The age-old question of whether things happen by accident or if there really is such a thing as destiny is at the core of Nicholas Sparks’ bestselling novel, The Lucky One. Scott Hicks, who directed the screen adaptation of The Lucky One, was immediately drawn to the premise that a chance event – finding a photo in the middle of nowhere — could change not only one man’s life, but the lives of everyone he comes into contact with – and it hooked him at the onset. He liked the idea that the notion of destiny is quite central and that it was treated in a very realistic fashion.
We sat down with the Academy Award-nominated writer/director at a roundtable interview to talk about the genesis of the project and how he came to direct the movie after he was approached by Warner Bros. producer Denise Di Novi. He told us why the actuality footage his son sent him links to on YouTube inspired the film’s visceral opening sequence, how he consulted with the Marines to lend authenticity to the film, how the shores of Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain passed for locations in Iraq, and what amazed him about Zac Efron’s and Jay Ferguson’s strong performances. He also discussed the lasting impact of Shine.
SCOTT HICKS: Definitely. I had some very good military advisors. The key to it, for me, was in fact, my younger son, Jet, who’s in the movie. His band is the band that’s playing. He said to me he found a whole lot of things on YouTube and sent me these links of these night raids. I just watched these gritty, grainy, green things and my pulse was racing. I thought this is unbelievable that on a tiny image I can be feeling so involved when the technique was so primitive. I thought, I wonder if we can do that in the movie. Part of the aim was to make it as raw and visceral and real [as possible] and that came from seeing actuality footage. And then, as I say, having some very good help from the Marines in terms of the execution of how things were done and training Zac and so on.
Which is why you can shoot Iraq on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain?
HICKS: (laughs) We were on the edge of the Mississippi. If the camera panned that way, you’d see a ship.
What were the challenges of taking on a movie like this where you’re contained in a geographical space that makes no sense for the actual locale in the movie?
HICKS: Quite honestly, when we started out scouting locations in Louisiana and around New Orleans, I thought there was no way we can shoot Iraq here. We drove out to where there is a huge sand bowl, hours and hours away from New Orleans. I went out there and I thought I don’t know if that’s going to work, and then the production designer, Barbara Ling, found this extraordinary place that had all this concrete rubble. She said if we build some pieces, I think I can give you what you need. So, in the end, the elements were there, and if you throw enough dust in front of the lens, suddenly we’re in Iraq. But no, it was a challenge to do that for sure.
HICKS: Well, that was a real plus in the end, I think, because most of the Nicholas Sparks based films have been shot in North Carolina which is of course where he comes from. This was an opportunity to distinguish it visually somewhat and use the lushness and exoticism. I mean, to me, all that Spanish moss was absolutely gorgeous. I thought if I can make the opening as gritty, dusty and dirty and horrible as I can, this world that Logan steps into is literally a world away from what has impacted him so badly. I felt that it was a great resource. Everywhere you looked, it was beautiful. You just had to wait until the sun was pointing in the right direction and it would be fine.
How did you happen to get involved with a Nicholas Sparks novel?
HICKS: Warner Bros. asked me. I mean, they sent me a script. Denise (Di Novi) and I had tried to work together on a project about ten years ago which never came to fruition and we had a good connection. She was very enthusiastic. They came to me with this script, and when I realized that they were happy for me to get involved and to develop elements of it, I said yes, I would take it on.
Were you familiar with his work?
HICKS: I was aware of him, but I hadn’t read any of the books. I had seen The Notebook, for example, so I knew that really good films could be made from Nick’s novels and he speaks to such a wide audience. He has his plan down and it’s quite amazing, although the plan is tempered a bit on this film because it’s a little more complicated than just boy meets girl. One of the complications is there’s a child and that alters the dynamic completely. Then, there’s this ex-husband antagonist figure that’s also unusual in his stories.
