Ten years ago, the Twilight film franchise was an unknown quantity. In fact, Catherine Hardwicke, the director of the first Twilight, was surrounded by film executives who all but expected the vampire flick to fail.
“Nobody thought this is a big, blockbuster franchise,” Hardwicke tells the Daily Beast. “There were very low expectations for Twilight, because every other studio had turned it down. They said, OK, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants was a very popular book for girls, and it made $39 million. That’s it. We don’t know if this could ever make us any more than that, so we don’t really want to spend more than that. The expectations were low literally up to opening weekend.”
“Why do you think I got the job?” she laughs now. “Why do you think they hired a female director? If they thought it was going to be a big blockbuster, they wouldn’t have ever even hired me, because no woman had ever been hired to do something in the blockbuster category.”
Hardwicke’s previous work included the critically acclaimed Thirteen, another film about teenage desire and the hazards of adolescence. Author Stephenie Meyer’s first Twilight novel appealed to her, she explains, “because I felt it was an interesting impulse, this mad love, this metaphor for adolescence and danger.” Meyer’s series of four books acknowledges that a teenager’s first love feels like life or death. It approaches adolescent longing with the appropriate drama and solemnity. The vampires and prophecies and multiple murder attempts serve to corroborate what Bella and Edward knew from the very first moment they saw each other—that they were special, fated to be, extraordinary and probably immortal. Who hasn’t felt that way at 17?
Every teenager who had an Edward in their lives, and especially those who didn’t, took to Meyer’s books like religious texts. Executives at Summit Entertainment, the studio behind the saga, may have been dismissive of these fanatic teens—Hardwicke recalls some tempering her optimism, saying, “This could just be 400 girls in Salt Lake City blogging about it”—but she “pretty much knew on some level that it was going to be this successful.” While she understood that online passion wouldn’t necessarily translate into huge ticket sales, she was blown away by the fervor of the fandom. “I saw it even at book signings with Stephenie, before there was even an actor’s face, I saw people going crazy when she said the word Edward. I thought, just wait until we have this wonderful actor there, they’re going to lose it!”
But as the Twilight books’ popularity continued to skyrocket, critics took issue not just with Meyer’s writing but with the themes at the heart of the series. Bella’s obsession with her controlling boyfriend, her insistence on sacrificing her life for his, and her inability to conceive of a life without him hardly made for empowering themes. And then there is the thinly veiled pro-abstinence (it was implied that if Bella had sex with Edward before marriage, she would die) and, later on, pro-life propaganda (Bella refuses to abort the fetus that is killing her). Asked about the more problematic aspects of Meyer’s magnum opus, Hardwicke explains that the fourth book—Breaking Dawn, in which Bella dies giving birth—had not yet been written when she directed the first film. “So some of those issues you touched on fit more into the fourth book, which didn’t even exist. I didn’t know that that was where things were going to go!”
Meyer was busy writing book four when the first Twilight movie was being made, so she wasn’t heavily involved, Hardwicke says. “She saw our casting choices, she was involved a bit, but she was mostly busy as a bee at the time on her own stuff, and then she also came out to the set maybe two times. So I didn’t have that much interaction with her,” Hardwicke adds. In her limited time with the author, however, the director expressed “that I wanted a lot more of the cast to be diverse.”
But Meyer, who was raised Mormon in Phoenix, Arizona, “had not really written it that way,” Hardwicke says. “So she probably just didn’t see the world that way. And I was like oh my God, I want the vampires, I want them all—Alice, I wanted her to be Japanese! I had all these ideas. And she just could not accept the Cullens to be more diverse, because she had really seen them in her mind, she knew who each character was representing in a way, a personal friend or a relative or something.” She says Meyer pointed to her books’ description of the vampires: “She said, I wrote that they had this pale glistening skin!”
