Dear John - Director Lasse Hallström and Channing Tatum
Director Lasse Hallström and John Tyree (Channing Tatum) on the set © Screen Gems

Swedish director Lasse Hallström has been nominated for two Academy Awards as Best Director for My Life as a Dog, and The Cider House Rules.

Nothing in his eclectic career, which also includes What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, with Leonardo DiCaprio, Casanova with Heath Ledger, An Unfinished Life with Robert Redford and Chocolat, with Johnny Depp, could indicate that he would end up directing a romantic drama based on the Nicholas Sparks’ novel, Dear John.

The movie tells the story of John Tyree (Channing Tatum) a soldier in the Special Forces who is visiting his father (Richard Jenkins) in South Carolina, when he meets Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried), an idealistic college student home for spring break. As their romance grows, John must decide between his dedication to his career in the military, or his life with Savannah.

We spoke with Lasse Hallström about this new chapter in his career.

With Nicholas Sparks material there’s a problem of it becoming a little sentimental for the big screen.

Dear John - Director Lasse Hallström
Director Lasse Hallström on the set © Screen Gems

I appreciate your view of it, but the number one challenge for me is to try to walk that line, and not step into sentimentality when I don’t have to.

If I have contributed here at all, having stayed on the right side of the line, I think it’s because we’ve been trying to be as honest as possible with the performances and material, because I think the trick to avoiding a sappy take on it was avoiding sentimentality.

I worked hard to make it real. And also there’s a sense of humor here and there that may not be in the novel. It’s my addition to it to make it more real, because life is more like a drama comedy than anything else.

Dear John - Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried
John Tyree (Channing Tatum) and Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried) © Screen Gems

Could you talk about the casting for these roles?

I didn’t know Channing Tatum at all. He had already been picked when I was picked, and Amanda Seyfried was one of several ladies that we auditioned. And she just turned out to be the best one, it was really an asset to have someone who was unpredictable and who was also able to avoid sentimentality and one-dimensional cliché choices.

She has a wonderful offbeat sense of humor that was helpful in avoiding sentimentality,

Which is more important to you the story or the characters?

It’s really the characters. I have been avoiding plot-driven stories because I tend to sacrifice character for plot.

Any story that brings people who have that irrational human behavior and maybe seem odd but ring-true emotionally, when you have that, I’m drawn into it. I get excited about making the film.

Dear John - Director Lasse Hallström
Director Lasse Hallström on the set © Screen Gems

Why does Nicholas Sparks attract so many filmmakers?

Well for me, it’s the strong emotion, and it has his epic scope. It’s the kind of film that I would want to go see. It takes me other places and it brings me to entertain and to move.

There’s a Swedish phrase that I’m trying to translate, but it doesn’t sound right (laughs). And to touch people and to amuse people, I guess.

Have you ever done a battle sequence before?

No, not like this; I did something In a Swedish movie, but not on this scale.

Dear John - Amanda Seyfried and Channing Tatum
Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried) and John Tyree (Channing Tatum) © Screen Gems

Did Channing bring some military training from his role in GI Joe?

Yeah. I’m really impressed by Channing. He’s a fantastic actor. I’m really so proud of what he does. He hasn’t done anything like this before.

What was it like working with him, as you didn’t get to choose him?

I just loved him. As you’ll see, he’s the most charming, outgoing and gregarious guy you can imagine. You saw it right away. He just had a lot of fun and he’s easygoing, all those wonderful things. And he and Amanda had a good chemistry going.

Dear John - Channing Tatum and Richard Jenkins
John Tyree (Channing Tatum) and Mr Tyree (Richard Jenkins) © Screen Gems

Channing had a great chemistry with Richard Jenkins too. Their scenes were extremely moving, what did Richard bring to them?

He’s such a smart actor. He knows exactly how to approach the part by instinct and by brains. He’s so impressive to watch.

When you were filming that scene in the hospital, was there a dry eye on the set? Was it difficult to shoot?

Basically we were trying to get it right. You can’t really get all the way there, but later on when you see it put together, you can sort of imagine what it could bring to an audience.

In an age when e mail and texting are really taking over communications, is writing actual letters dated in this film?

I think it’s pushed a little bit, and I think it’s explained that in Africa there is no connection. But probably there would have been some e-mailing.

Did you ever consider changing the ending?

I liked what Nicholas Sparks had, and I wanted to protect that and not have an entirely happy ending but the sense that they might end up in a sequel. Who knows?


Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.