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'Dolphin Tale' director Charles Martin Smith has a way with animals

Animals have been important to Charles Martin Smith's movie career, from his acting in the true-life adventure Never Cry Wolf to his directing a dog in Air Bud and a sea mammal in Dolphin Tale. Even Smith's breakout role in American Graffiti cast him as Terry the Toad.

All appropriate for an eager beaver of a filmmaker. By all accounts, Smith runs a tight ship with a loose touch. He is likelier to silently construct a shot in his mind or carefully sketch it in a script's margins than yell for people to get it done right.

"Probably my own natural personality," Smith explains during a one-on-one interview at the Dolphin Tale media junket, "whatever that is."

Off the set, he's equally convivial, easy to talk to about classic rock 'n' roll, sunset strolls on Clearwater Beach and why John Carpenter is more of an actor's director than his B-movie horror reputation suggests. Smith doesn't have a bad thing to say about anybody. Or if he does, he leaves the people unidentified, as when he's asked whether any directors taught him what not to do on a set.

"Oh, gosh, yeah," Smith says. "But they should remain nameless. I worked with a director early on — not a film you've probably even heard of — who was very specific about line readings. He had been an actor himself — frustrated actor, probably. He wanted every line read just exactly his way.

"It was death. Killed every bit of spontaneity in the performance. I certainly learned not to do that.

"I've learned a lot from directors over the years. When we did (American) Graffiti with George (Lucas), he was really kind of hands-off with the acting, but not completely. He gave us a lot of leeway, let us block the scenes and do things our way. I realized that was a smart move for young actors, to not impose too much on them and not box them in.

"That's the best thing for the movie. I don't want the set to be tense, especially with kids (as actors) and an animal who's going to pick up the vibe on the set. Winter picks up all that stuff. Keep people encouraged, pointed in the right direction, feeling confident and relaxed."

That's kind of the way Smith feels about how Dolphin Tale represents Winter the bottlenose dolphin's extraordinary life. Sure, he tinkers with facts a bit for cinematic purposes, creating characters and adding a hurricane in Clearwater, a sassy pet pelican and a toy helicopter calamity. But he swears that entertaining audiences won't interfere with truths about Winter.

"Believe me, I became aware of what Winter means to this community and people all over the country," Smith says. "It is a big responsibility, and I'm always taking it seriously.

"I said to (Clearwater Marine Aquarium chief executive officer) David Yates the other day, 'I hope I've made you proud.' I tried so much to include the way they work with (Winter), how the aquarium functions, the sense of family there. I wanted to emphasize their goal of rescue, rehab, release, to remind people of that purpose."

Smith wanted more, but Dolphin Tale was running long. He's disappointed that a scene depicting another dolphin being released hit the cutting room floor. Smith did sneak in a staged shot of a veterinarian showing off a fishing hook extracted from a sea turtle's throat during a montage set to the Chords' doo-wop classic Sh-Boom. Perhaps a sonic signature to show that Dolphin Tale was directed by Terry the Toad?

Smith nearly falls off his chair laughing at the suggestion: "Not exactly, but I do love the song, though."

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365.

'Dolphin Tale' director Charles Martin Smith has a way with animals 09/21/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 21, 2011 5:30am]

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