Finally, Meyer came around to the idea of Kenyan American actor Edi Gathegi playing Laurent, “one of the scary antagonistic vampires,” Hardwicke recalls, laughing. “The only reason that came through was he was described as having olive skin. And I said, there are black olives out there! Then she was open to the students in [Bella’s] peer group being other ethnicities, so we got Christian Serratos and Justin Chon, so we were able to open it up a little bit.”
Hardwicke and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg also fought to make wallflower Bella a more active participant in the story “and a little less passive than she was in the book,” she says, acknowledging that the protagonist’s arc through later books did allow her to “come into her power more. But that was definitely one thing we were trying to do.”
Since Twilight was essentially treated like an indie film, Hardwicke didn’t have to deal with “the pressures of a Marvel movie,” she says. While she would have loved more financial support for her vision, she got freedom instead: “I wasn’t forced to hire a famous movie star from the Disney Channel or whatever.” She was able to cast two relative unknowns as her romantic leads: Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. “It was like hey, I saw this girl in this indie film, she has some very nice scenes in Into the Wild, I think she would be good. She really shows this deep longing. And they’re like, OK. She wasn’t a household name. And then even with Rob, he’d been in Harry Potter but that was several years before and he hadn’t gone on and done much visible stuff since then, so he was pretty unknown too.”
“None of the other actors in any other roles were names or anything,” she adds. “They didn’t even try like, ‘Let’s cast up the parents!’ No, we just made it, and really in a personal way.”
Of course, Hardwicke’s casting ended up pushing K-Stew and R-Patz into household nickname territory; a sunglass-wearing, paparazzi-dodging, Donald Trump-tweeting-about-your-love-life level of fame. Their chemistry as Edward and Bella instantly spawned relationship rumors, then a real-life romance that Twi-hards were way too personally invested in. A decade later, the dust has settled, and America’s favorite YA couple has gone their separate ways, making new names for themselves as talented, multi-faceted performers.
In the past, Hardwicke has expressed guilt over the ways that Twilight impacted her young stars’ personal lives. But now, “looking at it over ten years,” she now has a far more optimistic take. “They both found a way to handle it and still stay very true to themselves, which is amazing.” She always saw the pair as “these cool, indie kids with very eclectic, interesting taste in music and everything” and has been astonished to watch as each actor has been able, “because of Twilight, to greenlight tons of wonderfully diverse, interesting indie films that would have never gotten made. They were able to parlay the fortune and the fame into the kind of art that they were ultimately more interested in.”
Twilight went on to surpass all box-office expectations, earning the highest-ever opening weekend gross at the time for a live-action female-directed film: $192.8 million. But Hardwicke quickly learned that sexist double standards still apply to women who achieve the seemingly impossible. The Monday after her huge opening weekend, Hardwicke went in to the Summit company offices to do “some online chat room stuff.”
“When I went in I saw that there were massive bouquets and balloons and bottles of wine, and crazy gifts sent to them by all the distributors around the world or whoever, all their friends,” she recalls. “So I actually had it in my mind, wow, this is a pretty unprecedented success. I had heard these rumors that when a director does something like this they give them a car, they give them a two-picture deal or something like that. They give them an office and ask them what they want to do after this.” Hardwicke pauses. “And then I got a mini cupcake that day. I was like oh, OK, cool—coming in here, I’m sort of working for free, doing this online stuff, and that was what I was offered: a mini cupcake.”
Hardwicke figured she could at least use her success to pick up new directing projects she felt passionate about. “My agent had sent me some neat scripts that I loved,” she remembers. “One of them was a very intense family drama kind of thing, very gritty. Of course, that’s not like Twilight but it is like Thirteen, which went all the way to the Academy Awards. But they wouldn’t even let me have an interview. They would not even meet me. They just flat-out said, no, we think a guy is going to direct this movie. So the reality hits you pretty hard, pretty fast.”
