Nicholas Sparks' slushy adaps make big box office and made household names of Ryan Gosling and Channing Tatum. Total Film joins Zac Efron on-set of the latest, The Lucky One, to watch your next date movie being made...
Just what does it take to make romance work? It’s a question that’s plagued Hollywood execs as much as it might the average single thirty-something – what are the requisite ingredients that go into making a perfect weepie?
For an ingredient with a proven track record, look no further than one Nicholas Sparks, the Nebraska-born author of blue-collar chick-lit novels from The Notebook to A Walk To Remember, both of which have spawned undeniably classic date movies.
So ingrained is Sparks’ clout in the movie-going public’s minds that recent Rachel McAdams/Channing Tatum rom-dram The Vow was mistaken for a Sparks adap by many punters prior to its release, for no reason other than they simply assumed it must be him.
Who else could have written the source material for a Midwest-set weepie that smashed box office records on Valentine’s Day, and became the first 2012 film to cross the $100 million mark? Somewhere along the way, Sparks’ name has become synonymous with commercially successful slush.
With this in mind, Total Film has rocked up to the New Orleans set of new adap The Lucky One to find out how the Sparks Effect feels from the inside.
At the moment, it mainly feels very, very cold.
“It’s freezing, right?” a buffed up, bestubbled Zac Efron exclaims as he bounds in from the Louisiana winter.
His transformation – TF does a double take in between shivers to make sure this is the same light-footed lothario from High School Musical – isn’t merely an attempt to fill the shoes of The Notebook’s lead Ryan Gosling, but a concession to the credibility of his character Logan, a hardened US Marine.
After finding a young woman’s picture in the desert during a traumatic tour of Iraq, Logan adopts the photograph as his lucky charm and sets out to find the girl in question. But Beth, a young single mother played by Taylor Schilling, has more than a few issues of her own, top of the list being an aggressive ex and a recent family tragedy.
And here comes the grand romantic gesture – a staple ingredient in the successful weepie formula – Logan walks the entire way from his base in Colorado to where Beth lives in Louisiana (a change from the book’s North Carolina setting) with only her photograph to go on. Admittedly as with most romantic gestures, there’s a fine line here between swoony and creepy, but if anybody can pull it off…
“I like the idea of this guy,” Efron muses, “and I wish I was like him. I don’t know [that I’d go that far for love], but I guess this was my chance to do it without actually having to do it.”
The main touchstone for his character, though, was the aforementioned physical transformation from slimline to stacked: “That’s one of the only concrete things you can do to feel differently about a character. I didn’t feel like a Marine before, I didn’t have the posture, I didn’t have the presence. But suddenly your clothes don’t fit and you’re like, ‘oh!’ It really changes your perspective.”
Eating protein and pumping iron aside, he also did his homework on the psychological side and spent time at Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps’ West Coast base.
“It was one of the most awkward moments of my life,” he groans, recalling his first meeting with Logan’s real-life counterparts. “I realised that I just smile a lot, I’m always smiling, and these guys are like…” and he pulls a stern poker face. “But after about, I’d say two hours, they opened up a lot and it was really helpful.”
“There was always a part of me deep down that thought if it came to it, I could make it through basic training, y’know, I could do it. And after watching these guys I realised there is no way. They’re a different calibre of man.”
As testosterone-fuelled as this all might sound, die-hard romantics needn’t fear. We’re in trademark Sparks territory here, with musings on fate, destiny and the indomitable power of real love, and a high tear-jerk factor guaranteed by Logan and Beth’s respective traumatic pasts.
“She’s experienced a great deal of loss,” Schilling tells TF later in the day, as we huddle around our coffee cups for warmth.
“She’s not really participating in the world. She has a seven-year-old son and a baby, and she has her work, and has kind of resigned herself to the fact that this is going to be her life. It’s only through this [Efron-shaped] shake-up that she’s able to sort of step back out again, and risk again.”
Schilling’s no stranger to the film’s post-war theme, having starred in US medical drama Mercy as a nurse returning from a tour in Iraq. “It’s interesting to have that perspective on what Logan is going through in my own mind, having sort of done that research. But my character here is dealing with her own version of being closed off and really wounded from her past.”
Wounded kindred spirits struggling to open themselves back up to love – even without the Sparks trademark, it’s pretty clear where this is heading. Does director Scott Hicks (The Boys Are Back) worry about veering onto the wrong side of cheesy? “You’re working hard all the time to avoid falling off that precipice,” Hicks nods. “You look for authentic emotion, not just a big gooey gush of sentiment.”
