Q&A: ‘Twilight’ scribe Melissa Rosenberg on failure, murder and the coming ‘Dawn’
Melissa Rosenberg already had a healthy career in features (“Step Up”) and television (“The O.C.,” “Dexter”) when Summit Entertainment hired her to adapt a vampire romance novel called “Twilight.” Four years, three scripts, two movies and one billion dollars later, she is entering the home stretch of her wildly successful “Twilight” run and finally starting to think about a life beyond Bella, Edward, Jacob and author Stephenie Meyer. With “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” poised to sink its teeth into the boxoffice June 30, Rosenberg talked to me about the benefits of failure, splitting “Breaking Dawn,” murderous dreams and the pleasure of writing about a genuinely horny girl.
You just gave the commencement address at your alma mater, Bennington College. What was your focus?
Melissa Rosenberg: It was really hard. At the same time I was working on a draft of the “Breaking Dawn” script, and I was more nervous about this commencement speech. It’s a very different kind of writing. I’m not a speechwriter. The performance part wasn’t what I was nervous about. It was the content. But once I hit on realizing I’m not speechwriter, I’m a screenwriter, and started embracing a screenplay format, that helped me be comfortable in the role. So I talked in terms of Fade In and Exterior: Bennington Campus…
It was a three-act speech.
Rosenberg: Yes, it was! Its past commencement speakers have been political journalists and world peace advocates — you know, people who are doing stuff. (Laughs)
You’re entertaining billions of people!
Rosenberg: So the only thing I had to offer is my own experience, so that’s what I went for and I just talked about basically every failure I’ve ever had, which really adds up to quite a bit.
How long was the speech?
Rosenberg: It went on for hours! (Laughs) So what I said to them was, “You’re going to fail. That’s part of life, and actually it’s not a bad thing. In the end, it actually shapes who you are probably more than the successes.” That’s not something they want to hear. I thought, “Oh my God, they’re going to throw tomatoes at me.” But the response was lovely, and I got the standing O. I also inserted some of my feminist agenda.
How did you work that in?
Rosenberg: I just have such an issue with a lot of young people — and people of my own generation even — who have gotten to this place of tagging a sentence with, “… not that I’m a feminist or anything.” Somewhere along the line, like with the word “liberal,” it’s become this dirty word. It’s infuriating! And it wouldn’t even be an issue if it weren’t for the fact that we’re still earning 77 cents on the dollar. We’re still 24% of the Writers Guild, and 13% of the Directors Guild. You can’t tell me we’re equal.
You’ve been active with the Writers Guild. Do you feel there’s an impact you can have there on that front?
Rosenberg: If you look at the numbers of the last 10-15 years, they haven’t really gone up much, just by minuscule degrees. The guilds try to implement diversity programs wherever they can. But there’s not a whole lot they can do. It’s about adjusting the mindset in the community. It’s a lot of different things. One, I think not a lot of women are coming into it. And that’s why I hope if they can see me, a woman who makes a living doing this, they think, “Maybe I can do that, too.” The other thing I hope to do is as a showrunner I actually would be in a position to hire people. But if they’re not there, whom am I going to hire? Fortunately, there is an up-and-coming group and there are women of my generation who are now showrunners. With features? I don’t know.
There’s Laeta Kalogridis and a couple romantic comedy teams, who are sort of ghettoized that way — maybe they like it, I don’t know, I shouldn’t put it like that.
Rosenberg: We are ghettoized. It gets discouraging, but all we can do is just continue to … You know, I admit people stop listening to me because I’m so strident. It’s funny, I’m much more passionate about this subject than I am articulate. It’s a shame, because there are people who can make a really cogent argument and really debate an issue and bring something to it that isn’t just going, “I’m mad!!”
I was at a pool party recently and a smart young woman home from her sophomore year at Harvard got talking about “Twilight.” She had read all the books obsessively, and she went off on their messages for women. In trying to translate this to the screen for young girls and women, have you felt any conflict with your own values, and has that affected how you’ve approached it?
Rosenberg: It’s interesting because Stephenie and I couldn’t be on more polar opposite ends of the spectrum. I was born in a hot tub in Marin County. I come from this very hippie background. My father is a well-known psychotherapist, and one of the things he wrote in the ’70s was a book called “Total Orgasm,” which was published internationally. And I have a very outspoken feminist for a mother. And Stephenie is a much more traditional woman. She’s a very devout Mormon. So you would think that there would be this big conflict. And what’s really true is that we never talk about it. I honestly don’t believe Stephenie has ever had a political agenda with her books. It’s all been just about writing characters, and these characters who she’s identified with making the choices that they make. So for me, it’s about finding common ground. Because there’s not enough money in the world to make me write something that goes against my beliefs. It’s about finding where we cross over, stripping politics and religion away and finding the character traits. So for the first several, it’s been about — it’s stuff that’s already in there — it’s just pulling forward Bella’s strength. Pulling forward her being active as opposed to being reactive. I’ll get some grief from that — from really devout fans — anyway.
