Production Notes – “The Notebook”

New Line Cinema
Published: 2004

The writing studio the art of writing and making films adaptation The Notebook
Oscar-winning producer Mark Johnson and producer Lynn Harris, who at the time was a production executive at New Line Cinema, first read Nicholas Sparks’ novel The Notebook in galley form and went on to spend seven years developing it together as a feature film. During this time, the book shot onto the New York Times Best Seller list, where it remained for almost a year. “I loved the idea of it and the romance of it, but what I especially liked was the idea of a love story that has not just one big, explosive moment, but that has this endurance,” Johnson recalls.

Director Nick Cassavetes also responded to the book when he too read the galleys. “The interesting thing about the books Nicholas Sparks writes is that they’re these lush romances about enduring love …and yet there’s always a strong element of tragedy and loss,” notes the director.

Rachel McAdams plays 17 year-old Allie Hamilton, who stays at her family’s estate in Seabrook prior to heading off to her first year of college in New York. “Allie is a debutante in every sense of the word – etiquette classes, tennis lessons, ballet, French, Latin and math tutors, and all sorts of different studies,” describes McAdams. “She’s athletic, proper and tony. But she also has a passion for painting, which is something no one but Noah encourages in her.”

Noah comes into Allie’s life and, as McAdams notes, is a refreshing change from the types of people she’s used to flocking with. “He’s such a contrast to what she has been exposed to – a man of the earth who makes things with his hands,” she says. “He’s really interesting and exciting to her, and contrary to everything with which she is familiar.”

But Allie’s mother, Ann, played by acclaimed actress Joan Allen, does not approve. “She is a strong, wealthy Southern woman who has beautiful things, and a daughter that she has devoted 17 years to raising,” Allen describes. “She wants only the best for her daughter.”

While the headstrong Allie resists her mother’s efforts to keep her apart from Noah, Ann endures it, but only for the summer. “I think Ann’s relationship with her daughter is very loving, and I think they get along great,” comments Allen, “but it’s the 1940’s and it’s the South. There is an authoritarian stream that runs through families and the culture. But at the same time, we all need romance in our lives, and we all need to believe that this kind of thing can work out. That’s in our essential human nature.”

As their summer draws to a close, Allie is whisked away to school, Noah is soon recruited to fight overseas in World War II, and his frequent letters to her never reach their target. When Noah ultimately returns home from the war, he finds himself still haunted by memories of Allie, and begins restoring a plantation home that resonates with the promises they made to each other during their summer together.

Like a puzzle within a puzzle, their youth is only the beginning of the compelling love story at the heart of The Notebook. Comments novelist Nicholas Sparks, on whose book the film is based, “I think the idea of reunion goes back to all those thoughts that people have about ‘what would’ve happened if?’ Everybody has a first love. Nobody goes through the world without loving something. And you go back and wonder, ‘what if?’ This story plays into that. Frequently people are not what you remember, but sometimes they are exactly what you remember, and you realize that is what you were looking for all along. There’s a tendency for people to believe that young love isn’t real, but of course it’s real.”

James Garner stars as Duke, the elderly man Noah Calhoun has become, who tends to his great love after she has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. After her diagnosis, Allie became determined to write the story of her life and love in her notebook, and Duke, as her disease progresses, reads it to her. “Keeping a journal is a really poetic way of remembering and keeping track of your life and your emotions,” comments producer Mark Johnson.

“Duke is madly in love with Allie,” James Garner notes. “And as she becomes more removed from reality, he keeps reading to her. And every once in a while, she comes out of her Alzheimer’s, and remembers it, which the doctors say you can’t do, of course … but she does. He brings her back, even it’s only for a few minutes.”

“Memories are interesting,” says director Nick Cassavetes. “How do they shape human beings? I think it’s different for everybody, and it depends on where you are in your life. If you’re a young person, your memories are not that important to you because your entire life is in front of you. But as you get older, and certainly as you get to the latter part of your life, memories become everything because they are really mostly what you have. So, for people that have Alzheimer’s,” he adds, “it’s not only just taking their memories or experiences away from them, it’s taking everything they’ve got away from them. And I think that would be the most precious thing in the world to lose.”

