Billion-Dollar Screenwriter: Melissa Rosenberg

It’d make a great story: vet TV scribe Melissa Rosenberg (“Dexter,” “The OC”) beats out every top screenwriter in Hollywood to land the hottest gig around — adapting Stephenie Meyer’s wildly successful “Twilight” saga.

“But the truth is, it just landed in my lap,” Rosenberg says. “I’d done ‘Step Up’ with Summit, just eight months before they got the ‘Twilight’ books’ rights, and it was such a great creative collaboration that I guess they called me first, and I jumped on board as soon as I read it. It was all embarrassingly easy.”

Initially hired to adapt just the first novel, Rosenberg quickly realized, “There was a very solid movie in it, so my pitch was, I want to adapt the book and stay faithful to the material” — an approach that immediately endeared her to Meyer. “A previous adaptation had used the book as a launching pad for a totally different story, involving Bella as a CIA operative or something and that’d made Stephenie very gun-shy.”

So much so that Meyer had a contract-binding list of elements for the film, such as the vampires not having fangs, she states. “And for me, it was all about the mythology anyway. That’s what really attracted me to the whole project.”

For Rosenberg, the hardest character to crack was Bella. “The books are all from her point of view and very internal. And Bella’s very introverted and passive on top of that, which is fine in a book, but not in a movie. Your lead cannot be passive. So how do you externalize all those thoughts and experiences and make it cinematic? That was the biggest challenge, always making her proactive in a scene, and empowering her.”

While rabid fans of the books may not have been thrilled with this subtle shift, Summit recognized that she’d solved the tricky book-to-screen alchemy then offered Rosenberg a deal for the next two films, which she wrote before the first was even released.

“The schedule — along with the changing directors — was very similar to TV, which I prefer,” she says. “Most movies take forever to make, but they had these coming out once a year, so it was a very natural fit because of my TV background.”

And while Rosenberg consciously “filtered out” both negative and positive fan reaction to her work, and was initially wary of “letting anyone into my work process,” she increasingly came to rely on Meyer as a close collaborator. “She’s not at all precious about the material, and was a great source for research, as she has this incredibly detailed backstory and history on every character.”

Despite the enormous success of the first three films (worldwide box office gross for the franchise is more than $3 billion and counting), both Rosenberg and Meyer had doubts about doing the final two movies, it turns out.

“I didn’t want to get pigeonholed, I had some political issues with the book’s ‘choice’ elements — which would have been a deal-breaker if I hadn’t figured them out, and Stephenie was also debating whether she even wanted the fourth book to be made. She knew the book ending wasn’t cinematic enough for a movie, and she was afraid it’d all get changed too much, so both of us were on the fence.”

All was finally resolved over dinner in Vancouver during the “Eclipse” shoot, she says, “when we came up with the twist at the end of ‘Breaking Dawn — Part 2.’ It was a real light-bulb moment for both of us, and we were back on board.”

“It’s been a dream job, and what I’ll miss most of all is the great creative collaboration we all had,” sums up Rosenberg, “and the great chemistry. That’s pretty rare.”

PLOT POINTS

“Twilight”
“The biggest challenge was trying to figure Bella out, and then the middle of the movie, where she discovers that Edward’s a vampire. Then you get into that second half of the second act, where you usually have people running to each other in a slow-motion montage. That was the problem, as there’s a lot of talking in the book. So how do you make that interesting in a movie? Unfortunately, due to budget constraints and other issues, it ended up being them talking on a rock. If I could redo that, I’d find a more creative solution.”

“New Moon”
“That was the trickiest of all, as Edward isn’t in the book — and there’s also this new guy, Taylor Lautner. In the book, Bella hears Edward’s voice, so it seemed natural to turn that into visions of him.”

“Eclipse”
“Keeping Bella more proactive, and adapting the tent scene, which was Stephenie’s personal favorite. So the bar was very high, and it took many attempts to get it right.”

“Breaking Dawn — Part 1″
“How do I write about the issue of ‘choice’ and not violate my own beliefs — and Stephenie’s? I solved it after talking with my sister-in-law, a former ACLU feminist lawyer and a big fan of the books. She reminded me that having a child is a choice, and that perspective got me in.”

“Breaking Dawn — Part 2″
“My favorite to write because Bella’s a vampire now, so she gets to kick ass, and as embodied by Kristen, the character’s so much fun.”

– As told Melissa Rosenberg to Iain Blair

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