Screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg reveals all things Bella and Edward, and how helping to create one of fantasy's most popular film series opened her eyes.
The rule of thumb in Hollywood is that if you establish a big movie franchise, the first thing that usually gets replaced for the sequel is the screenwriter.
Yet the Twilight franchise has been an exception to this rule, with screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg staying on board to adapt all four Stephenie Meyer books, from “Twilight” to “Breaking Dawn” — the latter of which was broken into two films, with the second due out November 16. “We had a great team and worked so well together on the first film — and this continuity is not unusual in TV work,” says Rosenberg, whose previous gigs include writing and producing stints on Dexter and The O.C. “When you’re doing continuous storylines on a series, the writer is the constant. It’s the writer who tracks the story and characters. So [my staying with Twilight] wasn’t an unusual situation for me.”
Sitting comfortably in her Culver City, California, office, where she’s currently breaking stories on her new TV series Red Widow for ABC (which she adapted from the Dutch series Penoza), Rosenberg is thrilled to be embarking on a new chapter of her career, but is also grateful to have been part of a pop-culture phenomenon like Twilight. “When I started on the very first one, I had no idea what it would become,” she reveals. “I thought it was one and done. We knew we were building a franchise, but only sold it as a first one. Then it was the next two films, and then I thought the last one should go to someone else and then I was like, ‘Naahh, I’m going to write that, too.’ I got hooked on the storytelling.”
For those not familiar with the Twilight franchise (and it’s doubtful that you don’t know something about it even if you haven’t read the books or seen the movies), it’s the romantic story about a teen girl named Bella (Kristen Stewart) who falls in love with brooding vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), yet realizes she can’t be with him unless she commits to his vampire ways (and he doesn’t want her to). Also vying for her love is werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner). This triangle has also created whole factions of fans who categorize themselves as Team Edward or Team Jacob.
If Twilight, Eclipse and New Moon are about Bella finding out who she is and what she wants, the final chapter, Breaking Dawn (which is broken into two movies), is about her finally becoming an adult and realizing the one thing she’s desired to be — a vampire.
It doesn’t come easy, though. After getting hitched to Edward in Breaking Dawn – Part 1, the union of human and vampire results in an accelerated pregnancy. By having the baby, Bella would die, so Edward realizes the only way to save her is to make her a brooding vamp just like him.
In Part 2, everything hits the fan when their baby girl, Renesmee (Mackenzie foy), is misidentified as a child who has been turned into a vampire, not a half-human/half-vampire anomaly, so the vampire counsel, known as the Volturi, set out to destroy her. Jacob’s pack also senses that Renesmee poses a threat and plans on killing her, too (as Jacob goes against them and sets out to protect the child). With everyone on different sides, it’s up to the Cullen family vampire clan to protect Bella and the child.
“[Twilight] has a fairly rich genre mythology, but it is unapologetically a romance,” Rosenberg admits. “It wears its heart on its sleeve.”
Of course, Twilight has seriously divided genre fans, and critics have been particularly harsh when it comes to the franchise. Hell, even GEEK readers may be questioning why Twilight has made it into these pages (though, honestly, you can’t get geekier than Twilight). As for Rosenberg, she finds this decision to be particularly perplexing, especially when it fully embraces the audience that it was specifically designed for. “It’s a female fantasy, which perhaps is why it’s attracted so many critics, despite it being so popular,” Rosenberg says. “There is a great article by a Harvard administrator, Erika Christakis, who talks about the bigotry of Twilight haters. I’ve experienced firsthand the vitriol with which critics attack Twilight. It’s kind of astounding, really. Christakis talks about the female fantasy inciting derision, but the movies that are basically 13-year-old boy fantasies can be as bad, stupid, offensive, ridiculous as they want to be, and we’ve all seen plenty of those. critics will say, ‘Yeah it’s horrible. whatever, it’s for boys.’ But if you do something that appeals to girls— it’s a female fantasy, maybe it’s horrible, maybe it’s not, but it doesn’t matter, it is beneath contempt. anyone who likes it is ridiculed and certainly anyone who had anything to do with making it is the subject of scorn.”
In honor of the final chapter of Twilight hitting theaters, GEEK sat down with Rosenberg to chat about her six-year stint as the screenwriting gatekeeper of all things Twilight.
GEEK: When you first read the book, what was your initial reaction?
Rosenberg: I read the first novel in one sitting and was so compelled that I had absolutely wanted to do it. I’d been a fan of the genre for many years, starting with Anne Rice. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was one of the greatest television series of all time. So the genre was attractive to me and to play in that world was way too much fun. I was thrilled.
It was always about adapting the book. And there were things in the first book, like the evil vampires during the last quarter of the book, that structurally doesn’t play. So I moved that up and peppered them throughout as a growing threat. That horror element was there in the book; I just expanded on it and structured it differently.
What did you think of the actors the first time you saw them in the roles?
Certainly with Bella and Edward, that was brilliant casting. You could have the most popular book in the world, write the hell out of it, direct the hell out of it, but if you don’t have two people with chemistry, you don’t have a movie. They had extraordinary chemistry. [Director] Catherine Hardwicke saw that. She has great intuition.
Did you work with Stephenie Meyer on the first movie?
On the first book, no. I was a little nervous. Stephenie is the 800-pound gorilla. She is Twilight, and I needed for me to be Twilight for a brief moment so I could write it. It was about interpreting her world. I suspected she was worried that I was going to mess with her child. When we first met, we approached each other cautiously but she read the first draft and was incredibly pleased with it and began to trust me more. As I went through the different movies, she became a truly great collaborator. I say that sincerely. She’s not precious about the work. She’s very clear about what needs to be there and she protects the franchise fiercely. You don’t kill someone who hasn’t been killed. And the mythology and rules of her universe are extremely strict, which is why it’s so easy to write. If your mythology isn’t solid, you can’t take an audience with you.