That’s the second half of the question: How much pressure you feel anyway because of the fanbase to stay close to the plot points of the book?
Rosenberg: You know, they would love for me to translate virtually every word and simply type it in. I think there’s been an education process of letting people know what adaptation is.
But to what extent have you used that to try to tweak things. I’m thinking specifically of the end of the fourth novel and the decisions Bella makes. You can’t really stray from the decisions that are made, so is this a challenge for you on that front?
Rosenberg: Sure. You can’t stray from the decisions she makes, but it was about finding that middle ground, finding that place where I could feel good about it and feel like the message I’m putting out there is in line with my own. That was a challenge because the fourth book moves further away from that. But, what’s interesting is, again, it’s already in there, it’s just about stripping away some of the other things — which I have to do anyway, in the process of condensing I have to strip away a lot of stuff. And I still am able to maintain the emotional journey of the character without violating any of my own sets of beliefs. I think the issue on the table we’re talking about is choice. But the thing that gets blurry on the issue is that choosing to have a child is a choice. So she’s still going to make that choice, but it is about her deciding to do this. And I’m not violating the story at all.
The way the story plays out, Bella commits to some major decisions at a very young age. But the thing that’s troublesome for me is this idea that she can’t have sex because she’ll destroy her soul.
Rosenberg: There’s a couple things going on there. One is, they can’t have sex because physically he could basically kill her. He could break her like a twig, so there’s a physical danger. (I’m not sure that’s any better a message.)
But you can get away with that because he’s a vampire.
Rosenberg: Yeah, exactly. What appeals to me in this is you have a desirous girl. She wants sex. She is absolutely clear about that. She’s a horny girl! And it’s such a taboo to have a girl want sex more than the guy, or to have looser standards about that. When he says, “I don’t want to have sex until we’re married” — and he is trying to protect her virtue — but she’s like, “You’re a fucking dinosaur!” But she goes along with it because she wants sex. That I find appealing. Because telling girls that what you’re feeling is shameful or wrong in any way, or that it’s weird that a girl would feel that, is damaging. So this in some ways gives them permission to have those feelings. I also don’t know that abstinence is a terrible thing to breach, but I don’t have kids.
But where’s the representation of young female sexuality that isn’t colored by all the old tropes? It’s entirely possible to have sex, have it not suck and not get pregnant.
Rosenberg: Right. Although, the other side of it is it’s an interesting thing to say, she had sex, but yeah, this can happen. This is a consequence of sex, if you’re not safe, if you’re not paying attention. She didn’t even think he was capable of getting her pregnant, and yet it happened. The thing that drives me insane is the whole concept of having unprotected sex and getting pregnant and then you’re not able to have an abortion. This happens in films and television all the time. It doesn’t even come up, you don’t even address it, no one even talks about it. They actually do talk about it in “Breaking Dawn.” It’s Edward saying, “I think we should get rid of this thing,” and Jacob’s saying, “I think we should get rid of this thing, too.” And Bella says, “No, I’m choosing not to.” But at least someone’s talking about it!
You probably knew about this all along, but Summit finally publicly announced that “Dawn” would be two movies. Had you written it as one movie already? Is this a huge pain in the ass? Or had you been working on it as two from the beginning?
Rosenberg: When we started, everyone was a little bit unsure. So it kind of came down to me looking at the book and going, Are there two movies in this? Which is a hell of a lot of pressure! Sure, we all wanted it to be two movies, but we had to look at it and see, Is there enough material for two movies? We all agreed there was probably too much for one movie, although I guess it could have been an incredibly long movie. So when I started getting into it I started to see, Yeah, we’ve got two movies here. Everybody agreed and I started approaching it as two movies. And then it came down to, Are the actors available for two movies? So there were a lot of things that went into this decision.
Maybe you haven’t gotten to this point in structuring it yet, but can you allude to what the cliffhanger of the fourth movie versus the fifth would be?
Rosenberg: We’re kind of still deciding that. I’m doing first drafts now. But I think it comes down to Bella as human and Bella as vampire. (”Breaking Dawn” director) Bill Condon may give you a different answer, but I think it’s a natural break. There’s her as a human with the baby and everything and then there’s her as a parent and a vampire.
As long as you’ve been in this universe, do you dream “Twilight” stuff?
