Best-selling author Nicholas Sparks and producer Denise Di Novi sat down with us for a roundtable interview to talk about The Lucky One, which marks the fourth Sparks’ novels that Di Novi has brought to the big screen. In the film’s central role, Zac Efron stars as Logan, a U.S. Marine who returns from his third tour of duty in Iraq with the one thing he credits with keeping him alive — a photograph he found of a woman he doesn’t even know. He embarks on a journey of discovery and healing that leads to her and the realization that she could be much more than his good luck charm.
Sparks and Di Novi talked about their collaboration, what Zac Efron brought to the role, and the way they approached bringing the story to the big screen to ensure the character of Logan remained universal, original and interesting. They also revealed how Efron invested a lot of passion, enthusiasm and hard work into transforming himself to make his character believable and to honor the experiences of young Marines who had served in Iraq. Sparks also discussed the differences between a novel and a script and the principles he follows whenever he works on a film to make sure it maintains the spirit and the intent of the overall story.
NICHOLAS SPARKS: In the end, you really want to make the best film that you can, and in the reality of the filmmaking world, you have things like budgets. If you film here, you can do other things that you might think are beneficial to the story. It’s the same kind of life though. Really that was the spirit and the intent of the story and I thought that was captured. One of the things that I think makes these stories work fairly well is that they can be anywhere. It could be in North Carolina, but it could be in Northern California or it could be in Iowa. This really could have happened almost anywhere. What you’re trying to do is create a world where everyone can feel as if it could’ve happened to them.
When you write a passage like “finding your picture was like finding an angel in hell,” do you look at the computer screen and go, “Nailed it!”
SPARKS: I didn’t write that line, but you know when it works. That is not from the book. That’s the brilliant screenwriter. You know when things work. Sometimes it takes a while to get there. Often when I’m writing a passage, it’s more about the exact mood that I’m trying to create. So you’ll put something down, you’ll say, “That’s not exactly right.” There’s a lot of tweaking because sometimes you’re not even sure exactly what mood you’re trying to create, like what did that mean? Was there a sense of melancholy? What was the desperation? There was a search for meaning in the way he said it in this particular line. It might take you a little bit. Gosh, was it melancholy or was it desperation? No, no, no, it’s a search for meaning, and then you try to find the exact right words to use, but then you rely on the director and the actor to pull it off. To me, it’s always more about the meaning than the specific words.
SPARKS: You mean like back with Message in a Bottle? Right away. I’m aware of the differences between a novel and a script. A novel might be 100,000 words. Screenplays, 20,000 words. 80% is gone off the bat. That’s the first thing you have to realize. Going in, whenever I work on a film, I have three rules. Only three and I tell them to every screenwriter. I say let’s retain the spirit and the intent of the overall story. So, if you look at The Lucky One, what was the intent? It’s a journey. It’s a healing journey for both of them that they undertake. This is really what it’s about. What’s the spirit of the story? It should feel real. These should be characters that you feel like you can know.
They should have honesty and integrity, and you do that in the story and then the characters. You say, the spirit and the intent of the story, the spirit and the intent of the characters, and then you make the best film that you possibly can. If you do those things, screenwriters love to hear this, they’re like, “Oh, that’s great, so I can perhaps combine this character. I can take A Walk to Remember” – which she did – “which was a novel based in 1954 and I can make it contemporary.” Why? Because it’s rule number three. Let’s make it the best film that we possibly can so it’ll be more relatable to the kids these days.
DENISE DI NOVI: We get into specifics too. I’ve done a lot of book adaptations with authors living and dead. He is the most alive of all of them. He is the best author to work with I’ve ever worked with. I think it’s very clear that he is very pragmatic. As long as we stay true to the rules that Nick laid out, then he’s very flexible and actually comes up with a lot of great ideas of how to make things work within the context of the movie. Even if Nick didn’t have those rules, those are my rules for adaptations as well, because the things that people love about a book, it’s usually bestselling books that get made into movies, there’s a reason they’re bestselling books. They connect with people. How do you translate the things that are connecting so that they connect on a movie level as well? I don’t have such an ego to think well, I can be even smarter than this book that sold millions of copies around the world. My job is to find out what’s great about it and also make it great in the movie.
