarium’s Chief Executive Office and Dolphin Tale 2 executive producer David Yates further explained, “Most of those emails were moms, dads or kids saying how Winter had inspired them or what it had done for them story-wise, how it changed their life.” Yates even offered up an example.

After getting in touch with a 19-year-old girl named Stephanie who suffers from a variety of mental and physical issues, including the loss of her sight and difficulty eating, Yates agreed to let Stephanie text and e-mail him as she pleased to get updates on Winter. “She got connected to ‘Dolphin Tale’ and just got dialed in to Winter’s story.” Yates continued, “She gets shots and she wants to know if Winter gets her shots, did she do okay, because then she’ll feel good about hers.” On top of that, Winter also motivates Stephanie to eat well. “Winter’s relationship is really keeping this young girl alive. She literally eats better when she’s here for about two months.” For that reason, Stephanie visits Winter and CMA every two or three months.

Pro surfer and shark attack survivor Bethany Hamilton also has a very personal connection to Winter. She was thrilled about getting the opportunity to play herself in Dolphin Tale 2 because she’s a big fan of the first film, but also pointed out that the experience was particularly special because of “the parallels between my story and Winter’s story and just how she’s still able to swim and do her thing and I’m still surfing and doing my thing.”

Not only did Winter’s story have a positive effect on countless individuals throughout the world, but she also changed everything for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Yates noted, “Our attendance six years ago was 78,000 people for the entire year.” He continued, “So we had 78,000 guests walking in the door and that’s pretty much how we funded our work at that point. Well, the year after the movie came out, we had 750,000 guests walk through our doors, so we went ten-fold in six years.”

Even the stars of Dolphin Tale enjoyed big changes courtesy of Winter’s story. Connick Jr. recalled a whole class full of kids visiting the set of “American Idol” and telling him how much they adore the movie. “I’m not really thinking about the impact this is gonna have; I’m just trying to do my job and then a year or two later, it comes out and people say, ?Oh, I really loved it,'” Connick Jr. added, “Little kids ? they don’t know me. Somebody wrote that he was playing my CD and his daughter who was like six or seven said, ?Oh, that’s the guy from Dolphin Tale.’ So it’s nice to see people discover you from different ways.”

In Comes Hope

An obvious reason most movies based on true stories don’t get sequels is because, what are the odds yet another inspiring real-life event will actually follow up the original story? Well, it happened and, in fact, it practically happened right on the set of the first Dolphin Tale.

Austin Highsmith, who plays the dolphin trainer Phoebe in both films, recalled, “They had actually just called picture wrap and I saw the trainers kind of atwitter.” Despite some whispers that a new dolphin might be coming to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Highsmith and the rest of the Dolphin Tale team went home to get all dressed up for their wrap party that evening. However, once there, they started to notice, one-by-one, the dolphin trainers disappeared. She continued, “And so we trudged over there in our little heels and watched this baby dolphin come out of the back of an ambulance.” That baby dolphin is now one of the stars of Dolphin Tale 2, Hope.

Highsmith further explained, “She had just been stranded with her mother. Her mother had passed away, and she was so scared, you could tell. And she’d never been around humans before so it was a really amazing thing to watch these people who have been around dolphins their entire lives help her understand, we are here for you, we care about you and we’re going to take care of you.” Highsmith also laughed and recalled thinking, “I really wish I had seen this before [making Dolphin Tale template=’galleryview’]–> because I don’t think I did it right, but it was a very neat experience to be a part of and then now we’re making a movie about it. Who would have thought?”

And Hope’s story isn’t just a cut-and-dry occurrence that could lend itself to expansion for a film adaptation. It’s particularly cinematic because it’s a story with fresh, intriguing layers to it. Dolphin Tale 2 producer Andrew Kosove explained, “The story of this movie? is as compelling, if not in certain ways, more compelling than the original film. I think it brings up certain very interesting philosophical issues and decisions that the aquarium here needed to make and so we were so enthralled by the story, that’s why we decided to do the sequel.”

Kosove also added, “When the aquarium rescued Hope, which was on the last day of filming of the first movie, I mean, the irony is unbelievable, that was a critical moment.” At that point, CMA was able to release the dolphin Mandy back into the ocean, so they knew that Winter would eventually need a new companion. Kosove pointed out that they opted to steer clear of the dolphin release process in the first film, but it’s going to be a big part of Dolphin Tale 2. “I think it brings up the issue of, philosophically, yes, it would have been great to have kept Mandy because they knew they needed a companion with Winter, but they knew it wasn’t the ethical thing to do.” He continued, “I think that aspect of that and the miracle of discovering Hope, they’re interesting themes and what we hope this movie accomplishes, which we think the first movie accomplishes successfully, is that this is a family film in the true sense of the word. It’s a movie for children that parents can enjoy as much as their children.”

Getting Reacquainted with Winter

Austin Stowell returns as Sawyer’s brother, Kyle. He recalled, “I did not expect to do another one even with the coincidences of Hope. I just didn’t see it happening.” It all began with quiet whispers hinting at the possibility of making a second movie, but then those whispers escalated until they ultimately became an official announcement and when that finally happened, Stowell was thrilled to get going again. “The crew has kind of been the best part. We all kind of feel like we’re part of this Dolphin Tale family. Everybody’s back. The first day back, it just felt like déjà vu. It was happening all over again.”

But before they could just jump back into shooting and back into the dolphin pools, they needed to get reacquainted with Winter. Highsmith noted that there was a rather compressed training process this time around as compared to the first film. “On the first one they brought me down about two weeks early and they just threw me into trainer boot camp.” She continued, “But this time it was a little bit truncated. I only had about a week and they were shooting so I come on the weekends and train just so that Winter remembers me and knows [that template=’galleryview’]–> when we’re gonna do the behaviors that I’m the person who is giving them to her and all that kind of stuff. But it comes back to her very quickly and to me too, so it was awesome.”

Freeman is certain that Winter remembered him from the first film. “Apparently that dolphin remembers because now when I walk up to the pool, she’s like, ?Hey, don’t we know each other?'” Connick Jr. even insisted that Winter is now well aware of what’s happening on set. “She seems to understand when Charlie says, ?Cut.’ She’ll make that little clicking sound. They’re brilliant.” Highsmith agreed, “I swear she knows when they say, ?Cut.’ She’s like, ?I did such a good job,’ and she starts screaming! Winter definitely does. She’s a star. She’s hilarious.”

Winter may be an old pro at this point, but this is only Hope’s first movie and, on top of that, she’s also much younger than Winter and it shows. Highsmith explained, “Hope is like a three-year-old child. She’s just all over the place and just having so much fun.” Highsmith also added, “Hope just thinks that it’s new fun toys, you know? Like, the divers are in with the camera and she’s like, ?Ooo, you’re neat,’ and tries to swim around the camera.”

Even though Winter and Hope have very different personalities and energy levels, Highsmith noted, “They’re just like little sisters. They run around and sometimes they like to sleep together.” She added, “Hope’s always trying to see what she can get away with. She’s like, ?What if I do this? Will you let me do that,’ you know? She taught herself how to open and close the gates so they’ve had to chain them because she was like, ‘Look what I can do!'”

If you want to check out what Hope and Winter are capable of for yourself, you can see both on screen in Dolphin Tale 2 on September 12. And if you’re interested in supporting the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and their expansion effort, click here to find out how you can get involved.