Film: 2010: "Dear John"

Dear John Movie Production Notes

The screen version of Dear John found its “spark” when producer Marty Bowen was given the manuscript of bestselling author Nicholas Sparks’ novel before it was even published.  “I found myself completely touched by it,” says Bowen.  “Sparks has a way of writing that allows you to get lost in this world, these characters, and the beautiful Carolina environment he paints.  And there were certain twists in the story that I just wasn’t expecting.

“When I finished the book,” Bowen says, “my biggest concern was I just didn’t feel like there was anybody actor-wise who’d really be able to pull off this ‘perfect guy.’  Part masculine soldier, willing to do whatever he has to do for his country, and then also this softer somebody who can fall in love with a girl completely and possibly be heartbroken by the experience.”

Then Bowen thought of Channing Tatum.  “I had seen Channing in several films, including A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints and Step Up,” he says.  “In thinking about it, I was amazed to see he had both of these characteristics.  I thought, ‘If Channing would want me to develop this, then it would be a project that would really excite me.’  We gave the book to his representatives and Channing loved it.  It was perfect for him.”  The film had found its dear John.

With Tatum on board, Bowen and producing partner Wyck Godfrey (the duo also shepherded the blockbuster Twilight film franchise to the big screen) knew they’d found their next project.  As the book Dear John became another in an incredible string of publishing hits for Sparks, the film began to gain momentum and take shape.

The producers turned to screenwriter Jamie Linden to adapt the novel for the big screen.  They’d admired Linden’s We Are Marshall and thought he’d bring great perspective to the adaptation.  Interestingly, however, Linden actually initially passed on the project, not having had the experience of (and not being entirely comfortable with) writing a love story.  “But I kept thinking about it,” Linden says, “and couldn’t get it out of my head.”  The film is by and large a romance, but what ultimately captivated Linden and became the way into the story for him was the relationship between John and his father, Mr. Tyree.  Linden thought of a different way to handle the climactic father/son scene from the book, and that made him want to tackle the entire screenplay.

“In the book, [that scene between father and son] had been done in a very straightforward manner, where they’re very open about their feelings,” says Linden.  Instead, he came up with the idea of furthering the story’s use of letter writing by having John write a letter to his father; he then reads the letter to his father in their most emotional encounter.  “I really wanted to see that scene get put on film,” Linden says.  “So to get that done, I had to do the entire movie.”  Linden’s participation in the film was a go.

Dear John is a love story between John and Savannah,” Linden continues, “but it’s also a love story between John and his dad.  In that respect, I think it’s got some depth, scope, and character that make it resonate.”

DEAR DIRECTOR…

With a screenplay in place, the project took another great leap forward when the producers were able to sign veteran helmer Lasse Hallström to direct.  Hallström’s celebrated films are known for their rich look and feel as well as their characters’ pervasive embrace of life’s wonders, surprises and disappointments.  Dear John’s John and Savannah share some of the characteristics and resilience of such Hallström characters as the boy Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius) in Hallström’s first international success, My Life as a Dog; Gilbert (Johnny Depp) in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape; Homer (Tobey Maguire) in The Cider House Rules; and Vianne (Juliette Binoche) in Chocolat – all films that skirt easy sentimentality while still bringing great emotion to the screen.

Says Bowen, “If you have a script that has a strong emotional arc and you want the film to be powerful and moving, yet not fall into the world of melodrama, then there’s one director you want to get: Lasse Hallström.  He’s uniquely untroubled with the notion of trying to make things overly intellectualized, overly self-important, or overly melodramatic.  Being in touch with emotions and being able to deliver that in an honest fashion – as opposed to trying to arc it for film – are what make him really, really special.”

Describing what attracted him to the project, Hallström says, “Mostly my interest in Dear John was in the people, the story of these two kids who fall in love.”  He also says it was “to be able to tell an epic love story on a grand canvas, to portray the scope of it all.

“I'm always interested in character-driven stories,” Hallström continues.  “I'm interested in strong emotion and interested in trying to stay away from sentimentality, but I do like strong sentiment.  It's a fine line, and I love to walk that line and see if I can handle it.  I want to root it in reality and have it stay as real and as honest as I possibly can.”

The entire cast sings Hallstrom’s praises.   Channing Tatum describes how he was “thrilled when Lasse came in and loved the script.  He’s so sensitive and gentle in this brilliant way.”

