With just days to go before the release of The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Rolling Stone chatted with the film’s director, Chris Weitz, about the anticipated movie’s wildest stunts, the loyalty of Team Edward and the scenes you won’t find in Stephenie Meyer’s original book.
You said everyone’s been asking you about the pressures of taking on such a successful franchise, and they also want to know why vampires are so popular.
Honestly, there weren’t really any pressures for me because there was a guaranteed audience which meant that even if I made a terrible movie people would still watch it. So once you got that reassurance [laughs], you just set out to make the best movie possible, which is what we aimed to do. And I’ve felt nothing but support from the fans since day one — actually day one there was a little doubt because I have a Y chromosome, but ever since then I’ve felt a lot of love from the fans.
And why vampires?
I’ve actually realized that Stephenie Meyer’s vampires aren’t really vampires — you really don’t see many crosses, there’s not much garlic, they don’t sleep in coffins, they can go out in the day time — they just look more beautiful. It’s just more like Greek gods. So, in some ways it’s about this girl who falls in love with this demi-god. I think that symbolizes your first love — the person you’ve fallen for who you think will never never possibly return your affections.
How much did you research vampires before starting the movie?
Absolutely zero. My research is reading Stephenie’s books and talking to Stephenie and seeing the first film and knowing about the actors — getting familiar with the work that they’d done, but not much vampire-ology.
I read that you had this idea about the movie looking like a Victorian narrative painting in terms of the colors — how did you come to approach this film from that angle?
In terms of a model for cinematography I think it’s a good one, which is to say the Victorian paintings, especially the pre-Raphaelites, told stories in a somewhat sentimentalized and very beautiful fashion. These books are not afraid to be sentimental or romantic and I wanted every aspect of the production to be unafraid to go to a very romantic place.
Whereas the first movie had a lot of tortured rock & roll kind of love to it, I wanted this one to be a sweeping epic. In many ways it’s a much bigger film — in terms of the ground it covers, the emotions and the places it goes to — so I really wanted to make a classic-looking movie that was classically composed and classically shot. It had a classical score in a sense and [composer] Alexandre Desplat is very much from a school of composers who can work very much in a classical vein and in a contemporary vein. There is a sort of groovy component to it, which is the soundtrack, which we were able to get all of these amazing bands to compose for us, which is incredibly gratifying.
Going back to the notion of a “sweeping epic,” the book breaks down into three sections: at first everything’s fine. Then Edward leaves Bella, and most of the story is her coping and befriending Jacob. The end is packed with action as the story reaches its resolution. For purposes of telling this story on a screen, did you readjust the breakdown of the story?
You’ve pretty much described acts one, two and three. One of the interesting things is that the fear that people had was that there wasn’t going to be enough Edward. That he’s banished from the book really doesn’t apply to this movie because you don’t spend as long away from Edward. But it’s also important to have some absence of Edward in order to miss him.
It would have been wrong, I think, to have numerous “back at the ranch” scenes where you’re checking in with Edward kind of knocking around the Amazon rainforest looking for Victoria. I think it’s a nice balance between missing Edward and having enough of him. Melissa Rosenberg, the screenwriter, and I decided to have visual hallucinations of Edward instead of just aural. When she sees him it’s in a very subtle way so that it wasn’t hitting people over the head.
I think the movie’s pretty well balanced. Taylor gives a great performance, and his and Kristen’s relationship holds down the movie in the middle of the film. Yes, there was a temptation to shift things so that we had as much Rob as possible but for Team Edward they’re gonna get their Rob and for Team Jacob people they’ll get their moment in the sun as well. But we didn’t scramble to make up for any perceived deficiencies in that department.
The book is quite dark, but there are also lighthearted moments.
When things go dark they do get very dark and it is quite melancholy and depressing for a while. But we found ourselves with a few funny moments in our hands and when I hear it play in front of audiences there’s laughter and I think it’s intentional [Laughs] and not uncomfortable laughter. There’s funny, off-kilter moments.
For instance you find out what vampire elevator music would sound like in one part, which is not what you would have expected and is not in the book. I decided in post-production it would be an interesting thing. When Stephenie finally saw a cut of the movie she said she absolutely loved it and wanted more.
You consulted Stephenie frequently as you were making decisions.
I was often checking back with her when I wanted to riff on something to see if it was OK with her and very often she thought, “That’s a great idea, that’s funny” or we’d have further ideas that would be incorporated into the film. So in some ways it’s kind of an extrapolation or extension of the book.
But I did make some mistakes — at one point I had one of the Volturi [the powerful law-upholding Vampires] holding a stone knife to Edward’s throat, and she said that wouldn’t work [because the Volturi] wouldn’t cut Edward’s throat. So I said, “OK!” [Laughs]. I get my mythology wrong every once in a while and she sets me straight.
