Q & A with Director Julie Anne Robinson

(L to R) Liam Hemsworth, Miley Cyrus <br />Photo: Sam Emerson SMPSP<br />© Touchstone Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

(L to R) Liam Hemsworth, Miley Cyrus
Photo: Sam Emerson SMPSP
© Touchstone Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading filmmakers Martin Grove talks to director Julie Anne Robinson about her new Touchstone Pictures drama “The Last Song”, starring Miley Cyrus, Liam Hemsworth and Greg Kinnear, opening Mar. 31 via Disney.

Directed by Julie Anne Robinson, “The Last Song” was written by Nicholas Sparks & Jeff Van Wie. It was produced by Adam Shankman and Jennifer Gibgot and executive produced by Tish Cyrus. Best-selling novelist Nicholas Sparks (“A Walk to Remember”, “The Notebook”) wrote “The Last Song” as a novel after first writing the film’s screenplay. The book is his 15th and the first of his books to reach the screen within the first year of publication. Starring are Miley Cyrus, Liam Hemsworth, Kelly Preston, Greg Kinnear and Bobby Coleman.

“The Last Song” is set in a small southern beach town where an estranged father (Greg Kinnear) gets a chance to spend the summer with his reluctant teenage daughter (Miley Cyrus), who’d rather be home in New York. He tries to reconnect with her through music, the only thing they have in common, in a story of family, friendship, secrets and salvation along with first loves and second chances.

Julie Anne Robinson began her career in the theater in London at The Royal Shakespeare Company, The Royal Court and The Royal National Theatre, working on a wide variety of productions. This led to positions working with directors Stephen Daldry and Sam Mendes. Her international directing work includes productions in Slovenia (British Council Fellowship), the Middle East, Australia and Italy.

Transitioning to feature films, Robinson was granted a privileged place in the highly acclaimed BBC director’s training course, which led to work with the BBC. Within two years of making the move to working behind the camera, she directed episodes of the Golden Globe-nominated television series “Viva Blackpool”, which introduced her to American audiences and led to a position at Channel 4/ Film 4 working under producer Tessa Ross (an executive producer of such films as “Billy Elliott” and “Slumdog Millionaire”).

Robinson made her American debut directing the Emmy-winning television series “Grey’s Anatomy”. This led to other work with ABC, Showtime and HBO, including directing the ABC pilot for the hit comedy “The Middle”. In the U.K. Robinson directed the high profile BBC mini-series “Coming Down the Mountain”, starring Nicholas Hoult.

Q: What was it about “The Last Song” that made you feel it was what you wanted to do as your first feature film?
A: I always think my strengths as a director lie in getting great performances. I was a theater director for a long time before I started working in TV. So obviously the possibilities for working with actors and getting them to emotional places was really offered to me with “The Last Song”. That was the main thing that attracted me.
Q: Were you familiar with the book by Nicholas Sparks?
A: In fact, the book wasn’t written. Nick wrote the screenplay before he wrote the book. He came up with the idea for (the character) Ronnie and then went and met Miley and talked to her about it. He with his co-writer, Jeff Van Wie, came up with the story and wrote the screenplay. And then we started prepping the movie and he went away and wrote the novel. So it’s not a movie based on a novel.
Q: So it’s a novel based on a movie.
A: Exactly. It’s very rare.
Q: When did this all happen?
A: I came on board in May last year. I’d just finished shooting a pilot and I came straight off the pilot into that feature.
(L to R) Liam Hemsworth, Miley Cyrus <br />Photo: Sam Emerson SMPSP<br />© Touchstone Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

(L to R) Liam Hemsworth, Miley Cyrus
Photo: Sam Emerson SMPSP
© Touchstone Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Q: Had the screenplay already been written?
A: It was in the early stages. It was still being formed at the point when I came on board.
Q: Was Miley attached then?
A: Yes, Miley was attached. In fact, it was a piece written specifically for Miley.
Q: So going in you had a Nicholas Sparks screenplay and Miley Cyrus.
A: We worked on it to shape it and develop it and get it to the screen.
Q: What was that process like? How did you and Nick Sparks work together?
A: I’ve done a lot of development work in my time. 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. You come with your ideas about structure and you discuss them with the writer and you reach a place where you feel it’s in good shape to be shot. It was just like any other process really. It was really wonderful to work with Nick on it. He’s somebody who really understands 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.

