DOLPHIN TALE Set Visit and Interview With Director Charles Martin Smith and Stars Austin Stowell and Nathan Gamble

     September 8, 2011

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Dolphin Tale is a movie based around a true story of a dolphin named Winter whose tail was caught in a net, and needed a prosthetic tail to survive. And to play that dolphin, the filmmakers did a bit of stunt casting by putting Winter in the movie. And as we arrived for our set visit, the first star we met was the disfigured dolphin.

While on the set we toured the aquarium set for the film, and met with director Charles Martin Smith, stars Austin Stowell Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman and child actor Nathan Gamble. Check out our conversations with the stars and our look at the set after the jump.

dolphin-tale-movie-posterWe were shown two locations: the aquarium and Morgan Freeman’s character’s office. First thing on set we meet Winter, the dolphin star of the movie. Winter is four and she comes over to say hello and swims around us.  Winter – unreliable as a performer – got acclimated to the production and we’re told that she will put some shine on certain takes. As someone who’s never met a dolphin before, I’m fascinated. “She’s very inspirational around the world” we’re told by unit publicist Dave Fulton. We’re also told that Winter hangs out with a 40 year old dolphin a lot, so it must be a Spring-Autumn relationship.

Next we’re shown otters ducking helicopters. It is a 3-D shoot, shot on the red. We’re then shown the animatronic dolphin, done by Howard Berger, and an animatronic Pelican. There’s a full body fake dolphin and a more articulated dolphin’s head. There’s also a separate articulated tail. They introduce us to the pelican Rufus. I touch the animatronic dolphin, it’s sticky from the sheen used to make it look shiny.

While on set we’re shown otters responding to a mirror – a surrogate for a miniature helicopter that will be added later. They take us to see dolphins and stingrays, with the stingrays coming up to us as if wanting treats. “they’re de-barbed” we’re told. Then they take us to see sharks. Nerf Sharks we’re told. They hang out at the bottom and do nothing. But still, sharks.

Then we were taken to the set where the human actors were working. We go to the monitor, and see a set up for a small scene. The take shows Morgan Freeman offering prosthetics. We are given Real D glasses to watch the takes, and it’s the first time I’ve seen how 3-D is done on set. During the take Freeman jokes with the fake hand and gives it a high five. Austin Stowell plays the wheelchaired vet in the scene, while Ashley Judd’s character who’s got a young son (Nathan Gamble). After a couple of takes they break for a new set up and we get some of the talent.

First up is our interview with director Charles Martin Smith. I wanted more time with him, but as a director his mind and time was set for other places. I could have talked to the man for hours, but we probably got about five minutes.

Can you talk about the choice to make the film in 3D and does it change your process as a director?

Charles Martin Smith: It certainly does and I’d like to say that it was my idea because I think it is working out beautifully – but it wasn’t. It was something that Andrew (Kosove) and Broderick (Johnson) from Alcon Entertainment thought of. I was already writing and we were moving towards making the film and they came up with the idea and came to me. They said, “what do you think about doing this think in 3D?” At first, I thought it didn’t call for it really, you know? But then as I began to think what you could do, especially with the underwater stuff … I got very excited about it.

morgan-freeman-harry-connick-jr-image-dolphin-tale-02The scenes we saw being shot today are not underwater but what is interesting is to see how the 3D even seems to enhance the drama in the emotional scenes. Have you found that to be the case?

Smith: Great, it really is. Immediately I began studying up on 3D and all of that. We are really making an effort to use it in all of the sets. If you notice on this set we’ve got lots of sort of lines converging and we’re shooting in deep spaces. I wanted to use the 3D not as a gimmick to have things come out at the audience but to use it as a device to draw you in to the frame much more than having stuff come out at you.

Do you have to direct it twice: meaning that it has to look good in 2D and in 3D? Do you have to focus on one more than the other?

Smith: I’m focusing more on the 3D and it does change the process a little bit. I’m aware that is better to not be too cutty. You don’t want a lot of fast cuts with 3D because it takes your eye so long to adjust to the frame. Actually every frame that you look at in 3D, there is so much in it and your eye doesn’t just travel across the screen like it does in normal movies but it also goes in and out and so on. So you want to hold on shots a little bit longer. So I’m trying to design it that way.

morgan-freeman-harry-connick-jr-image-dolphin-taleYou worked with animals on both Air Bud and Never Cry Wolf, so how did working with animals on those films help prepare you to working with Dolphins and other sea animals on this film?

