Interview: Nathan Gamble and Cozi Zuehlsdorff of “Dolphin Tale 2”

Posted on September 12, 2014 at 8:00 am

dolphin tale 2 interviewThe young human stars of Dolphin Tale, Nathan Gamble and Cozi Zuehlsdorff, are back for the delightful sequel. They conducted a charming Q&A session after a screening in Washington, D.C., always remembering to say “Good question!” to the children who raised their hands, and warming the hearts of the locals by praising their visits to the local monuments. I very much enjoyed talking to them, two of the nicest, brightest kids I have ever met, and with the same chemistry off-screen that makes them so good together in the film. They were just 12 when they made “Dolphin Tale,” and are now both 16, so they have been working together for a quarter of their lives, and they stay in touch by text when they are home with their families, Cozi in California and Nathan in Seattle.

One addition to the cast in the sequel is Hope, the young dolphin whose rescue and “pairing” with Winter are the a key part of the plot. I asked Nathan and Cozi to tell me about the personalities of the two dolphins. “They are similar in the way that you can connect with them because they are very personable creatures,” Nathan said. “But they are different because Hope is a very energetic, fun-loving bundle of energy and Winter is more gentle. She is really there just to hang out not really to do all the funny crazy stuff.” Cozi said that if she could ask them a question, she’d ask, “What do you think we are doing when there are cameras in the water? What do you think is happening?” Nathan was surprised by “how easy it is to interact with them. When I first met Winter before I heard the trainer going through all the do’s and don’ts and I was pretty nervous.” He was worried he would hurt her because there was so much to remember. “But really with Winter and Hope it’s very easy to swim with them and connect with them. I’m not nervous around them at all.” “What surprised me is how distinct their personalities are,” Cozi said. “You see dolphins in the wild and you kind of go, ‘Oh look how cute!’ And they all look kind of the same. But when you’re with them you totally feel their personalities. In that way they’re very human-like.” They both understood why dolphins cannot survive alone. “They are social,” Nathan said. “They’re just awesome that way.”

They both felt they’d brought what they had learned from the first film and just from being more grown up to their characters and to the other actors. “I don’t think I’m as nervous that much I think especially on the first one with my first leading role where I was the main protagonist in it and it was all very new to me. And now that I’ve done that I’m not as nervous and I think I am very confident in that way,” Nathan said. Cozi added, “I think for me it is easier to grasp how important it is to stay focussed. That’s another thing like being respectful to the other actors; you really understand that it’s important to give as much as you can even when you’re completely off camera to aid them. It’s so disrespectful, like making funny faces.”

Charles Martin Smith directed the first one, but with the sequel he directed, wrote the screenplay, and appeared on screen as well, as a stern but not unsympathetic government official. Both Nathan and Cozi loved working with him, and enjoyed watching him in his early films like “Never Cry Wolf” and “Starman.”

Cozi wrote and performed a song called “Brave Souls” that is played over the closing credits. She talked about how much she appreciated being around Kris Kristofferson and Harry Connick, Jr., who play her grandfather and father. Surprisingly, she said Morgan Freeman also loves music and did more singing around the set than the two musicians. “He sang ‘Night and Day’ and it was lovely.” She said her notebook is filled with “scribbles” from her conversations with Connick about music. “He doesn’t treat me like a kid in that musical sense. He talks to me until I go ‘I have no idea what you’re saying,’ then he’ll clarify. I would play a really tough piece and he’ll say what chord is that?”

There’s a great story behind the shoes that Cozi wears in the film. “Hope Hanafin who is our costume designer, she’s like one of my favourite people. Hope was so knowledgeable and so intelligent about never buying something in a store that my character couldn’t afford. But she said, ‘I want Hazel to have some really cool shoes. Do you like to draw and would you like to draw on your shoes? Because a lot of people do that. You know like they’ll take blank white shoes and they’ll draw on it. So she gave me some yellow shoes because yellow is my favourite colour and she gave them to my sister and my sister took all my favourite quotes from shows like ‘Doctor Who’ and Bible verses and just like anything that I loved and put them around the base of the shoes. And then she drew dolphins all over them and a sunrise and waves with the dolphins breaching and jumping over and birds in the air. And every dolphin has a little name. And it was all my best friends’ names so now I can say to all my best friends that they were there in the movie. You really see the shoes in the scene where we’re lowering the stretcher and Winter got scared. There’s a whole shot where you can totally see the shoes.”

Nathan talked about playing a character who is very interior, “which is totally opposite of me. I’m a very outgoing person and I talk a lot. So, you’ve got to find little things you can relate to and just build on that. Sawyer is shy but also he is just passionate about things. Not a ton of things but when he finds that thing that he really loves, he really is passionate about it and he is going to devote his life to it.  That’s how I am so I just sort of build off that and see how I can morph that into a real life character.”

They enjoy the questions they get from children when they show the movie or appear on behalf of the aquarium.  Some kids offered to share their popcorn.  Some just say, “I have a question!  …..You are cool!”  But some ask thought-provoking questions about what is real in the movie (yes, Cozi really cries, but if what they are doing would be even a little bit dangerous for the animals, they use robots).  And in some scenes, where they appear to be interacting with the animals, they were just looking at a tennis ball to show them where their eyes should go. Nathan said he prepares for those shots by closing his eyes and picturing what his character would really be seeing “and kind of match it together.”  And Cozi said, “I kind of think of it as a game for myself like how emotional can I get when I look at the tennis ball? Ii is kind of like a fun challenge, like how much realness can you put into staring at a tennis ball.  Sometimes there is this full second where you go, ‘This is so weird!’ And you just kind of go, ‘Okay, forget it. Now I’m just going to do it.’”  One surprise was that the water, which looks very warm and comfortable in the film, was very cold and salty.

They would both love to make a “Dolphin Tale 3.”  Nathan said that he would like to return from the adventure we see him begin at the end of the movie “almost like a totally new person.”  Cozi said she would like to have her character meet a new volunteer who might make Sawyer feel a bit displaced.  “I hope that she would be happy and strong and really, really starting to own up to the fact that one day she will probably run the aquarium.”  But she thinks before she can do that, Hazel would have to “travel around the world in the same boat that her dad and her grandfather travelled the world in, and then she can find out where she belongs.”

They are both grateful for what they have learned from the movie and from the dolphins.  “I learned so much just from the countless stories of families and people who have been inspired by Winter.  It’s really cool to just see in person what Winter has done for so many people.”

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Interview: Charles Martin Smith of ‘Dolphin Tale’

Posted on September 21, 2011 at 8:00 am

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 .  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.

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