I liked those elements, but it does mean that, for instance, Denise was saying to me one day, “Normally they’re kissing by page 40.” But, they weren’t kissing until page 65 or something which was over an hour into the movie. I said, “That’s fine. We’re making a different creature here. There’s a different dynamic in this relationship, and I think if we can hold back and really pent up that emotion, and then it explodes, hopefully, I’ll make it an explosive love scene that they’ll forgive me because they’ve had to wait so long.”
I think a lot of us have known people like the ex-husband in real life. How did you approach that character and keep him from being one dimensional?
HICKS: It was a vexed question and part of the answer lies in the casting. Jay Ferguson is an extremely well equipped actor. It’s always seemed to me important that where you have a villain in the piece or the antagonist, whatever you want to call them, there has to be humanity at the core of it or it’s faintly ridiculous. Nobody is just villain through and through. You have to feel something for them. I mean, it takes a while for us to feel anything for Clayton. He’s pretty in your face. You have to feel, you have to have hope for him, and clearly he is a man who’s going through a change. It’s almost a psychotic kind of change.
HICKS: With really good actors, there are things you don’t have to tell them. The wonderful thing about that was Jay’s piece, that close-up, came at the end of a very, very long day. He’d had to be there through all the shooting of everybody else and watching and it’s a complicated little scene with the music and everything. And then, right at the end of the day, we turn our attention on him, and that’s when the real actor comes out because they’ve conserved the core of their energy for that moment. I love it. The thing that I love is when actors surprise me and they show me something I didn’t expect. Jean Cocteau, the great poet and filmmaker, had one thing he would say when actors auditioned for him and they asked him “What shall I do?” He used to say, “Astonish me.” That’s what you want. Jay did something like that. With apparently doing nothing, he took me right into the heart of his character.
How did Zac Efron astonish you? His performance is so tight and contained, which is consistent with someone suffering from PTSD, and he maintains it in a really interesting way all the way throughout the film?
HICKS: Well, he did astonish me. I mean, he really stepped up. Apart from having done all the physical work to transform himself, he had found a mind set. I kept saying to him, you have to find what I kept calling your game face. You have to find that persona that we saw on the Marines that we met, which is a world we do not share with them. We are not part of their brotherhood. They’ve experienced things we can only guess at. That’s some of the way I did scenes early at the beginning with the explosions in the humvee which were based entirely on what these Marines finally opened up and told me when I took Zac to work with them.
On the face of it, it doesn’t seem like a very complicated role, but it is because he has to be so contained, as you say. He hasn’t got dialogue to animate his emotions. And then, when he does, the intensity with which he delivers that account to her of how he found her photograph and how he never could tell her was absolutely amazing to me. Zac has got all of the elements, the hallmarks. He’s an actor of real serious intent and hopefully this film is a transitional film for him.
Can you talk about the cinematography and the visual design of the film with its lighting and shadows that’s so evocative of a beautiful postcard?
HICKS: The visualization of my films is always very important to me and I work very closely with my cinematographers. I’ve never had the same cinematographer twice now that I think about it. I don’t know why that is. Everyone is always busy. They do three or four films a year. It’s vital to me. And, the choice of locations like that house had wonderful sight lines in every direction you looked. There were some rooms that had four doors which is very unusual. I always love depth. I like looking through windows, through frames, through spaces into other spaces. In fact, with Alar (Kivilo), who’s a master cinematographer, every shot we were setting up he would say “Ah yes, another frame, a frame within a frame.” But, it’s true. I like to obscure a little what it is we’re looking at to make you look a little deeper maybe into the image. It’s my game, and in the end, if the audience does, that’s great. If they don’t, that’s great too. It doesn’t matter. Maybe it has a subliminal effect.
Maybe it’s because it gives you a sense that you’re there in the film?
HICKS: That’s right. I always hope to have that feeling because you want the audience to participate in a dream in a way. Sometimes I’ll sneak a look sideways to see what the audiences are thinking if I’m in a preview, and if I can feel them mesmerized, I think ah, that’s working, because it should be a world you enter into. My job as the director is to make that as authentic as I can and not to disturb the revelry.