“He’s so focused,” says Amanda Seyfried.  “He listens to and sees everything that happens. And he’s European,” she laughs. “There’s something about those Swedish people.”

Richard Jenkins says, “Lasse wants to explore and find things that are not obviously there.  He’s a generous man who collaborates and is interested in performances that are really alive and real.  That’s what you always hope for when you begin a project.” 

“The main reason I wanted to work on this film,” says Henry Thomas,  “was because Lasse Hallström was involved in it.  In my experience, when you work with big directors the mood is generally heightened, but this set was very relaxed.” 

And Hallström’s collaborative spirit extended through every level of the production.  For co-producer/writer Linden, Hallström was the “perfect person for this type of story because he has such naturally good instincts.  He went through the script removing every moment he was afraid would veer into overt sentimentality.  He wanted to allow the characters to speak in their silence and not talk about every little thing that happens.”

Production designer Kara Lindstrom admires how “Lasse's curiosity created an extra layer of meaning to the whole filmmaking process, which is the basis for real collaboration.  Of course he wanted good sets, but the important thing, for me, is that he wanted to know why they were appropriate or why I thought they would work.  Once you start discussing at this level, work becomes a real pleasure.”  A faded sign in the Eastern European streetscape that reads “Chocolat” and the Swedish flag flying among others over the Afghan base camp are Lindstrom’s homages to the director.

DEAR JOHN…

When thinking about his acting career, Channing Tatum hadn’t pictured himself starring in many romantic films.  “When you’re growing up, you imagine yourself running around shooting and jumping from buildings,” he says.  “There aren’t that many amazing love stories seen through the guy’s point of view, so I thought this was a really interesting opportunity.

“Nicholas Sparks’ work is very beautiful,” Tatum continues, “but this story also had an edge to it that some of the other books didn’t have.  I figured it would be a lot of fun to do something a little softer, a little more quiet – just sitting and acting for once,” he laughs.

In speaking about why John develops such a deep, quick connection with Savannah once they meet, Tatum says, “For the first time, he found someone that made him open up.  I’ve met people in my life that have made me happy all the time, and I think that’s what Savannah is for him.  They’re the people you can’t stop thinking about – you want to be around them all the time.”

Tatum did a lot of character preparation to take on his role.  In exploring the film’s characters and explaining why the taciturn John and vivacious Savannah are the way they are, Tatum points out that the defining differences between them are extensions of their different social and economic backgrounds.  “Because his dad is [undiagnosed] autistic and anti-social, I don’t think John learned a lot of social skills,” says Tatum.  “He’s always been a sort of loner.  In a way, he joined the Army to get away from everything he knew growing up – maybe even to get away from his father.  I had the unique opportunity to work on an earlier army movie, G.I. Joe, and I got to know many soldiers.  So many of them are just normal guys.  They have a sort of quietness about them – there’s always some stillness in their eyes.”  Tatum let his experiences with these soldiers inform his portrayal of John onscreen.

In addition to his military and character training, Tatum discovered a new love in his preparations for the role: surfing.  John is surfing when the film opens, and Tatum wanted to do the surfing himself.  “I’m from Florida,” he says, “but I’ve just never been a surfer.  It was amazing to go out for the first time with Mark, my coach.  He said, ‘There’s not very much I can teach you other than just time – time in the water.’  We would get up every day at five o’clock, be at the beach by five-thirty, and surf ‘til nine.  It was freezing.  It was a real treat, though, to just watch myself get better.  There’s no rhyme or reason, you just start to feel it out.  I’m totally addicted.  I’ve got two boards of my own now and went out on the weekends while shooting.”

For Hallström, who previously guided Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Tobey Maguire in early starring roles, Tatum brings to John “the qualities of being very smart and innovative and having a wonderful sense of humor and charm.  He’s able to capture a layer of improvisation that isn’t in the script; his sense of humor is quite subtle.”

In the film, “Channing was allowed to show his chops as an actor,” Hallström continues.  “He hasn’t always had those kinds of parts where he could show his range, and he really has an amazing range.”

DEAR SAVANNAH…

Savannah is the female lead in the film, and, as mentioned by Tatum, her background is more privileged than John’s.  She attends college and has a loving family affluent enough to own an old plantation with a horse farm and a beach house.  But she is also idealistic and unspoiled, someone who volunteers her time – she is, in fact, working to help build houses during her Spring Break.