Rosenberg: (Pause) I have a recurring dream that I’ve committed some heinous murder. And the interesting thing is that, in the dream it’s not that I’m guilty about the murder. I actually have absolutely no remorse whatsoever. I don’t know why I’m telling you this, I’m not sure how related it is. (Laughs) What I’m concerned about, what consumes me in the dream, is my life will end. I’m going to go to prison, everything will be stripped from me. And I have to do everything I can to get out of this situation, even kill more people. I’m not sure what that’s about. In some ways I think it’s about the pressure, the fear that they’re going to be coming after me with tar and feathers for whatever I produce. The fans are going to hate what I do and basically say I’ve butchered them. But I think the other side of it is a fear that I will have done so terribly that my whole career will end, that it will all be stripped away and I’ll lose everything, and all standing will disappear. Ah … that was a very personal revelation. (Laughs)
How ready are you to be out of the world of teenage melodrama?
Rosenberg: They’ve been very comfortable, these books. I know them. I have confidence, there’s a level of security in writing these voices and writing these characters. And with that comes the ability to let my imagination go a little bit and invent for them. So it’s a comfortable world. And as with any big change, it’s a little scary to leave. It’s like, What else is out there? And am I going to succeed anywhere near as well as I did on these? But the other side of it is I’ve kind of decided to see what else is next. I will not be doing any more teen romances.
Have you been worried at all about the equivalent of typecasting?
Have you actually bumped up against that?
Rosenberg: Not yet. The “Dexter” of it helps.
Yeah, you have a whole TV career behind you.
Rosenberg: I’m not sure how much “Dexter” registers with people. And it’s also a little hard to have those be in the same universe for some people. It’s funny, I was just talking to Kim Masters on NPR, and she said, “It’s really unusual for a writer to have a publicist and to be doing all this.” I said I very consciously chose to hire a publicist, I chose long before I had any success, and I knew I was going to do this, because it’s all about branding yourself. It’s all about putting yourself in front of a movie. Because when you have a profile, when you have some weight behind you, you have a little more possibility of having control. And in features, for a writer to have any control is unusual. Summit has been so great with me. That’s the other thing: If I leave Summit, if I go work with other studios, in some ways I’m dreading it. And other times, I’m like, Maybe it’s time to get out and meet some new people.
Are you guys breaking up? Or are you just seeing other people?
Rosenberg: Seeing other people. They would love for me to do nothing but work with them, and frankly I’d kind of love that, too. But I should probably go out and see what else is out there. They’ll do one or two tentpoles a year. I love the big tentpole popcorn movies. I love it. There are very few women up there.
Have you tried to get in on “Wonder Woman”?
Rosenberg: Laeta took that on!
I know. She was the last person I talked to about it.
Rosenberg: I don’t know. What could I bring that 10 other writers haven’t brought? I frankly don’t know what the issue is. How hard can it be? But then, it must be incredibly hard because some very talented people have not been able to. I have no idea what the issue is there. But that’s exactly the kind of thing I would love to do. One of the things I really want to do moving forward is form my own production company.
What can you tell me about that?
Rosenberg: It’s called Tall Girls Productions. I want to bring up some young writers and work with some of my contemporaries, with a bias toward young female writers. The charter of it, if there is one, would be to create some strong roles for women. I’m not talking the sort of ghetto that we’ve been in of the romantic drama or the fluffy romantic comedy of which there have been so few good ones. I’m talking about some kick-ass flawed women. Comic book heroes. The female Batman, the female Tony Soprano. It will require a lot of work on my part, but I know it’s what I want to do. I’m hoping to parlay whatever this bizarre success is into something that’s going to last for a while.
It would be TV and film?
Rosenberg: Yes. Production of TV and film. I never want to leave TV, it’s just too much fun. In film, I love the big tentpole event movies, I love reaching a large audience, I love the excitement of it. In TV, I actually prefer the smaller indie cable shows. “Dexter,” and working with Showtime, was the best experience of my career. I’m not sure I’d want to work with network again. I don’t want to do 22 episodes of something. I think it’s near impossible to do it well. Very few shows have managed to do it. Things like “The Good Wife” and “House,” I don’t know how they maintain their quality. It’s really hard to do. If you manage to do a second draft before production, you’re golden. My experience on “Dexter” is I had drafts done a month before prep. I’ve done the best work of my career on cable, not because I’m any better but because I’ve actually had time to do the best work of my career. Time is quality. Rewriting is quality. So I’m all about cable.
Do you have anything on the burner? Do you have any scripts in the drawer for when you come out of “Twilight”?
