'Twilight' screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg does triple duty to make the franchise run
Unlike actors or directors, the peak of a screenwriter's career tends to come in a very short, select wave except for a select few who usually dabble in directing as well. For "Twilight Saga" screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg, that time is now.
Within the span of two years she's become a co-executive producer on the Emmy-nominated series "Dexter" and adapted "Twilight" into one of the biggest hits of 2008. Oh, and she immediately followed that up with a tight schedule of turning "New Moon" and "Eclipse" into movies too. No easy task. Yet, speaking to Rosenberg on the set of "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" in May, she was cheerful, energetic and showed no signs of being burnt out. While the subject of "Breaking Dawn" didn't come up (find out more about that potential project with producer Wyck Godfrey here), she delved into her writing process and gave some tremendous insight to the entire experience so far. Warning, it was a long 30 minute interview, but if you are a fanatic about the franchise it's well worth the read.
And as the occasional drizzle began outside the massive Volturi soundstage, Rosenberg began, "So what can I tell you?"
Q: Can you talk about how challenging it is, not just to write a follow-up so quickly to the first movie, but also know that you’ve got the prequel that has to be ready to go whether it’s the summer or this fall, like are you working 24 hours a day? Like do you…?
I’m working seven days a week for sure because I also write for 'Dexter' on Showtime.
Q: Oh, wow.
And that’s a very much a full-time job as well so when I was writing 'New Moon' pretty much after 'Twilight' wrapped so I was writing 'Dexter' as well, so from May of last year through to November I was doing five days a week on 'Dexter' and two days a week on 'New Moon.' My husband was thrilled, but he was a good sport and brought me snacks and things like that. And then after that I think I finished a first draft right around the time 'Twilight' opened.
Q: November, okay.
Maybe the second draft by then, so somewhere around November and then it was very shortly thereafter I was supposed to jump immediately to 'Eclipse' and as you can imagine I was pretty burnt, so I kind of dragged my feet a little bit but then finally got my juices going again and began 'Eclipse' right on the heels of all of it. And that’s well underway as well.
Q: So are you finished with 'Eclipse' or are you on a first draft or…?
Well, I’ve finished a first draft and we’re into the next re-write. David Slade just came on-board and so now we’ll begin working with him and just prepping in May I think. But yeah, it’s been a non-stop and part of it is hard for me. Energy levels is difficult but in other ways it’s a good thing to stay in the world and stay in the 'Twilight' consciousness, you know? It's a little bit like TV in that way. It becomes like you’re long term franchise because you have 'Twilight' as your pilot and the next couple episodes, you know, there’s one and two and so it’s not something that I’m unfamiliar with. I think it maybe…that kind of [inaudible] for a television writer than it is for someone who’s used to doing, you know, one script over the course of 2 years or something like that.
Q: What’s your working relationship with each of the directors for each movie?
It’s been different every time. In 'Twilight' Catherine was on-board before I came on. So, I had her input right from the start and because we were working on a very, very tight schedule. Over the course of about a month I wrote the outline and then they said 'Can you do a draft in five weeks?' And I said 'Sure.' (Laughing.) And then they said 'When do you want to get it made because of the writers strike?' We were fighting the October 31st date, and well, what should I do? And that was a 24/7 slam fest and Catherine was very, very important in that process because I was able to get her immediate feedback. So, I’d finish a draft or scene or act or whatever and shoot it to her and get her immediate feedback right there so I could really tailor it very clearly for her and what she wanted to make it -- what she wanted the movie to be. It was a very, very collaborative process. You know as you can imagine 'New Moon' we didn’t have a director on-board when I started writing that and so that was kind of me alone. Of course the Summit folks, you know the producers of Summit, they’re all the people who I then become collaborative with and get their notes and their feedback, but it was pretty much me until Chris came on and that was November, I think. So then Chris got involved and I start tailoring it to what he’s looking for and by then the project’s kind of done and then he goes off and he starts shooting it and Chris is a writer himself so he was really able, and by the way I don’t know if you’ve met him yet?
