It is an incredibly hot and humid Charleston evening – the temperature is around 77 degrees and it's November – and we're climbing onto a set of a modern fairy tale. That's a high description for a dive seafood restaurant (and it is a dive), and even with the glimmering sunset and sea view, there's no way it would earn that kind of flowery description without the help of Nicholas Sparks. Luckily, he's the fairy godfather making lush romance out of Bowen's Island, where Sony has graciously invited Cinematical to the set of the latest Sparks romance, Dear John.
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom, Dear John centers around a young soldier named John Tyree (played by Channing Tatum), a young rebel with a rocky relationship with his father, who is played by the superb Richard Jenkins. He joins the Army to straighten himself out, and becomes a member of the Special Forces. One summer, while on leave, he meets the charming Savannah Lynn Curtis (Amanda Seyfried). Being a Sparks story, it's naturally love at first sight, but the lovers are separated by unhappy circumstance – in this case, it's 9/11, and John has to decide where his duty lies. "The book is very much about John and Savannah's love to each other, but it's also very clearly a love triangle of sorts. It's really a love rectangle – it's the story of John and his love for Savannah, and John and his relationship with his father, and John and his duty to his country," says producer Marty Bowen.
Many people sneer and shudder at anything Nicholas Sparks related, myself included, and the cast and crew seem keenly aware of this. They're eager to stress that this isn't just a sappy love story, and there are emotional beats they will resonate beyond Sparks' usual audience. "I think the love story is just fine for a movie, but it's a movie about guys, too. It's a movie about a guy's relationship with his father, which all guys can relate to, I think," says screenwriter Jamie Linden. "It's a movie about patriotism, and a guy who is going overseas, and has the call of duty at the worst possible time for him to be gone. I know a lot of people my age would look at this Nicholas Sparks brand and go, 'I'll stay as far away from here as possible.' But this one, hopefully you can take the name Nicholas Sparks off it and it'll feel [more appealing.] I think the battle scenes are going to be intense, and the father-son dynamic is really intense ... To me it's two love stories, it's not just between John and Savannah, but it's between John and his dad too."
Bringing on Hallstrom was instrumental in giving a little more depth and edge to Sparks' star-crossed lovers. "[Hallstrom] so beautifully does very emotional, uplifting stories, but doesn't do them in a way that seems very overt. His way of taking material that is either down the middle, or just right of the middle, and ever so subtly, pushing it left of center, is what I think makes [his] movies so special. Because you want to go to a movie and feel a certain way, but you don't want it to feel contrived. That's what he does. So any time we get in that place that, for whatever reason, we feel like it's going towards the melodrama, he able to pull it a little left of there and that's the reason he's Lasse Hallstrom," says Bowen.
I had picked up the book to read on the long flight from Denver to Charleston and gamely set aside my graphic novel in order to be well prepared. Despite my best efforts (my cynical heart just cannot melt, it seems), I only got to John and Savannah's first date. But in a nice bit of serendipity, that's exactly what we got to watch being filmed. It doesn't matter what the material is, it's a thrill to see it brought to life right in front of you, and see how the cast and director is interpreting it. It's a lot of fun, and something every film fan should get to experience once in their life.
We were brought to a "boat house" that overlooked Bowen's Restaurant down below – it was unclear if this was part of the restaurant proper, or merely empty space requisitioned for cameras, but the view was spectacular. The extras milled around with their prop drinks, trying to act as though it was still a fun Friday night, instead of the umpteenth hour of filming. We chatted with producer Marty Bowen (not the restaurant's namesake, he was quick to add!) and writer Jamie Linden. We were then allowed to sneak down to the director's hub, where Hallstrom was bent over his monitor. Everyone was extremely friendly and laid back. I don't know if it was the lazy Southern vibe, or a sign that filming was going really, really well.
Once the sun set, and just the right amount of romantic dusk had fallen, Tatum and Seyfried set to work. The scene is simple: John and Savannah are on their first real date, and Savannah is pressuring the reticent John to tell her about his family. He gives bland, unsatisfying answers, trying to cover up that he and his father don't talk much. Savannah declares she wants to meet his father. John reluctantly agrees, and asks her when. The irrepressible, perfect Sparks heroine wastes no time. "Tonight!" This is not what John has in mind. What guy wants to spend his first date at his father's house -- especially when he and his father don't really get along?
Watching something filmed firsthand makes me feel bad about every ragging on an actor or actress – because despite what the finished result of their performance may be, they have to be on in a way that requires a presence a lot of us couldn't summon. Every time Hallstrom calls action, Tatum and Seyfried go from swearing, laughing, and mocking each other to the perfectly poised uncertainty of a first date. They're digging into their shrimp as if fifty baskets of it haven't already been put before them. It's pretty remarkable to watch, especially when this isn't even the first thing they've shot today.
There's no doubt that Hallstrom and Bowen are perfectionists. Seyfried and Tatum are doing a bit of improvising, and they walk a fine line. If they put their emphasis on the wrong word, toss out a line that gives too emotion much away, eat shrimp too fast, or flub a line, the entire thing is scrapped. There are takes I think are fantastic, but Hallstrom is unsatisfied. Finally, the perfect note is struck and it's abruptly a wrap. Everyone gives a huge sigh of relief and begins filtering back to cars and costume changes. But the night doesn't stay quiet. ABBA begins blaring from Hallstrom's laptop. The director prefers to relax by watching the videos he directed with the Swedish pop idols, and he enjoys "Rick-rolling" (or is that Bjorn-rolling?) the cast and crew. The song stops as abruptly as it started, but right as we're talking to Channing Tatum, "Dancing Queen" blares out of the boathouse. Tatum doubles over laughing. While we never get a one-on-one with Hallstrom or a private ABBA session, this weird glimpse might just be enough.
This may not have been the most exciting and drama filled set visit, but there's a lot to be said for a cast and crew that's happy to be there, and full of good feelings about their film. Everyone knows it's a Nicholas Sparks story, and that Sparks is a brand of wholesome romance, tears, and heartache. But no one here sneers at the material, or gives it less than 100%. After all, the modern world needs its fairy tales – particularly, it seems, the bittersweet ones popularized by Sparks -- and there's nothing wrong with finding them in Charleston sunsets, shrimp shacks, and dreamy first dates.