Taking unexpected chances outside of your comfort zone is a constant theme in Relativity’s new romance mystery drama ‘Safe Haven,’ the eighth film based on a Nicholas Sparks novel. From the main character, Katie, courageously traveling across America to start a new life after experiencing traumatizing events, to the lead actors improvising together to develop a realistic relationship, to the film being the first Sparks adaptation to feature thriller elements, the movie continuously pushes people’s comfort zones. Lasse Hallström, the film’s director, encouraged and embraced exploring the unknown while shooting ‘Safe Haven,’ to create a natural and thrilling storyline and atmosphere for the movie.
‘Safe Haven’ follows a mysterious young woman, Katie (Julianne Hough), as she boards a bus in Boston to travel south and start a new life. During a rest stop in the small North Carolina beach town of Southport, Katie relishes in the community’s quiet nature, and decides to stay. While beautiful and self-effacing, Katie avoids any questions about her past, which draws attention to her sudden and unexpected arrival.
But after settling in the town after starting a job at a local seaside restaurant, Katie begins forming friendships with the locals, including her neighbor, Jo (Cobie Smulders), who encourages her to form a romantic relationship with Alex (Josh Duhamel). While reluctant at first to trust anyone in the close-knit community, Katie begins to fall in love with Alex, the widowed father and co-owner of the local general store. With Alex’s encouragment, Katie also begins to form bonds with his children-Lexie (Mimi Kirkland) and Josh (Noah Lomax), who’s initially reluctant to accept a new woman into his father’s life. With her new relationships, Katie realizes she must chose between a life of transient safety and one of riskier rewards.
Hallström generously took the time to sit down in New York City recently for an exclusive interview about the filming of ‘Safe Haven.’ Among other things, the director discussed how the romance drama’s thriller element, and the chance to work with the producers he collaborated with on ‘Dear John’ again, convinced him to helm ‘Safe Haven;’ the casting process of Hough and Duhamel in the two lead roles; and how he encouraged the two main actors to improvise while filming to develop a natural relationship.
ShockYa (SY): You directed the new mystery romance drama ‘Safe Haven,’ which is based on the novel of the same name by Nicholas Sparks. How did you become involved in the project, and what was it about the script that convinced you to direct the film?
Lasse Hallström (LH): I got a phone call from the same producer I worked with on ‘Dear John,’ and I liked that group of people. I enjoyed the idea of working with them again. It was also the same writer-the source material was from the same writer.
I also enjoyed the fact that it had a thriller element to it. It’s not just a romance; it’s also a bit of a thriller. Also, it’s a low-key story of two people falling in love. It’s low-key in it’s approach, and I tried to make it like a soft-spoken documentary about two people falling in love.
SY: Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel star as Katie Feldman and Alex Wheatley, respectively, in the film. What was the casting process like for the two of them-why did you decide to hire them both for the film?
LH: Josh was an idea from Relativity-they liked him. I met him and loved him. Then I auditioned Julianne, and the first audition didn’t go so well. It was over Skype, and I was in New York, and she was in Los Angles. It’s not a great idea to audition people over Skype. So I went to Los Angles and met Julianne. She showed some great range, so I picked her.
SY: Julianne has made a name for herself as an award-winning dancer, choreographer and singer. ‘Safe Haven’ is her first acting role in which her character doesn’t dance and/or sing. Did you initially have any reservations about hiring her for a non-musical drama? What did you think of her performance once you finished shooting the movie?
LH: I had seen ‘Rock of Ages’ and ‘Footloose,’ and she did great in those films. But both didn’t really show her range. When I auditioned her, I saw she could do more than both of those films, for sure. She had a wonderful range and personality. I really love her and Josh, they’re great kids. Julianne has wonderful honesty. She has these really fantastic blue eyes; they ooze honest and directness.
SY: Since ‘Safe Haven’ follows Katie and Alex’s intense love story, how closely did you work with Julianne and Josh while you were filming to develop their relationship? What was the preparation process like for the two of them while you held rehearsals for the film?
LH: No; we got to know each other by talking about the script over a couple dinners. I don’t think we ever rehearsed anything; we read through the script together and discussed it a little bit. It was a playful shoot, with a lot of improvisation, and whatever it took to make scenes come alive and feel fresh.
SY: Julianne has said that you like to improvise during your auditions. Did you allow her and Josh to improvise at all while you were filming, or did you mainly stick to the script?
LH: It really differed from scene to scene. Some scenes we stuck to the script and the dialogue, and other scenes we didn’t stick to the script, and tried other things. But any time there’s a chance to improvise, I’ll take that chance. It brings something fresh to the script.
SY: How familiar were you with Nicholas’ novel before you signed on to direct the movie, and how closely did you stick to the source material while you were filming?
LH: I read the book once-I had read a rough draft, but that was it, really. The film was a loose adaptation of the novel. No disrespect to the book, but we wanted the film to be different. Some of the pages in the novel are different than what you see on the big screen. I had to be more real and realistic with the storytelling for the screen. I met Nicholas Sparks a few times during the shoot, but he wasn’t too involved in the filming.
SY: ‘Safe Haven’ is the second film you directed that’s based on a novel by Nicholas, after ‘Dear John,’ like you mentioned. ‘Dear John’ was a success at the box office when it was released, having grossed nearly $115 million. Did you feel any pressure to emulate that same success with ‘Safe Haven’ while you were filming it?
LH: No, there wasn’t much pressure. He’s got such great stories and a very faithful audience. So there was no fear. I really love characters, and stories that are driven by characters, rather than plot. At times, plot-driven stories sacrifice character. So I loved that this was based on two people, and it gave them the chance to make subtle observations.
SY: Unlike the previous movies based on Nicholas’ novels, ‘Safe Haven’ is the first thriller that incorporates a mystery subplot. Do you think featuring the mystery of Katie’s past in Boston enhances the story, and differentiates the movie from the other films based on his novels?
LH: Yes, the thriller element is like the driving element of the story in this low-key romance. It’s a dramatic element, but it gives you some back-story. Eventually we get the back-story, but she’s a bit of a mystery to start with.
SY: Did you work with Julianne and Josh to build a back-story for their characters, and develop their characters’ relationship?
LH: Since I wanted them to contribute with ideas, I reminded them to stay loose. It was no disrespect to what was in the script, but I told them to do whatever they wanted to do. So yes, we were developing the characters, and talking about their relationship. So I forced them to, and kept insisting that they, give their characters their own personalities, and make these characters come alive.
Written by: Karen Benardello