The Twilight Saga seems an interesting choice for Academy Award-winning writer/director Bill Condon to to helm. The man best known for pulling in an Oscar for writing Gods & Monsters has also explored musicals (Dreamgirls, Chicago), documentaries, and even rom-com. Finishing out the saga with the epic, two-part Breaking Dawn films, Condon speaks fondly of his actors, his locations, and his subject matter.
What was the biggest challenge for you, going into this series?
I think the biggest challenge is that these books are so beloved by so many people. You want to make sure it is your take on the material, but it doesn't betray what people's expectations are, yet still becomes a fully cinematic experience. Two movies at once wasn't fun, either. No, it was fun. It was just hard. It was such a big thing. Kristen Stewart would be high-school Bella in the morning, a vampire in the afternoon, and a pregnant woman in the evening. It was crazy.
Was the birth scene the toughest one to film?
That's a good example of the challenge. It is very powerfully described in the book, and we want to be true to that experience. I think the key to that scene is telling it from Bella's point of view - the same as the wedding. But that is also giving myself limitations. Once Bella is on that table, we're only going to see what she can see, through her eyes. As she gets weaker, as the morphine takes over, all that stuff. If you know what is happening when Rob goes out of frame, you hear things... you know what's happening. It is kind of intense. If you don't [know what's happening] you just kind of think it's a traditional birth scene.
What went into choosing the music for this film? How much input did you have on the soundtrack choices?
I think music is part of the way you tell the story. For example, when Bella finds out she is pregnant, Edward leaves the room, and that is the moment she falls in love with her baby. That was always designed to be accompanied by some song. Our music supervisor gives us all these great bands who submit music even before we start shooting. So we are listening to all these incredible songs. A combination of me and the editorial team are culling through the music, and we always hit upon a moment where we say, "That is the perfect song." I think what I'm trying to say is that I tried to leave room for those songs to play a real up-front role in these films.
Can you think of some examples where the cast gave you some insight into their characters?
All the time. Right from the beginning. The first people who arrived were Kristen, Rob and Taylor. We spent two weeks together in a room, just talking through the script - every page of the script. I learned a tremendous amount. At a certain point, when an actor takes on a role, they know it better than you ever could. Certainly, that was true here. I met with Rob a couple months before we started. We were just having a general talk about Twilight and he mentioned something that I hadn't known before, which was that in the first three movies, he was sort of playing a man filled with more than regret - almost self-loathing - because of an episode where he had broken away from the Cullen family when he was very young. It was the early 1930s in Chicago, and he decided to explore what it would be like to kill human beings. It was a guilt that weighed on him. He had been playing that through three movies but it was barely mentioned in those movies. It is mentioned briefly in the novels, but there is an unpublished novel called Midnight Sun, which tells the story from Edward's point-of-view, where it is really explored. So after that conversation, I went back and worked with Melissa [Rosenberg, the screenwriter] and we put that in at the beginning of the movie so you sort of understood where Edward was coming from, and you can see him shed that because the person he cares about most sees that, understands that, and accepts him anyway, so he is able to accept himself. So much stuff comes out of working with the actors. Stephanie [Meyer, author of the novel] was around which was incredible. Before she was there during prep, we would frantically be checking Twilight fan sites because they had better timelines than anyone else. But Stephanie really... any question you had about behavior or backstory - which any actor relies on - she was there to help us out.
How did you make the jump from professor of philosophy to film director?
I was writing movie reviews while I was in college, but I decided that was not the time to do anything about movies. Honestly, I had this Catholic education and when I got to college it expanded into philosophy. I have to say, the analytical skills you need to be a screenwriter, beyond Aristotle's Poetics, in general, the things you learn in philosophy can give you a certain kind of rigor.
Was it always your dream?
Absolutely. As soon as I graduated I started pursuing movies. I just thought of that time period as a time out.
How do the actors handle the fan frenzy
We started filming in Brazil so it was right there in our faces. They were staying on the beach, and downstairs there were just people all the time. They couldn't leave their rooms. It kind of amazed me how gracious they were, all the time. They understood that this was part of it and were grateful for the interest. One thing that is so exciting about it is - and I started a dialogue online with fans - it is exciting to be able to work on something where every decision is going to be studied and reacted to by a large group of people. It is something that means so much to people.
Did you feel the chemistry between the Robert and Kristen right away?
Oh yeah. It's crazy how close those two are. I feel that, because they are so relaxed [with each other] it added something to the movie.
When adapting the movie from the book, how did you go about deciding what to include in your cinematic vision?
I worked closely with Melissa, but it is also about the rules of visual storytelling. For example, an invention of the movie is Irina, one of the three Denali sisters, who shows up at the wedding. This doesn't happen in the book. She storms off because she has a huge backstory with vampire Laurent who was killed by wolves trying to save Bella. She plays a big part in movie two. You don't want to have to do flashbacks; you want to keep everything in the present. We wanted to show things, not talk about them.
