Message in a Bottle: About The Production

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About the Production...

When Nicholas Sparks' first novel, The Notebook, was published, it debuted with a splash and showed, in the jargon of the entertainment industry, "real legs." The tender love story spent more than a year on The New York Times list of Best Sellers and eventually sold more than 850,000 hardcover copies. When the author started his follow-up, the news quickly spread through the worlds of publishing and filmmaking.

Denise Di Novi remembers, "I received a copy of Nicholas' second book in galleys and it was only halfway finished; the final chapters were in outline form. But I knew from the first page that there was something very special here. I thought it was one of the most beautiful love stories that I had ever read."

Di Novi's excitement was contagious, and her enthusiasm (conveyed in a late night call to Warner Bros.' executives) was enough for the studio to make an offer on the book the following day; within hours, the property had been acquired. (As of December 1, 1998, the Warner Book novel Message in a Bottle was on its eighth printing with an impressive cumulative total of 636,000 copies; it remained on The New York Times list of Best Sellers for 28 weeks.)

Di Novi had such a firm conviction that the role of Garret should be filled by Kevin Costner that she dreamt about it. She notes, "I felt so strongly about it that the next morning, I spoke with Warners again and said, 'This is Kevin - it has to be him. It's his role.'"

Kevin Costner comments, "I think successful people visualize what has a strong possibility of happening. Lucky for me that first, Denise saw me in the role and that second, the material presented a story and a sensibility that I wanted to help realize on the screen."

For Costner, the story of a widower coming to terms with the past struck a resonant chord. He continues, "I thought the story was extremely emotional. 'Message' revolves around three people and their inability to reach out to each other, to bypass the wreckage and the walls that separate them."

With Costner signing on to play the role of Garret, filmmaker (and Costner's partner in his production company, Tig Productions) Jim Wilson also joined as producer, with Costner also producing.

Wilson says, "'Message in a Bottle" came to us - Kevin, me and the production company - first as a screenplay. The novel had not quite been completed. It is not a simple adaptation to translate something in book form to the screen. Any adaptation, I find difficult." (Wilson, along with Costner and writer Michael Blake, adapted the Academy Award-winning "Dances with Wolves" from novel to screenplay.)

He concludes, "What attracted us from the start was these three brilliantly written characters, and the fact that it was a love story in the most romantic sense. For the last decade or so, I've made some very large pictures, and I was really interested in the notion of making this picture - a very heartfelt dramatic story primarily using three actors."

Acknowledging the romantic aspects of the story, the three producers approached director Luis Mandoki. The filmmakers were familiar with his work ("When a Man Loves a Woman," "Gaby, A True Story") and, explains Di Novi, "had always wanted to work with Luis. All of us admired his direction of love stories and very emotional pieces."

The director remembers meeting with his future colleagues. "Denise, Jim and Kevin brought me the script and I read it and fell in love with it. It's a spiritual love story about two injured people with different pasts who meet...and then the dance starts."

Mandoki continues, "I like stories about people - the struggles they go through and the resulting transformations. 'Message' takes us into a story of intimacy that we all want in our lives, but seldom find. What's amazing to me is that this story, about the intersection of these lives, brought together such a talented group of people with similar ideas about how it could be brought to the screen."

Father and Son Reunion

As with most actors, Costner's interest in portraying the male lead stems from a rich character. "The character of Garret is a man that's been fashioned by his environment and the circumstances of his life; he's a boat builder and a widower, and his loner instincts have almost totally cut him off from everyone around him."

Integral to the story of Garret and Theresa is the one person who, despite Garret's attempts to isolate following his wife's death, keeps the widower linked to society - Garret's father, Dodge. To fill that role, Costner approached one of the industry's legendary talents, Paul Newman.

At his production office for the last ten years, Costner has displayed a poster of Newman's "Cool Hand Luke." Costner says, "That should tell you something about my admiration for his career and the impact he would have on this particular movie. He's one of those guys in the business that everyone points to. I've modeled a lot of the things I've done after him without knowing him or having worked with him. This role matched up with Paul and where he is at this point in his career - we were very lucky."

