TORONTO - When it comes to big screen romantic swoonfests, few are as out-and-out dreamy as those based on the books of Nicholas Sparks.
In fact, you can pretty much consider Sparks his own category within the genre of escapist chick flicks, thanks to a healthy oeuvre of seductive weepers including "A Walk to Remember," "The Last Song" and "The Notebook."
His latest is the Valentine's Day offering "Safe Haven," with Josh Duhamel and Julianne Hough as troubled would-be lovers who must overcome big hurdles to find happiness. "Safe Haven" offers a relatively darker edge by way of a domestic violence subplot, notes Duhamel, nevertheless bracing himself for comparisons to other Sparks love stories.
"You're already going to be put up against the other ones, (with people thinking) 'How does it measure up?' " says Duhamel, who joins an auspicious club of Sparks leading men including Ryan Gosling ("The Notebook"), Liam Hemsworth ("The Last Song"), Channing Tatum ("Dear John") and Zac Efron ("The Lucky One").
"Obviously, you know that it's going to happen but at the same time ... we never talked about this being a romance, we never talked about it being a Nicholas Sparks film. We wanted this to feel like its own beautiful little love story and tell it in a way that happens as naturally as possible, without forcing it. If anything (director Lasse Hallström) went against all the sentimentality.... Obviously, it's still in the movie but we didn't want to hammer them over the head with it."
Still, pretty much everything you would expect in a Sparks film is present in "Safe Haven" — the idyllic small-town setting, the attractive but mysterious outsider, the sudden downpour that drenches fated lovers. During a recent Toronto visit, Hough and Duhamel ran through some of Sparks' tried-and-true tropes and how they amp up the passion in "Safe Haven":
1. The outsider with a secret. There's something inherently romantic about a beautiful stranger, especially if they look like Zac Efron's hunky Logan in "The Lucky One," who moves to a small town with a hidden agenda or Mandy Moore's comely Jamie in "A Walk to Remember," who is an outsider at school with a heavy secret.
In "Safe Haven," Hough plays the standoffish Katie, a young woman who moves to a small town and assumes a new identity after fleeing her abusive husband.
"It's definitely one of those characters where playing guarded and having a wall up is kind of a hard thing if you're trying to fall in love with somebody," Hough says with a chuckle.
Duhamel says the thriller aspect of "Safe Haven" makes it more mature than some of the other Sparks films: "This one to me felt (that) there was something a little bit darker or a little bit scarier about it. It felt a little bit older than some of the other ones."
2. The devoted single dad. Katie can't help but be drawn to Duhamel's sympathetic character Alex — a widower father of two adorable kids, and just the latest in a long line of strong father figures who must parent on their own.
Duhamel displays an impressive familiarity with this tug-at-the-heartstrings ploy, noting that Richard Jenkins filled the solo parent role in "Dear John" while Jamie's dad in "A Walk to Remember" was a widower, too. And Greg Kinnear plays an estranged divorced dad trying to connect with Miley Cyrus's rebellious heroine in "The Last Song."
Duhamel says he made sure to read the book "Safe Haven" to glean insight into Alex and bring nuances that otherwise weren't outlined in the script.
"It informs a lot," he says of that background. "For me, even if the character changes — which my character did, I think quite a bit from the book — it just gives you little facts that you can use."
3. Romance in the rain. What is it about a thunderstorm that inspires some serious lip-lock? Notable makeout scenes from "The Notebook," "Dear John" and "The Lucky One" take place under a downpour (although in "The Lucky One" they are in an outdoor shower). "Safe Haven" offers its own token water-drenched scene — but it is different, says Hough.
"We didn't make out in the rain," she points out.
"But there was rain!" Duhamel protests.
"The settings are what make it feel romantic," says Hough. "What we're doing isn't (that) we're trying to make it this big moment, it's more that we just happen to be in this great location."
4. The shadow of death or a terminal illness. It's not a spoiler to reveal that the kids in "Safe Haven" are handling the death of their mom in different ways, with Katie's arrival only intensifying their emotional highs and lows.
"There's always an illness or death (in a Sparks film). Because neither one of those happen in real life," says a cheeky Duhamel.
Terminal illness weighs heavily on characters from "A Walk to Remember" and "The Last Song," while Taylor Schilling's "The Lucky One" character Beth is reeling from the death of her brother.
5. An idyllic small-town setting. Like all of Sparks' books, the novel "Safe Haven" is set in the writer's home state of North Carolina — in this case the seaside town of Southport. The movie was shot there, too, possibly so Sparks could keep an eye on production, jokes Duhamel. "(It) is rare that you get to shoot the movie in the town that the story was written in," he says. "So it was cool to see some of these landmarks that he talked about in the book and in the script we got to actually shoot at."
Hough says Sparks met with the actors and told them about how he started writing. His first book was the bestselling romance "The Notebook," which taught him "'What's not broke you don't fix,'" she says. "It's worked for him," concludes Hough, who's devoured several of his romances over the years.
"I think his books are very visual," she adds. "So knowing that you're doing a Nicholas Sparks film, you know there's going to be beautiful settings, romantic settings, things that make the audience feel like, 'Oh my God ... I want to make out in the rain'."
"Safe Haven" opens in theatres Thursday.