SPARKS: I don’t have to worry about someone like if she says, “Oh, hey, let’s add some drama. Let’s get some more drama. Instead of a journey across the country, let’s have him be violent. He’s coming back and he’s drinking too much and he’s beating people up in the bar.” Well, now we’re beginning to violate the spirit and the intent of the character. You’re like, “Well, it might make the movie better, but do we need to do that?” She’s very good, Denise is, and it’s why we continue to work together. She’s very good at knowing.
The screenwriter mentioned Ryan Gosling is the actor everyone wants to work with. Since you worked with him on The Notebook, did you envision him when you wrote this? And how do you feel about Zac?
SPARKS: I had no image in mind as I wrote the novel. I really wanted to have someone though that felt very real to me, that felt very honest. That was the most important criteria because I live in eastern North Carolina so we’re literally surrounded by bases. I’ve got Camp Lejeune which is the East Coast version of Camp Pendleton 30 minutes to the south. I’ve got Cherry Point which is the East Coast version of El Toro that is 15 minutes to the east. I have Fort Bragg which is the home of the 82nd Airborne. It’s the biggest base in the world, that’s about an hour to the west. Then I’ve got The Fourth Fighter Wing. I am surrounded. When people talk about base closings, I’m like what? They haven’t closed a base in North Carolina ever. They’ve only expanded them. It is ubiquitous to that area so these people are my neighbors in my town. They go to the church. The kids go to the school I founded. So you see them. I used to coach at the local public high school. I coached track and field. Five of my former athletes are in the military and then they come back and they’re kids. These kids are 20. They’re 21, they’re 18. Zac was 24.
To me, Zac looked exactly like these kids so there was a tremendous amount of believability to who he actually was. That’s what they look like. They look like young men. They don’t look 38 and 39. It’s not that kind of war these days. These kids join right out of high school. That’s the simple fact. Most of them are 19 so you wanted someone believable about that. And then, the great thing about working with Zac was he brought so much passion and enthusiasm to making his character as believable as possible, and part of that is because a lot of Zac’s friends are in the military. The ones he went to high school with are in the military too. He’s like, “They’re all my age” essentially. And yet, he was not in the military and the work that he put in, it was not easy. He was getting up at 3am. He grew up in this role. He plays a very believable [Logan]. He’s a young man in this role, and I couldn’t have been happier. To me, he looks exactly like this and his performance was incredible.
DI NOVI: The thing about Zac too, when I first met him and talked about the book, Zac has tremendous goodness in his heart and he has a lot of integrity. This guy does not have a mean bone in his body. He’s just such a good guy and that’s what I loved about Logan. Logan has so much integrity. He’s such a good person and wants so badly to do the right thing in every case. I wanted an actor who radiated that goodness. When I met Zac, I thought gee, that’s what he’s like. Like Nick said, every single day he got up at 3, 3:30 in the morning for a two or three-hour workout. The amount of food that that poor boy had to eat! At first, I was jealous of him. I was like, “I’d be the happiest person in the world.” And then I thought, “You know what? I feel bad for him” because he had to eat so many calories to keep up that muscle and keep up those workouts. He was very dedicated, and he really transformed himself because he wanted to honor these other young men. It was very important to him. He took it very seriously.
Do great relationships always begin with conflict?
