Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Melissa Rosenberg Interview

Melissa Rosenberg is one of U.S. television’s most prominent writers with credits such as Ally McBeal, The Outer Limits, The O.C. and most recently Dexter. However, these days she’s more well-known as the poor soul who must adapt the Twilight novels into screenplays. This month sees the release of Eclipse, the third in the series and a considerably darker film than its predecessors. Melissa spoke to TD about her work on the Twilight series, why she loves Dexter so much and the reason why US television drama is so damn good nowadays.

The Twilight franchise is outrageously popular. Is it daunting to take on the challenge of adapting the novels?

Well I’m thrilled to be a part of it, that’s for sure. It is daunting. And its also surreal. It’s so separate from my day to day life. I wake up, I go to my office and I sit at my computer and I have to come up with the next idea which is a very humbling experience. It’s very grounded, day in day out. It’s just me and my dog hanging out in my office every day and then you go out and you see this frenzy that surrounds the movies and all this connection and you think “wow, I wrote those”. It’s very divorced from reality for me.

What approach do you take to the material in terms of making it cinematic?

Film is a visual medium, the direction, the actors can tell so much more than dialogue can so very often what I’m doing is actually taking dialogue away so that the actors can tell the story with a look or a visual representation. It’s really about letting the visual tell the story and not just dialogue. I think a lot of people think writing screenplays is about writing dialogue but that’s just a very, very small part of what the screenwriter does.

Each film has had a different director? Has this had any effect on your work?
Catherine (Hardwicke) was the only director who was onboard before I was. I worked very closely with Catherine on Twilight because I had a very short period of time to write that one. I had the very definite deadline of the writers strike that was looming. She was a very close collaborator on that but the other two I was onboard before the directors.

Eclipse is much darker in tone than the previous two novels. Did you embrace the darkness of Eclipse?

I completely agree. It is darker. And the stakes just continue to grow and I completely embraced it. My job is to really bring the novel to the screen. There have always been dark undertones to all the Twilight movies but this one gave me the freedom to go even darker. It’s kind of my natural tendency anyway. I like dark. I like edgy.

Why is the Twilight franchise so popular?

I would say its two-fold. One, you have the character of Bella who is such a universal character. She is the “everygirl”. Everyone can see themselves in her. So you have a character that brings you into a world and everything is told from her perspective so you have a very intimate guide into the world. And then you place this character into this very epic romance. It’s so evocative for older people of their youth and the rush of  first love and for younger people its just everything you could hope for. So, it’s a combination of these two things. This very intimate, real character to invest in and then placing her in a world that is the ultimate situation we all yearn for…the ultimate romance.

Your background is mostly in television. Do you think adapting a series of books is more comfortable for you than a standalone film?

I think adapting a movie as rich as Twilight is a different kind of challenge than producing a standalone film. It’s such rich material to play around in. Writing this series of books is not unlike writing for television because of the continuing storyline and the same characters and there are four books and serialised storytelling is what I have been doing for many years so I ended up playing to my strengths. When I first signed on to do Twilight I approached it as a standalone film. I didn’t read the other books because I wanted to experience it as the audience experience it. Coming into this world from Bella’s perspective and not knowing more. So as soon as I finished writing Twilight I went home and quickly read the other books, delved into the thick mythology. So Twilight started out as a standalone film. It’s a challege, you’re kind of writing in a vaccuum. You’re inventing everything anew for the screen. There’s something freeing about it, you’re not locked into any voice or character but there’s also something very challenging about it writing for characters you know really well, pushing them into new places.

There’s a rumour that the next film Breaking Dawn is to be split into two parts. Do you have a preference between one film or two films?
Well, I think its still up in the air. My preference would be for two films. it’s a really dense novel. There’s a lot of story in there.

Your career has mainly been focussed on TV, with shows such as The O.C., Ally McBeal and Dexter. People say TV is going through its best and worst time ever regarding quality. TV drama is better than ever but there’s a lot of terrible reality TV out there too. Do you have any thoughts on this?

I honestly feel that some of the best writing in the film industry in general is going on in television. And that has a lot to do with cable coming to the forefront. Cable is a very creative place to be. On network television you’re writing twenty episodes per season. You’re lucky if you get to write a second draft of a script. The time limitations are not particularly conducive to good writing. So when you have a successful, high quality network show its amazing. I’m always in awe of the people who can pull that off because it’s very difficult. With cable, you’re doing only ten or twelve episodes and you have time. On Dexter, we have four episodes written before we even start shooting. And quality has everything to do with rewriting and time. Yes, you can pop something out quickly and it can be good but the more time you get to spend with your script the better the work. I’ve had more time on the last couple of Twilight movies so they keep getting better. Quality is rewriting.

The cable shows, from HBO and Showtime are wildly popular over here on DVD. Your theory translates well…
They’re extraordinary. They can tell really, really intricate stories and really unusual stories. They don’t have the censorship guidelines that the network have. They have to be pushing the envelope or they don’t stand out. And, as a writer, its just heaven. For me the possibilities of television, as a writer, has become wonderfully expansive.

So, Dexter is a cable programme. Did you find that a positive working experience.

Dexter is my favourite working experience of all time.

Why do we love Dexter so much? What is it that makes us root for him, in your opinion?

I always approach Dexter like he’s an alien and he’s landing on the planet and he’s exploring what it is to be human and there’s such an innocence about that and a vulnerability. He really doesn’t know what it is to be human, he’s just so dissociated and damaged. So he’s gone through life making a study of what it is to be human so he can pass as one. But he also, over the course of four seasons become more and more human with each episode. It’s very, very gradual. So we root for him to reach there and then he surprises us by showing us the monster inside him. This is not a vigilante. This is a beast! That’s what I love most about Dexter. The audience is invested in him and we’re shouting “yeah! Kill that guy!” and he kills him and then we see the evil in it, we see the monster in him and I think its reflective of the monsters within ourselves. Its really also an allegory about the death penalty in a way. Are we willing to pull the switch?

Is it easier returning to a character each week than writing for all new characters in each feature film?

Well, its interesting because each situation presents different challenges. On one hand you know the voice of your character. You know how this character that you know so well is going to respond. On the other hand you have to push the character into new territory. Where can you go with this character? It really forces you to push your own limitations and to really go places you wouldn’t normally go.

Have you got any other TV projects in the works or is it going to be Dexter and Twilight for the forseeable future?

Actually I am sorry to say I have left Dexter. After four years working on my favourite show I thought the time had come to move on. I’ve loved my time over the past few years working on the Twilight series and Dexter but its been pretty intense, seven days a week. I left with a very heavy heart because its been my favourite working experience to date. But I am by no means leaving television. I will always work in television. I love working in television. Its definitely a much happier place for writers than feature films.


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