With Twilight, the series of teen-lit vampire romance novels that have courted 13-year-old girls and their mothers more heroically than Miley Cyrus ever could, there are two factions: The uninitiated and the over-initiated. But come November 21, only the latter bloc will remain as the world will tremble and panic before ultimately giving way to the all-encompassing, unremitting and overwhelming might of Stephenie Meyer’s one fantasy franchise to rule them all. (In other words: That’s the day the first novel’s movie adaptation, directed by Catherine Hardwicke and starring Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, will be released in the United States.)
A few weeks before the chaos reached its tipping point, MM got a chance to speak with screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg, who was unaware of Twilight altogether (blasphemous, we know) when she was offered the job of adapting the novel for the screen. A veteran writer and producer for television, most recently for Showtime’s manically brilliant “Dexter,” Rosenberg spoke about the pressures of adapting such a scared text and how she found inspiration for this forbidden love story between a vampire and mortal in Ledger and Gyllenhaal’s cowboys.
Andrew Gnerre (MM): So how did you get involved with Twilight?
Melissa Rosenberg (MR): Well, I had written Step-Up for Summit [Entertainment] so I had a really great relationship with those guys, I had a really great experience on that film. I wasn’t available to do Step-up 2 so I thought, ‘Oh gosh, ruined my relationship with them. I had to pass on Step-up 2.’ And then like eight months later Erik Feig at Summit called and asked, “Hey, how do you feel about teens and vampires?” And I was just immediately, ‘I love teens and vampires!’ And I do; I’m a huge fan of the genre. I think “Buffy” was one of the great television series and I was a big fan of Joss Whedon so I was on board before I’d even knew what the story was. Then he mentioned that the books had quite a fan base and I thought, ‘Oh yeah. Ok great.’
MM: Bit of an understatement.
MR: Understatement of the year! But I wasn’t really aware of it [the fanbase] as I started writing.
MM: So before they asked you, had you even heard of it?
MR: I had not, no.
MM: That’s an interesting thing about this whole phenomenon. There are two camps: The people who are just absolutely infatuated and everyone else who has never even heard about it.
MR: I had not heard about it but of course once I read them I became infatuated. I think it has something to do with your age and your relationship with children. If you’re a teenage girl you’ve heard of it. If you’re a mother of a teenage girl then you’ve heard of it. If you’re an adult woman or person walking around, you may not have, but I think that by now everyone has heard of it. But back a year ago that was less the case and I had not.
MM: So then how was it starting out, did they give you free reign or did you have a lot of people looking over your shoulder?
MR: Well the great thing about working with Summit is that they’re a small studio; it’s not one of the majors where you have 20 people needing to justify their job. You’ve got a really tight, talented group of people. It was like three executives over at Summit and three producers and then Catherine. I had the director on board before I started writing, Catherine, and she was really the person I worked most closely.
I didn’t experience limitations, more of a blessing that we really needed to adhere to the book. We needed to do the book; we needed to adapt the book. Summit had gotten this book in turn around; it had been at Paramount. They actually had a complete draft or several drafts of the script which when Stephanie read through that script she had said, “Great script–has nothing to do with the book.”
And she was rightly so upset about that and was almost not going auction it off to anyone else. Then Summit said “We’d like to make the book.” And as I read the book I said to myself, ‘Why would you make anything other than, I mean why would you…you have an embarrassment of riches in the book and the challenge is not to come up with something completely different; the challenge is to condense what’s there and make it visual and externalize. Why would you invent a whole new story? It’s just too rich a story to veer away from.
MM: How do you make it visual and externalize? Twilight is a novel written in first person, but you tried to veer away from voice over, to make everything visual, correct?
MR: Yeah, absolutely. It was my intention, when I first started, to do the movie with no voice-over because I think voice-over can be the most over used devices in film and television. So I was wary of using voice over. But Catherine was actually supportive of it, so during the outline process of it I thought, ‘Oh maybe I’ll use it or maybe not, I’m going see if I can do it without.’ As I began writing it I realized Catherine was right. It’s too important to be inside Bella’s experience. I used it at first sparingly and actually Catherine has added more in the process of cutting the movie. So there’s actually more than initially I thought, but I think it’s the right move; I think it feels right.
MM: Do you ever have to sacrifice the integrity of the source material for the good of the movie; or vice versa?
MR: The sacrifices you make are scenes you would love to include and characters to include. But you have an hour and a half or two hours to tell the story, so you try to take the essence of those characters—[sometimes you take] two characters and condense them in one. The essence of an emotional arc or emotional moment, in a book, you’re exploring over the course of chapters and in a movie you do it over the course of a couple scenes or a scene. It’s really about distilling things down to the intention of the author so the story can be told and the characters development can be complete in less time.
MM: I saw in an interview you spoke about how Brokeback Mountain influenced you…
MR: It’s interesting when we first started off, often we think of a movie or a story that has been told before and look at its structure or the model of how you might tell a story and initially we thought, ‘Ok, it’s Romeo and Juliet.’ But then one of the producers said it’s more like Brokeback Mountain and I realized he’s absolutely right. It’s that forbidden love, it’s that deeply kept secret where life depends on whether or not you can keep it secret and the fear of getting involved and yet the enormous draw and purity of the romance. It actually ended up being a great model.
MM: That makes a lot of sense.
MR: And I also thought that Brokeback was just an extraordinary movie.
MM: It’s also a short story as opposed to a novel, so the adaption process must be more extending than condensing.
MR: Yes, it is; there are some things that I learned. I saw Brokeback and then I read the story and it truly was a magnificent adaptation. Have you ever read the short story? They took what was maybe a sentence in the short story and expanded it into a storyline. It was really such an impressive job and there was some of that in the adaptation of Twilight, not that I would dare compare myself to those guys. (laughs) We’re very different, but there was, for instance, the evil vampires. In the book they show up in the last 25 percent of the book or even less than that: The last several chapters of the book. That is fine in the book. It works beautifully in the book; it was great. But if the movie ends with a confrontation with evil vampires, you really need to drop them in and you need to get that sense of impending doom and impending conflict. You need to layer that in from the beginning.
They really didn’t have a lot of page time in the book, although all three of them [the evil vampires] are exceedingly important in not only this book but moving forward, so it was taking this suggestion—the characters Stephenie created in those last few chapters—and expanding on them and expanding on their relationships between with each other. It was taking what she had implied and moving it forward and saying, ‘OK, she created this character; what might he have been doing 60 pages earlier that we didn’t see in the book?’ So again, it’s not veering away from the author’s vision or the author’s characters, it’s just expanding on them. She’s quite happy with the movie so I think it’s very gratifying that’s she’s thought we did an alright job on that.
MM: Talking about all the decisions you have to make and the fine line you have to walk when you’re adapting something—extending some things and compressing some things—it almost seems like it could more of a challenge than creating something entirely new.
MR: Well it’s a different set of challenges, but I have to say, I think the hardest thing that anyone in any creative field does is invent out of thin air. An original is really hard; it’s just a really hard thing to do. An adaptation has its own set of challenges, but it’s always said, and now that I’ve actually done some adapting it’s stayed true—though it’s probably going bite me in the ass the next time an adaptation comes—but if you even start with a title that’s more than you had with an original. [With Twilight] I had everything.
You have more freedom to invent when you’re doing an original, when you’re creating your own world, but that for me is the most challenging thing that anyone in this kind of business has to do; to start with a blank page and say, “Here’s a world; here’s a life; here are these separate lives and they’re intersecting.” I mean it’s really hard to do. So I was delighted to have such a stellar piece of work to adapt. (laughs)