Culture

Q & A with 'The Twilight Saga' Screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg

Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart in 'The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn 2'/Image by Doane Gregory © 2011 Summit Entertainment
Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart in 'The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn 2'/Image by Doane Gregory © 2011 Summit Entertainment

Before “The Twilight Saga,” well, eclipsed Melissa Rosenberg’s professional life for the past four years -- enveloping her into the mists of its love-drunk teens and hungry, hungry metaphysical hellions – she immersed herself into a serial killer’s psychic sewer sludge as the head writer of TV’s pioneering pitch-black dramedy, “Dexter.

That’s a lot of time for anyone to spend in the dark, particularly with characters so notably dangerous, deranged, and desire-addled. But Rosenberg has remained dauntless in her dedication to Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling vampire fantasia, acting as a key constant creative force behind the camera as directors have come and gone as she’s adapted all four books into five mega-grossing movies, including the series’ culmination, “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2,” which opens in theaters on Friday.

While “Twilight” may be powering down, Rosenberg is already moving full steam ahead into the next phase of her career, intent on converting the jolt of momentum she received from writing five monster blockbusters into a full slate of ambitious films and TV shows – including an adaptation of Pamela Sargent’s futuristic fable, Earthseed -- featuring a fleet of female disrupters on screen and behind the camera. Signature recently caught up with Rosenberg, and she gamely reflected on the challenges and rewards of her long-term relationship with Edward and Bella, the woman who created them, and where she plans to go from here.

Signature: You are the only member of the filmmaking team to remain on the project through all the Twilight Saga adaptations. What was your emotional connection to the story that most sustained your interest over the years?

Melissa Rosenberg: What pulled me into the series was the character of Bella – her evolution and her coming of age. The story I wanted to tell was specifically about her growth, her empowerment, and her finally finding who she is and what she wants to be in this world.

SIG: Did those same themes remain constant throughout the process for you?

MR: It became clearer to me as we moved forward. It started by being an element and then it ended and it became clear it was the most important element of the storytelling to me.

SIG: How did your relationship to the characters and the material change with each successive adaptation?

MR: For each of the characters it was this process of unfolding, primarily for Bella. Edward and Jacob have their arcs. But Bella’s is the one that became more and more clear. The book is very much about this romance and a triangle relationship. And the movies are still about that. But for me it became more and more clear that the essence of the story was about Bella’s growth and what life she wanted to have, what she wanted for herself as embodied by these two mythical creatures.

I started off thinking it was a love story and it’s all about this relationship. And then it changed at the end of “Eclipse,” when I added a speech that’s not in the book where Bella agrees to marry Edward, where she says “It’s not about you, Edward, it’s about who I want to be in this world.” And that was an ‘aha’ moment for me. That may be a difference between the books and the adaptations.

SIG: In the later books, the narrative shifted from the ecstasy of first love and lust to focus on more earthly concerns about marriage and family life. Was that challenging for you to translate for the screen?

MR: I think the more universal truths in the story, the more people you reach with the storytelling. I was always looking for the universal truth, the collective experience everyone can relate to. You have these mythical creatures but it’s set in a very real world. Stephenie keeps it very much of this earth. That’s the difference between her mythology and other vampire stories and that’s something the directors and I have strived for: to keep it of this world. So we focused on those collective experiences and the fantasy is the icing on the cake.

SIG: The books are filled with dense and intricate mythology about the metaphysical creatures. Were you worried about how fans would react to any condensing you had to do to make it fit into a two-hour movie?

MR: The greatest challenge has always been that these books have this very avid fan-base and you’re taking your life into your hands if you change a single word of what’s on the page. There are fans and then there are female fans and then there are teenage female fans. That’s a pretty intense group. My goal from the very beginning was to write something where the audience would feel like they’ve experienced the book and not be too aware of what’s missing. And depending on the fan you ask, I completely failed or didn’t. Google me and half of it is hate mail. You changed a word! And yet they still buy the tickets and the DVDS.