Q: Not yet.
He’s really a lovely guy and you’ll see. So I did like one or two drafts with him and then was really able to trust him to take it from there to make any changes that might need to be made for production or for whatever reason because I trust [him because he's a] wonderful writer. But basically the script is a script and he’s got that and I jumped from there and here you go and ran on to do 'Eclipse.' So that’s been a pretty wild ride.
Q: Does writing the sequels present a whole different set of challenges than writing the 'Twilight' script?
Yeah, because in 'Twilight' you’re setting up the world. You’re introducing the world and you’re introducing characters and I was also writing in a vacuum because I didn’t know who the actors were going to be. Now, you’re going to 'New Moon' and 'Eclipse,' I could write [the characters] in my mind so it becomes a more comfortable world, you know? So, 'New Moon' is not about setting up the world, but it’s about it’s own set of challenges because 'New Moon' is very internal. I mean all of those…there’s a lot of talk about how Edward and the Cullen’s are not a part of whole middle of 'New Moon' but actually they really are. Certainly Bella’s very much alive in…I’m sorry Edward’s very much alive in Bella’s mind throughout 'New Moon.' As a reader you feel his presence. You feel that helping drive that story. Harder to do in film, you know? You have to somehow find his presence and bring it there without having thought bubbles constantly. And I think the solution is going to satisfy fans. It’s going to be very much in keeping with the book and the tone of the book. So I think it would be interesting to see how I think fans will be feel pretty satisfied with what we’re doing. One, because it’s true to the book and two because we see more Edward. So that can’t be bad.
Q: You did sort of change things slightly to tailor it to be more cinematic.
There are many things that change but as long as we hit the emotional experience I think it will resonate the same way and really 'Twilight' was that same thing. There were a lot of things that were in the book that weren’t in the movie. But because we hit the emotional stepping stones all they way throughout, you took the same journey with the characters that you took in the book and that’s what’s really most important about an adaptation is you have to take your audience in the same emotional journey and your characters in the same emotional journey as they do in the book and then everyone will have the same experience. It’ll be as it is in the book.
Q: So then could we surmise it that we’ll see more of the Cullen’s and for example Victoria throughout 'New Moon'?
I think you could surmise that, yes. Yes, you will.
Q: I’m one of the only people here that haven’t read the second book and for people who haven’t would you say when you were approaching it, is it sort of like a kin to like an 'Empire Strikes Back' in that it's sort of a middle part of the story or does it have a resolution that moviegoers will be satisfied with?
Um, both because a movie has to stand on its own. It’s always a trick with trilogies is that middle episode is always like eww, you know? And sometimes it works brilliantly and sometimes it’s like 'Okay, this movie is just treading water to get to the third one.' And so I was really conscious of that and not wanting it to have that feel of treading water and yet to leave the sort of cliffhanger aspect that makes you wait for the next one. So I think, and I think the book, provided a lot of that. There is a resolution by the end of the book and the story has advanced. It hasn’t just been staying in the same place. It’s fairly significantly set up what’s going to ultimately play out in the 3rd episode of the movie. But I think that by the time I got to the end of it that it was it’s own complete story. And that was very important to me and I hope everyone has that experience as well. It was important to Chris obviously, the director, because he knew going in that he [wouldn't] be directing the 3rd movie. So he’s approaching it as a stand-alone as well.
Q: Even though there’s been a 4th book, does that make writing the 3rd one easier since so many things get resolved from the 2nd?
