November 11, 2009
Jewish Screenwriter Pens ‘Kosher’ Vampires for ‘Twilight’
Melissa Rosenberg, the screenwriter of “The Twilight Saga,” is 6 feet tall with straight blonde hair, a pale complexion and a long, slim nose. Not exactly the most ethnic mien imaginable.
“I don’t look particularly Jewish,” she says sheepishly, half wondering why she’s on a lunch date with The Jewish Journal. “But I have a very Jewish name.”
Her name — Rosenberg — has been strangely, if not surprisingly, advantageous to her career. Back in the 1990s, when she was first looking for an agent, one interested agency made an incorrect assumption about her that proved fortunate. “They said, ‘We just made a deal for your mother’ and I was thinking, ‘You guys are good. [My mother] has been dead 10 years.’ Then I realized they thought I was Joan Rivers’ daughter, who at the time was Melissa Rosenberg.”
In the 18 years since, Rosenberg has made a name for herself as a television and film writer. But her career really took off in 2007 when she was anointed movie scribe of the “Twilight” franchise, based on the best-selling series of young adult novels by Stephenie Meyer. The story, about a high school girl who falls in love with a vampire, became a tween/teen phenomenon. Rosenberg penned the first script, “Twilight,” which grossed $380 million worldwide, and has since gone on to write the sequels “New Moon,” which hits theaters Nov. 20, and “Eclipse,” which wrapped production in Vancouver in late October and is set for release in June. Rosenberg is also the writer/executive producer of the Showtime series “Dexter,” about a sociopathic serial killer who justifies his life of crime by knocking off the bad guys.
Bloodlust, vampirism and ambiguous morality could be seen as decidedly un-Jewish. After all, vampire mythology, as Rabbi David Wolpe notes (see accompanying article), is philosophically at odds with Jewish values. And if you ask Rosenberg, “The Twilight Saga” in particular is a departure from religion-based vampire lore and instead is an exercise in secular storytelling.
“Vampires aren’t very Jewish,” Rosenberg says. “The most basic thing about them is that they are born out of Christian mythology.” Nevertheless, she is quick to point out that Meyer, a devout Mormon, has created her own vampire mythology, devoid of religious connotation, absent the Christian symbolism of crosses and holy water.
And yet, the protagonist vampires of “Twilight” are different in another way from other vampires.
“They’re kosher vampires,” Rosenberg says, laughing.
To call them “kosher” may be a stretch, but the leading figure, Edward Cullen, and his family are all “vegetarians” — which in this context means they don’t drink human blood, though they do eat animals — and therefore they are not killers, but hunters. Their anomalous way of life, in which diet is not simply a carnal drive but a moral choice, makes them outsiders, not only from the world of mortals but also from the larger vampire culture, who see the Cullens as a threat to the vampire establishment. The story’s human protagonist, Bella, idolizes the Cullens, and, you could say, sees them as a light unto the vampire nation.
Rosenberg insists this isn’t a religious film (“The minute you start espousing any religious framework, you start turning audiences off”), yet she does identify with one aspect of vampirism: “There is that sense of wanting to be a part of something but being unable to be, that sense of being the other, the outsider,” she says.
Rosenberg grew up in a secular community in Marin County, just outside San Francisco. “We led the whole human potential movement,” she says. Her father, Jack Lee Rosenberg, is a prominent psychotherapist; her mother, Patricia, who was raised Irish Catholic, died when the future screenwriter was a teenager. The loss was profound, though Rosenberg quips that it made her “highly neurotic” and fixed her with a “tremendous fear of abandonment.” Rosenberg left home for the East Coast when she was 17 and worked at a theater and dance company before she attended Bennington College in Vermont. It was there that Rosenberg says she felt “Jewish” for the first time.
“There was a much stronger community there,” Rosenberg remembers. “They really embraced me. In my world, that had never happened, so I felt the warmth and safety of it. I think I, more than anyone else in my family, really have more of a Jewish identity because of that. And also — this will sound silly — but the head of the theater and dance company was married to a Jewish man, and I idolized him. I said, ‘I want a man like him’ — and I ended up with one.”
Rosenberg says she retired her dream to become a dance choreographer when she realized “I was too tall and started too late.” She moved to Los Angeles in 1986 and began writing, but decided to enhance her resume by going to graduate school. “Writers don’t have a lot of clout in this town,” she says about why she chose to learn producing. “Writers are typically a very introverted group; we spend our days alone in a room typing. It’s not in our nature to put ourselves out in front of a movie and demand recognition.” In 1990, she graduated from USC’s prestigious Peter Stark Producing Program, hoping that a producing credit might help her control the direction of her work. A year later, she got an agent.
Paramount soon hired her to write a dance movie that was never produced, though the experience gave her the needed cachet to land her first television gig. For the next 15 years, Rosenberg worked continuously as a writer/producer on a variety of shows, including, “Party of Five,” “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” “Ally McBeal” and “The O.C.,” which she also co-executive produced. In 2006, Rosenberg’s first feature screenplay — another dance film, called “Step Up” — made it to the big screen.
On the set of “The O.C.” Rosenberg met her husband, television director Lev Spiro, who Rosenberg claims is descended from 16 generations of rabbis. The couple studied with Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Sholom before he married them.
Throughout her career, Rosenberg has demonstrated an activist streak, taking up causes to benefit writers and women. She sat on the board of directors of the Writers Guild of America, West for five years and served as a strike captain during the industry-crippling writer’s strike of 2007.
On the gender divide in Hollywood, Rosenberg is adamantly outspoken.
“I don’t like being powerless,” she says. “I do not accept powerlessness.”
When she began working in television, show runners employed few women — typically one per show — to capture the requisite “female voice.” The lack of opportunities created severe competition among women writers. And for feature films, women were hired for “chick flicks” and not much else. On the rare occasion when a woman was hired, she first had to combat stereotypes to prove her talent.
“Apparently women are not funny,” Rosenberg says facetiously of the prevailing belief in the industry. “And we don’t know how to write action, and we don’t know how to write men. Whereas men can write everybody.”
But women’s status in Hollywood is finally changing, she says: more and more women are writing in a variety of genres, and now there is group advocacy. Rosenberg is a member of the League of Hollywood Women Writers, a collection of female show runners — “a good portion of which are the breadwinners in their families,” Rosenberg notes.
“Every battle is ongoing,” she adds. “Women are in a better situation than they were 50 years ago, and yet, we’re still making 78 cents on the dollar.”
Rosenberg’s credo is “a writer is a writer,” and she believes gender should have little impact on content. So could a man have written “Twilight?”
“A man would have written a different ‘Twilight,’” she says. “It may have been as good, or perhaps better, but I mean — in the same way that you know I could have possibly written ‘Transformers.’”
If Rosenberg once considered herself a “solidly middle-class working writer,” “The Twilight Saga” has catapulted her into the Hollywood big leagues. Instead of waiting for projects or writing spec scripts, she is now part of a club of writers who get offered prized material.
“I’m the longest overnight success in the history of writing,” she says.
But Rosenberg’s favorite perk comes on the red carpet: “My stylist is able to get some dresses loaned by some wonderful designers,” she says. “When I first hired her for the last premiere, she said, ‘So-and-so designer will loan us a dress.’ And I said, ‘They do understand I’m just the writer, right?’”