HICKS: Absolutely. A Marine told me he’d had two experiences with an IED explosion in a Hummer. He said first of all, time stops. And then, secondly, he said “I became aware of dirt falling on my shoulder, and I thought, why is that happening?” And then, he said “I felt wet and I thought I’ve been hit.” And then, he realized that his water bottle had exploded. All of these things happened in a microsecond. But, he said, it was as if time was suspended completely. I tried to translate that into a visual sense by shooting that scene with Zac where we fired an air cannon into his face. I was shooting at a thousand frames per second. So, one second becomes 10 minutes or something. It’s probably a little bit horrifying for his fans. But it’s quite good. You take them there and then you cut to him. He’s okay, he’s okay.
Did you shoot more flashback sequences and Iraq footage that didn’t make it into the final film?
HICKS: No. Originally, in the script, there was much more of that. In fact, we’d go back to Iraq several times through the story. I decided that once we were on that path, I wanted to always move forward so that in the end… actually the benefit of that was that it gave Zac that very powerful scene where he tells her. The only echo you get is literally in the audio in the soundtrack. You are taken back for a moment. I wanted to get all the war material done, dusted and out, and then the romance begins.
HICKS: Well, if they’re well trained like these. I mean, these were amazing. Boone Narr is the trainer and he’s a master. All the dogs in the kennels were highly trained which was extremely important because you’re going to film with a dozen dogs for weeks. You know what that’s like? There’s noise, there’s incredible noise. The dog that played Zeus was extraordinary. It was quite complicated for the actors because there were trainers hidden to draw different looks and different directions – make his head go up, make his head go down, make him sit, make him lie down, make him get up, make him bark, all in one shot when you’re doing your wide shot. The actors have to ignore all these people that are gesturing around them, so that’s a challenge for them. But, for me, it was the easiest thing in the world. Even if I thought of something on the day, I’d say “Do you think we could get Zeus to do this?” They’d say “Just give us 10 minutes.” They’d go away, work with him, and come back and say “Okay, he’s ready.” It was amazing.
Who was easier to direct – Zac or Zeus?
HICKS: Well let’s put it like this, I never said to Zac “Get back on your mark!” If you said it to Zeus, he’d do it.
When you’re taking meetings and getting projects, how much is Shine still in the back of their minds?
HICKS: I guess it never does go away. It’s there.
It’s a classic.
HICKS: Well thank you. There’s that, but there’s so many things that have happened between now and then. It’s very much in the distant past, but I think there are always hallmarks that people are looking for in the films they want me to make with them. They’re looking for performance integrity, for powerful characters, for a beautiful film, but hopefully a beauty that’s … I’ve always had a feeling that the image is 50% of the emotion that an audience feels and it’s subliminal. Yet, how you arrange the elements in front of a camera has an impact on people’s belief about that world in some way. All of those I think were hallmarks of Shine and hopefully some of the other films I’ve made since. Nothing has made that sort of impact, but the films have had their own little world, if you like.
HICKS: David (Helfgott)? I had dinner with him less than three weeks ago. He and Gillian came to Adelaide. We stay in touch all the time. He has a wonderful career. He tours the world non-stop. He’s about to embark on a tour of Europe. He’s going to Germany. He’s playing Rachmaninoff. He has recaptured the career he lost when he fell ill. He’s exactly the same person, in many ways completely unpredictable, but in other ways, he’s always the same.
The same unpredictability?
HICKS: Absolutely, and he’s an absolute delight. They’re very, very happy and they live in a place called the Promised Land in New South Wales. There’s Never Never Road which goes to Promised Land. It’s totally Peter Pan.
So the film was a gift to him too then?
HICKS: As much as it was to me and everybody. There was a mutual thing that went on there. David gave me a gift in letting me tell his story. I, in my way, gave him a gift because the film gave David permission to be who he is. One really interesting thing about him is, when I met him 25 years ago, he used to talk non-stop about his father and he never talks about him anymore. So, something happened.
The Lucky One opens in theaters on April 20th. If you missed our interview with Zac Efron and Taylor Schilling, click here.