There are so many serious topics in this film, but there are also some real moments of levity, specifically the wedding toast and when Bella gets ready to have sex with Edward for the first time. Can you talk about the decision to add those moments?
I thought the wedding toast would be a great chance to capture everything that is awkward and weird and funny about weddings and these characters. Then [the wedding night] had been described in the book but it just felt like you wanted more than anything to connect to what Bella is feeling. That incredible anxiety that anyone would feel before they get this thing they have been dreaming about, you can't help but make that funny.
Twilight really embraces melodrama. How big of a shift was that for you?
I enjoyed it - that was part of why I wanted to do the movie. I am a big fan of classic Hollywood genres, and melodrama is a genre that has fallen out of fashion. But some of our greatest directors worked in that form. It allows you to be immersed in emotion. To do that with camera and design and music and color... I very much embraced that. Also, because it often puts women and women's concerns at the center, I think it is often devalued, which is a shame.
How did you keep the two Breaking Dawns separate?
We didn't. Early on, I put my scripts together, and it was a 220 page script. Movie two opens the moment movie one ends. So it is one book, one story. I think we found the right place to end the first one. The practicality of moviemaking meant that sometimes Kristen was a vampire in the morning and a pregnant woman in the afternoon.
You had mentioned Midnight Sun earlier. Had you spoken at all to Stephanie about spinning off the franchise past Breaking Dawn?
I didn't, but it was funny because in movie two, there are a lot of new vampires, and they would always make their way up to her and casually ask, "So, any plans for Midnight Sun?" I think that Bella's side of the story is complete in Stephanie's mind. Whether or not she decides to continue the story from other points of view... I don't know.
Originally, Breaking Dawn was rated R, and we heard Bella and Edward's sex scene had a lot to do with it. So what was cut out?
It wasn't rated R, they just gave us guidelines. Frankly, it's a very clinical thing. I have been through this before, when I was trying not to get an NC-17 rating on Kinsey. [The MPAA] has been forced to have very specific guidelines, like thrusting intercourse. Anything that suggested that - not to make people too excited, it was never very explicit - but any movement that suggests that is what they object to. I suspect that because of the hype around Twilight, they paid particularly close attention.
Can you talk about casting the Denali sisters, who are all new to this movie?
There is a lot of cast that you are inheriting, which is great, but there is a huge canvas of vampires - especially in the second film - that are new to the series. You get a sneak peek at it with the Denalis. That was a long process of making sure you found three actresses who seemed like they belonged together, who had a slightly otherworldly quality. It was fun casting them.
Can you talk about the stuff you shot in Brazil?
We started this big movie very small. It was only Rob and Kristen. We started shooting on the honeymoon. I found it great. The crew was great. We had some weather problems: we got rained in and all had to sleep in bathtubs at the honeymoon house. Everything about it was magical. We based ourselves in this colonial town about five hours outside of Rio. You'd get on a boat every day, sometimes you'd stop at a little fish place on the way, then you would go to work. It was great.
Do you feel like younger Twilight fans will be able to handle the adult situations in Breaking Dawn?
Well, I think the fans got older, too. I think it is important that the series grow with them. These concerns are not the same concerns Bella had when she moved from Arizona. If you take out the vampires and the werewolves, what is this about? It's about the first year of marriage. It's about what happens when you fantasize about something for so long, and you finally attain it, but then you also have the reality of waking up every morning with that person. Or, in this case, one of you is waking up. What is that like? It is a very grown-up thing.
How do you manage the tremendous cast? You are known as an actor's director, so how did you give the actors the attention they each needed?
We would have scenes with the Cullens and you would have eight or nine vampires in a room, and I would think, "Oh good, this is an easy day." We had so many scenes with literally 27 people in the room, and all of them making points. It's huge in that way. But we have such good actors. It is important that everyone get their moment to define who they are. It is a real challenge, more in the second movie. We have vampires from all over the world and we want to know what each one represents, what their powers are, and who they are. That was a lot of the work with the actors. It was good Stephanie was there. If it wasn't something that was in the book, she would know some detail to add to the character.
What was the last day of shooting like? Did you have any kind of celebration afterward?
The last day was actually the middle of April, in Vancouver - and it snowed. But the penultimate last day of shooting was the last dance with Kristen and Taylor at the wedding. Rob stayed for the whole thing, and we ended at dawn. I think it took everyone by surprise at how emotional it was, that they wouldn't be playing these characters anymore. Everyone got emotional, then Kristen cut it with a joke. On the last take, it is a high shot, everyone has run off and it is just Kristen and Rob. I called cut, she takes a beat, then she starts running into the forest in that wedding dress, yelling, "Jacob, come back! I made a mistake!"
The final, final moment of shooting was when Ashley [Greene] and Jackson [Rathbone] are dancing, and everyone is there. It was weird - everyone was there, even the high school friends. Then we yelled cut and everyone hugs. It was great.