Rosenberg: I’m still deep in “Twilight,” but it’s starting to loosen up a bit. So a month ago, I said to the reps, “OK, let’s put it out there that I’m coming up.” Things are starting to filter in — and they’re very clear as well about what it is I want to do — and it’s some really interesting stuff. Books. What I’ve found, because both “Dexter” and “Twilight” are both adaptations — and it’s really the first time in my career I’ve done adaptations — I kind of like it. I think I’m maybe kind of good at that. It pushes me creatively beyond my own limitations. Going into a world someone else has created, and I go there with a fresh eye and can open it. I really enjoy it. I’ve had the opportunity to be in “Twilight,” in which there are some strict boundaries because these fans are so ardent. You can’t just go wildly off into another direction. That is just unfair to the fans and you’re going to lose them. Whereas with “Dexter,” by the time we got to the end of the first season we were completely off the book. I’ve always worked collaboratively, that’s why I love TV.
So when you’re working with source material it’s like an indirect way of doing that.
Rosenberg: Exactly. I feel like I’ve been collaborating with Stephenie for four years. And literally, in some cases where I’m calling her and asking her, “What’s the deal about that?”
What’s the last question that you asked her?
Rosenberg: It would have been about the Volturi.
I love that you know that right away: “I know it was about the Volturi …”
Rosenberg: (laughs) I think it may have been something to do with, in her mind, in “Breaking Dawn,” what were the Volturi up to? We don’t see them until the end. And in her mind, what was driving them? She’s lived with these characters a lot longer than I have. She has a very intricate mythology and very detailed backstories for all these guys. At one point, I had so much in there about their backstories — it’s very interesting what she’s come up with and what I could expand on.
Oh, so you can actually work from stuff that’s not in the books.
Rosenberg: Oh, yeah. And that’s hopefully something that’s going to be fun for the fans. I was able to bring a lot of my own invention. Because the book is not quite two movies. There’s air, there’s room. With the other three it’s been a lot of condensing. And with “Breaking Dawn,” if you’re doing two, there’s a little air. It opens it up. But I need to stay true to the mythology. I mean, I can’t have it turn out that the head Volturi actually wanted to be a tap dancer and did vaudeville for a while.
Do you have interest in directing at some point?
Rosenberg: I do not. I think so many writers become directors out of frustration. We’ve directed the movie in our minds, we’ve seen every frame of it in our minds as we’ve written it. There’s always an adjustment period for me of, That’s not how I saw it, but that’s pretty interesting. And that’s what I think fans have to do with the book, is go through the same process I go through of letting go what they saw and then maybe appreciating what’s there. Because you see it so clearly when you read the book. But my husband (Lev L. Spiro) is a director, so I’m pretty intimately aware of what a director does.
You’ve seen what an asshole he turns into.
Rosenberg: (Laughs) We both turn pretty obnoxious when we’re under pressure. I know what’s involved in directing. And I wouldn’t disrespect the profession by suggesting that I could just do it. It’s like when people say, “Oh, I can write that.” No, actually, it took me 18 years to hone the craft and figure out how to tell a story. There’s such a disregard for both directing and screenwriting. It’s like, No, you actually have to know what you’re doing. I could probably blunder my way through it, but I’d just as soon have someone who really knows what the fuck they’re talking about. Not only that, but it’s interesting to get another perspective on it. Maybe some day. But for the moment, I’d much rather be writing or producing.
Just how lucrative has this been for you? Do you have a piece of the back end?
Rosenberg: Not the back end. I don’t have points.
So it’s all straight fees and then whatever you get from residuals.
So, do you have any sense of what this has been for you?
Rosenberg: I don’t know. Because it will go on for years. But the DVD market is coming down some. I mean … I’m building a house.
Last question: Team Edward or Team Jacob?
Oh, come on!
Rosenberg: It’s true!
Rosenberg: Yeah, when I’m writing, I can’t. I have to love both of them. I have to! It’s true.
So you don’t have a T-shirt in your wardrobe somewhere that has one of those names on it?
Rosenberg: No. I guess if I leaned one way or the other it would probably be Edward. But I know this from working on shows that I wasn’t enthusiastic about, you just kind of end up going, “I love Dr. Quinn! She’s awesome!” You have to.
I just wondered if you could connect with your own teenage self, as if you were Bella. The books are addictive partly because of the desire of these guys who are both animals but protective.
Rosenberg: But they’re safe. To be that desired! For aging women, the fantasy of remembering when you were more desirable, the fantasy of being that wanted, that desired. What Stephenie has created is not easy. She isn’t just some idiot who happened upon it. She created a really intricate world with really compelling characters. Not everyone can do that. She’s, like, one in a million. It is not luck. It is talent. My hat’s off to her.