Skip to main content
#
The Independent Critic

 Charles Martin Smith Interview 
We first met Charles Martin Smith way back in 1973. Not even 21 at the time, Smith had mostly existed on relatively minor roles in film and television. It was in 1973 that Smith landed his nearly iconic role as Terry "The Toad" Fields in George Lucas's film "American Graffiti." While most of the movie-going world likely still remembers Smith most fondly for his role in that classic film, Smith has remained remarkably busy over the years as an actor, writer and director. Smith has worked on multiple occasions with longtime friend Ron Howard, and has served up acclaimed performances in "The Buddy Holly Story," "Starman," "The Untouchables," "Herbie Goes Bananas" and the film that would trigger his move behind-the-scenes, "Never Cry Wolf." Having starred in and been centrally involved in the writing of "Never Cry Wolf," Smith shifted his career behind-the-scenes and has directed such diverse films as the camp horror film "Trick or Treat," "Air Bud," "The Snow Walker," "Stone of Destiny" and his current film, the Warner Brothers release "Dolphin Tale," a heart-warming true story about the relationship between a boy and a severely injured dolphin. "Dolphin Tale" opens nationwide on September 23, 2011 and was recently seen at a special screening for the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis. Smith sat down with The Independent Critic to talk about the film.
THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Okay, so first of all I just have to tell you that I'm really psyched about your film. I really enjoyed it.

CHARLES MARTIN SMITH

Thank you.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I was amazed how much you nailed just in terms of facts, especially around the topic of disability and amputees even though, obviously, you were dealing with a dolphin rather than a human. When the prosthetic initially didn't work, my first thought was "It's the sock." I loved how you went about explaining the process with the graphics and such. You gave a great explanation in layman's terms.

CHARLES MARTIN SMITH

That's a real thing, Winter's Gel. I don't know if you've heard about it.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I have heard about it. It has helped a couple friends of mine. I don't have any personal experience with it. I will admit I didn't realize the full story behind it, though.

CHARLES MARTIN SMITH

Their skin is so sensitive that they kept working on new formulas and gels to try to get something really super, super comfortable. I guess it is.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

What attracted you to Dolphin Tale?

CHARLES MARTIN SMITH

I first heard about it from the guys at Alcon (Alcon Entertainment). They'd  heard about Winter and had been trying to develop a script for a couple of years. It wasn't going that well and they were looking for someone to kind of come in and take over basically. I think they were about to shelve it. I think they were going to give up. They couldn't get a script they liked. They thought they'd take one more kick at the can, or is it the cat? They sent it to me. I learned all about it. I was like "Here's how I'd do the story." I told them my take on it. They thought that was great and they hired me. I went down to Clearwater and just sat and watched Winter for about three days. I talked to the people there. I talked to the guys at Hanger Prosthetics, the ones who made Winter's prosthetic. I wanted to know about the science of the prosthetics. I wanted to watch Winter. It was really something to see her and learn about her personality and to see the effect that she has on people. I think the first day I was there a boy who'd lost his leg to cancer was there. He was about six-years-old at the most. He got in there to swim with Winter. She was so tender with him and gentle. He was so moved and his mom was so moved. I thought "Wow, what an inspirational animal."

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

That's really lost it in the film was when the young girl came in...

CHARLES MARTIN SMITH

Little Margaret (Laila Harris).

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

She was amazing.

CHARLES MARTIN SMITH

I actually came in and completely rewrote the script. The two writers who are credited are the ones who were there before me. I wrote all that. I put that in, because I'd seen that. I wanted that in. I rewrote it ... it's a little bit of fiction. Actually, when they rescued Winter the place was failing. It was actually having all kinds of financial trouble. I added all that and the hurricane and how it hits rock bottom. I wanted her to be this little angel in this one car when there's nobody else around... a little pure, sweet girl.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

And she was...

CHARLES MARTIN SMITH

She was! Wow, I will tell you though. That little kid's a pistol.  She looks a lot sweeter in the movie! She's a funny, bright and sarcastic little kid. She said some hilarious things. She was actually cracking us up. Wasn't she just adorable?

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

She was, but all the kids were. Your two leads were just fantastic. I'd heard of Nathan Gamble before, but I think the girl, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, is a newcomer?

CHARLES MARTIN SMITH

Totally new.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

She's amazing in this film.

CHARLES MARTIN SMITH

Isn't she? I'm telling you. I'm so proud of her. She's never done anything but little community theatre. I think she'd only gotten an agent like 2-3 months before. She'd pestered her parents. They're just a lovely, sweet Christian family. The same is true for Nathan's... just a lovely family. She came in to audition and I thought "Holy Crap!" I had her do the scene again and thought "This girl is really good...not just pretty good, but a one-in-a-million talent." I didn't care that she'd never been in a film.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I was amazed that she was that new. She just seemed to have terrific instincts on screen.

CHARLES MARTIN SMITH

You're absolutely right. You should look at her dailies. Every take... every scene... every angle... she's good. I could direct her. She could take it this way, take it that way. She could bring it down. I mean this kid is stunning.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I mean, c'mon. She held her own with Harry Connick Jr., who has been acting for awhile ... Ashley Judd, who's simply amazing.