It’s a richly-drawn, complicated role, and finding the right Savannah was a challenge for the producers.  In addition to being emotionally demanding, they needed to find an actress who could play both the young and, as the story moves to the present, a more mature Savannah.  Ultimately, they found their Savannah in acclaimed young star Amanda Seyfried.

As Linden explains, “Given the story, we worked hard in the script process to make Savannah as likeable as possible.  Amanda is perfect casting in that regard because there’s nothing sanctimonious about her at all.  Her instinct is to fight the melodramatic moments that could develop in her character, and that’s the right instinct.

“It needs to be emotional without being sentimental,” Linden adds, “and Amanda knew exactly how to do that.”

Describing her character, Seyfriend says, “Savannah’s a good girl, a smart, open-minded young woman who doesn’t take life too seriously.  And she’s a romantic, which is why she and John click so well.  She falls in love pretty hard right away – it’s a big deal.

“I don’t think she’s ever been in love before she meets this guy,” Seyfried continues, “and she immediately begins to feel like she completely knows him, which is really beautiful.  Unfortunately, she has to then deal with the transition from seeing him every day for two weeks to not seeing him at all, feeling completely alone without him and dealing with the fact that he’s a soldier in danger.”

Tatum echoes Seyfried’s thoughts in describing their characters’ attraction.  “When John comes home and meets Savannah,” he says, “I think he found for the first time someone who made him open up.  She’s someone he can’t stop thinking about and wants to be around all the time.  Savannah’s quirky, and lovable self signifies to John what he loves about the world but doesn’t know all that much about.  She is pure and good, and he’s never felt so accepted.”

Of working with his co-star, Tatum says, “I just think Amanda’s amazing and beautiful and brilliant. She came in and performed the audition differently – her work almost threw me because she brought in a sense of irony and humor that no one else did.

“And she’s nuts,” Tatum continues.  “She’s absolutely out of her mind, which I love,” he laughs.

Of his lead actress, Hallström says, “Amanda did a really great job adding her personality to the character.  Her unpredictability was also very rewarding.  She just has a way of avoiding clichés and obvious choices.”

The filmmaker was thrilled with the performances of his romantic leads and their chemistry together.  “It’s been great to be able to work with fresh new actors,” says Hallström.  “To work with Channing and Amanda is inspiring and” – he begins to laugh – “rejuvenating for an old man.”

Hallström also appreciated that the duo were open to improvisation, something he likes to explore when directing his films.  “They enjoyed improvising a little bit throughout the material,” he says, “so we always tried to do an improvised version of each scene.  There are bits and pieces of their own words, their own impulses in the moment that have ended up on screen.  They’re both really honest in their performances, and absolutely real.

“I really want to feel that actors are involved on all levels,” Hallström continues, “that they're free to share ideas and come up with ideas for the script and to improvise if they want to.  Whatever it takes to keep a scene alive and fresh – that's my #1 rule.”

Producer Bowen says, “Sparks’ characters are lovers, but they also seem to be friends.  There’s a real connection between Channing and Amanda, not only as actors but as people.  They’re so playful, and when the camera starts to roll that connection is quite touching and very real.”

“Channing and Amanda both have such a naturalism about them,” adds Linden.  “Nothing ever feels forced with them, and they really like each other.  Chemistry is such an organic thing.  You can’t intellectualize it – and they’ve got it.  There’s something about seeing them together that fits and feels right.” 

DEAR MR. TYREE…

The secondary storyline in Dear John – but an incredibly affecting storyline – is that of John’s relationship with his father, Mr. Tyree.  Richard Jenkins plays Mr. Tyree, fresh from his Academy Awardâ-nominated performance in Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor.

For his part, Jenkins sees his character as “a man who raised John by himself and truly loves his child, but doesn’t know how to express it.  He’s a strange man, very quiet, not very communicative, not very social.  And the relationship between father and son is strained to say the least.

“When Savannah enters their lives,” Jenkins continues, “it becomes something like a triangle.  She teaches John about his father.  As sometimes happens when someone from the outside seems to understand a family member better than other family members, Savannah begins to open John’s eyes to the fact that his father is not doing anything on purpose, he’s not being rude or dismissive.  He just doesn’t know how to communicate.”

