While it came as little surprise to the fans of Stephenie Meyers' original books, the success of Twilight caught Hollywood and the rest of the world by storm when the first adaptation arrived in theaters late last year. A big part of the credit for the movie's crossover success must be attributed to screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg, who rendered the romance of Bella and Edward in dimensions that more than die-hards (or more accurately, Twi-hards) could understand and appreciate.
The Twilight sequel New Moon comes to theaters next Friday and offers even more tortured teenage romance than before, as well as a wealth of mythology about vampires, werewolves and other monsters that inhabit the series' supernatural universe. Cinematical recently spoke to screenwriter Rosenberg at the film's press day in Los Angeles; in addition to discussing the process of putting together a satisfying sequel, she talked about subjecting Bella to the universal disappointment of a bad break-up, and examined what audiences might take away from this latest installment in the series.
Cinematical: Is there an emotional core or some central theme that was guiding you through writing New Moon, or do you see this more as an installment in a larger narrative?
Melissa Rosenberg: The second film in a trio of films is always the diciest because you don't want to do the movie as just a set-up for the [third film]. I was really conscious of wanting this movie to stand alone in its own right, and there is a very standalone story in this book. That is Bella's heartbreak and recovering from heartbreak and so the theme that comes out of that is that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I think it is Bella's evolution of becoming a stronger person; I mean, every book takes her further along that path of becoming her own person. So I think that is the standalone theme in this movie.
Cinematical: I understand that the representation of Bella's behavior in the movie is extremely faithful to the way she is portrayed in the book. Do you personally think she is sympathetic, given that she takes advantage of Jacob's friendship after being so devastated by Edward, or is she automatically sympathetic since she's a the central character in this story and it's told from her perspective?
Rosenberg: One must never assume that a character is sympathetic because of either the actor playing them or the fact that they're a lead. I think that's a recipe for failure, actually, because if they become unsympathetic, you lose your audience. But I do think the nature of what she goes through is so universal and she's so devastated that I think you can still understand why she takes advantage of Jacob. It's like she's taking advantage of him before she realizes that's what she's doing, and her need is so great, which is very universal, and there's not a person alive on the planet who hasn't or won't go through that sort of heartbreak. I think we've all had that; I, unfortunately, have had it more than most, hence I could relate to the arc of it (laughs). But that I think is what makes her sympathetic – she's going through what we all have gone through, and it's not with malice that she takes advantage of Jacob.
Cinematical: You mentioned that you identified strongly with Bella in this film, but how difficult was it to create a balance structurally or maybe just emotionally between Bella's disappointment and pining for Edward, and her evolution into becoming her own person?
Rosenberg: That was the challenge with this book. In the book, she spends a lot of time heartbroken, and that in a film can get tiresome. Visually you're not particularly interested to watch someone depressed, so you really have to move that forward so that was where I did most of my condensing. And, you want to make it visual; you want to get to the part where she's actually doing something about it. There's the defeated, devastated moment, and then you want to get to "okay, I'm going to do something to change this. I can't bear feeling this so I'm going to do something to change this." And she's active, so I wanted to get to that as soon as I could, because that's also when it starts getting visually more interesting.
Cinematical: In Twilight there were a number of passages from the book that had to be lifted more or less whole and put into the movie. Were you emboldened by the success of the film to massage some of the material in New Moon that might not translate easily to the screen, or was there even more pressure to remain faithful?
Rosenberg: A little of both, really. Obviously, the profile of the second movie was going to be even bigger than the first, and I didn't really realize with the first one what a massive thing that was going to be. [But] I had known through all of these books that I wanted to stay as true as possible, but being true to the novel does not necessarily mean specific scenes. It means taking the characters on the same emotional journey that the book does. That was the thing, and I think I became clearer about that as I went on – that was what people responded to. The first time down at Comic-Con, they showed a clip from Twilight, and I realized it was a scene that was in Twilight but it wasn't word for word; it didn't occur to me until I was sitting in that audience of five thousand people, and I started to have this panic attack as they were just about to roll – oh my God, it's not exactly like the book! They're going to kill me! The response to the scene was with screams, they were thrilled, and I realized that as long as the scene or the essence of the scene is captured, it doesn't have to be exactly what it was. It doesn't even have to be close, but you have to capture the essence of it.
On the other hand, in terms of feeling a little freer to take liberties, that happened because I just felt more comfortable writing these characters. I felt more connected to them, I knew who the actors were and I felt more connected to Stephenie, so I wasn't as careful because I felt more a part of it, more a part of the whole storytelling. I was more confident in my voice, and that enabled me to take a few liberties. But again, it's all about staying true to that emotional journey.
Cinematical: Chris Weitz injects the film with a great sense of visual flourish, particularly in terms of the passage of time. How specific were you about those transitional devices and how much did he design those himself? For example, the months after Edward breaks up with Bella are captured in blank pages in the book, requiring you and him to convey that in a visual way.
