A Talk With Charles Martin Smith
A Talk With Charles Martin Smith
Early last week, Warner Bros. flew me and couple dozen other journalists down to Clearwater, Florida to screen their new film Dolphin Tale and participate in roundtable interviews with cast and crew. The film is a beautiful, inspiring, and fanciful tale built around the real-life story of Winter, an injured dolphin fitted with a prosthetic tail.
I was also fortunate enough to score a one-on-one sitdown with the film’s director, Charles Martin Smith—who, in 1983, starred in and wrote the narration for one of my top five films of all time, Carroll Ballard’s Never Cry Wolf. You may also remember Smith as Terry the Toad in American Graffiti or Agent Wallace in The Untouchables—or as the director of the original Air Bud, among a number of other films and TV programs.
The following is a transcript of my interview with Smith.
When I was preparing to come down to Florida for this interview, I was thinking of a line of questioning about life-affirming films that you’ve worked on—and knew, of course, that Never Cry Wolf would be part of that discussion. But because I’m a critic, and something of a cynic, I thought we’d just be using Dolphin Tale as sort of a jumping off point for that. Because I’m jaded, I just wasn’t expecting that much out of this movie. But after seeing it last night, I’d have to guess that, for you in your career, it has to rank right up there as one of those films that your Producer Broderick Johnson talks about in the press notes as “stories that lift people up.” What is it in you that draws you to those kinds of stories, and want to tell them? Because, obviously, not everyone is trying to tell them.
CMS: Not everybody is telling them. And I think you’ve got to hand it to Broderick and Andrew [Kosove] for really being the ones—and Richard Ingber, also, the guy at Alcon who found the story and wanted to make it—the ones that brought me into the process. It wasn’t my idea to make this movie. They found Winter and started trying to develop the story, and then they invited me in. And I of course was thrilled. I don’t know. It’s so hard to make a movie; and I want to make films that put something positive out into the world. It’s too hard to make a movie to just have it be an empty film that you forget about five minutes after you leave the theater, you know?
CMS: I mean, I was raised in a very artistic family; my dad was an artist, and my mother was a writer. And I am a musician. And I really did grow up feeling like that was the purpose of any art or creative endeavor: to illuminate something about the human spirit.
That’s what Faulkner said in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in literature. He talked about the role of art in lifting the human spirit and reminding us of what has built us up, rather than tearing us down.
CMS: Absolutely right. Good man, Faulkner!
I was actually just trying to find a snippet of that quote the other day and came across the text of the entire speech on the Nobel Prize website.
CMS: I’ll have to read that.
1939, I think it was. Very inspiring. [1949, actually.]
CMS: That’s very well put. And you know, you don’t get to talk about that stuff all that much in Hollywood. It all feels artsy-fartsy fancy. But I do believe that. I do want to put something positive out into the world. I want to make a film that entertains, too, but uplifts somehow, so that people walk out of the theater with something to think about, to talk about. Even if it’s— The last movie I made was about a crime: The Stone of Destiny, a good Scottish film about a kid who broke into Westminster Abbey and took the back the Stone of Scone… which technically was a crime, but they argued that it was also a crime when the thing was taken away from Scotland in 1296, and they wanted it back. And people had different opinions about the morality of what those kids did; but to me it was a very uplifting story, and at least it could get people thinking about that stuff.
So going backward now to Never Cry Wolf. At the time you called it a life-changing experience. Can you look back now, to 1983, and still think of it those terms?
CMS: 1980 for me, actually—I started on it in 1980. So absolutely—yes. It was an amazing experience. I knew it when we were doing it. I remember sitting there freezing in the Arctic after filming there for something like seven months, and thinking, “You know, this is absolutely wearing me down; but it’s wonderful. I’m never going to have another chance like this. I’m never going to have another chance to work on such a piece of art.” Carroll Ballard is such an absolute artist.
Did it surprise you to find out that one of the screenwriters who worked on Dolphin Tale had also worked with Ballard on Duma?