Cassavetes feels that, in many ways, The Notebook is a portrait of love itself. “It’s tough. It’s certainly not always pretty. It certainly can drive you crazy at times,” he reflects. “But part of the very nature of love, or what we like to think of as love, is that it endures. And what I’m doing with this movie, what I’d like to step out and say is, ‘I believe in love, I believe in the biggest kind of love, I believe that I can love an incredible amount, and I believe it can all work out.'”

The son of celebrated actor/director John Cassavetes and the Oscar-nominated star of many of his films, Gena Rowlands, Nick Cassavetes has been called the quintessential actor’s director. “I expect a lot of my actors,” he says. “I give a lot and I expect a lot.”

Gena Rowlands, who portrays the adult Allie, feels that both her son and late husband “genuinely and actively have a love of actors,” she comments. “They both beam. Nicky’s a little tougher about holding you to an exact line. But he creates a very nice climate for acting, and he’s got a very good eye.”
“I have never heard a director say, ‘Action, Mom’ before,” muses producer Mark Johnson. “She treated him like her director, but as professional as he was, we were very much aware she was his mother.”
Johnson has the highest of praise for director Cassavetes. “He is an actor himself and comes from pretty impressive bloodlines,” he says.

Cassavetes first directed his mother in the 1996 film, Unhook the Stars. “Being directed by Nick is absolutely wonderful,” comments Rowlands. “I just love him as a director, and of course as a son. And it doesn’t seem that unusual because we did a lot of movies, his father and I. In the house, when the children were small, they all grew up stumbling over cameras and equipment. And I don’t think they had any awe of filmmaking – they developed a love of it.”

Rowlands’s co-star, James Garner, concurs. “Nick’s great…he’s just a big kid. He’s very confident in what he wants. He has a great relationship with people. And, growing up in that family, I think he’s probably been in it all his life. He’s a fine director and keeps a nice set. He knows just how to talk to actors.”

Rachel McAdams describes Cassavetes as “fierce and passionate. He’s very smart, and he’s also willing to listen to other ideas,” she describes. “Sometimes he pushed us really hard, but afterward you realized you’ve learned a great deal. It’s something that will be with you always – a life lesson.”

Though initially thrown off by Cassavetes’ style of not using a video assist monitor, Joan Allen ultimately found it an exciting part of the process. “He picks a spot because he likes to watch the action live,” she says. “It’s sweet that he likes to see it really happening in front of him. I’m kind of old fashioned, and I really like that. He likes to get very specific and original, and really thinks about what each moment means.”

When it came time to begin the casting process, Nick Cassavetes brought Ryan Gosling on board first. Says Gosling, “The Notebook was certainly different from anything else I’ve ever done. It gave me an opportunity to play a character over a period of time – from 1940 to 1946 – that was quite profound and formative. I felt that nobody would want me for a part like this except for Nick, because he’s crazy and brave enough to cast me. I knew I was not going to get another opportunity like that again.”

The filmmakers then conducted a nationwide search to find the right actress to play the young Allie. “When Rachel McAdams came in and read, it was apparent that she was the one,” Nick Cassavetes remembers. “She and Ryan had great chemistry between them.”

Gosling has high praise for his young co-star. “She just constantly delivers,” he says. “No matter how uncomfortable or challenging circumstances of filming might have gotten, she went toe to toe for every take. She just won over the whole crew with her drive – it was pretty impressive and motivating for all of us.”

McAdams fell in love with the story, and responded to the time periods in which the film unfolds. “It’s a beautiful love story that spans different periods of time, and you get to see it from the beginning to the end,” she says. “It’s very epic and has lots of ups and downs – the fighting, the joys, the sadness, the tragedy and the reuniting. It’s got all the good stuff that big, huge love stories possess.”

