I had the opportunity to speak with the hugely successful and very interesting screenwriter and TV writer Melissa Rosenberg last week while she was on the set of her new show Red Widow.
Women and Hollywood: So, congratulations. It’s a huge accomplishment I saw the movie last night, it was great.
Melissa Rosenberg: Oh, I’m glad you liked it.
WaH: So can you talk a little about how you got the first writing job on Twilight and what made you stand out to get that initial gig?
MR: Well I had worked with Summit (the studio that produced Twilight) on Step Up, my first movie. And it was such a great creative relationship that when they got the rights to Twilight they called me and offered it to me. It was just tremendously good fortune.
WaH: Were you disappointed that Catherine Hardwick did not come back to direct the second film?
MR: You know, I actually really liked the way that it rotated directors. Because the cast were constant, I was a constant, the producers were constant. It was nice to bring in a new perspective for each film. So I thought that was actually really smart.
WaH: The fact that you’re a constant is not typical in terms of franchises. Why do you think that it worked out that way?
MR: It came down to really an unusually good mix of creative elements and we had great collaboration between myself and the producers and the studio. We all just worked the same way we had the same vision of the books. And we clicked. It’s a rare thing, you know, to find those relationships. But we just clicked and kept going.
WaH: Do you feel that Twilight has changed Hollywood and how it thinks about girls and women?
MR: I hope it has. I think the prevailing wisdom prior to Twilight was that you would have tent-pole movies all for 13 year old boys. And they were driving box office. I actually had producers in the past tell me, you can’t do any kind of action movie or open a big tent pole movie with a woman because there are no women who open movies, except for maybe Angelina Jolie. I was appalled by that comment. So what Twilight does is show how women/girls can drive box office and they can support a tent pole movie. They’re an extremely passionate fan base. This coincided with the 13 year old boys starting to stay home and play video games and work on their home media stuff. They’re no longer going to theaters in droves. It’s a sort of interesting confluence of events that all came together with women becoming an active audience.
WaH: It’s also a lot easier for them too, to appeal to a 13 year old boy than it is to appeal to a 40 year old woman. We’re a little bit different.
MR: I think we’ve been a mystery to studios in some ways and now we’ll see if that changes. So now I think, “Oh well I’m a female screenwriter who wrote some tent pole movies, maybe now they’re gonna trust those movies to other women.” I would hope that is true and that's part of why I spend time mentoring women — I’m hoping that changes. But if we must fight for it, no one’s handing it to us. No one’s handing out anything.
WaH: How does that dovetail with the work that you want to do with the League of Hollywood Women Writers?
MR: I was a group member. It was right after the (writers) strike that a bunch of us came together and realized that throughout the strike that women were actually getting things done, and making things happen and we really experienced ourselves being politically affected. So we said we could take this nationally, to the national political stage. And we started raising money for candidates with our pro-writer agenda and we were quite successful at it.
WaH: What's going on with the group now? Are you still doing stuff?
MR: It’s kind of dormant right now.
WaH: You’ve also worked with the Writer’s Guild Diversity Committee. What are some of the issues that you’ve focused on in your work with the diversity committee?
MR: Iit’s all about relationships, it’s all about introducing everyone, to one another. That’s really what it is in Hollywood. But it’s also about craft, and honing craft, so for me it’s encouraging that process. What the guild does I think does effectively is put people together. Give people access. And they’ve also been very effective in working with studios and networks to encourage diversity, like for instance I know here at ABC (the network of Red Widow) Paul Lee who runs the company, and everybody at ABC is really stridently promoting a diverse agenda.
WaH: I think ABC has kind of figured out that women watch TV.
MR: ABC has figured that out, yes.
WaH: Like, some days I watch CBS and I’m like do you know that women actually watch television?
MR: Yeah, I mean CBS is doing alright, but I think the major percentage of our ABC audience is women. We’re driving television audiences, we’re all over it.
WaH: I have this quote that you said “What I want for Tall Girls (her production company) is to be creating great strong roles for women but in 4-quadrant, high-concept movies, not movies for women in the traditional sense, but more interesting, intriguing, complex roles and kick ass women.” So talk a little bit more about this mandate for the production company, because now you can really take your success out for a ride here.
MR: And I’m milking it for all it’s worth. I think women writers and actors for that matter have been sort of ghettoized into this rom-com or romantic drama storytelling. And so Nicholas Sparks is a place where you might find women, but you know, forget Iron Man. And that’s something that I hope to bridge— or at least that’s my goal for the company is to really bring women behind the camera and in front of the camera into much more high-concept films. I want the female Iron Man, the female Tony Soprano.