So the idea was to give them the experience of the book without doing it word for word. There’s a very crucial difference between what works in a book and what works in a movie. In the book Bella can be a passive character. You get inside her head and you can see her thought process and her thoughts are not particularly passive. That doesn’t translate to the screen. She needs to be proactive in scenes. If the movies are going to work she has to be driving them. She’s how the audience experiences the film. So the character really took on some much stronger characteristics and actions. She was a slightly more empowered character by nature of the fact that that’s better storytelling for the screen. And then there are my own personal feelings about the fact that there are millions of impressionable girls watching this and I’d like the character to have some strength to her. I think it was all in the book; I was just externalizing it.

SIG: How did Stephenie Meyer, the books’ author, respond to any liberties you took?

MR: She was completely supportive. I gotta say, she’s been a great collaborative partner. She’s the keeper of the mythology. No one dies unless she wrote that they died. There are very clear rules and boundaries, which is fine because they all work for the storytelling. But she understands film. She understands cinematic storytelling. If anything I did violated her image of the characters, she would have let me know. But honestly it just never came up.

SIG: As the principal actors have grown and changed over the years, has that changed how you’ve written the characters?

MR: Well yeah. I wrote the very first movie before we had any of it cast. I was writing in a vacuum; and I wrote it with a lot more humor and that wasn’t quite the right tone for what it needed to be. But when they came in, I thought "Oh yeah, I know what this needs to be. It’s a dramatic world that we’re talking about." There are moments in the movies that are funny. And “Eclipse” forward, I started trying to find those moments more.

SIG: Did it change approach to the books each time a new director came on board?

MR: No it didn’t. In the case of the second and third movies, the scripts were written before the directors came along. And in the fourth movie, the outline was broken before [Bill Condon] came on. Condon, who is an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, was essential in shaping those scripts and he was great at guiding a screenwriter to achieving what he thinks belongs to the film. So it was a very close collaboration. David Slade was a great partner as well. He’s not a writer and doesn’t pretend to be. But he’s a great visual stylist and he would act things out in the room and I’d take notes.

SIG: Did your ongoing work as the executive producer of “Dexter” inform your ability to sustain a long-term relationship with “Twilight”?

MR: Yeah. My whole career has been primarily in TV so it’s a very natural thing for me to write long storylines. So the continuing storyline of “Twilight” was very much in my wheelhouse. What I loved most about it was to be able to track characters over the course of five movies. That’s why I love writing TV. If the characters are interesting enough to sustain you for two hours, they should be interesting enough to sustain you for ten.

In terms of the similarities between “Dexter” and “Twilight,” “Dexter” was an adaptation so I learned a lot about that. But the character of Dexter is someone who is constantly fighting demons, which is something Edward struggles with throughout the “Twilight Saga.” "Dexter" was more about filling in whereas “Twilight” was about condensing. Jeff Lindsay’s first novel gave us some steppingstones for what the plot would become. But by the end of the first season, our characters were going in a wildly different direction than where Jeff Lindsay’s books were going. So we really couldn’t continue to track the novels as much with “Dexter.”

SIG: How do you feel now that you’re winding up your relationship with “Twilight”?

MR: I’ve been off it for two years. I wrote the final two “Breaking Dawn” installments in one sitting. After seeing some early cuts, I’ve really not had much to do with it. But I ultimately felt gratified and satisfied by the end of it that the stories had been told and that we really reached a genuine conclusion in the storytelling and that we brought everything we could. And it has afforded me a lot of opportunities so I’m really enjoying that.

SIG: You’ve got a lot of projects in the works.

MR: Yes,  I do. This series “Red Widow” is also an adaptation of a Dutch TV series. But all the same principles apply to adapting a book or novel.

SIG: There’s also another strong female character for you to play with.

MR: Yeah. My production company is called Tall Girl Productions for a reason. It’s my M.O. I’m always interested in bringing complex female characters to the screen behind and in front of the camera. It’s not so much about female empowerment; it’s about female equality. The idea is to have interesting and complex female characters as opposed to the noble mother, the dutiful daughter. I’m interested in multifaceted real women.

Like What You're Reading? Get the best of Signature, delivered to your inbox every week. Join the Signature newsletter