"The true story, the fact that Winter is playing herself, those were big selling points" of the film, said Steve Wegner, a producer with Alcon, which is filming the movie for Warner Bros. to release next fall. The movie stars Connick as the aquarium director, Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman and Kris Kristofferson.
"There was never any question that we'd use the real dolphin," said fellow producer Robert Engelman. "Winter has this incredible personality, and she's unique. Not having a tail, she moves differently from other dolphins. You can't fake that. No other dolphin could be her double."
So Alcon "hired" Winter, rented the Clearwater aquarium for the fall, turned to Charles Martin Smith ("Air Bud") to direct and helped build Winter a new tank. And Alcon changed the story, adding Hollywood elements to make it a more commercial family film. Real people were folded into composite characters, and children were introduced to make the film kid-friendly.
"Everything about Winter in the movie is true," Engelman said. "What we have added is a drama of a boy, a girl and a family. Those elements keep it from being a documentary." Winter's rescue, by kids, was staged on the beaches of Honeymoon Island, off Dunedin.
Nathan Gamble plays Sawyer, the shy, outcast (and fictional) kid who discovers Winter, "and she teaches him not to give up, because she didn't give up on life, even though she was disabled," Gamble said. Kyle, another composite character, is a disabled vet who draws inspiration from Winter.
People are inspired by the story of the dolphin who adjusts to a life with a prosthetic limb, Connick said. Their testimonials fill the aquarium's website (seewinter.com). Some even came out to be extras in "Dolphin Tale."