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Writers on Writing: Dolphin Tale

Screenwriters Noam Dromi and Karen Janszen discuss the process of bringing the family friendly Dolphin Tale to the screen.

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 Nathan Gamble as Sawyer Nelson and Winter as herself, in Alcon Entertainment’s family adventure Dolphin Tale, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Nathan Gamble as Sawyer Nelson and Winter as herself, in Alcon Entertainment’s family adventure Dolphin Tale, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

By Noam Dromi

In December 2005, Florida fisherman James P. Savage came upon an injured Atlantic bottlenose baby dolphin that had become entangled in the ropes of a crab trap, cutting off the circulation to her tail. Critically injured, the young animal was transported to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA), where she eventually lost her tail altogether, increasing the odds against her survival. The people working 24/7 to help Winter — as the dolphin was named — were determined to defy those odds. Her miraculous recovery was due, in large part, to an ingenious prosthetic tail developed by Dr. Kevin Carroll, Vice President of Prosthetics for Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics. The prosthetic is held on via a revolutionary sleeve made out of a super-soft, flexible, durable material, dubbed “Winter’s Gel,” which not only saved Winter's life but has since changed the lives of physically challenged people around the world.

 Screenwriter Noam Dromi

Screenwriter Noam Dromi

When Dolphin Tale producer Richard Ingber and I first started discussing Winter’s story in late 2006, we were both convinced of the potential for a powerful family film. Winter’s tale was the story of overcoming adversity in the face of seemingly impossible odds and we knew that, if properly told, the story would inspire many people. I immediately began researching the true story and saw how a whole range of elements would translate cinematically, but felt we needed to anchor it in the emotional context of the dolphin’s relationships with people. While Winter’s incredible story of survival would be the foundation for the script, we knew we had to create characters that would give us unique insights into why saving her was so important for not only the people at the aquarium, but for the thousands of individuals who continue to come to visit her today.

Who better to exemplify that necessity than a young boy? Seeing Winter through the eyes of our protagonist Sawyer would give us that sense of emotional honesty and wonder.

It was equally important to include adult characters, some of whom are composites of the real people who rallied together to save Winter. Their knowledge and wisdom and broader perspective of life would inform the story in important ways.

Family films can too easily gravitate into the territory of treacly emotional displays, so we made sure to go back to the core of the real Winter’s story and how she has impacted the lives of special needs children and their families, returning soldiers who were gravely wounded, and countless other individuals, young and old, who would see in Winter the indomitable spirit to never give up.

One of the challenges faced in writing the story was figuring out how Winter would communicate with the human characters to express the pain and discomfort she felt when her prosthetic tail was first applied. The relationship between dolphins and humans is a magical, symbiotic one and we wanted to ensure that any interaction came across in an authentic way.

Since the real Winter is such an expressive creature, we tried to highlight the playfulness of the relationship she has with Sawyer while creating real emotional stakes when her rejection of the prosthetic tail once again puts her life in danger.

Here’s a sample scene:

Sawyer sits by the pool. Panama drifts.
Winter, wearing her gel sleeve, swims up with her yellow duck
around her nose. Makes her TWEETY BIRD sound.
No. I don’t feel like it.
Winter slips the duck off. Watches him a moment. WHISTLES.
Winter, no. Just -- stop.
Winter goes under, takes a mouthful of water, rises --
Cut it out. Didn’t you hear me?
 I don’t want to play.
Winter looks at him for a long time. Softly spits out the
water. But stays right there. He studies her.
You don’t know what’s going on,
 do you? I thought dolphins were
 supposed to be so smart.
Winter floats, watching him.
Why can’t you understand? This
weekend is really important.
Winter SIGHS. Nuzzles him, wanting him to pet her.
No. Stop it! Don’t you get it?
If you don’t wear your tail,
you’ll die. Okay?
(starts to cry)
Why won’t you just wear it?
She drifts off, circles around. She backs into him, puts her
peduncle (with the liner on it) against his leg. Makes a
GUTTURAL noise. Bumps his leg.
Cut it out.
She GRUNTS, makes that weird noise again. Bumps him, scrapes
the sleeve against his leg, over and over again.
Ow. Stop.
But she keeps doing it. She’s trying to tell him something.
Stop it. I told you. Why do
 you keep --
Sawyer stares at Winter. All of a sudden --
Dr. Clay!
He leaps up and runs.