So hopefully I could bring something with my background of developing plays. Also, I’ve developed pilots. I developed a movie in the U.K. for the BBC called “Coming Down the Mountain” (a 2007 drama starring Nicholas Hoult and Tommy Jessop). I worked with a novelist called Mark Haddon there so I’ve worked with a novelist before on a screenplay.
Q: How long did it take to get the project ready to shoot?
A: We were backing into a shoot date with Miley because she’s so busy. She was finishing shooting her (Disney Channel) TV show “Hannah Montana”. It was June 10th or something. We were backing into that date because she was going straight off onto a world tour. So 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.
Q: When did you start shooting?
A: It was mid-June and it was a 46 day shoot. We shot on a place called Tybee Island in Georgia. We scouted four states to find this location. The production designer, Nelson Coates, and I were looking around Georgia. It was an even choice between Georgia and another state. We just kind of fell in love with Georgia. It’s so lush and beautiful and we found a house. That was the key thing for us. We found this amazing house and fell in love with it. That was what clinched our decision because the house is the main location for the movie.
Q: I understand that Georgia has good tax incentives for shooting movies there. Was that a factor, too?
A: It was a factor, but it wasn’t the factor, if you know what I mean. Everybody wanted what was best for the movie and it just happened that Georgia offered us so much that we needed for the movie. It’s got such a wide variety of possibilities and textures and it has so many different facets. I think there’s been a blossoming of moviemaking since we were there. When we were there we were the first movie in 10 years, I believe, to actually shoot in Savannah and Tybee. But a number of movies have gone there since.
Q: What sort of budget did you have?
A: It was in the 20s (the $20 millions) — in the early 20s. Relatively speaking a low budget.
Miley Cyrus <br />Photo: Sam Emerson SMPSP<br />© Touchstone Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Miley Cyrus
Photo: Sam Emerson SMPSP
© Touchstone Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Q: Was 46 days enough of a shooting schedule?
A: Our issue was that Miley was a minor when we were shooting so we had something like seven and a half hours on camera with her every day. And she was the lead. She was in like 98 percent of the scenes in the movie. She was carrying the movie. That gave us very specific shooting issues that we had to deal with. We had to work out the most economical way of shooting this movie within those time constraints. So although 46 days might sound generous, it was actually quite a squeeze at the end of the day.

We also had big weather considerations, especially toward the ends of the shoot. 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 down the generator and all our lights would have to go off. And I would be saying, “What do you mean? We need to keep shooting!” The clouds that came in are just monstrous and amazing. We shot some of them and actually used them in the movie.
Q: How was it working with Miley?
A: She’s terrific. She’s such a professional. She’s been doing this for a long time and she’s very, very motivated and talented. For example, there was one scene we were shooting and the weather was turning against us a little. It was on the beach and sand was being blown directly into her eyes. It was very difficult conditions for all of us, including the camera operator, who was carrying a steadicam, but for her particularly because the sand was being blown directly into her face and it’s kind of a pivotal scene in the movie.

We were shooting and at one point I said, “Look, Miley, I can’t ask you to carry on here.” We were up against time. Everybody knew that, but I felt it was unfair to ask her to keep acting under those conditions. And she said, “No, Julie, I can do it. I want to carry on.” And that was typical of her, really. I spoke to a lot of people who’ve worked with her and they all have the reaction when they talk about working with her. She’s a real solid professional who wants to power through and get it right.
Q: Any other big challenges that you faced in production?
A: Well, if you look at the movie you might notice that there’s quite a lot of dusk shooting, which 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 gives the movie an unusual look because people aren’t used to seeing so much of a movie shot at dusk. From a time point of view it makes sense, as well, because Miley’s hours were limited so it was difficult to shoot with her at night sometimes. So it led to a number of dusk scenes, which I really like. But it was a challenge because we would have to stop shooting and then pick it up again and then pick it up 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.
Q: Your film is a father-daughter relationship story. We see so many movies that are father-son relationships, but this is rather unusual. Of course, we saw last year that women were a great moviegoing audience and so having women as a core audience could be good news at the boxoffice for “The Last Song”.
A: I certainly thought that when we were making it, but something that 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 and that was certainly something I never expected. I’m hoping the demographics will broaden beyond women only.
Q: Coming back to Nicholas Sparks’ book, I should think that it will be helpful in driving interest in the movie.
A: It was a number one best-seller. There was a woman on the airplane when I was flying back (recently) from Albuquerque. She was sitting next to me and she was reading “The Last Song” and so I said, “Oh, that’s great. Are you enjoying that book?” And she said, “Oh, yes, I love it. I’m definitely going to see the movie.” So there’s strong hope.
Q: I understand that you were in Albuquerque scouting locations for your next project.
A: I’m doing a pilot for ABC starring Virginia Madsen, who’s a wonderful actress. I’m so excited about that. It’s called “Scoundrels” (a comedic drama based on a New Zealand series called “Outrageous Fortune”).

It’s really well written by two writers from “Nip/Tuck”Lyn Greene and Richard Levine (who are the series’ showrunners and executive producers). They’re really gifted terrific writers. I’m very lucky to be working with them. I’m going to start shooting on the 16th of March (which was a few weeks in the future when we spoke).