Smith: It helps to know what you are up against and I have. I learned a lot about filmmaking from Carroll Ballard who did Never Cry Wolf and I think that the man is an absolute genius. I learned so much from him and I always carry around in the back of my head, “What would Carroll do if he were shooting this.”

Obviously you worked with Sam Peckinpah, Brian DePalma, George Lucas and John Carpenter, among others, so is Ballard the director you think of most with this project?

Smith: Yes I remember all of them. Well you know with most projects I think it is just because I learned so much from him on that one. It was really, really helpful to me. I stayed on that movie for a long time, not just shooting it but then I was around through post as well.

Is this the first time that you-’ve worked with Kris Kristofferson since you died in his arms in Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid? Did he remember that?

Smith: Oh yeah. We’ve bumped into each other a couple of times over the years. He had just seen that film and that particular scene on television, I guess? We were talking about it and reminiscing about Sam and all the craziness on that film.

Then we got Nathan Gamble. Having worked for a couple of years now, and Gamble is an old hand at talking with press. There’s always a sense of distance that journalists have at first when it comes to child actors, but Gamble was on his game.

Question: So how’s the animatronic Winter? We hear it has good days and bad days.

Nathan Gamble: I think she’s… Some of the stuff just goes right to the animatronic’s head, so she doesn’t cooperate all the time. It’s fun just to see, because it looks exactly like Winter and sometimes I forget it’s not the real one and then I know it’s a head on a stick. But it feels the exact same way, it looks the exact same way and because they’ve got in on remote control to, so they can make it act exactly like Winter.

Is it different doing scenes with the animal as opposed to some of the acting scenes with the other actors?

Gamble: I guess the difference is, instead of waiting around on usually just the camera stuff, it’s waiting around on what Winter does. The whole set is based on what she’s doing. If Winter’s in a bad mood, we’re all in a bad mood. And if she’s in a good mood, we’re all in one. We revolve around Winter.

Does Morgan Freeman do anything to you guys with the cameras aren’t rolling?

Gamble: Oh, he has all these great stories about when he was younger. Because Harry (Connick Jr) was telling me he used to be on the… Electric Company and he showed me all these videos and we were laughing about him. Did you see the one where he’s taking a bath in a casket? He’s taking a bath in a coffin and we thought that was funny.

What sort of research did you do for this role in terms of fidelity to the true story?

Gamble: Well, I was given a book, actually – it’s called Winter’s Tale, and it just explains everything, all the prosthetic stuff and Kenneth McCarthy and all the different prosthetic moulds and stuff. It’s a crazy story, if you think about it. If you were to pitch something like, “Oh, yeah, we’re going to put a prosthetic tail on a tailless dolphin,” I’d say you were crazy. But it really is a crazy story. And it’s true!

dolphin-tale-image-ashley-juddIt’s interesting because you did press in New York a few years ago for The Mist and then on Dark Knight, The Hole and now this. Do you have a career trajectory going? Do you know where you want to take your career?

Gamble: Two years ago I sort of realized where I want to go now. I was on the edge of what I wanted to do, but now I kind of know. And that’s act. Or, my dream… My dad is actually a writer and I would love to write some scripts with him, I think that would be really fun.

How has Charles been as a director, being a former actor himself, do you feel like it’s different?

Gamble: It’s definitely an upside to it, because he knows how we feel and what we do and that really helps me feel like what the character is. Not only is he a director, he was an actor, so it really helps me to develop.

Question: Any pranks going on?

Gamble: Any pranks? Oh, gosh… Let’s see. Well, me and Harry, if we see someone with a mic pack on them, we usually just try to turn it up all the way, so when we listen in, it goes buzzing in their ear. Or we take the socket out of it, so it goes on during a take and they get yelled at. That’s fun. Or we turn each other’s phones on, because we have a thing where if your phone rings during shooting, you have to buy a case of beer. So far, I haven’t.

