February 14, 2013

Movie Preview: 'Safe Haven'

Taking the audience's emotions for a ride on a roller coaster is Nicholas Sparks' apparently-can't-miss formula. Next up: 'Safe Haven.'

By COLIN COVERT McClatchy Newspapers

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.

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Julianne Hough plays a mysterious new arrival in a small North Carolina town, and Josh Duhamel is a local store owner still grieving the loss of his wife in “Safe Haven.”

Relativity Media

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Nicholas Sparks wants his characters to “feel absolutely real. Characters that are flawed, because everyone is, yet self-aware enough to know their flaws and to try to get better.”

Courtesy photo

PREVIEW

"SAFE HAVEN," starring Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom. Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving threatening behavior, and for violence and sexuality. Running time: 1:55

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.

PROVEN FORMULA

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."

(Continued on page 2)

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