“I love this story Hitchcock told, where somebody suggested he should write down his dreams. One day he woke up, looked to see what stroke of inspiration he’d had, and he’d written ‘Boy meets girl’. That’s the story. It’s how you get there that’s the key.”
On the subject of girls, there have unsurprisingly been more than a few staking out the set, hoping to catch a glimpse of the newly beefed-up Efron.
“He’s extremely respectful of his fan base, I’ve seen him be very generous to sometimes hundreds of girls who turn up while we’re filming,” Hicks laughs. “But I think he’s looking to broaden and explore new horizons as an actor, and hopefully take those people with him. They certainly seem to enjoy the transformed Zac Efron…” We’ll bet.
So, back to the ingredients list. We’ve got our boy, our girl, and our meeting. What else has gone into The Lucky One that’s likely to take it from forgettable schmaltz into classic date movie territory?
For one, there’s the dog.
“He’s the best actor I’ve ever worked with, by far,” Efron deadpans of the pooch who’s giving Uggie a run for his money as Logan’s faithful German Shepherd, Zeus.
“He follows exact orders. I mean he does the basics – sits, lays down – but [his trainers] get into this weird stuff. It’s like ‘point your head slightly this way.’ ‘Cross your legs.’ They can get him to move his eyes by one degree in a specific direction. It’s amazing.”
After a demonstration from on-set dog trainer Boone Narr, we’re sold. Between this and The Artist, 2012 is officially the Cinematic Year of the Dog, with a similar man’s-best-friend chemistry promised between Efron and his canine companion.
“Zac’s had dogs most of his life, so it was an instant bond, which makes my job a whole lot easier,” says Narr. “If the actor is just not good with the dog, it can be damn hard to make it look like they belong together on screen.”
There’s also the film’s New Orleans setting, lending its post-traumatic love story an element of real world nuance.
“There’s just something about this community, the resilience is astonishing to me,” says Blythe Danner, who plays Beth’s sagely supportive grandmother. “I have friends here who lost their houses in Katrina, and then BP [the 2010 oil spill] happened, it’s just unimaginable. But I think it’s partly the music that infuses this whole place with a sense of joy.”
Speaking of which the soundtrack’s also looking promisingly eclectic, featuring acoustic guitar compositions from The Boys Are Back scorer Hal Lindes alongside Cajun zydeco band music and Australian grunge.
But still the most crucial ingredient of all has to be that good old Sparks Factor. Hicks himself considers this film part of a genre unto itself, “the Sparks genre”. So was Efron a fan before he joined the project?
“I really liked The Notebook,” he replies, “but I think his books are perceived to be kind of one thing, and I wasn’t necessarily drawn to that genre for some reason. But I read The Lucky One, and I was blown away, He’s so in tune with his observations, and I think he writes great characters.”
Schilling is more unequivocal: “There’s something really satisfying and comforting about the stories, they’re always so lush and you can kind of fall into it.”
“I think one of the reasons they’re so popular is that it’s such an inspiring idea of love. That somebody will come along and unlock all the doors that are locked inside of you, and that it’ll kind of solve a lot of your problems. I like that fantasy.”
And if that’s got you in the mood for a date movie, here’s five of the best:
Dirty Dancing (1987)
Endlessly quotable with a classic-packed soundtrack, this wide-eyed tale of coming of age via dancing (specifically the dirty kind, with Patrick Swayze) is as close to a perfect date movie as you’re likely to find. Wish fulfillment romance aside, the much-referenced final scene is a must-see for the choreography alone.
Pretty Woman (1990)
Reworked from a dark prostitution drama into a rom-com, you’d expect the story of Julia Roberts’ hooker with a heart of gold falling for Richard Gere’s wealthy businessman to be a disaster. But this updated Cinderella is a witty, escapist charmer centred on the sparkling chemistry between Roberts and Gere.
The Notebook (2004)
The film that singlehandedly kept Kleenex in business (possibly) during its year of release, this is still the best known, best loved Sparks adap with the best kissing in the rain scene. Rachel McAdams and the now-ubiquitous Ryan Gosling star as a young couple in the 1940s struggling to overcome their social differences.
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)
Jim Carrey might not be your traditional romantic lead, but Michael Gondry’s exploration of a couple rediscovering one another in the process of forgetting one another is a completely original heartbreaker. With career-redefining turns from Carey and Kate Winslet, this is the thinking man’s weepie.
The 1984 original’s a worthy contender, but Craig Brewer’s reverent remake honours the original’s key beats (see what we did there?) and updates the moves and visuals for a new generation. The story’s intact – an energetic young hero revolts against a small town’s ban on dancing – and so is the fun.
The Lucky One opens on 2 May 2012.