SPARKS: Let me tell you a story. If you have no conflict, you have no story. That’s number one. That’s a rule of novels. No, I’ll tell you what. I met my wife on Spring Break in Florida, okay. She was walking through the parking lot. She was with her friends and I was with mine, and they had to use our bathroom. I talked to her for a couple hours, or an hour in the room with her friends and my friends, and I was drawn to her immediately. Then, the next morning, I finagled the phone number from her friends, said come on over to the beach, we’ll all have fun, right? So they come over and the very first thing she says to me the next morning was, “Hey, we didn’t meet last night.” Aww. Right? But see, it’s an interesting story now, isn’t it? You’ve got to have a little bit of conflict. If you’re looking at Logan though in this, Beth is obviously attractive, but when he shows up to see her the first time, it’s not as if he has in his mind, “Hey, I’m gonna marry this girl.” All he knows is that “all my friends have died.” He knows because he’s a smart guy that PTSD affects you in a lot of ways.
Some people drink too much and get violent. They get in trouble, there’s suicide. We all read about these horrible things. What does he do? It’s not a normal thing. He walks across the country to go find this person to do what? Say thank you? And then what, walk away? He has no idea. So, when he sees her this first time, it’s not about this is the girl I’m going to fall in love with. It’s like “How am I going to heal? I know I was drawn here or I felt like I had to go to heal.” He’s got to forgive himself before he can open himself up to love. And again, when you cast these things and produce them, these are the things you have to keep in mind is who you are in that exact moment. So yes, she was cold, but it wasn’t about that. He’s there to find healing in his own life, and in the end, they heal each other so to speak.
This is someone’s son who came back from the war. Where is his family and where are his parents?
SPARKS: They were in Colorado and he left them. In the novel, like I said, it was very clear that this journey was mainly about a way to heal, to put the war behind him. It’s very hard. Let me tell you a little story, because my point in the end of this story is that sometimes your family can’t help you. Sometimes you have to find the answer yourself. I had one of my good friends, a naval chaplain, who lived two doors down from me in New Bern. He never carried a gun because he was a chaplain, but every time someone got hurt, he had to rush to them, and he held young man after young man after young man as they died. So he comes back the first time. Then he comes back after a second time. He comes back a third time and his hands won’t stop shaking. They just won’t stop, but other than that he seems perfectly normal, but his hands won’t stop shaking. That’s Logan. His hands are shaking.
How do you change that? He goes on a journey. He needed to find out something. He doesn’t even know as he takes that first step. “All I know is I’m wounded still here.” Perhaps, and it was made clear in the book, being with this family, there’s a survivor’s guilt because all of his friends were killed. So “How is hanging with my family [going to help]? I need to find this answer myself.” And that was Logan. In the novel, it’s made clear that they were in Colorado, but he needed to heal, and of course, his family would understand that. This is not a bad thing he’s going to do. He’s not saying, “Hey, I’m going to go do something violent.” If it’s your son, you’ll say, “Heal son. I’m here if you need me, but you need to heal.”
But the parents aren’t in the movie?
DI NOVI: That’s one of the choices you have to make. As Nick said, you lose 80% right off the bat. There’s only so many aspects of Logan we could’ve shown. You should read the book. The book is wonderful. It has obviously a lot of other moments and characters and people that give everything dimension, but we had to make choices. We kept the message, and the idea that Nick has described, we got across with the sister. We made that choice to do it very simply and get the idea across, and then get the story started.
DI NOVI: I’m glad you picked up on that. That’s exactly why we did it. We thought you always see the talk with the mom, the talk with the dad. The other great thing about Nick’s books is that he explores every family relationship. The parent/child is often not explored as much as it is in Nick’s books. The sacrifices you have to make for your children, how children change your life. You can’t just go off and do whatever you want to do when you have kids. And siblings, the relationship between siblings is a very deep bond that you often don’t see in movies. That’s exactly why we have the sister there and her love for Drake. People think oh, you lose your spouse, that’s the worst thing that can happen, or you lose your child or you lose your brother or sister. As many of us know, it’s just as tough. These relationships are so beautifully portrayed in Nick’s books in ways that you don’t always see.
The book has more of the dog, Zeus.
SPARKS: I love Zeus.
In the book, Zeus saves the boy. Did you really want to see that in the movie?
