CLEARWATER — Friday lunches are special for the Dolphin Tale movie crew. Paychecks are handed out, the catering table includes a pasta grill, and everyone is only a half-day away from the weekend off.
Yesterday's break, in a church auditorium near the Clearwater Marine Aquarium serving as the film's chief location, included a surprise: a seven-minute "sizzle reel" featuring footage captured in Pinellas County over two months of filming, with another month remaining.
For most of the insiders, it was the first time seeing any results of their labors.
"This is for all the really hard and really, really good work you guys have done on this movie," said director Charles Martin Smith, introducing the featurette. "Thank you so much."
A loud cheer when the DVD ended was inevitable, with Smith accepting hugs and returning compliments. But even this witness without a vested interest in the movie came away with a solid impression: Dolphin Tale will be a polished production showcasing Tampa Bay on an artistic and commercial level that hasn't been reached since Cocoon back in 1985.
The film's star Harry Connick Jr. arrived too late for lunch and the sizzle reel but spoke about filming Dolphin Tale while picking at a piece of lemon cake.
"Seriously, this is the nicest, most laid-back set I've been on," said the actor-musician. "I think it has a lot to do with the weather and the subject matter. Being from the South myself, I'm used to the whole Southern essence. People (here) are just great, real cool."
Meanwhile, the 170 crew members — mostly Florida residents, taking advantage of the state's entertainment incentive program — returned to the aquarium's sun-baked bayou where this week's filming focused. The task was the film's climactic sequence, a swimming race at the center of a fundraising carnival to save the aquarium and the movie's hero, Winter the dolphin.
The bayou was rimmed by canopied charity booths, most of them representing actual Tampa Bay causes echoing Dolphin Tale's themes: wilderness preservation advocates, swim teams and youth groups, and veterans who, like Winter, suffered amputations and benefited from science that created a new tail for the dolphin.
Bleachers trimmed with dolphin-shaped balloons were filled with cheering extras, responding to cues from an assistant director on a PA system. From a visitor's vantage point, a pontoon boat loaded with 3D cameras and audio equipment was mostly hidden by giant reflector panels taming sunlight and shadows.
Later, Smith and the camera boat tied up alongside a quirkily rustic houseboat built for the movie, the home of aquarium director Clay Haskett (Connick) and his daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff). Co-star Kris Kristofferson, playing Clay's father, strolled onto the set just in time to take the short cruise to the houseboat.
Dolphin Tale tweaks the true story of Winter's rehabilitation into a story of friendship between the dolphin and an introverted boy named Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) who convinces Clay to save her.
Ashley Judd co-stars as Sawyer's mother, and Oscar winner Morgan Freeman — who completed his 13-day stay last week — plays the inventor of Winter's prosthetic tail. The film's release is slated for fall 2011.
On the set, executive producer Bob Engelman spoke glowingly about his Tampa Bay filming experience, so far.
"It has gone terrifically," he said. "We've had zero production issues on this. Florida has been fabulous."
Productions typically figure potential problems with weather and malfunctions into shooting schedules. Although Dolphin Tale hasn't needed those precautions, Engelman said he expects filming to continue until mid December as planned.
"We'll finish on time because what we're doing is getting a better movie," he said. "It's giving us more time to get better performances. The director is taking that time to make this a better movie."
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365.