Wilson remembers, "The minute Paul signed on, Kevin walked around with this big grin on his face. Both the actors and the characters they're portraying are cut from the same cloth."

Newman himself is somewhat pragmatic about his choice of material. He says, "There comes a time, when I haven't worked for awhile, that I begin to get nervous and think that no one will knock on the door again. But I really like to work, and this very good script came at the right time for me. People always ask me, 'How do you choose your parts?' I say, 'I haven't the slightest idea.' It's a visceral thing that happens. With 'Message in a Bottle,' it was a great part. I liked that Dodge is a complicated combination of distance and affection."

The intricacies of the relationship between father and son also interested Newman. He continues, "I believe that both Dodge and his son have lived lives of excess. Dodge has fully explored all of the possibilities of booze. And Garret is excessive in the way he clings to his memories. So the question for both of them becomes whether you live in yesterday or whether you live in tomorrow. It's that struggle that seems to confound them both."

Costner is more specific in his assessment of Garret's and Dodge's problems. He says, "It's a father/son relationship that's been bruised. It's been going on between fathers and sons forever - the ability to communicate beautifully at some times and the inability to understand one another at other times."

The key to Garret's future happiness may lie in the hands of Theresa, a woman who has closed herself off from the world in her own way. Filmmakers were in agreement when it came to filling the role.

Costner comments, "I first saw Robin Wright Penn in 'State of Grace.' She burned up the screen at her first entrance, and I utterly believed her, the essence of her. In order for the story of 'Message' to work, we needed to find an actress that you don't question in the part. Robin is an extremely serious and talented actress who is underexposed in the best sense - she's a refreshing face and that works for us. Robin just seemed on everyone's mind from the start."

Wright Penn is very selective about her film projects, but she was drawn to "Message in a Bottle." The actress explains, "I don't think we've seen a pure love story in a very long time. I like the fact that there is a spiritual connection to someone before meeting them, and a self-fulfilled prophecy toward that kind of love."

The spiritual connection between the characters that moved the director and Di Novi also appealed to their Theresa. Wright Penn continues, "Theresa's first connection is to Garret's words, which come directly from the author's heart. That opens her spirit and makes her want to begin this search and because of her inquisitive nature and the draw of this man's words, the search takes her over completely."

The journalist's drive and her ensuing search are enough to override her customarily cautious approach to life. She elaborates, "Initially, Theresa is not a risk-taker. In a way, she's been let down by the circumstances of her life, her divorce. She was hurt so badly by a man she trusted that she seems to have made a conscious decision to never allow herself to be vulnerable again. What starts out as a potential newspaper story for her becomes the key to re-opening her heart."

Just because a filmmaker has three accomplished actors does not ensure success. "We are lucky on several counts," says Mandoki. "Not only are we in awe of each of these actor's individual performances, but, more importantly, we have amazing on-screen chemistry between the three of them. The fact that Kevin and Paul have wanted to work with each other is quite apparent, and Robin easily holds her own in the mix."

Di Novi, Wilson, Costner and Mandoki continued their own exhaustive searches to complete casting of the supporting roles, with John Savage, Illeana Douglas, Robbie Coltrane and Jess James adding to talented roster of Costner, Wright Penn and Newman.

A Tale of Two Cities

Elemental to the story of Theresa and Garret are the two divergent worlds they each inhabit. It was essential that each world ring true, so filmmakers and production designer Jeffrey Beecroft set about creating a heightened reality - full detailed and functional sets that were also cinematic.

When audiences meet Theresa, it is her job as a researcher that defines much of her as a person, so filmmakers, striving for authenticity, arranged an alliance with the Chicago Tribune - the first time in more than ten years that the award-winning newspaper has allowed its name and image to be utilized in a feature film.