CMS: No—I’d heard about that.
So it must have been pleasant, at least, to hear about that—that there would be a common connection there.
CMS: Yeah. But I never really talked to Karen Janszen while working on this film. So I never had a chance to— Still haven’t!
She’s probably here in the building.
CMS: Yeah. I saw her out there! But I’m not sure what level of her involvement was with Duma, either. Carroll writes his own films, pretty much. Although he’s not credited as a writer on Never Cry Wolf. He’s the absolute storyteller/guiding-hand behind everything. And I love that way of making films. It was an amazing experience, the way he did that. His background was documentaries, largely; and that’s why his films have this sort of wonderful quality to them.
Well, I think of them as kind of—and this is going to sound terrible, but—Terrence Malick films with a heart.
CMS: Yeah, that does sound kind of terrible, but I know what you mean.
Malick makes beautiful films, but he doesn’t move me. It’s a very cold, sterile beauty much like a lot of David Lean’s films. But with Ballard’s films, it’s beauty that’s connected—
CMS: Beauty connected to something.
CMS: That’s the absolute thing. And you have to. Ultimately what moves us is people. I’ve always been— Wow, this is a conversation that is going where no other one has gone today. But having grown up with an artist as a father, I was always fascinated by the Impressionists and the post-Impressionists—and the difference between the ones who concentrated on landscapes, and the ones who felt like there was nothing worth painting except humans. You know, the people who did portraits: Toulouse Lautrec’s studies, and Degas: how they would study people, and what they were like, as opposed to the others who were doing landscapes, largely. Which is more valid? I don’t know; they’re both valid, I suppose. But it’s the connection between the two that I find the most interesting.
Well, the sequence in this film that really moved me—the one that got me to wake up, critically, and say, “Okay—I’m invested in this film; I’m going to drop whatever critical cynicism I might have because this has just got it”—was the scene where the boy swims with Winter.
CMS: Oh, good.
Which to me was so much like your scene with the caribou in Never Cry Wolf—
—or Alec’s sequence on the beach with the Black Stallion. Where there’s no words.
CMS: You can feel it in your heart. Absolutely.
So were you thinking of that scene in those terms when you directed it?
CMS: I pretty much emulated it. I don’t know—I know I never will, but I don’t know if anyone will ever make a better scene than the one with the boy and the horse on the island. It’s fantastic. Actually, before we started shooting, I got Karl Walter Lindenlaub, the cinematographer, and we sat in my room at the hotel and watched it. And we just talked about it—how this was done, and how he captured it—how Carroll tells a story with images, and the drama: he’s a real dramatist. And we talked about the Night Ballet, which is what I call that sequence in our film, and we talked about wanting to capture that there. And in the other scene—well, I would have loved to capture that in the whole movie—but the other scene on the beach when Sawyer’s rescuing Winter on the beach: when she’s wrapped up in the ropes, and he comes and sits with her, and gradually throws the trap away. And we actually shot that the way Carroll shot a lot of things on Never Cry Wolf—which was difficult with these giant 3-D cameras! We didn’t have the small, mobile camera, which is the way Carroll shoots. But I wanted to capture that feeling of the boy and the dolphin on the beach.
Well, it really struck me, as you were talking about during the roundtable interview this morning, how that scene, without dialog, presented—you could see— This just made me think of a contrast with Empire of the Sun—
CMS: Oh, yeah.
—when Christian Bale, early in the film, is fleeing Hong Kong as it’s disintegrating and falling, and you can see in his eyes what he’s reacting to outside the car; but you never get to see what he’s seeing! But here, you’re not only seeing the boy’s reaction but what he’s reacting to, as well: which is that sense of family in the animal rescue team—so you really know what he’s responding to. “Here are these people acting as unit, like I’ve never seen before. I don’t know what I’m watching, exactly, but it’s powerful: and I want to be a part of it.”
And it really worked.
CMS: I’m glad. Going back to the kid on the beach… I had a point there.