You know ['Eclipse'] was hard. The 3rd one was actually one of the hardest of the three for me to write. You read the book it’s got a good deal of action and stuff and you think 'Oh this is going to be the easy one' and it turns out it’s not the easy one. It’s actually the hardest of all, and I was really tired, you know? So, I had to just gear up again. But once I got into it, it founded. Finding it was the hardest part—just finding how to tell that story. As it turns out, a lot of the action is the last chunk. There’s not actually as much that goes on in the front. The front is the setup for that and in a book you can keep the forward momentum going because you’re inside a character’s head. So the book never makes you feel that way. What was fun about doing 'Eclipse' is that Stephenie [or] any writer when they’re creating a world as Stephenie has created, she has to know where all the parts are going. The book is entirely from Bella’s point of view, but she has to know, as a writer, what all these other characters are doing so that when they land in Bella’s world where they come from, you know? So she has a very, very complex detailed mythology, which anyone who knows the 'Twilight' world knows [is] very detailed which is why this is such a great world to play around in. With any Sci-Fi fantasy storytelling you must have the rules be very clear otherwise you lose people. 'O.K., like they can fly but then they can’t fly' or they do this, but not that. But her rules are very, very distinct [and] within that there are just miles of playground, you know? So in knowing that I needed to bring some of that stuff from the back end up forward and track what the other characters are doing, it was just like I I guess what in DVD they call Easter Eggs, you know? I think it’s going to be some Easter Eggs in 'Eclipse' for fans [in that] some of the mythology that Stephanie has written about in other places might show up here. Because you get to do that in a movie, you know? You can’t do that in a book when it’s all one person’s point of view. And yet it’s still very much the book. I mean, that is something that was something from the very beginning with “Twilight” it was about. Stephanie’s one thing was 'do the book. Adapt the book.' And that was the only thing I wanted to do anyway.
Q: In this complex romantic triangle can you talk about writing the male characters versus the female ones? Is it hard to get in their mindspace? How do the three different directors influence how you write the sequels?
Um, not a gender thing as much a like a personality thing. All three are very different personalities but all three have a couple of things in common which is what very selfishly important to a screen writer which is that they’re collaborative, they respect the process of screenwriting as they respect my process, but they understand it. They respect screenplays. They know the value of it. So there are directors and very much the culture of Hollywood is that writers are utterly interchangeable and whatever. The script can be adjusted an whatever and that’s why you end up with a lot of crap, you know? They have like 10 different writers and some directors [throw in all this] cool looking stuff and it looks cool but what is the story about? So in the case of these three directors, they again are collaborative so I can work with them. They’re respectful of what the value of the screenplay and the screenwriter and all three, just beginning with David, but my sense [is that he has a ] very strong sense of story. They’re smart about storytelling. They know how to tell a story not just come up with cool scenes. Anyone can come up with a cool scene. Can you tell a story? And, you know, I can tell a story but if it’s handed over to someone who can’t tell a story, then who knows what will happen to it?
Q: So I’m wondering like so when you wrote the 'Twilight' script the actors weren’t really even hired yet, so you were writing straight from the book. There was no voice in your head, no vision. Now, 'Twilight’s' come out, I mean Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart are Bella and Edward.
They are, yeah.
Q: And now when you wrote 'New Moon' did you find it hard to write sticking to the book or were seeing those actors as Kristen and Robert and kind of writing, you know, how would they say the lines, how would their voices sound, how would their inflections or facial expressions would be?
I’m definitely able to write toward them. It really depends much more like to be that way when I’m writing for Michael C Hall, [I write for] his voice and because, to me, [the actor] become interchangeable with the book. When I first saw them when they were first brought on I was just stunned at how perfect the casting was. And Catherine did a really extraordinary job of finding them. And interestingly when I wrote 'Twilight,' before they came on, I [tend to] lean toward humor and sometimes broad humor, sometimes very dark humor. So I added a lot of that into the 'Twilight' script. It wasn’t right. So I actually kind of went a little bit away from the book I think in some ways and the actors brought me and the screenplay back into actually more of the tone of the book, so me just trying to find the tone and then helping me and Catherine, of course.
Q: Can you give us any examples of how maybe you tailored like your characters or your dialogue of 'New Moon' towards the cast?