The roles for women have been either you’re the mother or you’re the whore or the lieutenant. They’ve been sort of limited, either way you’re all good or you’re all bad. What I’m loving about Red Widow is the ability to really do move toward the Tony Soprano or Walter White or Dexter, these character who are just complex, flawed. My character perhaps has more of a moral center than those characters, but still, you know, makes mistakes.
WaH: Going back to Twilight for a second, I watched a lot of the craziness unfolding this summer with Kristen Stewart and thought people were incredibly hard on her. And I’m wondering if you had any thoughts being a woman in Hollywood why we are so hard on our women.
MR: Well, I mean, I’ll take it one step broader, they’re extremely hard on Twilight. When you start to read the criticism of Twilight it’s just vitriol, it’s intense, the contempt. From critics both men and women. And it’s interesting, you know, there’s a Harvard professor, who wrote an article after the Breaking Dawn called “The Bigotry of Hating Twilight,” and it was very interesting to me. We’ve seen more than our fair share of bad action movies, bad movies geared toward men or 13-year old boys. And you know, the reviews are like okay that was crappy, but a fun ride. But no one says “Oh my god. If you go to see this movie you’re a complete fucking idiot.” And that’s the tone, that is the tone with which people attack Twilight.
WaH: I write about that all the time the double standard.
MR: Good. I’m so glad. It’s an incredible double standard. I’m not saying that Twilight is, you know, some brilliant Oscar-winner, it’s not Dr. Zhivago. It’s not trying to be. Because it is a female fantasy. I would argue that it’s actually a universal fantasy. Which is, the fantasy being to be loved and cherished for exactly who you are. And that I would say is both male and female, but women are drawn to it.
WaH: And also I think that guys don't like women treading on their space.
MR: Right. It’s also because it’s female it’s worthy of contempt. Because it feels female, it is less than. And that is simply a reflection of our society. That’s not relegated to just movies. That’s just a reflection of why we have so few senators and why we haven’t had a female president yet. It’s reflected all over in board rooms…
WaH: I’m on the same page as you are on this. I did really try to take on this double standard of Kristen and how women are treated on those kinds of issues and what happened was that people who are in the Twilight universe lost their marbles over this. Not even the people who don’t like Twilight but it was people who love Twilight who really felt like she had betrayed them. And I found that very—
MR: Like the Scarlet Letter.
WaH: Yeah. And I just don’t know if you have any opinion on that.
MR: If it was the other way around, and it was Rob who had cheated on Kristen, it would have been “Oh, he’s a bad boy.” Poor Kristen. And then he would have gone on to be loved because he’s such a sexy guy. But with a woman, I mean, she’s a whore. And that is where they go with it. It is a archetype, you know. And women tend to be categorized as Madonnas or whores.
WaH: It’s incredibly sexist.
WaH: And it came from a lot of women, too. They like—they attacked me for even defending her.
MR: It’s mostly women who are throwing those criticisms. Here’s the bottom line. She's a kid. She made a mistake. And if she were a man she would be chastised. But what are you gonna do.
WaH: So you’re back doing TV now. What’s the difference between working in TV versus film?
MR: Oh it’s an enormous difference. First of all, I’m running the show. I’m producing it. I didn’t produce Twilight, I was just a writer on that. For Red Widow every decision comes back to me. From the eyelashes to the hairspray to the shoes to the edit. I’m in control of the creative vision. And it is a writer’s dream to really, really shepherd your vision. And TV’s really the only place the writers get the opportunity to do that. In features I’ll work collaboratively with the studio and producers and Stephenie on the script. And that is what it is. I fortunately had really great producers. But now I get to have my hands all over this.
WaH: I saw that you established a scholarship at Bennington talk a little bit about what that means for you to be able to be philanthropic with your success.
MR: It’s one of the things I love most about what Twilight has brought me. I finally am in a position to turn around and help others and lift up other women writers. I am involved with Write Girl, which is such a great organization, because they go into inner city schools and work with underprivileged girls to pair them up with other writers. And it gets them learning to express themselves and become familiar with their own voice. They have a 100% success ratio getting those girls into college. 100%. And that is all because they’re being mentored by these people and guided. So that’s a whole crop of young women going out into the world that are going to contribute. And I just had such and amazing experience there that I want everyone to be able to have access to that place. It’s just like I feel so blessed by my own good fortune and it is actually really, really gratifying. I mentor a lot of young women writers and seeing them work their way up the chain in Hollywood is really exciting.
And that is one of the most exciting moments ever, throughout the Twilight thing is when I’m with the fans and maybe one 12 or 13 year old girl will be like, “I want to do exactly what you do, “I wanna be a writer.” I’m like, “Oh my god! That is huge!” That is what I want for people to be like “Hey, one woman made it. You can, too.”