Bill Condon and Melissa Rosenberg on ‘Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn’
From the headboard-shattering sex scene to the gruesome birth scene, director Bill Condon and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg reveal their decision-making behind the Twilight vampire series’ fourth film. SPOILER ALERT!
Breaking Dawn, the fourth and final book in author Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series of vampire novels, was far and away the most controversial. Bella, played by Kristen Stewart in the films, is no longer the shy teen with a vampire crush but a young woman dealing with some serious adult issues. [SPOILER ALERT!]
Bella marries her vampire love Edward (Robert Pattinson) in a lavish ceremony—shattering the love triangle between them and werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), and the two embark on their honeymoon in Brazil where they—gasp!—finally have sex. In the book, however, the sex scene simply fades to black, and Bella wakes up to find bruises on her body, ripped pillowcases, and a broken headboard. Bella then discovers she’s pregnant with a vampire baby, and spends a long time struggling through a torturous pregnancy. She’s determined, however, to deliver the baby at any cost—even her own life. In the book, the birth scene is particularly gruesome, as Edward rips open Bella’s stomach with his teeth. And then, when Renesmee—yes, that’s the baby’s name—is delivered, Jacob “imprints” on her, falling in love with her at first sight. In a review of the book, The Washington Post wrote, “Breaking Dawn has a childbirth sequence that may promote lifelong abstinence in sensitive types. And it becomes downright surreal when the lovelorn lycanthrope Jacob gets romantically imprinted on Bella’s newborn daughter, Renesmee...Reader, I hurled.”
In its opening weekend, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1, grossed a whopping $139.5 million in North America—one of the biggest opening weekends of all time. The director of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1, Bill Condon (Dreamgirls), and the screenwriter of all the Twilight films, Melissa Rosenberg (Showtime’s Dexter), explain how they created the film’s key moments—the wedding, the sex scene, the bloody birth scene, “imprinting” on a baby, and why they don’t believe the film has the “pro-life” message many critics say it does.
SPOILER ALERT: If you don’t want to learn crucial plot points about Breaking Dawn, Part 1, stop reading now or forever hold your peace.
The Movie’s Dramatic Tone
Condon: Because it’s filled with touchstones in this woman’s life—a wedding, a honeymoon night, a pregnancy, a birth scene, and then a death and transformation scene, those are all huge markers in this story, so it felt like a heightened approach seemed right. It needed to have a sweep and not be too ultra-realistic in the approach.
Rosenberg: Stephenie took a very dramatic turn with her storytelling in this book, which was controversial in some ways. This is a very grown-up, adult story. It’s about a marriage and having children. It’s a far cry from the teenage new girl’s first day in school. Then, with Bill Condon coming onboard, I worked very closely with him, and what attracted him to the fourth one was that it’s very much a character drama about examining the complexities of marriage and having a child. He was very interested in the internal workings and peeling back the layers.
Condon: But you’ve got to have humor in these movies just because that’s the thing that makes you feel you can connect to it. Whether it’s the first time you have sex or cringe-worthy wedding toasts, those make you relate to it. With the self-referential thing [like in Eclipse], I thought it was cool in that movie but I think if you push that too far, it can become not corrupted, but not innocent anymore.
Filming a Real-Life Couple (Pattinson and Stewart)
Condon: It was entirely a relief. I can’t imagine doing those scenes with two people who don’t like each other. But did I have to adjust the way they make love to each other? No, it was really good.
Rosenberg: I created the sex scene and then Bill let the actors go, and I don’t think Rob and Kris needed any help with how to perform. [Laughs.]
The Wedding Scene
Rosenberg: For me, what was great about the wedding was that in the book, it’s so dreamy for Bella and she doesn’t actually go into specifics about what actually goes on in this wedding, so I got to fill that out a little bit by adding the wedding toasts, which was fun.
The Headboard-Shattering Sex Scene
Condon: It changes anybody forever, losing their virginity, but obviously Bella, who’s anticipated it for so long, is going to come out a different person. To me, it wasn’t so much about the act but about the whole experience, and that the more potent expression of that was looking at yourself in the mirror and realizing, “I am the person who’s had sex with that person,” and treasuring each moment that will now become a part of who you are. And you have to make it funny because sex is funny, and the anticipation before the first time you do it has some humor, and because you know there’s been such tension, you can play with audience’s expectations, like, “Oh my God, that was it?” And you get more sex later, and then you get even more when they have sex again.
Rosenberg: There was not going to be any fade-to-black [like in the book]. I wasn’t too interested in that and I don’t think the fans were too interested in that. It was conveying the passion of it and the physicality of it, but also the romance of it. That’s what makes so much of this scene different from so many other sex scenes. It’s about the sex, certainly, but it’s also about the consummation of a year’s-long—in movie land—romance. It’s not hard to write a PG-13 sex scene because you can convey so much with the actors’ emotional states. To me, what’s often most sexy or terrifying is not hand-on-boob, but the suggestion of it. But I know Bill had to dial back some of the sex scene [for censors].