Oh, that’s a good question. I’m so in the ['Eclipse' space right now]. I can’t think of one.
Q: Are there a few direct quotes from the book?
What’s really hard is that I lose track of what’s the book and what’s me because my job to immerse myself in it and so I really lose track of what’s Stephanie and what’s me. But what I try to do as much as possible is use things directly from the book because I think there’s moments where the fans here that line, that classic line or whatever it is I try as much as possible to stay and sometimes you get kicked because a screenplay is 110 times [shorter than a novel.] Jacob is a great deal of fun to write. Charlie -- Billy Burke is someone who you just can give a line to, you can give him a deep emotional line or a funny one-liner--this guy can deliver anything and always bring something new to it. And Emmett, I love writing Emmett as well. So obviously more offhand funny kind of characters…
Q: More your normal sort of like…
Maybe, yeah. Maybe, yeah.
Q: Is there someone that’s particularly challenging? To get the tone right?
I guess the challenges is the Bella/Edward because you’re always writing a line between like real intimacy and what’s true vs. what’s sort of, you know, remodeling or melodrama. Where true romance and true drama begin and melodrama [is appropriate]. That’s always the line. It’s always the risk that you run. So, it requires a lot of diligence. You have to go over it and over it and over it and then they get it on-set and they continue it.
Q: What have you learned from writing 'Twilight' that you’ve incorporated in 'New Moon' to make these scripts even better and to make it more exciting for fans as they’re immersing themselves in these movies?
Can you repeat that?
Q: What have you learned from writing 'Twilight' that you’ve incorporated in 'New Moon' and 'Eclipse' to better deliver this to fans?
I think I relaxed a little bit. I think I became more confident in the world. I knew the mythology more intimately so I didn’t have to constantly question myself as much. And I had a stronger communication with Stephanie to back me up on that. So it was a comfort level that, you know, I just felt like I could take some more risks in some ways and so I think what I learned from 'Twilight' is how to write serious and how to write what the tone is and so by the time you get to 'New Moon' and then even more-so on 'Eclipse,' I just felt comfortable in the world and I feel safer. I feel like 'O.K, the audience accepted my first thing and I’m only getting better or more connected with it and so there’s a confidence [that] does help the writing process. I mean, it’s hard to write when you’re feeling insecure and it’s not to say I was overly confident because now the flip-side of that is I’m really, really aware now, in way that I wasn’t in 'Twilight,' of how [massive] and huge the fan base is. I really have to make sure not to upset those people, you know?
Q: Do you feel like you could join a support group of 'Harry Potter' screenwriters?
Well, there’s only one Harry Potter screenwriter.
Q: There’s only one?
[Editor's note: This isn't actually true. Kloves took the writing chores on "Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix" off and Michael Goldenberg stepped in.]
Q: Have you ever talked to him about it?
I haven’t but I’d love to talk to him. He’s my hero. I’d love to talk to Steve Kloves.
Q: Just the same sort of like issues do you think?
Oh I’m sure he went through them. Absolutely.
Q: What sort of responsibility do you feel to the fans, if any?
You know what? The biggest responsibility I feel [is that] I don’t want to be the woman who killed their beloved book, but what’s actually become much more important or equally important is now the fans and so many of them are young girls and it will be a moment in their lives that they will remember like when you grow up and you’re like 'Oh god, I remember the time I saw 'Star Wars'" or whatever the hell it was, you know? And they’ll remember this. And so they come and I meet them at [fan] events and I see the wonder in their eyes and I became much more aware going forward of what message I’m putting out there. What am I communicating to them? What kind of a role model is this for them? I mean they may not ever intellectually understand that, but it registers with them. You know? It becomes a part of their being, so I’m really aware of Bella as a role model. I’m really aware of this movie having an effect on young girls lives. As a feminist that’s really important to me to be responsible about that and I know that sounds very earnest—overly earnest—but it’s kind of important.
"The Twilight Saga: New Moon" opens Nov. 20.