“What I found fascinating,” says Jenkins, “is that father and son once shared a common interest in coins that developed when John was a young boy.  But then, as all boys grow out of things and move on to girls and sports, the father remained lost in this world of coins and their relationship grew more strained.  The character really started to come alive for me when I saw the coins.  That’s when I really understood this guy’s obsession.  He’s incredibly focused and with his coins he feels safe and in control.  That’s why he’s like a magpie when he starts to really open up after Savannah expresses interest in his coin collection.”

In speaking about Mr. Tyree, Hallström says, “I thought the character that was on the page was interesting, but with Richard, he became even more interesting.  He surprised me completely.  He has a wonderful eye for detail, for observing human behavior.  With no exception, Richard’s always doing something interesting and especially real that makes the character come alive.”

DEAR TIM AND ALAN…

Henry Thomas plays Tim, a friend of Savannah’s family who takes a very active interest in keeping Savannah from harm.  Thomas describes his character as “not being an easy person to pin down.  He has a son with special needs and he’s going through a divorce, about which he’s not completely honest with people.  But he’s a really sincere guy and it’s important to him that he deal with people in a very honest way.

“Living next door to Savannah at the beach house,” Thomas continues, “he knows her family, she knows his family.  But there’s also a connection between them that, as the story unfolds, you learn has a strong dynamic.  His main objective, as he sees this romance blossoming between John and Savannah, is to make sure that this guy isn’t going to take advantage of her.  Then you come to see a different side of Tim’s concern – he is actually in love with Savannah, and probably has been for a long time.”

“Tim is older in the film’s script than he is in the Sparks novel,” notes Linden.  “He watched Savannah grow up.  We wanted our Tim to be a standup guy who’s cared about Savannah and been protective of her throughout her life.  So later, when he needs help and some protecting himself, he turns to this person he’s been there for.

“To complicate things,” Linden continues, “John and Tim have this immediate, unspoken bond, because both John’s father and Tim’s son have autism.”  The early friendship and subsequent rift between the two men add to the story’s dramatic tension.

Hallström thoroughly enjoyed working with Thomas.  “Henry is perfect casting for the part of Tim,” he says.  “Real, and very quiet.  He felt like a brother, or a cousin – I felt strangely familiar working with him, and I want to work with him again.”

Tatum also felt the similarity between Thomas and Hallström.  “Henry Thomas might be the best surprise of this movie,” Tatum says.  “He’s such a brilliantly grounded, gentle person, kind of like Lasse.  They have a caretaking quality.  I think Lasse and he share a kindred spirit.”

When casting the role of Alan, Tim’s young autistic son with whom Savannah shares a deep bond, the filmmakers decided to take an innovative path.  Producer Bowen says, “Great filmmaking is about creating the guidelines from which you want the scene to work, and then hoping that something you never expected also happens.  Lasse and I thought it would be a really interesting opportunity if we found a young man who was, in fact, autistic to play the role.”  Then six-year-old autistic boy Braeden Reed was cast in the part.

“Braeden is amazing,” says Tatum.  “He was an actor from ‘jump.’  He knew what he was supposed to be doing and then he played with it.  Every once in a while he would do something totally wild and spontaneous and beautiful – it was just magic.  I wish I could be that free acting.  I know how hard his parents have worked with him, and on set I got to talk to his dad, who’s so proud of him.”

The casting agents found Braeden through Phil Blevins, executive director at Carolina Autism, a non-profit agency that provides services to people with autism in South Carolina and consults to groups nationwide.  After discussing their goals with Blevins, they asked if he knew any boys who might be up to the challenge.  “Braeden came to mind,” Blevins says.  “We’d been working with him since he was two.  After his diagnosis, his parents asked if we could help set up some programs to help maximize his potential, to get him involved with his family, with teachers, with the world.  So after speaking to the director of his therapy, who seemed to think that he would do well with direction – she’d been working with him for four years on taking directions – I told the filmmakers, ‘I do know a boy that you might want to meet.’”

“During the audition process,” says Bowen, “we learned that Braeden’s a naturally gifted actor.  He knows his lines, but he also finds other interesting colors in the scene and keeps our actors on their toes, compelling them to react in a real way.”

Hallström, who has guided rich and beautiful performances from children throughout his career, says, “Braeden brought his own personality to the part – it was quite an experience.  He was fearless and lacked that inhibition that many kids have in front of the camera.  He was charming, always inventive and always unpredictable in a good way.”