Did you add any scenes?
There’s a moment of threat when Bella is drowning that I think isn’t in the book. It’s really funny — I’ve heard the response from fans and they saw that scene differently when they read it. I love it when something I’ve extrapolated or added in — and I always try to do things in the vein I’m adapting — but I love when something I’ve written or come up with or the screenwriter has written or come up with comes across as having been in the book in the first place. Then you know you’ve really hit your sweet spot.
I also read that you had instructed Kristen to do that scene one way and then got a wet suit on and got into the water yourself and realized it was an impossible way to tackle it.
Rob had done this underwater work in one of the Harry Potter movies, so he was relatively comfortable doing things at the bottom of a pool. In order to get this shot right, we needed to get a top shot of Kristen as Bella sinking down in the ocean. The best way to do that is to have Kristen at the bottom of a 12-foot pool weighted down, just sort of floating there immobile. And Kristen was already expressing a bit of concern about deep water, and I told her, “12 feet isn’t that deep!” [Laughs] I decided to go down there in a wet suit weighted down and I started to panic.
I thought, “Holy crap, this isn’t fun at all!” and realized Rob actually had some guts and that the rest of us should really stay up towards the top of the pool. We adjusted it so we could make our shot sideways and it looks just the same as a top shot. And Kristen had a cold that day, so that was the last thing I was going to do — put someone with a cold at the bottom of a 12-foot pool with weights in their pockets. That didn’t seem like a wise move.
There’s also motorcycle riding in this book — was everyone game for that?
We didn’t want to endanger Kristen at all — when she’s on the motorcycle, she’s actually on a trailer. Even though it looks very realistic, she’s never free-riding at any moment. But it didn’t keep Taylor doing all of his stunts — he does all but one because he’s just kind of crazy to jump around, and when you see him jump up the side of a building and do this parkour gag, it’s actually him doing it. He has a wire on him, which we edited out, but the wire was only to prevent him from dying if he fell — it actually isn’t hoisting him at all, so he was jumping up the side of a building on his own.
You’ve also adapted The Golden Compass and About a Boy. Do you think that you would have been able to approach New Moon without those under your belt?
I think given the time constraints we were under, it would have been much, much harder. The fact I was able to go into the CG elements of this movie with a team I already knew from The Golden Compass that had won the Oscar on The Golden Compass helped immeasurably because we were up to speed from day one. So it helps to know the right people — I’m not a master of CG, I just know people who are.
And in terms of translating from the page to the screen?
I think I’ve had, by now, quite a bit of training on what to keep in and what’s extraneous and I’ve more and more become attached to the idea of being as faithful as possible to the original book and realizing that my responsibility is to the author and the fans and the book.
You had some controversy surrounding the release of The Golden Compass.
The controversy was that the studio removed elements of the book were going to make it less profitable. I objected strenuously and they re-cut my version of the film. So it made me all the more determined to prove the best way to adapt a book that has a fan base is to identify what the fans care about and to present it properly.
When you do that, you know that you’re at least capturing what is appealing to people in the written form in the first place. That means that you also know what — who the audience is, even ones who haven’t read the book — will like. At least you’ve identified something good.
You’ve talked a little bit about emphasizing Team Edward and Team Jacob moments — when did you get acquainted with those important points within the fanbase?
During shooting I tried not to refer too much to the fan Websites because I knew I’d just be worried about it all the time and kind of swayed like a politician by polls. I read the book like a fan — I read it very quickly and sort of gobbled it up and wondered what would be the moments that would matter the most to me as a fan. Melissa, fortunately, had written a great script that encapsulated what mattered most to the fans. At one point I remember Stephenie writing to me and saying that she had checked the Websites and the top 10 scenes that fans cared about were in the script, and that felt good.
There will be a moment here or there that a fan misses or sees differently and there’s nothing I can do about it except to present it as another fan, albeit one who has tens of millions of dollars at his disposal to realize things.
Does your favorite moment from the book differ from your favorite moment in the movie?
No. Wait. Yes, it did, actually. The last moment of the movie I think is my favorite moment. It’s a moment from the book but it’s presented a little differently — it’s given a little more of a cliffhanger, sort of romantic feel to. I think audiences will understand why I presented it that way and why it’s not [the way it was in the book]. And the whole film builds up to it very carefully.
Did you do that to set the scene for David Slade to step in and direct the third film, Eclipse?
To be honest I was selfishly trying to choose the optimal emotional moment for myself and perhaps leaving David a bit of a pickle as to how to pick up the next movie. I’ve seen Melissa’s script for the third movie and it deals with it pretty admirably — so they’re OK!