'Last Song' sparked Nicholas Sparks novel

9:00 AM PST 03/19/2010 by Martin A. Grove, AP

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We're so used to movies based on books that it's a novel idea for a book to be inspired by a film.

Case in point: Touchstone Pictures' "The Last Song" starring Miley Cyrus, opening March 31 via Disney, and Nicholas Sparks' novel of the same name.

When I asked Julie Anne Robinson, who makes her feature directorial debut with "Song," if she'd read Sparks' novel before signing on, she told me, "In fact, the book wasn't written. Nick wrote the screenplay before he wrote the book."

What happened is that Sparks, whose bestsellers include "The Notebook" and "A Walk to Remember," met Cyrus and that sparked the idea for her character in the father-daughter relationship drama. Sparks and co-writer Jeff Van Wie went on to develop the film's story and write the screenplay.

"Then we started prepping the movie," Robinson explained, "and he went away and wrote the novel. So it's not a movie based on a novel."

Set in a small southern beach town, "Song" is about an estranged father (Greg Kinnear) spending the summer with his teenage daughter (Cyrus), who'd rather be home in New York. His effort to reconnect with her is through music, the one thing they have in common.

Before coming to Hollywood, Robinson directed for London theater companies like the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Court and the National Theatre as well as for the BBC and other U.K. television channels.

Why was "Song" right for her first feature?

"My strengths as a director lie in getting great performances. So the possibilities for working with actors and getting them to emotional places was the main thing that attracted me."

When she came on board in May, "Song's" screenplay was in the early stages and Cyrus was attached.

Robinson worked with Sparks to shape the project: "When I was in theater I worked a lot with writers and on new plays. It's a part of the process that I really love."

Sparks, she pointed out, knows "how people think and what makes them tick. He has a kind of profound understanding of that. I think that's why he's such a successful novelist."

Cyrus brought star power to the project, but also posed some timing challenges because she was busy finishing shooting her Disney Channel show "Hannah Montana."

"We were backing into that date because she was going straight off onto a world tour. We had a very specific period of time in which to shoot this movie. Things like re-shoots would have been very difficult for us because of Miley's availability."

Production got under way in mid-June for 46 days on Georgia's Tybee Island.

"We scouted four states to find this location. The production designer, Nelson Coates, and I were looking around Georgia. We just fell in love with Georgia. We found this amazing house. That was what clinched our decision because the house is the main location for the movie."

"Song's" budget was only in the low $20 millions, Robinson said, and 46 days sounds generous but was a tight shoot because of restrictions on how many hours a day Cyrus, who was still a minor, could work.

"We had something like seven and a half hours on camera with her every day and she was in like 98% of the scenes in the movie."

There also were big weather challenges to deal with.

"There were thunderstorms almost every day that would close down the set. On a daily basis, I would be having heated discussions with the gaffer, who would be telling me there was lightning too close to the generator so we'd have to close it down and all our lights would have to go off."

Wind also posed problems, particularly while shooting a key beach scene with Cyrus, who despite sand blowing in her eyes, was a real trouper.

Robinson to Cyrus: "Look, Miley, I can't ask you to carry on here."

Cyrus (protesting): "No, Julie, I can do it. I want to carry on."

Much of the movie was shot at dusk, which Robinson says is unusual because "you have such a small window to shoot in. We would sometimes piece scenes together over four or five days at dusk."

Artistically, it gave "Song" an unusual look because people aren't used to seeing so much of a movie shot at dusk. It also made sense because Cyrus' hours were so limited that night shoots with her were very difficult to schedule.

"It was a challenge because we would have to stop shooting and then pick it up again the next night. In some cases we'd pick it up three weeks later and complete that scene because we were piecing it together in like 20-minute intervals at dusk when the light was right."

Although "Song" revolves around Cyrus, Robinson believes it will have broader appeal than just to women.

"Something I didn't expect happened when we started showing the movie to people. I found that 35-year-old men with daughters really respond to the movie maybe because it's not a story that's often told. They're quite emotionally affected by it."

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.com.
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