After his first visit to the Chicago building, Beecroft realized immediately that he didn't want to reproduce the offices; the workaday environment needed to be refashioned for cameras. He remembers, "The Tribune has your usual corporate offices with panels and walls separating employees. We wanted our offices to be very neoclassic, and we needed them to reflect the characters much more efficiently. We needed offices without panels or walls - yet with lots of layers."

Filmmakers wanted viewers to see that Theresa Osborne lives in a very congested, busy world; she's a single mother in a busy metropolis, a recent divorcee, a researcher and valuable co-worker for a large urban newspaper. To portray this, Beecroft employed layering - panels of glass walls layered over more glass; reams of papers, documents and books spread over employees' desks; desks beside more desks. "All this layering, all this 'busy-ness,' shows Theresa's stimulating, full work life, all the while conflicting with the isolation and stagnation of her personal life," comments the designer.

Even though the offices were re-created for the film, the reality of the paper's headquarters was always kept in mind. Beecroft went so far as to photograph the panoramic view from the 18th floor of the Tribune's Chicago building - both day and night - so that the images could be blown up to 20-foot curtain backdrops and placed behind the windows of his newsroom set. Filmgoers will be provided with a perfectly matched view of the Chicago skyline.

Director of photography Caleb Deschanel utilized forced perspective, bringing the images surrounding Theresa much closer and highlighting her isolation in the center of her fast-paced existence. Beecroft also inserted an atrium into the middle of the newspaper research offices so that Deschanel could shoot through more panels of glass and bring the passing of the seasons inside.

Construction of the newspaper set took place in a warehouse in Los Angeles, where crews converted the structure into a soundstage then erected steel scaffolding from which the newsroom ceiling and office wall panels were suspended. This construction allowed filmmakers the flexibility of shooting intimate scenes in any of the enclosed offices by flying out walls to make room for actors, crew, cameras, lighting and sound equipment. In addition to the soundstage work, location shooting was also completed in Chicago.

In stark contrast to Theresa's world, Garret lives on a small island in the Outer Bankd of North Carolina, where the town's inhabitants exist on the bounty and recreational opportunities provided by the sea. The beautiful coastline of Maine was chosen as a stand-in for the chain of islands off the North Carolina coast, utilizing various cities near the maritime town of Bath, including New Harbor, Boothbay Harbor and Popham Beach. In addition to the picturesque locations, the towns offered locals renowned for their boat building expertise.

Among the Maine locations, Beecroft discovered a small beachfront home in Popham Beach, which was extensively renovated to become Garret's home. The house, with its isolation, reinforces Garret's separation from society while the ever-present water behind the dwelling is a constant reminder of his passion.

Chet's Diner (where the loner Garret breakfasts each morning) is actually Shaw's Wharf in New Harbor, Maine. The diner was remodeled to become a ruddy, raw environment where men, who make their life from the sea, feel comfortable socializing and eating before heading out for their catch of the day. This site, as with the house in Popham Beach, was optimal because of its proximity to the water and its natural relation to its surroundings.

"Garret, in contrast to Theresa, lives in a flat, open, simple world - a horizontal environment," says Beecroft. "That's why he can't survive in an urban, vertical city like Theresa's. Garret needs simplicity in his life, which is why he has such a tough time on his trip to Chicago - it's too busy, too complex for his simple, clear spirit."

The complications of filming on open water in a variety of weather conditions challenged the filmmakers. "We tried to control what we could in terms of shooting on smooth waters, but some scenes simply had to be shot on the open sea," explains Mandoki. The unpredictability of the weather was one of the biggest obstacles that the production had to overcome.

At the end of the filming in Los Angeles, the filmmakers minimized their meteorological aggravation by recreating a major storm sequence in a water tank on the backlot at Universal. The company enlisted a jet engine, several massive fans, rain grid and a handful of wave runners to photograph two large sailboats in the midst of a treacherous and windy ocean storm.

"These are the types of scenes that Hollywood does best," says Wilson, "and I think that we have successfully created this illusion of a storm. When creative people are challenged and put their heads together, the result is often amazing. It's a little heady - we could actually outdo Mother Nature and always remain in complete control."

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