By Gary Murray
“I’m just a writer, I’m not a famous author or anything,” is how Nicholas Sparks sees himself. This is the third time I have interviewed Nicholas Sparks but it never gets old or boring or repetitive. The author is so full of life and vigor that talking to him becomes a unique experience.
Nicholas is the author of such books as The Guardian, The Wedding and The Choice has had his works turned into such successful films as Message in a Bottle, The Notebook and Nights in Rodanthe. His eighth novel to be made into a major motion picture is Safe Haven.
Safe Haven is the story of Katie, a young woman with a mystifying history who ends up in the small town of Southport, North Carolina. There she starts a new life and begins a romance with a widower Alex. As they bond as a couple, the reason for her mysterious past come back to haunt her and destroy her new life. Safe Haven stars Julianne Hough, Josh Duhamel and Cobie Smulders and is directed by Lasse Hallstrom (Salmon Fishing in Yemen, Cider House Rules).
His reaction to Safe Haven comes with a mischievous grin. “This is the kind of movie where you sit down and you think know exactly what you are going to get for the next two hours,” he said, “and then boom, for the first five minutes this is not it. Little by little, you find yourself inching forward in your seat. Then it builds and it builds and just even then when you have it all figured out it takes another final twist.”
This is the first time that Nicholas Sparks has gotten the producer credit on a film. He said with a slight laugh, “I don’t know if it is any different than what I have been doing the last five or six movies anyway. I’ve always been pretty involved in the scriptwriting, scripts, screenwriter selection, the screenplay, notes, writing at times, the selection of the director, casting—I’ve always been involved plus all the media in the end. It is more of a name change I think that is really what it is. It’s time. I’ve started my own production company. By putting my credit up, it is now reflecting what I am doing now.”
With his new foundling production company, Nicholas sees a different world that just being a novelist. He said, “We are looking at others to adapt as well.” He is considering to other writers to make Nicholas Sparks Productions and Lifetime is readying a series, a historical Western love story set in the time of the Civil War.
Since he has become more of a brand, the elements of telling a story have changed. “All novels start with the seed of an idea and it grows,” he explained. “Now, when I’m conceiving a novel–I do have to take Hollywood and films into mind. If I am trying to conceive of a story, I want to make sure that it will work both as a novel and a film. For instance, I would never set a love story on the Titanic. Why? It would be a great novel–no one has ever done it. Oh, it wouldn’t work in film because of that incredible movie.”
He then said, “You can’t do a novel that is filled with images that would be boring on screen. You wouldn’t necessarily do a novel about a plumber. I could make him an interesting character but you eliminate things. You try and get things that will work for both the novel and the film.”
He continued his thought by saying, “At that moment, once I have the idea and it is usually well-formed. I know the beginning and the end, at least a portion of the characters back-story, the twists and the turns, I know the other story drivers. I know all of that in my head prior to writing word one.”
“Then,” he said, “Once I know, I write it only as a novel because there are no guarantees that it will ever be made into film. At that point, it just has to be the best novel it can be. You start this seed, with the idea of looking back at what I have done recently and not doing that. How can I make this new? They have this ‘forces interaction’; you have to have these conflicts and complications.”
Nicholas has done screenplays like The Last Song and he’s done notes on all of his works. On screenwriting, he said, “It is an interesting medium and I can do it well. It is not my bread and butter and in some ways it is less fun than a novel. When you write a novel, you are the king. When you write a screenplay, people come in with notes on you. And they win. If you are working with an editor at a publishing house, they are like ‘in the end it is your novel, do what you want’. They don’t say that to the screenwriter. The screenwriter is not exactly the highest on the totem pole. And even if I were to do it, I’m still just a screenwriter.”
“Occasionally,” he said of the process, “I would visualize characters but it has never been who I imagined it would be. I just wrote a novel and it will be out next fall. I have an idea of who I want in it and I will approach this person and we will see if this person wants to be in it. And if this person does want to go out and be a package deal to the studios, it hasn’t been sold yet.”
He knows that he cannot over-saturate the market with projects. “You probably want to do one of these a year,” he said, “you can do two, but there is definitely room in the market for one. So what happens is that a queue begins to form. Suppose I don’t write a novel or I don’t sell something, well, then I’ll do one film.”
“I will never direct,” he said on the idea of becoming more technically involved in the cinema process. Then he explained, “I just think that directing in an art form in of itself and with any art, there is a learning curve associated with it. It is a tremendous skill. Although there is the possibly that I could master such a skill I think it would take time and I don’t want to experiment on my own movies as part of the learning process. I’m very busy doing what I do.”
He expanded on the idea by saying, “Directing goes into the editing room. There is a significant amount (of elements). I’ve watched movies but when you start adding up everything—how to work with dogs or little kids, grumpy actors or actors who are late. There is a whole thing more than ‘Is that a pretty shot?’ So much that goes into it.”
