At this stage in his career, it seems as though Nicholas Sparks is writing deliberately for the cinema. Of the 16 books the bestselling American author has penned, seven have already been transformed into blockbuster adaptations – including The Notebook, Message in a Bottle and Dear John – with two more in the pipeline. The most recent to be released, on UAE screens this week, is The Lucky One, the story of a US Marine stationed in Iraq who narrowly avoids being blown up after reaching down to pick up a stray photograph. Convinced the woman in the picture saved his life, upon his return to America the solider seeks her out, begins to live and work in the same space, but keeps his purpose secret.
Starring a newly buffed Zac Efron (best known for teen silliness in High School Musical and 17 Again), The Lucky One sounds like a romance by numbers, but director Scott Hicks disagrees. ‘Normally by page 40, they’re [romantically involved],’ he argues. ‘With us, it wasn’t until page 65 or halfway through the film. It’s a full hour before they start to connect. And this was some concern.’ As the man behind Anthony Hopkins drama Heart in Atlantis (2001) and Oscar-nominated Shine (1996), among others, we found out more from the 59-year-old Australian director about why he thinks this story sticks.
Nicholas Sparks’ readers have certain expectations based on his successful books. How did that affect your approach to the film?
There’s a very particular audience that obviously adores Nicholas Sparks’ writing, and loves the films that are made from his books. And it’s definitely in your mind.
They always say don’t work with kids and animals. Did using a single mother with a dog add complications to this one?
I’ve always worked with kids, so it has never daunted me. And in some ways I like it a lot because if you cast them right they are, in a sense, purer actors. They have no technique. It’s a game of let’s pretend, which is basically what acting is, isn’t it? It’s to say: let’s pretend this is happening to me. And animals: well, animals are another thing. But this particular animal, Rowdy – who plays Zeus in the film – was so well-trained. I mean, gosh. When you can say to a dog, ‘Go back to your mark’ and he does – you can’t quite say that to an actor. [Laughs]
How did you cast Zac Efron and Taylor Schilling in the main roles?
First of all, Zac really put himself forward for this. He was very, very eager to play this part. So we met, and because he’s naturally slender and he’s known as a dancer I said, ‘We have to turn you into a Marine.’
It began with really getting a physical transformation, and that was a massive effort by him for months – three months or so before we started shooting – working with ex-Navy SEALs, eating 6,000 calories a day, and working out for three hours so it didn’t turn to fat but became muscle. I mean, that was a huge thing, buzz-cutting his hair. Everybody has a level of vanity, but he never let vanity get in the way of what he was doing as an actor. And that’s the mark of someone with serious intent. Taylor is quite unknown to movie audiences. But I was so struck with her emotional complexity and sense of spontaneity, which hides that technique.
You walk a tricky line when making a love story.
Well, look at the poster – you know before you go into the theatre what this film is about. The question is: how do you tell that story? And how do you play with the elements of the genre enough to intrigue the audience so they don’t feel that they’re being pandered to, but they’re being taken on a journey that they haven’t been on before? When you have two very good-looking young people staring into each other’s eyes on the one-sheet, you kind of know where this is going, don’t you? [Laughs]. The question is; how do you get there?
The Lucky One is in UAE cinemas this week.
Read Time Out's review of The Lucky One here.