CHARLES MARTIN SMITH

She's right up there with them... Morgan Freeman even.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

That's another thing I appreciated about the film. It seems like the casting was taken seriously. In family films, it often seems like it's enough just to be family friendly. Sometimes, it seems like the actual casting is an afterthought. It's not in this film. You've got Ashley Judd, who I think is just amazing in this film. You've got Harry Connick Jr. I'll be honest that going into it I was a little skeptical. He was great in it.

CHARLES MARTIN SMITH

He's got that kindly father thing. He's a little imposing like you find at the beginning.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I wasn't sure he could relax into it, but he did.

CHARLES MARTIN SMITH

I was so proud of him in the Chumash Legend scene where he did the story. I was developing a film about a dolphin about 10 years ago based on that legend. That film never went. I called my buddy, the producer, and said "If we're not going to make that film I'm going to take that Chumash Legend and use it." Harry when he did that he was just so into it. He's got kids and he loves kids. You totally saw the dad in him.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

By the end of the film, it was really neat because you really got the sense that everybody belonged. I thought that was pretty incredible.

CHARLES MARTIN SMITH

Well, thanks. That was the idea. You know, with Kyle and Sawyer. I wanted something that Kyle would give to Sawyer ... some sort of token. So, I ended up with a pocket knife and put "Family is Forever" on there. What I meant by that, though, was not just immediate family but the sense of family. When they first come out of the truck on the beach and Sawyer's rescuing Winter on the beach and the way they were surrounding Winter... I told everyone "You are a family and one of yours has fallen and you're surrounding them with this kind of love and feeling." Sawyer sees that and so when he goes to the marine aquarium they're like a big family. He finds family there in a broader sense of it.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

To sort of expand on that, I was amazed how well you were able to tackle serious subjects and still be heartwarming and entertaining and inspiring. In a lot of these family films, as well, they talk down to the kids. Dolphin Tale doesn't do that. It respects their intelligence and their emotions and their life experiences. I kept expecting you to throw adult stuff in there, you know? Like maybe having Harry Connick Jr. and Ashley Judd together at the end or something like that...

CHARLES MARTIN SMITH

Oh, I know. I looked at the script and I was like "Oh no, I can't do that. I can't do that!" I only allowed myself the one little moment where he kind of looks at her. Nah, I couldn't do that.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I was SOOOOO glad you didn't do that.

CHARLES MARTIN SMITH

Another thing I wanted to do with the kids was to bring a little magic to the movie, a heightened fantasy sense like with Sawyer in the big main hall when he comes in and is surrounded by all the sounds and the fish like he's underwater. Rufus, the pelican, was another way I tried to do that. Also, the fact that Hazel and Clay live on a houseboat. We spent a lot of time designing Hazel's lookout. I want kids in the audience to think they would love to have that... flying with the helicopter was another one. All those things had slightly magical elements. I realized, of course, that if I did that the kids would have to be absolutely real. I had to ground the kids in reality to get away with that kind of fantasy. I wanted them to act like real kids... petulant ... sometimes unreasonable ... highs and lows like real kids. I hope they come across that way.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

They did. It's funny. They were so good that I started thinking about other films with kids where I'd wished they'd been in the role. Okay, I know our time is wrapping up here. I have to ask you about what seems like a pattern towards films dealing with animals and nature. I know, of course, you've had lots of other projects. It seems like, though, since you've gone behind-the-camera that when you really commit to a project it has that sort of animal/nature connection. Is that an accurate perception? You seem drawn to films like these.

CHARLES MARTIN SMITH

Thank you and I am. What's funny is I'm not a particularly outdoorsy guy. I don't go camping or anything. I don't have pets. I don't have animals.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

You don't? Really?

CHARLES MARTIN SMITH

I don't. Mind you, I travel so much. It would be hard for me. As a subject for film, I find man's collision with nature an endlessly interesting topic. I love animals and I love kids and I love them as a subject for film because what they give you is so truthful. Animals can only give you the real thing. We can illuminate so much about the human condition with animal characters. So, it's not so much of a personal thing for me as a cinematic interest. I probably learned that from my hero Carroll Ballard when we did Never Cry Wolf years ago. Before we started doing this, I sat down with the cinematographer and we watched The Black Stallion again. You cannot find a better movie with a depiction of the relationship between a kid and an animal than the first 45 minutes with that horse and that boy on the island. If I can make a movie half as good as that, I'm a happy man.


You can decide for yourself if director Charles Martin Smith has made it halfway to "Black Stallion" when "Dolphin Tale" opens nationwide in theatres on September 23, 2011. Distributed by Warner Brothers, "Dolphin Tale" is rated PG (mild thematic elements).

© 2011, Interview by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic

    The Official Rating Guideline
    • A+ to A: 4 Stars                
    • A- to B+: 3.5 Stars            
    • B: 3 Stars                         
    • B- to C+: 2.5 Stars           
    • C: 2 Stars
    • C- to D+: 1.5 Stars
    • D: 1 Star
    • D-: .5 Star
    • F: Zero Stars

    our twitterour facebook page pintrestgoogle pluslinkdin

    The Independent Critic © 2008 - 2019