The penultimate installation in the Twilight franchise, Breaking Dawn — Part 1 was released in theaters today (read our Breaking Dawn review) and is predicted to make upwards of $140 million dollars its first weekend. (The film made $30 million in 3,521 theaters at last night’s midnight opening). Melissa Rosenberg, who has had the unique opportunity to stay on as the screenwriter throughout the duration of the series, has been in a key position in one of the most successful franchises of our time.
We recently spoke with the scribe who described herself as, “the luckiest screenwriter in Hollywood.” Though she does concede that there is a double-edge to the sword of success. “It does raise the expectation level because the next project you do, if you fail, you fail in an internationally public way,” she said.
“That’s the risk you take by putting yourself in front of a movie. I probably could have been a part of this movie and hidden out in a corner so no one would notice. But I chose to embrace it and publicize it, and publicize my part in it, because I’m very proud of it. But the other side of it is that whatever the next project is there are a lot of eyes on that.”
What (Some) Women Want:
There can be no doubt that The Twilight Saga (the books as well as the films) have struck a chord. The depictions are both revered and reviled depending on the reader/viewer’s perspective, but no one can argue that they have inspired a stunning financial and cultural response. Among other things, the franchise propelled Summit Entertainment from a boutique company to a significant player in the entertainment industry. It is somewhat obvious to us now, but what is clear, is that the themes expressed in the story have filled a void that many were not even aware existed. “Hollywood’s idea has been that what drives a massive hit is 13-year-old boys and so they keep making movies that are geared toward them,” Rosenberg said.
“And what this (series of) movies tells them is that actually you can get a pretty big hit if you write something that women actually want to see. They will see the movie eight times, they will buy the DVD and the t-shirt and all that. Yet they never quite learn that lesson. They think, ‘Oh, it’s vampires, that’s what they want to see!’ No, what they want to see is actual real human emotional stories that touch some chord with them. For me it’s about the girl coming-of-age and coming into herself, and she does that through her relationship. But it is unapologetically about love, and that is very unusual these days. And there’s also the wish-fulfillment of being the every-girl who is actually unique and special and desirable even in her awkwardness and insecurity. “
One would have thought that the phenomenal success of Titanic would have already taught the studios about the power of the female demographic in the marketplace.
Feminism and Controversy:
As popular as the films are, they are also often surrounded by some degree of controversy. When I told Rosenberg that I hesitated to use that word she laughingly replied:
“Why not? It’s accurate.”
One of the current causes for contention in the public discourse is Bella’s decision to have a child at the risk of her own continued good health. Many see the decision as reflective of a pro-life stance. Rosenberg assures audiences that she is in no way attempting to use the film as a platform for propaganda.
“It was a deciding factor for me of whether or not to do the movie. If I could not find my way into it that didn’t violate my beliefs (because I am extremely pro-choice very outspoken about it, very much a feminist) I would not have written this move,” she said.
“They could have offered me the bank and I still wouldn’t have. In order to embrace it I had to find a way to deal with it. I also had no interest in violating Stephenie’s belief system or anyone on the other side. I feel a great responsibility that everyone should have their point-of-view. And their beliefs respected. So I really was struggling with it until I talked with my sister-in-law who’s actually a former ACLU feminist lawyer and a fan of the books. And she pointed something out to me (which is quite obvious but which I had overlooked) which is that having a child is a choice.
“It is a choice to have a child. And having not made that choice in my own life, having actually done the opposite, that had not really occurred to me. But when she pointed that out I was like, ‘Okay, I know my way in.’ And so for me, it was that Bella chooses this. Now someone else may not perceive that, and that’s great. They have their own point-of-view which is whatever their own point-of-view is. I didn’t need to make a statement about it, I just needed it to not be a statement on the other side as well. It’s a story about a woman who chooses to have a child. For me. That may or may not be how it is in the book. And some people will have issues with it.”
Many people find Bella to be a decidedly anti-feminist character, they feel that she is (seemingly) unable to function without the benefit of a male counterpart (be it Jacob or Edward) and are taken aback that she is willing to sacrifice her very person-hood in order to take part in the relationship with Edward in particular. “Someone said that to me and I thought, ‘Sacrificing?’ Wow, I never in a million years saw her as someone who sacrifices,” Rosenberg mused.
