For some filmmakers, the idea of working with children and animals -- not to mention the entire family film genre, for that matter -- is an abhorrent proposition. But 'Dolphin Tale' director Charlies Martin Smith says he learned from the best -- from the likes of George Lucas and Carroll Ballard. Thanks to those influences and Smith's familiarity with animal-centered stories (he directed Disney's franchise-setting 'Air Bud'), 'Dolphin Tale' is one of the rare live-action PG films to score rare reviews.
Moviefone talked to the multi-talented Smith (he's an actor, screenwriter, producer and director with more than 95 film and television credits) about tackling his inspiring 'Dolphin Take,' the film's unique leading star and whether his musical star Harry Connick Jr. jammed on the set.

What got you interested in making this story?
The producers at Alcon had seen something about Winter on a morning show. They worked on [the story] for a couple of years and the project had stalled; they weren't sure what to do. Luckily for me, I was brought on to do rewrites and direct the film. They brought it to me, and I'm really glad they did.

Was it strange having an animal star?
Real animals doing what they really do, that's what's interesting to me and to not have them behave as if they understand every word of English, to try and capture the way the animal really is.

I knew Winter was basically a wild animal. The first thing I did when I started writing was go sit and watch Winter. I needed to know what she did, how she lived. She likes to get up on her little blue mattress and float around and she loves to make this Tweety bird sound all day long. I knew she was going to just be herself, so I needed a really, really strong kid actor who could stand up to that and be as real as Winter is.

Do the comparisons to 'Free Willy' bother you?
It isn't the same movie at all. People just hear dolphin and kid and compare it to another movie with a marine mammal. But there aren't that many similarities -- besides 'Free Willy' was a long time ago, although I guess there were all those sequels.

Watch the trailer for 'Dolphin Tale'

How difficult is it to work with child actors?
I have worked with child actors and non-actors -- new actors -- on a number of occasions. I made a movie called 'The Snow Walker' and our female lead was a 19-year-old Inuit girl who'd never acted before. And I did the first, two-hour TV movie that launched the series 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer,' because of my experience with young actors.

So how did you find the two young stars, who have so much chemistry?
The two kid characters were my first concern, because Sawyer really is the central character in the movie. I auditioned hundreds of kids and found Nathan Gamble, who really is wonderful. And little Cozi Zuehlsdorff has never done anything before, but I've worked with enough kids to recognize that these kids are really special.

I appreciated there wasn't any contrived romance between Ashley Judd and Harry Connick Jr.
There was discussion of that a little bit, but I was adamant that I didn't want to do that. That's not what the movie is about; the love story here is between all these caring marine hospital workers and Winter.

With Harry Connick Jr. on set, was there any impromptu jam sessions?
Harry plays the saxophone in the movie but I couldn't think of anything for him to play. In the evenings I was listening to a lot of Chet Baker, and I got his song 'Everything Happens to Me' stuck in my head. Meanwhile during the days I was listening to other songs trying to figure out what he should play, and finally I thought, "how about the song that's stuck in your head?"

Who are some of your influences as a director?
One of the most cherished films that I've ever worked on is 'Never Cry Wolf.' I was about 26, and the director was Carroll Ballard, whom I knew through George Lucas, since I'd been in 'American Graffiti.' There was this whole Bay Area connection of those filmmakers, and of course I learned a great deal from George, when was 18 in 'Graffiti.' 'Never Cry Wolf' was Ballard's film after 'The Black Stallion.' I was not only the star but ended up being one of the writers on that film as well. I worked on that film for a year-and-a-half very closely with Carroll and learned filmmaking from him.

What is your favorite family movie?
Personally, I don't think there's ever been a better movie that focuses on an animal than 'The Black Stallion,' That whole opening sequence with the kid and the horse and the island is just magical!

'Dolphin Tale' is rated PG and has a Common Sense Media age-rating of 7 and up.

(Banner image courtesy of Warner Bros.)
Never Cry Wolf
PG 1931
In Theaters on January 18th, 2002

A Canadian biologist (Charles Martin Smith) studies wolves in the wild. Read More

Black Stallion
G 1979
Based on 10 critics

A shipwrecked 1940s boy (Kelly Reno) bonds with an Arabian horse. Read More

Dolphin Tale
PG 2011
Based on 31 critics

A marine biologist, a prosthetics designer and a boy try to save a dolphin who lost her tail. Read More