Nicholas Sparks can make you cry, but you can’t make him

02/08/2013 10:30 AM

02/14/2013 9:50 AM

Just about everyone who sits down to watch a movie based on a Nicholas Sparks romance novel gets up two hours later with “something in their eye” at least, and several tissues to dispose of at most.

Everyone, except Sparks himself.

“It is tough to make me cry,” says New Bern’s most famous resident and the author of 17 books – including 2010 bestseller “Safe Haven,” which has been turned into a movie that lands in theaters on (of course) Valentine’s Day.

In addition to just not being a crier, “by the time I get to see the film, look, I’ve seen dailies, I’ve seen the script, there’s no surprise, I don’t get that magical feeling of discovering a story. Plus, I wrote the story in the first place.”

With “Safe Haven,” Sparks tells the tale of a woman (“Footloose’s” Julianne Hough) who flees her abusive Boston cop-husband and winds up in the seaside town of Southport, where she reluctantly falls for a widowed store owner (Josh Duhamel of “Transformers”) with two young children.

Though the romance is vintage Sparks, a chunk of the story is more thriller-like, as it focuses on the husband’s relentless search for Hough’s character. “Safe Haven” is the eighth of his novels to get the Hollywood treatment.

Much of the film was actually shot in Southport; the crew built a general store in the downtown area that served as one of the primary sets. Various parts of Wilmington stood in for Boston, while locations in Oak Island and Town Creek also were used. With one exception, all of the movie adaptations of Sparks’ novels have been filmed at least partially in the Carolinas. (2012’s “The Lucky One” was shot in New Orleans.)

Why is it such a great backdrop for his stories?

“There’s a lot of things that make the North Carolina region so beautiful to film,” Sparks says. “You have wide, slow-moving rivers that feed to an ocean with unspoiled beaches and gorgeous sunrises, where the sun spills over the water, and makes it glow.

“Add these gnarled trees shaped by the humidity in the air – it’s only in a small region of the United States that these oaks and cypress trees take on these twisting trunks. Then drape all that in Spanish moss, throw in some fireflies and – since there’s no major cities (near the coast) – there’s always a million stars in the sky. It’s just one of the most beautiful places in the world.”

Whatever it is, it works. Furthermore, whatever Sparks is doing, it’s apparently difficult to replicate. He’s the undisputed romance king: Nearly 80 million copies of his books are in print worldwide, and while competitors Nora Roberts, Jennifer Weiner and Sophie Kinsella also have huge fan bases, they’ve got nothing on his track record with Hollywood.

“These films are tough to do,” says Sparks, 47. “You have some attempts every year, and normally they don’t make it very big. Every now and then, something that you’d think I could have written will make it big. ‘The Vow,’ ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ something along those lines. But in between there’s other stories that try and fail, and it’s quite frankly incredibly challenging to do.

“It’s probably the hardest genre in which to work, both in books and in film, because you have to evoke genuine emotion. You’re not allowed to cheat.”

Sounds like Sparks is bragging a little but it’s true. You have to dig to think of successful and effective romance movies – films that center around love stories but aren’t romantic comedies.

Sparks’ favorites: “Casablanca,” “Titanic” and “Ghost.”

None of those made him cry. However, it turns out he does have a couple of weaknesses after all.

“I cried at ‘Old Yeller.’ Man, I was so sad when he had to shoot his dog. Still gets me,” Sparks says. “And ‘Toy Story 3,’ that moved me. My son was heading off to college, Andy’s heading off to college – can’t help but get a little choked up at that.”

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