Five years ago, a baby dolphin became entangled in crab nets, her tail so badly damaged that it needed to be amputated to save her life. Rescued and rehabilitated by marine life experts at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida, she adapted to a new way of swimming, one that compromised her spine and her health until a prosthetic tail was custom-developed for her. Winter is now the star of her own inspirational story in the movie "Dolphin Tale," which opens in theaters Sept. 23.
"She's wonderful, such a sweet animal, with so much personality," says director Charles Martin Smith, who spent time observing and getting acquainted with Winter before production began. "You hear about their intelligence but it was hard for me to understand it until I got in the water and swam with her and got to know her. She seems to understand everything that's going on around her. But she doesn't like anything over her head, like the sheets you'd put up to cut the light, and because she's so sensitive to noise, she really jumped if someone in the crew dropped something," Smith remembers. "But she's really social. She loves people. In fact, when we were shooting scenes she wasn't in, she'd come to the edge of the pool and start making noise and bopping up and down."
Nevertheless, as the cetacean equivalent of a 10-year-old, Winter sometimes just wasn't in the mood. "We decided early on that we were going to work around her schedule. If she didn't feel like it we'd shoot something else. You have to be flexible and flexibility is not always easy with a crew of 150 people. But her well-being was our priority. We worked very carefully with the people that look after her. They'd know when she wasn't feeling like it or when she could go for another hour." An animatronic dolphin subbed for Winter in scenes that depict her beached and tangled in ropes and violently rejecting prototype tails, notes Smith, who hadn't ever heard of Winter when he was approached to direct the film by the producers at Alcon Entertainment.
They'd nearly abandoned the project following several unsuccessful passes at the script, but Smith took it on and rewrote a lot of it, adding "more of a magical tone," new dialogue, and many plot elements including the pre-teen characters, hurricane and little girl in a wheelchair — inspired by children he'd seen become inspired by Winter. For dramatic conflict, he added the element of the aquarium's financial woes and the wealthy developer angling to build a hotel on the property. "The main challenge was to tell the story honestly, keep it light, have some humor in it and not let it get too serious or too sentimental," says Smith.
He also added the very territorial pelican Rufus, played by two birds named Lucy and Ricky, "not quite as smart as Winter, but I had a really good time with them," says the director, who shot the movie on location in Clearwater at the CMA, making some permanent improvements in the process including two outdoor dolphin pools. Green practices were in place on set, everything from refillable water canteens to energy-conserving vehicles. "Because there was quite an environmental message in the movie, we were careful about that," says Smith, who lives in eco-friendly Vancouver when he's not making films.
He hopes that audiences appreciate the movie's message beyond its entertainment value. "I really want them to think about our place in this planet and what we're doing to the oceans and what our obligation is to conserving the ocean and looking after these animals," Smith says. "Maybe a whole nation full of kids will see this movie and get interested in ocean conservation."