Oh, no! I made you lose one.
CMS: No—that was the other thing. There were a number of things I did in the movie that are drawn from The Black Stallion. And one of them is the story of the Indian tribe and their legend of how dolphins came to be.
CMS: You remember the wonderful scene at the beginning of The Black Stallion when the boy’s father, before the story, tells him the legend about Bucephalus? And he gives him the little horse figurine?
That hadn’t occurred to me—and the same thing in Never Cry Wolf with the story of—
CMS: How Wolf was created, to cut the weakness from the herd. Yes. And then I put in this, too, actually. [Smith draws from within his shirt a pendant of a tailless dolphin, carved from ivory.] I had Harry give this to the boy—which is very much like the Bucephalus scene.
Very much like—
CMS: Yeah, I walk through life wondering, “How can I make movies like The Black Stallion?”
Well, now, there a couple of story elements here, too, that were in Karen’s script, that scream “Ballard.” The boy and his mother are so much like Alec and his mother in The Black Stallion—
—and the girl and her father are like the girl and her widowed father in Fly Away Home. And wounded animals, and everything.
CMS: That’s true. Yeah.
And yet those were there in the original script, when you got to it, right?
CMS: Yes, they were. Those relationships, between Sawyer and Lorraine, were largely there, yeah. Although, before I came on, in the script the character of Kyle, Sawyer’s cousin, the injured veteran, was his big brother. So she was actually mother to both of them. And she actually spent more time mothering the soldier. And I didn’t want that. So I moved the soldier—
Across the street.
CMS: —to be his cousin, across the street, still having a big-brother influence; but I didn’t want anything getting in the way of the relationship between Lorraine and the kid.
Now, one element of the script that Karen said came specifically from you—so I want to follow up on that—is the quote from John Masefield’s poem “Sea Fever.”
CMS: Oh! Yes. Really!
About the “tall ship and a star to steer her by.” What’s your connection to that poem, and why did you want that in there?
CMS: I don’t know. I wanted to find— I just have always loved the poem, and I wanted to find some way to get into that conversation between the grandfather and Clay. And I just thought— Well, it’s an old trick: quote from somebody who writes better than you! I’ve used that a number of times in my scripts!
Oh, yeah! Critics do it all the time, too.
CMS: Exactly. I tell you: nothing elevates your script more than quoting from somebody who writes better than you do. Gosh! I did that in Stone of Destiny. I’m sure I did. I’ve done that in everything. In Snow Walker I had James Cromwell quote, “I’ve slipped the surly bonds of Earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings,” that ode to the pilots written by McGee, who was killed in the war. And even in Air Bud, I had a Christmas scene in the middle and I had the mom read, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” You know that? It was an answer written in response to a letter in the paper.
CMS: It’s beautifully written. So I quoted that in that one. So here I was thinking, “Well, this would be a good place for a poem—and what about this?” A star to steer her by: and Winter is our star. So…
And now, five years later, Hope comes along, too, right?
CMS: Yeah! Isn’t that weird? Five years and a day. Rescued almost exactly on the same spot, and on our very last day of filming.
So what is that, in your conception of the film? What is the star to steer by? Is it hope, or something more concrete?
CMS: It’s hope. It’s the hope, and the inspiration and belief that you can do it. The refusal to give up is that star. And that’s what Winter really has, and it affects everybody. And the other thing that I wrote in there— It’s interesting, I really don’t know Karen, and she wasn’t really involved during the shooting of the film—she wrote the early drafts that I based my scripts on—but I put in the hurricane sequence, because I wanted some drama there, and then to bring it back down again. And then the Board of Directors, which I put in there so there was some tension about closing down the place. I wanted there to be an opportunity for something like a little angel coming down from heaven, in just this one car. And I shot it from this angle—
The God shot.
CMS: The God shot, yes. I wanted to film that whole sequence as if you weren’t sure it really happened. Did this really happen, or is this some kind of wonderful dream? This is part of that star to follow, that kicks off Act III.