There is also the element of the script and sticking to the words on the page. Lasse Hallstrom is a director who loves improvisation. “That’s Lasse and Lasse is an artist,” he said of his director who also was at the helm of the Nicholas Sparks film Dear John. “What he will always do is start with the script but he has a different way. All films are a reflection of the director which goes to why I won’t do it. I don’t know what my reflection would be.”
Expanding on the thought, he said, “Lasse will start with the words on the page but he encourages the actors to stretch and perhaps show more emotion, anger, frustration. He says ‘let’s just keep doing it. You know what the point of the scene is now what do you think the point of the scene is?’ He’s notorious for filming ten minute scenes that end up being 30 seconds. Just keep talking and we’ll see. It is very Lasse-like and so at the end you have 20 minutes of footage for a 30 second scene. It might have ended up exactly verbatim, it might have started verbatim and varied and it might have been totally new, but either way it has captured the point of that specific scene exactly the way it should have with the concept of the end film in mind. It is just Lasse’s way.”
Many pigeon-hole Nicholas Sparks with the title of romance writer, but he sees his work in a different way than traditional romances. “There are romantic elements in my novels,” he said, “but the themes are very varied. This was ‘love and danger’ and you had ‘everlasting love’ in The Notebook. I have added mysterious elements to various stories and I am happy with that. I find that this genre is possible to add a lot of wonderful new elements that will make it feel fresh and new.”
He gave an example of this idea by saying, “For instance, I have to conceive of a new novel because I just finished one. What I do is look back on what I’ve done recently and what I can’t do. After I have eliminated all this stuff and the next novel, I’m not going to say ‘it is dark but it has some heavy themes in it as the secondary story driver’. I think people will say ‘Wow, I can’t believe he wrote that’. But it is a love story again. I find that I can vary the themes enough to keep myself interested in novels.”
When he mentioned the idea of another novel, it was asked if he ever thought of doing a totally different genre such as horror or a thriller. He said, “Thrillers are tough to write well because it is very challenging to come up with something new because thrillers, they thrill. It is the easiest way to catch a reader or an audience’s attention. But how do you do it new? How many serial killers have you seen on television and film? There are tons of them, we’ve seen every kind. That’s the problem–how do you make it original? I did ‘danger’ earlier with the novel The Guardian.”
Nicholas has been married to his wife for 23 years and she is the inspiration for most of his work. “Every film and every novel I write, the female characters are just my wife. That’s what I write about over and over again. All my female characters have had some of the same traits. They are the ones I find most attractive. They are kind, they are honest, they are loyal to right and wrong, they are forgiving. But most of all, they are not defined by their men. They love deeply but they never forget that sense of loyalty to what is right, that never verges into selfishness, to what I want. That is what I find incredibly attractive,” he said. Then he did admit that his wife rarely actually reads his works. “I think my wife has read four of my novels,” he said with a laugh.
Nicholas has developed a very rigid way to put together his works. The conception process goes through his agent first. “I work with my agent extensively throughout the process. I brainstorm with her about story ideas. I send her sections whenever I feel the need to send something up and she redlines it very extensively. I make changes as I go on writing. Probably two or three more edits before it goes to my editor.”
When it gets to his editor, he wants the editor to be like the first reader. “I want my editor to see a product that is the best that it can possibly be,” he said. “I don’t want my editor to get bogged down in a cliché or a section that drones on too long or a character that is not quite as defined as I want. I want her to see, for her to be the first pure reader, so that she can come back and her edits than can say ‘you missed a gap here’ or ‘you really need to fill this here’ or ‘it’s still too long here.’”
“I know only one way to write a novel,” he said of the process. “I think if I try to really do anything different, I couldn’t finish a novel. They are already challenging enough to do well. It is hard in writing to evoke genuine emotion as opposed to manipulating emotion. There is a very subtle difference. There are some who say I do but I would say I don’t–evoking genuine emotion versus manipulating the emotion. It is one of the toughest things, so I find all novel-writing hard.” Nicholas tries to write 2000 words a day and that can take anywhere from 4 to 12 hours. “It would be nice if I could turn in on and off like a faucet but it just doesn’t work like that,” he said of the process.
He finished the talk by saying about the group process of making a film as compared to the solitary process of writing a novel, “When I insist that my opinion carries great weight, then my opinion carries great weight.” He explained further by saying, “You have to pick and choose your battles and it is a collaborative process. There are voices that have great say in the film—the studio executives in charge of that particular production, the director, the other producers and depending on your cast, sometimes the actor. You are one of those voices and you know that everyone is just trying to do the best end product that they can. Your goal is to pick good people to work with. That way you can trust them to the process. There have been moments where I have dug in my heels and said if you don’t do what I want, I will take my name off the project. So there have been moments.”