Novelist and screenwriter Nicholas Sparks' body of work has a virtue generally reserved for manufactured goods: brand consistency. It's made him one of the most popular purveyors of romantic drama.
You always know what you're getting when you pick up any one of Sparks' 16 novels (80 million copies in print worldwide) or watch one of his eight film adaptations (average worldwide gross $94.7 million).
"Guess you can call them chick flicks," said Josh Duhamel, who plays the male lead in Sparks' latest big-screen adaptation, Safe Haven, which opens on Valentine's Day.
"But Safe Haven is so much more than a chick flick," Duhamel adds. "It's truly a beautiful story and also a thriller."
Directed by Lasse Hallström, who also shot Sparks' Dear John, the film costars Julianne Hough as a damaged big-city girl who takes refuge in a small fishing village in North Carolina, where she falls deeply in love with a local widower (Duhamel).
"I'm definitely the demographic of his movies. Like I have gone to probably all of them. And I cry every time," said Hough, 24. "Whenever A Walk to Remember or The Notebook is on TV, I stop what I'm doing and I sit there and watch it again."
Sparks, Duhamel, and Hough recently sat down for a chat at the Four Seasons in Logan Square.
The novelist said Safe Haven is something of a departure for him in that it mixes elements from police procedurals and psychological thrillers.
The film opens on a dark, rain-drenched Boston night in the middle of an intense police manhunt for suspected murderer Katie Feldman (Hough). Scared out of her wits (and sporting dark hair), Katie takes the next bus out of town. She dyes her hair blond and disembarks in a sun-dappled tiny fishing town in North Carolina called Southport.
"The seed for the story was love and danger, which I had not done before," said Sparks, 47. "And rather than focus on the [crime] and her escape, I decided to focus on the aftermath."
Shot on location in Seaport, a town of 1,000 located 159 miles south of Raleigh -- and 80 miles from Sparks' home in New Bern, N.C. -- Safe Haven follows Katie as she adjusts to small-town life and, eventually, falls for Alex Wheatley (Duhamel), a perpetually sad widowed father of two.
"I wanted to play him as a guy who didn't necessarily know he was doing the right thing," said Duhamel, 40. "And who probably didn't deal with the death of his wife as well as he should have and his kids are acting out as a result of that."
We learn in fits and starts through hazy flashbacks and enigmatic clues of Katie's traumatic past and the crime she apparently committed.
Pursuing her is hardheaded Boston cop Kevin Tierney (David Lyons), who is prone to violence and whose commitment to the case borders on the psychotic.
Why is he so obsessed? Ah, that would be telling.
Hough, a dancer, singer, and reality TV star with little dramatic experience, said she aggressively pursued the role of Katie, seeing it as a perfect way to make the transition to serious drama.
"This is a complete departure from what anyone has seen me do," said Hough, who made her debut as a big-screen leading lady in 2011's Footloose. Safe Haven "was a great story, and I relate more to this more mature, darker character than I did to all the girls I played in the past."
Given the consistency of Sparks' world, it should come as no surprise that there isn't much bodice-ripping action in Safe Haven. The romantic element is more subtle, if no less passionate.
Sparks says he has "the grandmother rule" -- he won't write anything he wouldn't want his grandmother to read.
"It's the build-up, the emotional intensity that matters. The beauty of all the feelings espoused. That's what we're trying to do," Sparks said.
"We are trying to evoke emotion in viewers."