The Last Song is Nicholas Sparks’ 15th published book, and the first to make it to the big screen within the initial year of its publication. There are a lot of firsts involved here – it’s also the first time he has written the screenplay for one of his novels and the first time he’s written a character with an actress in mind – Miley Cyrus.
In the movie Cyrus plays Ronnie Miller, a rebellious teenager who is forced to stay the summer with her estranged father Steve (Grey Kinnear), who hopes he can bridge the gap in their relationship through the only thing they have in common – music.
Julie Anne Robinson, who helms the movie, directed the critically acclaimed BBC pilot Viva Blackpool as well as the BAFTA-nominated TV movie Coming Down the Mountain. Her television credits in the US include episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, Pushing Daisies, Weeds and Big Love.
I spoke with both Nicholas Sparks and Julie Anne Robinson about The Last Song at Casa del Mar Hotel on the beach in Santa Monica, California.
Can you talk about how you got involved with this project?
Nicholas Sparks: It was interesting. I was approached in June 2008 by Off-Spring Entertainment. Disney was working with Miley Cyrus, they had a two movie deal, she was going to do Hannah Montana for the first one, and through the grapevine she said she may want to do something like A Walk to Remember (a movie taken from a novel by Sparks). They asked if I had anything.
I really spent most of the summer (writing) the story primarily as a novel, because either way that was the novel that was going to be written. I spoke to Miley, I got to input some things that she wanted specifically and didn’t want specifically in the film, came up with the story and presented it, and we all decided to go with it. For me there wasn’t much difference whether I wrote the novel first or the screenplay because it was the idea that came first.
What about writing it specifically for Miley
Nicholas Sparks: I knew if the film got made it would be Miley, but I was just really trying to make the best story I could with the most interesting characters that I could.
Both the screenplay and the novel were written with Miley very much in mind. But I write to write a great story and I had to balance those things. The finished product is definitely not a Hannah Montana movie. It’s an ensemble piece with a talented cast that will appeal to audiences of all ages. Ronnie is a really compelling female character going through things that a lot of teenagers are going through. She’s forced to really grow and mature through the course of the film.
What was it about this project that attracted you?
Julie Anne Robinson: It reminded me of classic films like Splendor in the Grass. The Last Song is about forgiveness and redemption, about people who were once separated being brought together, and it’s about love. It’s about the fragility of human relationships and also how those fragile bonds, once broken, can be mended.
It’s a very simple story, but the actors have to go on huge journeys emotionally. Nick Sparks has a profound understanding of human emotions. He’s laid it all out for them to go through the whole range of emotional experiences on screen.
My response to the material was greatly affected by the fact that I’m a parent. You see parents making mistakes in this film. When you are a child, you expect your parents to be perfect and when you’re a parent, you realize you are just a person and you do make mistakes. That strand of the story really resonated with me and I think everyone will understand and relate to it.
How do you find the balance between drama and melodrama with an emotional story like this?
Nicholas Sparks: Julie Anne had a very strong sense of the ability to walk that fine line between drama and melodrama. In many ways it’s like writing a song, you almost feel these notes, and she had a very good sense (of what those notes should be).
When I was working with Off-Spring and they were talking about Julie Anne that was probably their main consideration, how she would work with Miley and can she walk this line? She’d done some amazing work at the BBC and that’s really why she was selected for this project, because they had faith that she could do that very well.
You’ve called The Last Song a love story.
Nicholas Sparks: But it’s not a romance novel. This is not a dreamy fantasy. It is about real love on a number of levels – the love between a parent and child, young love blooming for the first time, the fondness and caring between mature adults.
Can you talk about casting Greg Kinnear as Miley’s dad in this?
Julie Anne Robinson: With Greg Kinnear, I had a lot of long conversations with him in advance. We talked a lot about the script and the character because he is quite a cerebral actor.
But I would never rehearse with the young actors, even if I had all the time in the world. They can get bored and tired and the magic can be lost very quickly. I think what they give you instinctively is often right on the money.
What was it like working with Miley Cyrus?
Julie Anne Robinson: She has this amazing star quality. She just glows, and when she walks on the set, everybody knows it. Sometimes I cannot believe she’s 16 years old. She’s got a tremendous range.
How was it working on your first American movie?
Julie Anne Robinson: It was the best creative experience of my life. And I’ve had a lot of creative experiences that I’ve really enjoyed. The people involved with this process made it uniquely wonderful. They let me do my thing, which was great.