Josh Duhamel, Mimi Kirkland and Julianne Hough star in "Safe Haven." (James Bridges / Relativity…)
SOUTHPORT, N.C. — This is the kind of touristy fishing village that defines Southern charm. A cute little downtown filled with restaurants, a waterfront park and artsy shops. Late 19th century houses with verandas on streets shaded by towering live oaks. Herons and egrets sharing the Cape Fear River and Intracoastal Waterway with pleasure craft. It's the perfect setting for a Nicholas Sparks story.
And on a hot summer day last year, the film version of the prolific author's "Safe Haven" was in production here in the isolated little town where the book is actually set, "which is unheard of," said actor Josh Duhamel, who costars with Julianne Hough in the feature directed by Lasse Hallström and adapted by Gage Lansky and Dana Stevens.
In the romantic thriller, which opens Feb. 14, Southport appears to be just the right hideout for Katie Feldman (Hough), fleeing Boston and her abusive husband (Aussie actor David Lyons). She soon meets widowed store owner Alex (Duhamel), and this being a Sparks tale, the inevitable romance begins to heat up. Then Katie's husband finds out where she is.
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As the cameras set up in Alex's convenience store, which was built for the production and stocked with such local favorites as Little Debbie pastries and Angela's Pepper Pickled Foods, Hallström orchestrates the action with a minimum of interference. Katie enters the store to thank its proprietor for the bike he gave her, a gift she initially accepted less than graciously. There is a frosty exchange between the two, and then, looking out the window, Katie sees that Alex's young son has fallen into the waterway and is drowning. The scene ends with dad rushing to the rescue.
"My main reason for doing this film" was Hallström, said Hough. "Lasse lets me explore being an actress, and I'm really growing as an actress with him. We're improvising most of the scenes; he loves that. It keeps you on your toes, keeps it real."
Hallström also directed the 2010 Sparks-inspired film "Dear John," but this story felt a little different. "I've never done a thriller before," he said. "I've been drawn to the idea of mixing genres, and to do a thriller and a romance is another challenge for me. I'm trying an entirely different field," said the Swedish director, who is a tall, serene presence whose calm demeanor has infected the whole production.
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"I like his tone," said Duhamel of Hallström. "I like his taste in finding simple human behavior. For me, it's been about trusting you don't have to do much, just listen and react."
In a bit of a love-fest, Hallström returns the compliments. "Josh is a charming actor," he says, "and he's so understated. He's showing his real side here. And Julianne has this wonderful presence on screen. And I root for these two when I see them on screen, I want them to become a couple."
Sparks is easily one of America's most successful novelists. He has had 11 New York Times No. 1 bestsellers and has been translated into more than 45 languages. "Safe Haven" is his eighth book to make it to the big screen. Nearly all of those movies have been shot on modest budgets, all have turned a profit, and all, just like his novels, have been pretty much trashed by the critics. Writing about the film version of "Dear John," for example, the New York Times' A.O. Scott said Sparks is "a master of the feel-good weepie, a form of mass-market deep tissue massage." And in his Los Angeles Times review of Sparks' 2000 novel "The Rescue," Michael Harris wrote that "as a stylist, Sparks is adequate at best… He's prone to sententiousness… Even his action scenes are newspaper flat."
Producer Marty Bowen has worked on three films with Sparks — who also has executive producer credits on this film — and believes critics have a bias against anything that's popular. "People tend to disregard anything that speaks to the common man," Bowen said. "And I think the genre itself — romance — is oftentimes given a bad rap. If you're edgy, people reward it, yet if you're emotional, people tend to dismiss it."
Sparks himself seems to take it all in stride. "I try to make my novels very different," he said, noting the thriller plotline in "Safe Haven." "We all know it's gonna be a love story, set in a small town, and it's gonna be in North Carolina. I do that so when you pick up one of my books you know you're getting these three things, but you don't know anything else. Because I live here, I know all of these areas, so it's easy for me to use the geography or the atmosphere to help create the mood of the scene."
Low-key, whip smart and unpretentious, Sparks shrugs off the negativity.
"There's a bias against a love story," he said. "And it doesn't necessarily bother me, and I don't mind a bad review. I only get offended when they make errors, when they get something wrong. We can argue day and night the difference between drama and melodrama, and whether I cross that line."
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