“At the time I didn’t understand when people were dinging me for being whatever, emotional or difficult,” Hardwicke says, referencing a Deadline Hollywood report that quoted sources who called her “irrational” and unfit to direct the franchise’s second film, New Moon. “Yet they’re praising all the male directors I’ve worked for for being passionate and visionary and sticking to their guns, fighting for what they want. But a woman is emotional, difficult, bitchy, whatever. I didn’t know those code words and I didn’t know they were used pervasively, and so I just took them personally.” She admits the stigma worried her until she realized “this is being used all the time for women.” She’s learned a lot since then, she says. “We all have.”
Hardwicke didn’t want to direct the next Twilight installment (her vision for that film’s screenplay was markedly different from what the studio wanted), and she doesn’t regret her decision. Still, she would have loved to see another woman take the reins: “Even after the success of the first one, all the Twilights, the next four, all directed by guys.” The wave of female-led YA films that followed Twilight was no different: “The next Divergents, all directed by guys. All the Hunger Games, directed by men. They still didn’t want to take the risk again.” Such small-minded hiring has led to an ever-growing pool of men ‘qualified’ to helm big projects, in contrast to the handful of women with the industry credentials to compete.
It’s something she sees happening on the small screen as well: “Just look at these ones that I love, Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies,” Hardwicke begins, ambivalent about how much has changed over the past decade. “I mean those are written by women, they’re about women, and directed by a man. So you have a system that just perpetuates. We suddenly have another group of men who have all that clout and who are now the best person for the job, because they have these great box-office numbers, or incredible award-winning series, and now it’s men who have all of those accolades and all of that access instead of women. So it’s still difficult to get a level playing field out there, because every year there’s going to be 95 or so men who have a movie that made the top 100 highest-grossing films.” She contrasts that statistic with the eight female directors included in the top 100 films of 2017—three more than the year before. “The odds are still stacked against us,” she says.
The director often crosses paths with those in the industry “patting themselves on the back” for making female-centric content. Hardwicke’s next question is always who’s directing. “And then they feel guilty, so they say, oh, but we tried to get a woman to direct it! I say, you did? Well I never got a call about it. And then I’m standing next to another female director: Did they call you? ‘No.’ So I don’t understand how you tried to get a female director. Well, they probably called one woman. They probably called Ava [DuVernay]!” she laughs. “Oh, Patty [Jenkins] wasn’t available?”
“Don’t come up to me and brag about it,” Hardwicke says. “You can make the effort, you can find an awesome female director and give them the chance.”
If there’s one thing Twilight accomplished, for Hardwicke, it’s inspiring female filmmakers to dream big. “At many film festivals I speak at, women say that they saw me on the DVD, and thought, hey, if she can do it, I can do it. So that’s cool. We need more female voices, we need more women behind the camera, writing, everything, and that’s one great legacy.”
Twilight alone couldn’t knock down the deeply entrenched hurdles for women in the film industry, and it didn’t flood Hardwicke with incredible directing opportunities. But she loves the film, she says, and is in awe of the fans who still obsess over her work a decade later. In fact, she’s just returned from a 10-year anniversary Twilight festival in Forks, Washington. “All the Twi-harders from around the world were there, it was so fun,” she gushes. “They have so many great things, they do Bella’s wedding, you get to throw the birdseed, you do the dances, the proms, that kind of thing. They have costume contests, who’s more screen accurate, who’s more creative with the costumes. They have nature hikes. They have blood drives!”
“As a director, you work so hard, you pour your heart into so many projects, some of them get made, some of them never get made,” she continues. “This one got made and people loved it, and appreciate every little detail. I mean, people are wearing the shoes that Bella wore, and asking how did you choose this and that, and they really care about the love and attention that filmmakers put into it, so that’s kind of neat. And it inspired so much creativity, between fan art, fan-fiction, 50 Shades of Grey…”
Hardwicke still watches Twilight, albeit through clips that she shows to her film students. “I've actually looked at it quite a lot over the years, and I still feel really excited about what Rob and Kristen did, how present they were in the moment, how engaged, and they did such a wonderful job putting their heart and soul into it. And I still love how it looks—it’s so beautiful.”