“I see her as someone very determined. She knows what she wants and she goes for it; whether it be this guy, or that she wants to be a vampire, or that she wants to have this child. She knows exactly what she wants and come hell or high water she’s going to get it. Okay so she might die and ruin Edward’s life (laughing) well, tough beans. You know she says, ‘I want this child.’ So that’s how I approach it, and that’s how I write. I think that other people see it very differently and I can only do what’s right for me. What fits my perspective.”
The screenwriter’s point-of-view raises some salient questions about how we collectively interpret the idea of feminism. It is interesting to note that self-sacrifice has been a theme in the series for nearly all of the characters, and yet it is only Bella’s willingness to surrender one thing (sometimes her life) for the sake of another that is called into question. It is also interesting to note that if Bella is dependent on Edward, then he is equally dependent on (and willing to die for) her, and yet, her character is the one that the vast majority of people choose to scrutinize.
That is not to say that the interpretations of the text are entirely unfounded, it is only to examine the lens with which we all choose to view feminism. Is a woman strong and capable if she chooses to forgo a family in favor of her work, and weak if she chooses the opposite? That seems restrictive, unfair, and the opposite of what is meant by the word — choice.
“I think it’s something that is often lost in the debate,” Rosenberg agreed.
“We are fighting for choice and she makes choices. She makes choices that I wouldn’t have made, and she makes choices that I didn’t make. But she makes choices that are true to her character. I think that’s an important message. But not everyone is going to hear it. They will see it with their personal perspective. Going in, my objective has always been to make Bella a very strong character. Right from the first movie on, and I think that Kristen has played her very strong. But people see what they want to see.”
The Through-line of the Franchise:
Though author Stephenie Meyer has been on board as a producer for each film, Rosenberg has in some ways been the behind-the-scenes creative constant of the film franchise, (though she does credit Meyer for her work as the “the guardian of the world”). Each film has had a new director: Catherine Hardwicke for Twilight, Chris Weitz for New Moon, David Slade for Eclipse and of course, Bill Condon for Breaking Dawn.
Although Rosenberg says they are all “extremely different,” she does contend that everyone involved in the project has been committed to adapting the book rather than using, “the book as a suggestion for the movie, as often happens.”
“I had very little time to write “Twilight.” So actually Catherine was probably closer to the Bill experience. I’d write an act and then would get notes and feedback immediately. I had five weeks to write that script because we were fighting the deadline of the writers strike. So she was very involved with instant feedback. Chris Weitz is also a very talented writer. His process is a little bit different. I finished the script before he came on board, and so I did a round of notes with him and then he took his own production polishes for himself. Which if you’re going to ask someone to do that, it should be Chris. David Slade is not a screenwriter and he thinks very, very visually and he works a lot with storyboards. So, I’d work with him and he’d be acting out certain parts and he, like Bill, wanted everything on the page. He shoots what’s on the page and so that had to be very detailed.”
“And then Bill, I have to say, was just an extraordinary collaboration. He’s a writers dream. If you’re a writer/director it could be easier to take the script and do your own work on it. The other kind of writer/director knows your language, and knows what you need in order to do the best possible job. He was pushing me further, and deeper, with each draft. Bill is an Academy Award winning screenwriter (for “Gods and Monsters”). So he’s a storyteller, first and foremost. Certainly he understands character and emotional complexity and theme. And this is a very grown up-story. It’s a very emotionally complex story. This isn’t a high school girl being the new kid on the block. This is a young woman choosing to have a child. There are some pretty complicated emotions going on, this is the story of a marriage and the problems of a marriage. Se he just kept taking it deeper and deeper and deeper and pushing me further and further and further and bringing out everything he could get out of me.”
Rosenberg continues to move forward with her goal to create strong roles for women with her production company, Tall Girls (though she did do a production polish on the more male-centric Highlander and says it was “fun to play in that world”).
“I want to create great, complex, interesting roles for women,” she said. “When I say strong I don’t mean noble. I mean intense. I want to see complicated, damaged, flawed women — who also kick-ass a little bit, that would be nice. I want to see the female Iron Man, the female Tony Soprano.”
She is penning a drama for ABC, but also has a project more in line with her current franchise at Paramount: An adaptation of Pamela Sargent’s 1983 YA novel “Earthseed” in which human genetic material is sent into space to find and seed another planet. Rosenberg describes the film as “‘Lord of the Flies’ in space. It’s a young cast with extraordinarily adult themes.”
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1 opens in theaters today.
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