Safe Haven is not your typical Notebook-esque Nicholas Sparks love story. It’s set in the Carolinas (like the majority of Sparks’ 17 novels) and features a budding romance between the sort of characters — Alex ( Josh Duhamel of Transformers) and Katie ( Julianne Hough, Rock of Ages) — we have come to expect.
But Katie has a troubled past. On the run from her abusive husband, a Boston cop ( David Lyons of ER), Katie arrives in the small town of Southport and befriends Jo ( How I Met Your Mother’s Cobie Smulders), another single woman with a frank personality. Katie tries hard to stay away from any emotional relationships but catches the attention of Alex, a widower with two kids.
Hough drew from her own experiences for the role and even visited several women’s shelters in preparation.
“I’m very much like Katie. I’m very guarded at first, but yet, what you see is what you get,” Hough said. “For me, it was just about being as real and authentic as possible.”
Notable director Lasse Hallstrom ( Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), who also directed Sparks’ Dear John, stressed authenticity, with the actors improvising instead of reading from a script for several of the film’s critical scenes.
This irked Duhamel at first, but he grew to enjoy the process.
“It felt like shooting an independent movie on a studio budget,” he said. “I can’t believe they let him get away with this stuff — it was awesome.”
Alex is multi-dimensional: He’s a likable general store owner and father, but he has his flaws too and struggles to raise his children at times.
“He’s sort of figuring it out as he goes, like any parent does,” Duhamel said.
And even the villain evokes some level of sympathy, according to Sparks.
“When he’s seeing the world, he’s seeing it through a warped lens. He can’t help the warp,” Sparks said. “But he’s still warped.”
Location is key in Safe Haven. The movie was actually filmed in Southport, N.C., the novel’s original setting.
The scenic village was welcome news for Duhamel, who’s from North Dakota. He had two weeks to soak in the news before filming. Southport reminded him of the “small communities” back home.
And residents welcomed the camera crews, for the first day at least. But there was some discontent when the filmmakers re-created a Fourth of July parade scene on five consecutive nights. Fireworks lit up the night sky as late as 6:30 a.m. on some occasions.
“They got a little upset,” Hough said of the locals, who were asking how much longer the fireworks would last.
And though the movie is being released on Valentine’s Day, Sparks said that Safe Haven will give audiences more than they bargained for beyond the traditional love story.
“Its an edge-of-your-seat thriller, and even then there’s more,” he said.