Before he was a director, Charles Martin Smith was a teen actor who appeared as “Terry the Toad” in “American Graffiti.” He starred in Carroll Ballard’s “Never Cry Wolf” and appeared in films like “The Untouchables” and “Starman.” While he continues to appear as an actor, he has most recently been more active as a writer and director. He did both for his new film, “Dolphin Tale,” opening this Friday, inspired by the true story of Winter the dolphin, who now has a prosthetic tale. It was a delight to talk with him about breaking the first rule of show business (“don’t work with children or animals”), what he learned from George Lucas, and why the color blue is so important in this film. He made me laugh as soon as we met because he started “directing” where we would sit. “I often say I became a director because I like to boss people around,” he told me, “but it’s just a line.”
They say it’s always a problem to work with kids and animals, but in this movie you did both.
I might be the only filmmaker that really gravitates toward that. I really like working with kids. And I really like working with animals! They’re so pure and honest and they’re never really acting, at least not in my movies. Well, maybe Rufus [the pelican]. People sometimes try to impose things on them, a character they have in their own mind. I think it’s much more interesting when working with an animal to find out what that real animal does and try to capture their essence and their behavior. It’s almost a little bit of a documentary type feel. We’ve got the real Winter playing the real Winter.
Have you worked with dolphins before?
I haven’t. I’ve been interested in them and interested in science. You hear all about how intelligent they are but you can’t comprehend it until you really spent time with them. They’re certainly as bright as we are. The first thing I did when I got involved with the movie was go to Clearwater, Florida to spend time with Winter, just to observe her behavior. She does all kinds of interesting things. She’s very playful; she loves toys. She’s still young, the equivalent of a 10-year-old kid. She loves her blue mattress and her rings. So we put that in the movie. I wanted to give her a special ring with something cute and iconic so I thought we’d give her a yellow duck — do you know how many different versions of rubber ducks there are? We spent months designing this thing. The expense we went to! She makes that Tweety Bird sound all the time, so I said, “Put it in the movie!”
And working with kids?
I like kids. I find them fascinating. They give you real things. Since I began as a child actor I understand what they’re going through and it’s great to see them blossom and learn. I am not just a director but an acting coach and teacher on set and I love that. I really made an effort to keep the kids real, to act like real kids. So many movies have “movie kids.” I didn’t want to do that.
There were no kids in the true story but when Alcon developed the project they wanted it to be kid-centered to make it more accessible. I wanted to bring something of a magical quality to it, some wish fulfillment. How many kids have their own dolphin? Having the aquarium be this grand, mystical place that Hazel has complete run of and where she knows all the turtles and dolphins. And the houseboat, so she had a fun place to live with a crows nest she could decorate herself. And Rufus. All to bring a slightly magical fantasy element. I originally conceived Rufus as a seagull, but Alcon suggested a pelican — a true collaboration.
And two 11 year olds save the day. It would not really happen that way, probably, so that is a little bit of a fantasy, too. But that made it even more important that the kids were grounded in reality and acted like real kids. When Clay tells them he has to close down, Hazel runs. Kids don’t want anyone to see them cry. Cosi (who plays Hazel) is amazingly gifted, so good, so real, as good as any adult actor I’ve ever worked with. She had just been in community theater, never done anything in movies or television. And she’s a good kid; they both are. They both come from very religious families, Christian families. They’re such good kids. I’ve never had a set before with no profanity, not even from the crew!
You did an amazing job of achieving a really sun-drenched look that really felt like Florida.
The wonderful cinematographer was Karl Walter Lindenlaub. He did a lot of big sci-fi films like “Independence Day” and “Stargate” and he did a Scottish film, “Rob Roy” that showed he could do lovely things outdoors. We talked a lot about the hot look and we certainly had hot weather. I wanted a sort of sci-fi feeling to the movie, that first scene, under water. We meet the pod under water and see how inquisitive Winter is. I wanted to see the world she comes from. In a way, it’s like another planet, an alien from one planet that washes up, stranded, on another and is rescued by a boy. I wanted to do that with the look of the film, too. I wanted the underwater to be all blue and rich. And then we made the neighborhood drab, and took all the blue out of it, all oranges and rusts and earth tones. And then the aquarium is a blue building — which it really is. And inside, that’s a set actually, he walks in and sees all the blue, watery, rich look and it’s like he’s underwater. Then he goes back to his world and it’s all brown again. But gradually we had some blues show up in his clothes to show how his worlds were coming together.
What did you learn from the directors you worked with as an actor?
I picked up stuff from everybody. I worked with a lot of great directors. George Lucas was very good in the way he directed young actors on “American Graffiti.” He’s not generally thought of as an actor’s director. But one of the things he did was cast good actors and get out of our way. I learned so much about the importance of casting. But he said, “I wrote the script; you can change any line you like. I have an in with the writer!” Some directors want every single word done the way it was written but that’s too stultifying to a child. And he would ask us what was comfortable and organic and honest for us he wanted to do and he would build the scenes around that. But the one I learned the most from was Carroll Ballard. No one deals better with the subject of nature and man’s collision with wildlife than he does. The way he edits, structures things, he’s always been my hero. Every day on this movie I would think, “What would Ballard do if he were here?”
I loved the real footage at the end.
That was what I saw the very first day, seeing children with disabilities coming and being inspired by Winter. The editor, Harvey Rosenstock, got the footage and cut it together beautifully. It was so good we didn’t want to run it with the credits over it. It works too well; it’s too beautiful.