Like the characters who come together to help save Winter’s life, our incredible team of filmmakers worked diligently to translate the story into a film that would resonate with audiences young and old. This film would never have happened without the invaluable contributions of director Charles Martin Smith, producer Richard Ingber, and co-writer Karen Janszen to the material. I am privileged to have played a role in bringing this story to the big screen.

Karen Janszen

I started from scratch, reading and watching everything I could find about Winter and her prosthetic tail. Right away, I knew Winter’s story alone wasn’t movie-sized – it needed a new human context, it needed to be elevated into a metaphor for something else, it needed to be thematically about never giving up, about the affect of her unfailing spirit on the people around her. I realized her character would be a catalyst for change; she wouldn’t change so much herself.

So, I sketched out a fictional story about a socially isolated boy, who finds Winter, and the boy’s cousin who goes to Iraq and comes home injured. This made-up story included what really happened to Winter – her story is the core of truth around which nearly everything and everyone else was invented. Also, this wasn’t a conventional story about taking an animal back to the wild; even with a new tail, Winter would never leave an aquarium. She will always live in captivity. So, I had to find a different kind of victory for the boy and for her at the end of the story.

As I began work on the screenplay, I visited Winter and the people caring for her to get the facts and details right – the setting, the personalities involved, her character, and her appeal to children and the disabled. I also looked around for new story possibilities. I knit these facts and details and new ideas into the imagined story and story world that became the film. In the end, Winter’s triumph comes from being a strong role model, from bringing others together, from healing a boy and a family – it all comes together in a swim race in which Winter participates, wearing her new tail.

 Screenwriter Karen Janszen

Screenwriter Karen Janszen

Always, for me, the most challenging scenes to write are not ones with big emotion, like when Sawyer finds out Winter might die or when he learns his cousin has been injured overseas, but ones where there isn’t a lot of emotion and I have to move the plot forward and cover a lot of ground quickly or pass along a bunch of information seamlessly, invisibly -- like covering the passage of time or explaining the financial troubles of the marine hospital or explaining how a dolphin’s tail works. It’s a magic act. Show, not tell. Keep it short, say only what is necessary, use visuals.

My favorite scenes to write are the quiet ones that communicate characters’ difficult thoughts and feelings, sometimes even with little or no dialogue. Like when Sawyer and Hazel each talk about a missing parent. Or when Winter finally decides to eat and everyone, including Sawyer, realizes how important they are to her survival. These are maybe more like moments in scenes than scenes themselves, but these moments are crucial; ultimately, the story is not so much about Winter but about how knowing and helping Winter transform a boy and his cousin, his family, and a community. And for transformation to occur before viewers’ eyes, you have to lay down a sequence of little steps – no one changes overnight. Your audience will connect the dots to form the whole emotional journey.

As a writer, you should always start with a great idea and characters and then be original. Subvert expectation where possible while always conveying the story’s emotional truth, its heart and soul. A story must be about something authentic and real and deep. So, watch that you don’t strike any false or forced notes. And don’t lose your sense of humor. Moments of fun and funny are important, they are breathers, they leaven the tone. Also, in a family drama, a family as a whole can be a character, so keep that in mind. Most importantly, every film story is a mystery; you must keep your audience, everyone in it, intrigued and wondering what will happen next. Don’t assume kids can’t follow a rich, multi-layered story. They can and they do.

You can’t say it enough: Screenwriting is writing for a visual medium. You are writing in word pictures – often even your dialogue -- and these pictures have to reveal more than one meaning at the same time – one explicit, on the surface, and then one or more underneath that you want your audience to work for, so your audience is always wondering what a character is thinking and feeling, but not saying.


Noam Dromi counts Dolphin Tale as his first produced screenplay, although he has produced a variety of projects. Dromi is a founding partner of NoCo Media Group, a production company and creative agency. Under that banner, he has produced the documentaries A Place to Live: The Story of Triangle Square and Mad Skills: Rhys Millen is the Kiwi Drifter. He is also the co-host and executive producer of the online talk show MIPtalk – Conversations with the World’s Most Interesting People.

Karen Janszen is best known for writing family films. Duma, directed by Carroll Ballard, was named number one in the Los Angeles Times top-10 picks of 2005. She also wrote A Walk to Remember and Free Willy 2, as well as the indies Gracie, The Matchmaker, and Digging to China. Janszen recently adapted the best-selling young adult novel Savvy for Walden Media.

Dolphin Tale photos by Jon Farmer, Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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