Dolphin_Tale_movie_imageHave you pulled anything on Ashley or Morgan?

Gamble: I wouldn’t dare to. I would not dare to!

Then we got Austin Stowell. A relative newcomer, this is one of his first big credits, and we talked about his craft a lot.

Question: Did you do your research? Did you go to the VA Hospital?

Austin Stowell:  Yes, I did. Not only worked with a guy here that production set me up with – he’s actually a volunteer diver – Roger is a volunteer over at CMA and he’s been a diver and is also ex-military. His story is a little different. He was in a motorcycle accident but he was active duty when he was injured and went through this very same process, going to the VA and getting help there, so very much paralleling Kyle’s story. He is a wonderful, wonderful guy and has been very helpful to me. And I also did go to the VA in Los Angeles and meet with some of the guys there, which is pretty powerful. Those couple of guys that I got to connect with …it makes my job very easy.

austin-stowell-dolphin-tale-imageWhat was it about their attitudes, or their moods and demeanor that helped you?

Stowell: Everybody is different. Some guys didn’t want to talk to me at all. Well, one of the guys warmed up once he found out I was with Morgan Freeman. He came around a little bit. But some of the guys, that’s not what they’re there to do and that’s fine. They don’t want to talk about it. And I can see …it’s like the scene we’re doing where Kyle’s aunt and Sawyer show up to see him for the first time, unannounced, and he doesn’t want to talk to them. He doesn’t want anything to do with them. I can see why that would happen. You go off as one person and you come back someone completely different. I think it’s not only his expectations but also the expectations that other people have of him that he can’t fulfill anymore and that’s where his downfall and depression really come from. We all find our new way. Unfortunately some people’s paths go down but Kyle sees his cousin working with this dolphin and they kind of switch roles. Sawyer was this very introverted kid, kind of a tinkerer, and Kyle was the outgoing swimming champion and for him to now see his little cousin being all bright and cheery – it’s because of this dolphin that is continuing to live and survive with no tail, adapting to the world that she now has to live with.

austin-stowell-dolphin-tale-image-2It sounds like you got as much from the people who talked to you as the people who didn’t?

Stowell: Absolutely. I’m always a people watcher. They always had us do that at the University of Connecticut where I went for my training. I got my BFA in Acting there. They would constantly have us go out as part of one of our tasks, this was always one my favorite thing to do, and people watch somebody – the barista at Starbucks or the lady that cleaned your dorm – people you could see a lot but who wouldn’t know you were watching them for that purpose, to mimic them and create the world that they lived in. That definitely helps when approaching a character like Kyle, someone who doesn’t talk, and doesn’t want to react, and doesn’t want to be helped. Yeah. Absolutely. The people who didn’t want to talk to me they were …it’s almost like, yeah! Don’t talk to me! Keep going!

It sounds like you’ve applied a lot of your college training to this performance. Obviously you’re working with Ashley Judd whose been acting for twenty years now in movies, Morgan Freeman whose Electric Company came up with Mr. Campbell, so he’s obviously been around for a while, and then Charles Martin Smith who also started in the 70’s as an actor and is now a director. As this is one of your first film roles how has working with them changed your process, if at all?

Stowell: Oh, absolutely. You’re constantly watching them, of course, to see their demeanor. Just thinking about my first big scene with Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd the next day – sleep was not going to happen! AND I caught Invictus on HBO.

austin-stowell-dolphin-tale-image-3Were you worried that the image of Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela was going to pop into your head on set?

Stowell: I was scared to death. I tried to keep cool and not freak out. Once we started doing the scene it was very natural. He is so present in every character that he does. It calmed me down. He is everything you could imagine him to be and everything you want an actor to be. There’s this quote by Daniel Day Lewis, he’s one of my favorites, where he says, “At a certain point, I just realized this is what I had to do.” Not sure if I’ve got it exactly right but that’s kind of how I felt this morning. Coming from a teenage drama show, this is quite different. Not that things aren’t lax here but there’s a different atmosphere. Obviously, when you walk into a room and see people like Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman and Charles Martin Smith behind the camera, it’s big time. You just try not to think about it, try and keep up, hold on for the ride.

We also have interviews with Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd. Check out those interviews by hitting the links.

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