'Everyone Needs Forgiveness'
Despite the film's name, The Last Song—which opens this week—marks several firsts for bestselling author Nicholas Sparks. A number of his novels have been adapted into movies, including The Notebook, Message in a Bottle, and A Walk to Remember, but this is the first time Sparks has written the screenplay himself. It's also the first of his 15 published works to make it to the big screen within the first year of publication, and the first time he's written a story with a particular actor in mind—in this case, Miley Cyrus.
For all these milestones, Sparks says he's most excited about the themes in The Last Song, a film that focuses on an estranged father and his teenage daughter, and the summer they spend trying to reconnect. "You've got faith, forgiveness, family," Sparks explains. "If you get it just right, these are themes that touch viewers, because they recognize them in their own lives."
These themes also reflect Sparks's Christian beliefs. "Nobody's perfect, except for Jesus. So if nobody's perfect, then everyone needs forgiveness for something they've done in the past," explains Sparks, who co-founded a Christian school with his wife and a friend, and calls his faith "fairly strong."
"This story taps into the fact that there's a universal need to be forgiven because you want to feel accepted, understood, and loved. It's the idea that, 'I'm not perfect, but from this moment forward I'm going to try my best to be better. I know I'm doomed to failure, but darn it, I'm going to try.' These struggles are universal. And that's what I try to write: stories that are universal."
The Miley Factor
While the universal themes in The Last Song are familiar territory for the bestselling novelist, the path to penning these themes was a bit unusual for him. The genesis of The Last Song was a conversation Sparks had with producer Jennifer Gibgot. She was looking for a film that would provide Miley Cyrus a more dramatic role than her wildly popular Hannah Montana character.
Cyrus was a big fan of Sparks' previous novels-turned-films The Notebook and A Walk to Remember and was hoping to star in something similar. "His work has great, positive messages," Cyrus says. "To me, the best thing is that kids love it, but it's also mature enough to appeal to adults. It's unusual to find that kind of balance." And for the singer/actress who's made a name for herself with a young fan base and is quickly approaching adulthood (she turns 18 in November), that balance is important.
"We've been planning when the transition would take place, when I would leave Hannah Montana behind and do something else," Cyrus says. "I have to be careful that I don't lose the Miley Cyrus factor by doing other characters. But I also want to extend my audience and give myself new challenges and not be the same character over and over."
So she met with Sparks several times to discuss her role in The Last Song, sharing specific desires for the character. The result is Ronnie Miller, a recent high school grad whose parents are divorced, who's recently gotten in trouble with the law, and who, in her fog of teenage angst, has given up on her talents at the piano and her plans to attend Julliard. At the outset of the film she's been forced to leave her home in New York City to spend the summer (along with her younger brother) with her estranged father in his small Southern beach town.
"Both the screenplay and the novel were written with Miley very much in mind," Sparks says. "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."