SPARKS: I liked Zeus. You throw a dog in, I’m going to say yes. But there are choices. The question then becomes what do you take out? Do you peel back on the relationship with the grandma or do you extend the film? These are all the choices you have to make.
Did it hurt that now the ex-husband saves the boy?
SPARKS: No, because the film was very accurate to what the book was. Zeus was very important to Logan in the book, yet Zeus can’t heal him. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about he’s got this crutch and now it’ll still be here. I’ll still store it. It’ll be with me, but I can heal now. That was the spirit and the intent of the plot and the character, and I thought that was very accurately portrayed.
The Vow seemed very Nicholas Sparks.
SPARKS: (laughs) Yeah, you noticed that, huh?
Do you wish you had written that?
SPARKS: Look, I couldn’t be more thrilled for everyone associated with that. That was Channing (Tatum) who is just the nicest guy and Rachel (McAdams) who’s the nicest girl. I can’t be any happier for them. I was in negotiations with them whether or not to be associated with that, but it all kind of got tied up.
You could have written that?
SPARKS: I wouldn’t have written it, but maybe I would’ve executive produced or something along those lines, but no, more power to them. If that’s my movie, I would’ve probably done the same thing. Imitation is the most sincere and best form of flattery. I don’t begrudge anyone their successes. I know how hard it is, so best of luck to you.
I saw myself in the film. The military, the dogtags, even the German shepherd, where does all this come from when you write books? What’s the process?
SPARKS: Yeah, what is it? I will tell you. There are six things I have to know, and then I have two more things that I have to figure out, and then they all have to follow within six general guidelines. I could bore you with a very specific writing critique but it really comes down to these and they’re very simple: What are the ages of the characters? What’s driving the story? How do the characters meet? That would be three of the six. What you’re really looking for is, in these six things, you want it to feel original, interesting and universal — all of these elements, whether you’re dealing with the character or dealing with specific plot events. I will say that it is incredibly easy to be two of those three. It is really easy to be, let’s say, interesting and original. Hey, let’s invent Hannibal Lecter. But he’s not very universal. Not many of us have actually met in person a cannibalistic serial killer that we know of.
If you’re looking at how you make Logan universal and interesting and original, this is where Zac was very strong. When’s the last time you saw an army guy like Logan in any film? You don’t, but yet he feels like he could be, so it’s universal and yet it’s kind of original. Well, how did they meet? There’s a photograph out there. He finds it. Well, can some of us imagine this happening? I can tell you it came from a story in my own life. Actually someone found a photograph of my wife and it ended up on the bulletin board, and they claimed that this was their girlfriend. “Wait a minute, that’s my wife, where did you get that picture?” “I found it in the parking lot.” I was waiting tables, this was a year after graduation from college, and it was in my wallet, and I must have dropped it, and the manager, Jim, got it and went “Wow, that girl’s beautiful.”
Is there a real boarding kennel that you based this on?
SPARKS: Lynaire Kennels. It’s in New Bern.
Are there the same kind of characters there?
SPARKS: You want to board dogs? You have to be a certain type of person. You’ve got to be willing to be surrounded by a lot of dogs every day. Some that have a great temperament and some that don’t.
Was Blythe’s character based on a real person?
SPARKS: Grandma, no. That was put in for [a reason]. When I write novels, I have a very large range in ages of my readers. I don’t write YA books which are mainly teenagers or I don’t write this. My readers are 10 to 100, so how do you make everybody like it and feel as if it could be them? Well, of course, this is a love story of characters in their 20s which teens will still relate to, because 24, they know kids and their boyfriend is now in the military. I know I’ve got that covered, but how do I get someone who’s 50 or 60? In this, we’re really going to explore a different kind of love and it’s the love and support of a grandmother to her granddaughter, and a lot of people relate to this as well. That’s what you’re trying to do.
Are you satisfied with this film?
SPARKS: With The Lucky One, oh The Lucky One’s gorgeous. I love that film. It’s going to do really well. Yeah, I like it. I thought it was great.