'Safe Haven' Set Visit: Julianne Hough, Josh Duhamel Find Trouble in Paradise

The sun sets over Southport, a sleepy coastal town perched below Wilmington on the eastern shore of North Carolina. Docked boats bump against piers as ripples drift across the silent cove. Warm, gentle breezes blow through low-hanging oak trees, which look like they’ve been here since the state was one of the 13 original colonies. In the distance, you spot towering lighthouses protecting this safe haven from unwelcome guests. But an intruder is in our midst, and he’s about to unleash some fiery rage. 
 
Relativity Media has flown a small group of movie journalists (myself included) to this quaint Southern hamlet to visit the set of Safe Haven, the eighth feature film to be adapted from a book by Nicholas Sparks. 
 
Southport, as you might have guessed, looks exactly like the location of virtually every Sparks book – and for a reason. The best-selling author calls nearby New Bern, N.C. home, and often sets his stories in the coastal locations of the beautiful South. When possible, filmmakers capture Sparks’ atmosphere by filming in his own backyard.
 
“My novels do take place in eastern North Carolina, so there always are some elements of geography that are fairly typical in my [stories],” Sparks says during an interview we’re able to conduct on this bustling film set. “You have the water, the trees with the Spanish moss, old homes … it’s very small town.” 
 
Except for the major movie stars standing on every corner. Julianne Hough, Josh Duhamel, Cobie Smulders, Noah Lomax and David Lyons landed the key leads in Safe Haven. Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) returns to the Sparks fold after helming 2010’s Dear John with Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried. The movie is opening in theaters on Feb. 14 … just in time for Valentine’s Day. 
 
 
But Safe Haven isn’t as romantic as you might assume. 
 
Hough plays Katie, a New England blonde trapped in an abusive relationship who finally decides to run from her lover, Kevin (Lyons), and seek solace in an off-the-map Southern town. There, she finds true love with Alex (Duhamel), a widower and struggling father of two who helps Katie forget her checkered past … even as a confrontation with the man she left behind lingers around the next darkened corner. 
 
When asked about what drew her to this complicated character, Hough says, “I have been through certain things in my life. I think a lot of people have, honestly, where it might not be physical abuse but there are forms of bullying or mental stress. So for me, I definitely related personally to [Katie]. She’s very guarded. She won’t open herself up to people because she has been hurt. I think that’s typical of a lot of people after they have been burned, you know? I’m very similar. You can ask my friends.”  
 
Hough tells us she was a rabid Sparks fan long before getting cast as one of the author’s leading ladies. 
 
“I read his books long before I saw any of his movies,” she said. “I was in London, and read A Walk to Remember almost 17 times. It was my favorite book, ever. When it came out, I listened to the commentary track with [director] Adam Shankman and Mandy Moore also like 17 times.”  
 
Duhamel, on the other hand, admits to only seeing “a few of the movies” based on Sparks books before agreeing to take part in Safe Haven
 
“I’d seen The Notebook. That’s the first movie almost everybody thinks of when they bring up a Nicholas Sparks movie. And they should,” Duhamel tells us. “He’s done a lot of excellent movies, though. And what I liked about this is that it wasn’t the typical love story … something you’d expect. I think it’s going to be different than what people typically think of when they think of Nicholas Sparks.”
 
 
Based on what we saw the day of filming, it’s easy to understand why Duhamel says Hallstrom and his crew plan to ramp up the suspenseful-thriller aspect of their story. 
 
We were on the Safe Haven set for a night shoot. The crew worked tirelessly to set up an explosive backdrop for what we’re told is an emotional confrontation. Without giving too much away, here’s what we learned. Stay clear of the next few paragraphs if you want to go into Safe Haven with absolutely no spoilers!
 
It’s July. Katie has settled into a quiet life in Southport, bonding with Alex and his children. But in the scene we watched Hallstrom film, Kevin has arrived in the small town, and is exacting a vicious revenge on his “cheating” flame. As fireworks are shot from a nearby barge in the middle of a pristine river, Lyons circles a rustic general store with a gas can in his hands, liberally dousing the building and nearby pier. He has a lighter in his hands. Katie shows up, and pleads with him to spare the building. Does she succeed? 
 
The store, in question, was built by the Safe Haven crew specifically for this scene, and it marvelously blends in with Southport’s historic downtown neighborhood. As Hough shoots take after take, neighbors stand on wrap-around porches and drink cocktails as they enjoy the free show. Duhamel says it’s crucial to the success of the movie that Southport looks exactly as you’d pictured it while reading the book, because it helps the cast stay in the right mindset while filming. 
 
“I remember while I was reading it, I pictured something exactly like this,” he says, pointing at the general store in between takes. “It pretty much resembles exactly what I pictured in my mind. Maybe it’s because I’ve been here now for weeks, and this is all that I remember. [Laughs] But it’s pretty perfect.”
 
The author’s rabid fan base lingers in the backs of the minds of the cast as they work on Safe Haven. Since Hough, herself, was a fan of the books and the movies, she’s well aware of the legacy of the Nicholas Sparks brand, and wants to do everything in her power to make sure Safe Haven fits snugly with stellar adaptations like The Notebook or Nights in Rodanthe
 
Duhamel, on the other hand, says, “I’m trying not to think about it. I’m trying not to compare my performance to anybody else. This character is different than what Channing [Tatum] played in the last one, what Zac [Efron] played in the one before that, or even what Ryan [Gosling] played in The Notebook. They’re all different. They’re all different kinds of love.
 
“These are two people who have been through a lot of loss,” Duhamel continued. “It’s not like a ‘first love,’ where your heart goes pitter-patter. It is, but it’s more about two people who have been damaged and are able to find love again.”
 
 
As for Sparks, he has managed to stay pretty involved with each of his film adaptations during the pre-production process, when the cast is hired and the script is workshopped. But he’s happy to turn the difficult tasks over to the professionals once the cameras begin to roll. 
 
“Films are a very collaborative process, from beginning to end,” Sparks says as he sits in a rocking chair overlooking production on his eighth film. 
 
I ask him if a common thread can be traced through the films based on his novels. 
 
“They all tend to have legs,” he replies. “They all tend to replay over and over. They are the kind of movies that people like to re-watch on DVD. I don’t know that you can ask for any more as an author, for your story to have success right up front, and then people continue to enjoy it over the long run.”
 
Safe Haven opens in theaters on Feb. 14. Relativity also is teaming up with Fathom Events to present, “A Night with Nicholas Sparks’ Safe Haven: Filmmakers, Author and Stars Bring the Book to Life.” Get a VIP first-look at your favorite scenes from the book translated on the big screen for only one night, on Thursday Jan. 17. Moderated by Maria Menounos with best selling author Nicholas Sparks, director Lasse Hallstrom, stars Josh Duhamel and Julianne Hough, and producers Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey - the event will be broadcasting live to select theaters nationwide. Buy your tickets now and enjoy heart-warming, funny stories directly from the stars and filmmakers about this eagerly- awaited film. 
 
Follow along on Twitter @Sean_OConnell and @Fandango.
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