So once she saw I was playing in her world, as opposed to making her world my world, she began to trust me. Sometimes I would call and suggest something that was not in the book. We would bounce ideas back and forth. I was suggesting some wild stuff and she was open to it.
What were the challenges of adapting the first book?
It was my objective from the get-go to adapt the book. It sounds so obvious, but in so many cases the ideas you focus on, they aren’t suitable and don’t work in the framework of a movie or screenwriting, and this one does. It also had quite a fan base and it as my job to deliver for them the experience the book delivered. That was how I approached it. The book is so internal, it’s all from Bella’s point of view. The challenge always was to externalize the internal. It needed to feel like a movie.
New Moon was the hardest. We spent a lot of time establishing this profound romance with Edward and then he disappears the entire second half of the story. He’s gone. First, you have to keep him alive, and I did that by having the vision of him appear as opposed to his voice. Second, you have to write the hell out of it and cast the hell out of Jacob as a lead, which they did.
The challenge of Eclipse was defining Bella’s arc and her being committed to Edward and it ends with her even more committed to Edward. It’s subtle, but she becomes committed to Edward and a lifestyle of who she is and what she wants her life to be.
And, finally, Breaking Dawn?
As tight as Stephenie and I are, and as much as we’re on the same storytelling page, we’re very different in terms of our beliefs and she has a very strong point of view in the book about choice. I have a very different point of view and I didn’t know how to tell this story, Stephenie’s story. I wanted to adapt the book, but I really didn’t know how to tell the story of part 1 of Breaking Dawn in a way that didn’t violate my beliefs. Bella in the book believes she doesn’t have a choice. That choice is not an option for her. She believes she must have that child. She has to.
You’re talking about being pro-choice?
Yes, and I am, rabidly so. In the book, Bella believes it would be wrong to terminate her pregnancy. The child is more important than her own life. She doesn’t see there’s a choice in the matter. She’s pregnant, therefore she must have the baby. I struggled with it. I almost turned down the assignment until I consulted my sister-in-law, who is a former ACLU feminist attorney and also a big fan of the books. She was the one who cracked it for me. She said, “Melissa, something that gets overlooked in the choice debate is that having a child is also a choice.” and I was like, “That’s my way in.” It’s not a choice I myself made, which is probably why that point of view didn’t occur to me, because it’s very simple really. And in the movie, the difference is very subtle. The story remains the story, the character remains the character with a slight shading, which is that Bella, in the movie, chooses to have that child. Obviously, I did not want to violate my own beliefs, nor did I want to violate Stephenie’s. The movie had to pass muster with her, had to reflect the book, and so finding that way in, just the subtle difference and change in the character, was a huge thing.
The thing I was unsure how would be handled in the film is Jacob’s deep connection with Renesmee. It’s such an abstract concept, but if it’s not done right on-screen it could border on stalker-icky and weird. How did you handle that?
[Breaking Dawn director] Bill Condon and I had a lot of conversations about it. My big issue was the choice issue, but this one was his. From the beginning, my objective was to focus everything on a spiritual plane rather than on any sexual or romantic plane. It’s about him protecting Renesmee rather than him waiting for her to grow up so he can have sex with her. You take it out of that realm. Stephenie was very clear about that as well. That was always her intention with that relationship. It was about making sure that was the intention of hers. It’s very important to communicate that very specifically and it landed squarely on Bill’s lap after I turned in the script, which is what he did with Breaking Dawn 1 and from what I saw in Breaking Dawn 2.
Team Edward or Team Jacob?
I’m on team whoever I’m writing at the moment. I’m Team Carlisle. I’m Team Esme. I’m Team Aro. I’m Team Volturi. you get into whoever’s head or perspective it is at the time.
With such an intense fan base, do you have a favorite story dealing with Twilight fans?
When we went to Comic-Con with the first movie, I don’t think any of us really understood what we had until we got into Hall H and saw 6,500 screaming girls and realized it was like The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. So, before the actors came on stage, I went out into the audience and this little 12-year-old girl walked up and asked me for my autograph and I said, “OK, why?” She whispered, “I know who you are.” It’s like… fantastic, and a little scary, and you realize that as a writer you’re a little anonymous and this opens your eyes to the fact that there’s more to it. It was pretty funny and really great.
“For me, the first time I saw them was pretty memorable because I was meeting them for a cast dinner and they were coming from a shoot in costume. So the first time I met them, they were all dressed as my imaginary friends, and it was the most bizarre experience of my life. It was so cool to see everybody. This is what they look like. This is real. It was really, really cool.” — Abbie Bernstein
Kristen Stewart: On being Bella…
“People, especially fans of the book, call me ‘The Twilight Girl,’ instead of [my name]. This is the biggest compliment. That means I did it right. If someone who is fanatically obsessed with these books and these movies, if they always say, ‘It’s kind of weird for me to watch you in other stuff,’ then great. That’s a compliment.”— A.B.
Robert Pattinson: On being Edward…
“After three movies you kind of get to a point where you can’t tell where the character ends and you begin. After awhile there are certain things that are similar.” — A.B.
Taylor Lautner: On being Jacob…
“The relationship between the three of us has always been this complicated triangle and now it’s like a square. It’s become much less complicated.” — A.B.
Portraits by Nic Sadler