Rosenberg: I had written into the script and it was something that just collaborating with the producers as well it formed in my mind that we could convey the blank pages of time passing with her just being in the window of her room and different imagery of time passing, whether it be Halloween or Thanksgiving or Christmas, going on behind her in the window. That was in the script, and of course how that looks on screen is entirely determined by Chris; I don't remember exactly what was in there other than we see those events going on behind her in the window.
Cinematical: One of the things that immediately stood out in New Moon is that it has much more mythology for the creatures than was in Twilight. How difficult was that to introduce into this film and at the same time kind of preserve the emotional throughline of Bella's character? And further, how tough was it to create a sense of normalcy so that every conversation wasn't archly dramatic or even purely expository?
Rosenberg: Well, the question about the mythology, there is a lot to convey, and I tried to do that as visually as possible. For instance, the whole back story on the Volturi, that could easily have been two people sitting in a room telling us their back story, but Stephenie had talked in the book about this painting in which we actually see them, so I said, well, why don't we go into the painting. Let's let it come alive, and let's actually meet these people, and I think Chris really did that [in a way] that was a really smooth transition. But that's the sort of thing that you get to do in a film, and that's always a challenge when you're talking about information – you've got to get information across. That was a huge thing to try to get across, the whole mythology of the Volturi, so it was really exciting to come up with that idea and to see it realized so beautifully.
Cinematical: Was the adaptation of the next book something you were conscious of as you were constructing this screenplay?
Rosenberg: I knew I was going to have to write both of them back to back. Chris's concern was this movie, my concern was the two movies, so I put even more mythology in this one as a set-up for the next one. It was actually a very good arrangement, because Chris was concerned with this one and he was pulling mythology out because it was slowing down this movie. That created some challenges for the next movie, but he did such a great job; he great at paring down to the essence of what needs to happen.
Cinematical: Is there something in particular in this film that you felt especially gratified to see realized on screen, that took what you did and made it even better than you could have imagined?
Rosenberg: Well, definitely the painting is one of those moments, because that could go either way. It could look cartoony or it could be this fluid, great way of getting across information. I wanted to really introduce the Volturi earlier on because they play a major role in the back end, so I was really gratified that worked. Because you don't know as you're writing it, and it depends entirely on the director to know if it's going to work or not; it could be cheesy, he can kill it or he can make it come alive, and he beautifully made it come alive. And then there was a thing in the back half, again with the Volturi. In the book, Edward and Bella and Alice face the Volturi and they may or may not walk out of there alive, but in the book that is a very tense, taut conversation. So for me it was a moment of Jane zapping Edward but it all is sort of resolved in this very tense conversation. For me I wanted to externalize it, I wanted it to be an actual physical conflict, and so initially I wrote this huge fight. The entire sequence would have cost the entire budget of the film, but with Stephenie's help, we pared it down to a really great action sequence between Edward and Felix, and I think Chris and the stunt coordinators just made a really compelling, engaging fight. That was the climax of the entire movie and I thought it was just so beautifully realized.
Cinematical: Do you have a theme or idea that you would like the audience to come away with, whether it's a feeling or an understanding of this situation because as you said what Bella goes through is so universal?
Rosenberg: Yeah. If someone sees a story at a certain point in their lives, they can see this character, albeit a fictional character, has survived something, and not only survived it, but grown from it. That's what all of the things in our lives, even the negative, painful experiences, they all I think provide an opportunity to learn and grow. You just never know what someone's going to walk away from a movie with, and hopefully we can provide that. I remember when I was a dancer and I had to do this performance and I was really nervous about it, and I happened at that moment to go see Flashdance. I mean, it's silly, but I walked out of that movie going 'what a feeling!' I walked out with confidence. You don't know what someone's going to walk away from a movie with, but you hope it's something positive, but if nothing, you want them most basically to be entertained and engaged. That's your job. But you also hope to give them something to chew on or maybe some insight into the human existence, you hope a little bit. Not to sound too lofty (laughs).
Cinematical: Ultimately, what is the measure of success for you on a film like this? This is a sequel to a film that was very polarizing for audiences, so obviously you want to bring in viewers who are unfamiliar with the source material, but ultimately is satisfying that fan base what satisfies you the most?
Rosenberg: You know, it's not. Obviously the box office numbers tell you how successful you are, and it's incredibly gratifying to have it be so well-received. But what's gratifying for me is am I proud of it. Am I kind of wincing in moments, or am I proud to put my name on it, and this one, I think I'm more proud of this than anything I've ever done. That for me is the measure of success. Is what I envisioned realized, and did I realize it well? Does it play as a successful story, or are some things I did wince-worthy? And this one I'm proud of.