The cast and crew found Braeden to be professional and enthusiastic.  Amanda Seyfried and Henry Thomas were the two actors who worked most closely with the boy.  Says Seyfried, “Braeden learns his lines, practices, and comes on set and performs them flawlessly.  Then, if he’s told to change things around, he’ll decide what he’s going to do.  It’s so liberating to be able to be so free and so open with whatever happens.”

Thomas says, “Braeden does spontaneous things that I’d incorporate into the scene.  It provided an interesting way of working that I’ve never done before.  It breathed a lot of life into the lines on the pages.”

WISH YOU WERE HERE…

Dear John was shot almost entirely within and around the beautiful and historic city of Charleston, South Carolina.  The varied architecture and rich landscape provided settings for Savannah’s beach house (Sullivan’s Island), the pier where the lovers meet (Isle of Palms) and the beach where they argue (Folly Beach).  The actual Bowens Wharf Restaurant, the site of their first date, and Mr. Tyree’s house, where John grew up, are on James Island.  Savannah writes and receives John’s letters at the historic Randolph Hall at the College of Charleston (where scenes from The Notebook, Cold Mountain, and The Patriot were also filmed), and her parents’ home and horse farm is the Cassina Point Plantation in Edisto.

When we were looking for Savannah’s parents’ house,” says Bowen, “we wanted a place that gave the audience a sense of family history – not necessarily their wealth, but the fact they’d been on this place for generations.  It was hard to find one that wasn’t grand and didn’t take your breath away, but we found a place that doesn’t feel ostentatious…and still takes your breath away.” 

According to Tecla Earnshaw (Cassina Point’s current owner), the house was built in 1847 by Carolina Lafayette Seabrook (of an old Edisto family) and her husband James Hopkinson of Philadelphia (grandson of Francis Hopkinson, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence for the state of NJ and the reputed designer of the Betsy Ross flag).  In its heyday the plantation raised the wildly popular sea-island cotton shipped to Europe.  The family lived in the house until 1861 when Port Royal fell to the Federal Navy and Confederate General Robert E. Lee ordered area families to evacuate.  Union troops occupied the island, leaving graffiti in the house’s basement.  After the Civil War, the family regained possession of the house and, although it now lived a much-lowered economic status, kept it from deterioration.  Electricity was installed in 1951. It remained in the family until 1987; its current owners, Tecla and Bill Earnshaw, who operated the house as a bed-and-breakfast for nine years, are only the third owners.  They continue to restore the house.

“I love South Carolina,” says Channing Tatum.  “I’m from the South, so I have an addiction with it.  The food, the people, the lifestyle.  It’s just so charming.  And the Southern fried chicken.  The seafood.  Barbeque.  Jim and Nick’s cheese muffins – they’re amazing.”

Amanda Seyfried loved South Carolina as well.  “The South is a whole different thing altogether,” she says.  “It’s got something – an energy.  It’s romantic.  It’s just so beautiful.  It brings something to a film you can’t get anywhere else in the world.”

The Charleston area provided logical locations for the scenes set in South Carolina, but a portion of Dear John takes place in foreign countries where soldier John serves.  “We had to create not only Charleston locations, but Germany, Afghanistan, Africa, the Congo and Eastern Europe – all in Charleston,” says production designer Kara Lindstrom.  “The biggest challenge was time and money.

The eastern European café is an abandoned elementary school in downtown Charleston.  The bombed-out Afghan village [where John is wounded] was shot at a partially demolished cement factory that looked like a bomb had actually hit it in Harleyville, SC, about an hour north of Charleston.  We had two different African locations:  a military installation on the Congo coast, which was built at Fort Moultrie, an historic site that played roles in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars (including the shelling of Fort Sumter), and a village complete with indigenous animals that was built along a piece of grassland at the cement factory up above the quarry.” 

“You have to be very creative to create locations from around the world in a localized area,” says Bowen.  “It took an incredibly talented production design team to be make audiences believe that they’re looking at Africa and not a fort just outside of Charleston.”

Director of photography Terry Stacey was inspired by the locations.  “When I first read the script,” Stacey says, “it felt like an old-fashioned classic like A Farewell To Arms, and that widescreen was the way to give the film an epic quality and capture the richness of the many different locations.  We wanted to create the world of Charleston as a very lush landscape, using a lot of big moving crane and stationary shots that contrast with the more raggedy, handheld and harsher war scenes.”

Dear John Index

Films in 2010

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