The Gruesome Birth Scene
Condon: I heard over and over again by fans, “Don’t water this down!” It felt like a special kind of pressure not to do that. I made the decision that during the birth, the camera’s only going to be on Bella, or showing Bella’s point of view. We’re going to be inside her as she goes through this, and what she’s going through is being shot up with morphine and going in and out of consciousness. What that allowed us to do was shoot everything that’s in the book but not show it all. If you know what Edward’s doing when he goes out of frame and hear it, then you’re not violating the contract with the reader. There’s the moment when she sees her baby for the first time and lays it on her chest, and in the book the baby bites her. All we do here is see her reaction and hear it.
Rosenberg: Once I realized that the way to play it was all from Bella’s point of view, it becomes stylistic, in a way. It’s about conveying the terror, and that’s coming from the actor’s faces and how they’re responding. Kristen, I think, just went all-out on this one and you really got the sense of how terrifying it is. You get the biting of the placenta and you get Renesmee biting her without necessarily seeing it.
Condon: There was a body cast done of Kristen, and it was a trick they first did with Sigourney Weaver in Alien—it’s her shoulders and chest, and somewhere around there you merge into this incredibly thin body, which makes sense because she’s very frail and she’d just broken her back and couldn’t move.
Jacob “Imprinting” on Baby Renesmee
Condon: In the outline, Melissa had come up with the idea that you take the entirety of Renesmee’s life to adulthood, and you see that he’s connecting to the whole person and not the baby in front of him. My feeling was that it had to capture the part of him that’s a magical creature, and a shape-shifter that lives in nature, and to remind everybody that that’s the part that isn’t necessarily falling in love, but connecting in some way.
Rosenberg: My approach there was to lay in throughout the movie what “imprinting” was, and touch on it at several different moments throughout. I wanted to emphasize that this was a spiritual connection and to take physicality out of it, because that would be creepy. And emphasizing that Jacob has become her protector, in a way.
The Movie’s Alleged “Pro-Life” Message
Rosenberg: I am rabidly pro-choice and very much a feminist, and I would not have taken this book on if it was in some way going to violate my beliefs. No amount of money would have done it. And the book is very much Stephenie’s point of view, so I had to find out how I could tell this story without violating my own beliefs, and without violating Stephenie’s. I really struggled with it. I talked it out with my sister, who is an ACLU feminist lawyer, and she pointed out that having a child is a choice, and that’s something that gets lost very often in the debate. So that was my way in.
Condon: For both Melissa and me, that’s an area of discomfort. Talking to Stephenie, it was never her intent to make a political statement there. People see it as an abstinence parable, then she has sex, and pregnancy is the punishment for having sex, which I think is reading too much into it. It’s Bella’s stubborn sense throughout the films of always knowing what’s right for her that’s crucial here and not any political position.
Rosenberg: In the book, Bella doesn’t believe she has a choice; she’s going to have this baby at the expense of her own life. In the movie, that’s not the case. She honestly believes that she is going to survive this. I have friends on the right who have seen it who say, “Oh, this is a very pro-life movie,” and I have friends on the left who have seen it who say, “Oh, you really altered that point of view for the movie.” Bella says aloud, “It’s not your decision. It’s not any of yours.” And Edward says, “You chose this. You decided this without me. I don’t choose this.” It’s very much debated throughout.
The Film’s Ending
Condon: When I got involved, the studio was going to have Bella hunt and then end the film after her first hunt [as a vampire]. That seemed like a mistake to me. This is a Bella story, and the completion is the moment when she opens her eyes [as a vampire]. The whole experience of stepping through the looking glass and being in an altered state should be saved for the second movie, and it also seemed like a great cliffhanger.
Rosenberg: It seemed pretty obvious to me that the opening of Bella’s eyes was that moment. But then the studio and producers played with it a little bit and thought about having the threat of the Volturi as the end of the first movie. But it just kept not feeling organic, so we ended up right back there.
What to Look Forward To in Part 2
Condon: I’m in the middle of cutting it now and it’s an incredibly different movie. It’s more about the mythology and about this global view of vampires. It’s a lot of fun and chock-a-block with action, and not as emotional as this. I think the power of it is this vampire-hunter-goddess that Kristen Stewart creates. She was so turned on after watching everyone do all that stuff to then do it all herself. She said, “I’m going to make the best vampire ever.” The Volturi is also a serious threat, and when you have Michael Sheen and all these great actors playing them, it’s hard not to give it a big wink, which I like.
Rosenberg: One of the toughest things about that movie is you have all these great characters coming into it, and you really have to pick and choose who’s coming forward. If you include all of them then none of them get enough time. But you’ll have to see it to find out!