CLEARWATER — Wearing a straw Panama hat, a bow tie, a blue and white-striped shirt and slacks, Morgan Freeman stood over a massive, turquoise pool. His concerned expression deepened as he leaned toward the water and clenched his jaw.
“My sentiments exactly, fish,” he said.
The scene played out over and over from various angles Monday afternoon, some focusing on Freeman, some fixed on co-stars Ashley Judd or Nathan Gamble and a dolphin known as “Winter” as filming for the sequel to the 2011 film “Dolphin Tale” continued.
“It’s a very repetitive day,” Freeman, who plays a prosthetics designer, had told reporters earlier. “When you shoot a scene and there’s more than one person in it, you have to cover each person.”
Filming began last month after Alcon Entertainment announced in June that there would be a sequel. So far, sites have included Clearwater Beach and Fort De Soto. Part of the movie was filmed at the aquarium Monday.
The original was based on the story of Winter, a stranded dolphin who was rescued in 2005 and fitted with a prosthetic tail at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The family film did incredibly well at the box office, and aquarium officials say it quadrupled attendance numbers over previous years.
“The movie obviously blew us up around the world,” said aquarium CEO David Yates. “Our attendance, six years ago, was 78,000 people the entire year. The year after the movie came out, we have 750,000 guests.”
The aquarium expects another windfall with the sequel, which will continue to tell Winter’s story, but will also incorporate that of Hope, a young dolphin stranded in the same area Winter was found five years and one day later. Hope was brought in as filming for the “Dolphin Tale” was ending, an event cast and crew members recall.
“It’s really cool because we got to be here when Hope was rescued, because she was rescued during the wrap party, and we got to see that,” said Austin Highsmith, who plays a dolphin trainer named Phoebe. “So, in essence, we’re doing a film about our own film experience, which I don’t think has ever happened before.”
At the time, nobody was expecting a sequel – they’re pretty rare for films based on true events.
“The first one was such a beloved movie and it touched so many people that I certainly didn’t feel that we’d do a sequel,”said Andrew Kosove, co-CEO of Alcon Entertainment. “But the story of this move, what happened, this other true life story, is as compelling as, if not certainly more compelling than the original film.”
While he would not go very far into the details of the plot, Kosove said the sequel will be different from the original, even if Winter is still the star.
“I think it brings up certain very interesting philosophical issues and decisions that the aquarium here needed to make and we were so enthralled by the story that we decided to do the sequel.”
In the three years since the first one, the characters may have changed, too.
“My character’s sort of an irascible guy,” Freeman said. “And in the last one, the kid comes up to him and asks him to come and look at this dolphin, and he gets intrigued with the whole idea of trying to make a prosthetic tail for a dolphin. Now he’s all wrapped up in it – very concerned about what happens with this ‘fish,’ as he calls it.”
All of the film’s stars are returning for the sequel, including Freeman, Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr. and Kris Kristoffersen. Most who were on site Monday were fond of the time they spent in Clearwater filming the first one, especially that time spent with Winter.
“Apparently, that dolphin remembers (me), because now I walk up to the pool and she’s like, ‘Hey, don’t we know each other?’” Freeman said.
Filming is expected to continue at the aquarium through mid-January, and the facility will be closed during the week to accommodate it. Its expected release date is September of next year.