It works like this. Girl meets boy, preferably in a quaint seaside town. Happiness. They clash. Sadness. Gradually they realize opposites attract and fall in love. Happiness. But they cannot be together because of leukemia / difficult parents / war / Alzheimer’s / a psychotic ex. Sadness. They get together anyway. Happiness. Somebody dies. Huge sadness. But the survivors lead richer, fuller lives for having known each other. Happiness. Publish, collect millions, turn the story into a film, collect more millions, repeat. Massive happiness.
That’s the algorithm that has fueled Nicholas Sparks’ success for the past decade and a half. Sparks, a business finance major who sold pharmaceuticals before trying his hand at fiction, knows the value of a well-defined, reliable brand.
Every romance novel he’s written — one a year since his 1996 debut, “The Notebook” — has been a New York Times bestseller. “Safe Haven” currently sits in the top three, and the film version, starring Julianne Hough (“Footloose”) and Josh Duhamel (“Transformers”), opens Thursday.
It’s Sparks’ eighth film adaptation, and we’re only halfway through his bookshelf. Meanwhile, he’s developing a trio of TV series for ABC Family, TNT and Lifetime.
A 47-year-old “small-town guy,” Sparks lived in Watertown, Minn., as a child, and now lives with his wife and five kids in historic New Bern, N.C., not far from scenic Southport, where “Safe Haven” was filmed last year. He was on the road last month with the stars in tow to talk about the business of crafting mass-market love stories.
Sparks believes that what women want from a love story is “female characters that feel absolutely real. Characters that are flawed, because everyone is, yet self-aware enough to know their flaws and to try to get better. In “Safe Haven” there comes a moment when Katie (the heroine, played by Hough) must decide to stay or go, and she decides based on her fear of what will happen to someone else. Combine all that and put her in a situation where she can meet somebody. The kind of male character that when he loves, loves deeply, and not just for a couple of hours.”
Duhamel, who had read the script the year before, was the first to be cast. He came to the project with some misgivings. “I wanted to do a Nicholas Sparks movie, but I wanted to do it in a different way. They run the risk of being compared to the ones he’s done in the past. You want to separate yourself with something a little different.”
It wasn’t until he reconsidered it a year later that the story’s thriller and suspense elements convinced him it would stand apart.
“Even though the character didn’t feel the most dynamic” — his recently widowed shopkeeper, Alex, spends a fair amount of time bashfully pining after Hough’s Katie — “I loved the package. I’m a big fan of Lasse Hallstrom,” who directed the film straight off “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.”
He, Hallstrom and Sparks talked at length about how to make the character “less perfect,” Duhamel said. “He is having a hard time raising his kids and getting over the death of his wife.”
After repeatedly saving planet Earth from rampaging robots, his new part dials back Duhamel’s heroic stature considerably. “Safe Haven” features a peril-filled climax in which he does some brave things but doesn’t save the day. That turn of events allows Hough’s Katie, who has been fleeing a violent relationship, to step up and “fight the battle she needs to win,” the actress said. “People need to be secure and strong in their own beings before they can be with anybody else.”
The film dealt Hough, whose background is in dance, plenty of acting challenges, including an eyebrow-raising final revelation worthy of “The X-Files.”
“That actually came easy for me because I grew up very religious and spiritual. There’s something so beautiful about that moment in the book and the movie. It makes me cry.”
What came harder was to play a person who is mysterious and guarded. “It wasn’t easy to have my walls up and yet be accessible and likable and relatable so that we could have a relationship.”
Sparks, who also produced the film, takes an active, hands-on, even argumentative role, he said. He decides who gets cast (he favors new actresses like Hough, having had good luck with Rachel McAdams) and who will direct (he had a good experience with Hallstrom on their earlier collaboration, “Dear John”). When shooting commences, he backs off. “You don’t tell Josh, Julianne or Lasse how to do their jobs. That’s why you hired them.”
Hallstrom followed the same philosophy with his performers, Duhamel said. “I never felt so trusted. He would listen to ideas, incorporate suggestions we made. What I love about his movies, like ‘My Life as a Dog,’ are these little slices of life that don’t necessarily move the movie forward but everybody can understand. We found an everyday thing for my character to deal with. The door to his store sticks, and he never gets around to fixing it. It’s not pivotal to the story, but everybody can relate to who that guy is.”
A guy who’s a good candidate for some tender loving care, Nicholas Sparks style.