Gena Rowlands had always wanted to work with her co-star James Garner. “We’ve known each other for a long time, but we’ve never had the chance to work together,” she says. “That was a big plus for me. And then I loved the fact that it was being shot in Charleston and Georgetown, because I love South Carolina. Also,” adds Rowlands, “I just like the idea of a love story. You don’t see many of them these days…and particularly a love story that depends on a miracle that all of the doctors have said is an impossibility.”

Garner, too, has always admired Rowlands. “I love her acting. And then I got the script. I didn’t know Nick Cassavetes…but I figured if he came from that family, he’d be all right,” he says. “And he is!”
For acclaimed actor, writer and director Sam Shepard, it was the indelibility of the story that drew him to play Ryan Gosling’s father. “I think the most important thing is the enduring nature of love, and it’s something I think in this time that we don’t really value much,” he says. “Love is exterminated all the time; it’s turned over; it’s discarded; it’s thrown away. But I think there are still possibilities of love that endure not only through our time, but beyond that. It’s this enduring possibility, not just a temporary fling, but something that goes for a long, long time, and has reverberations down through the generations, too. That’s important.”

Filming The Notebook
The filmmakers searched tirelessly for the perfect place to film The Notebook, including North Carolina and Virginia. “The film called for a small Southern town with a peaceful, rural setting,” producer Mark Johnson remembers.

“Nicholas Sparks’ story is set in Newburn, North Carolina, but when we came to the Charleston area in South Carolina, we fell in love with it, and so we changed the locale of the movie,” Johnson continues. “There is an old adage about movie makers – you don’t see your own hometown. A foreigner will come in and shoot it way better than you might because they see the beauty which you’re callous to because you’re used to it and take it for granted. I looked out at all these beautiful spots – the old plantations – the incredible downtown architecture – all of the scenic potential of the area, and thought, ‘it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen in my life.’ And you come in and just kind of shoot the things you find beautiful here, the people with their accents, where they live and who they are and how much they love.”

“And the Low Country is exactly what the doctor ordered,” Johnson adds. “It’s also exactly what’s called for both by the book and in the script. Quite frankly, we found all of our locations in and around Charleston, and add to that, we had heard great reports from people who had shot here.”
Set amidst the austere beauty of the coastal Carolinas in the 1940’s, The Notebook was filmed almost entirely on location in South Carolina – in and around the cities of Charleston and Georgetown, on Edisto Island, at numerous sites on the Charleston Naval Base, at various lush South Carolina plantations and at Cypress Gardens in Berkeley County.

Besides its obvious appropriateness to the story, the decision to shoot The Notebook in South Carolina was based largely on the support, cooperation and expertise of the South Carolina Film Office, a division of the South Carolina Department of Commerce.

Big name Hollywood films are being made in the Low Country, and with Charleston as a movie backdrop, it creates it’s own unique attraction. Mark Johnson says, “I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I love to wander around downtown and explore, walk the cobblestone streets, marvel at the old, historic houses. Just the area itself is a great piece of history that’s used beautifully in our film.”

Rachel McAdams spent two months prior to shooting to get a real feel for the South. “Nick said it’s different here – there’s a different feeling, people are different, and the way girls are raised – especially debutantes — is very different,” she says. “Everything is so different for me as a Canadian, so spending time in Charleston prior to filming made a tremendous impact on me, and enabled me to get into character with ease.”

Sam Shepard is well aware of the textures of the South. “There’s this recurring theme in Southern literature: Tennessee Williams has it, Faulkner has it, everyone has this thing of the plantation; this thing of the old South; of the South that went down with Dixie. And it’s an incredible, powerful, and controversial nostalgia about place,” he says. “There are just so many ghosts down here. I’m not altogether superstitious, but I always feel that when I enter the South. That is, I think, one of the great crutches of Southern literature – that it already has this extraordinary past. They don’t have to invent anything.”

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