Few directors can say they’ve made films back to back for a beloved franchise. It may be cost effective for most Hollywood studios, but it’s a rarity. This century we’ve had Peter Jackson’s three “Lord of the Rings” films, the Wachowskis’ “Matrix Reloaded” and “Matrix Revolutions” and, most recently, Gore Verbinski’s second and third “Pirates of the Caribbean” blockbusters. Jackson is currently at it again with two “Hobbit” features, but the latest filmmaker to join that exclusive club is none other than Academy Award winner Bill Condon. The man behind acclaimed films such as “Kinsey,” “Dreamgirls” and “Gods and Monsters” has jumped into the world of Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” with “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Pt. 1” and “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Pt. 2.” The first of the films hits theaters next month and, not surprisingly, pre-release polling shows the interest in the lives of Bella and Edward Cullen hasn’t waned since “Eclipse” was released 16 months ago.
I first met Bill just a few weeks after he returned from Sundance and the premiere of “Gods and Monsters” (that was way back in 1998 for those of you playing at home). A lot has happened since then, but through a ton of success on the big screen and co-producing the best Oscar telecast over the last decade (no bias, it’s the truth), nothing may have prepared him for jumping on the “Twilight” train. With “Breaking Dawn, Pt. 1” completed and only a few weeks away from opening, Bill was kind enough to jump on the phone this morning and chat about the ride so far.
Congratulations on finishing ‘Breaking Dawn, pt. 1’ Do you consider this the halfway mark?
Oh, easily, more than that because we shot both movies back to back. I’ve got a pretty good cut of the second movie so we’re in the good 3/4 plus mark. I started this with just outlines, so yeah, almost there.
You see yourself in the homestretch?
Most moviegoers and ‘Twilight’ fans wouldn’t realize that you’ve come from working on another movie where there was this hardcore fan base. On ‘Dreamgirls’ there was lots of pressure to get it ‘just right’ from fans. Did you take anything away from this before you worked on ‘Breaking Dawn’?
That’s a really interesting question and I suspect it’s part of the appeal of getting involved with this. When you work on something that does have a huge fan base there is the potential for a lot of pitfalls, but there is this incredible thrill of seeing that kind of movie with an audience. If you somehow connect to their dreams of what this could be were I think there is a special anticipation that you don’t get in an everyday moviegoing experience. I wonder, I hadn’t thought of that before, but that’s probably part of what turned me on about doing this. But, yeah, there is this sort of thing you have over your shoulder of trying to — you can only do it in your own way and your own take of what the material is, but because it means so much to so many people you hope you tap into the collective unconscious and visualize it in a way you might imagine it. Or sometimes different just as satisfying.
By the time this is over you will have made one long four-hour movie, perhaps over four hours?
I’m just curious, anyone can consult with other filmmakers who have made movies back to back or producers who have made films they knew were going to take six months to shoot and feature elaborate long editing process. At this point, however, has it been a tougher endeavor than you thought or easier?
I would say it’s right amount the middle of that. It is grueling to spend six months shooting, no question. But there wasn’t — people have wondered was it confusing to go back and forth shooting a scene one day between movie one and movie two, but it wasn’t because the second movie starts at the moment the first one ends. It’s one long movie, without end titles maybe one 3 1/2 hour movie. And that’s what I did early on. I put the two scripts together. So, it wasn’t about where a scene came from it was all this one continuous story I must say.
You’re talking about jumping between one movie and another did it make it hard to add things or be spontaneous on the set?
No, not at all. I think a lot of that happened. I did rehearse. I did talk about the script with the main actors for many, many weeks and certainly everybody else through their scenes, but you get on the set and, my god, an easy day was a scene with just nine vampires in it. Then there were the hard ones with 27 vampires, y’know? Certainly in those scenes with the Cullens, because of the challenge of having so many people who have so many important things to do, it was always like ‘How do we loosen this up? How do we remember that these people are real?’ So, that became a fun exercise on the set. You always have to be open to those moments, because those moments are the ones that become most memorable.
You talk about a scene where you have 27 vampires on set and I believe in the second movie there are more set pieces than in the first. Am I correct?
Yeah, I would say that’s true. Absolutely.
It’s funny, I think some fans would have had trepidation because some of your previous work doing ‘Dreamgirls’ or producing the Oscar telecast, but my guess would be, did those projects where you have such elaborate numbers or scenes that have to be worked out, did that make it easier for some of the action scenes in this film?
I think you’re probably right and it’s not just action. As anyone who has read the novel knows, we end up in a big set piece with maybe 27 or 30 vampires on one sided aided by a dozen or so wolves against 80 vampires on the other side in this big confrontation. It’s mostly a discussion, but many dramatic beats within that. And that was like staging a spectacle on a stage almost, because we shot that for a month and not even counting all the second unit stuff. The sense of spectacle and moving fluidly through that, I did feel like I was calling on my musical roots there.
Did you storyboard this movie out more than any you had before?
Yeah, well, it’s an effects movie. We have as many effects shots than ‘Avatar’ or more in the two movies. Especially with big things like the wolves or Renesmee and everyone’s powers so it lead to a lot of pre-vizing [pre-visualization] too so that you really are getting a sense of what you need and what visual effects companies are going to be doing the work.
You actually haven’t had that many movies with a good deal of visual effects in them previously. Was that exciting to work on?
It was. Because, let’s face it, there is so much you can do now and I think our most spectacular effects I don’t think it’s even worth talking about before the movie opens, but it’s what happens to Bella in the last half of ‘Breaking Dawn, pt. 1’ and it’s just real. If you were making a real movie about a vampire pregnancy and there were no other vampires involved — if you were making ‘Rosemary’ Baby’ today — just the subtle things you can do to really communicate the sense of a body under attack and getting weaker and weaker? It’s extraordinary. So, learning this stuff has been one of the great joys of doing this movie.
So, something that would give any director pause would be the fact you’re the fourth director these actors have worked with. In TV, where directors come and go, you always hear the actor saying, ‘Eh, the director just tells me where to stand. I know the character.’ How open were the actors to actually taking more direction than you’d expect?
Well, I don’t know about more, but certainly exploring with me and they were incredibly open. Y’know, I keep calling this ‘Twilight grows up,’ but in a way it is. All of the characters take tremendous steps in this story and that’s part of what turned me on to the material, to collaborate with Kristen Stewart as she goes from being the Bella we know in the first three movies to being a bride, being someone who finally has sex, gets pregnant, gets sick, gives birth, dies, become a vampire, becomes a warrior? Just think of that journey. I guess for none of them it was just playing the same old thing. Jacob becomes a man in this movie. He moves away from being the third leg in a triangle and breaks free of that and his background and his family and his pack and becomes his own person. So, that was a journey all the actors were eager and open to collaborate on.
Was there any actor who surprised you?
I think people will be surprised by everybody. In general, Kristen has such a huge journey to take and to watch her become this fierce, protective, powerful mother figure? I think that will surprise people. Taylor surprised me with his commitment and the dark places he goes to in this movie. And Rob, I think there is some sense that he has relaxed into this part and finally willing to show more of himself. His own charm, wit and grace are in evidence in this movie. It surprised me in how relaxed he seemed in something he’s fought a little against before.
You mention you think of this as ‘Twilight grows up’ because of the events that take place in the film. Is there anything you did with the vampires or werewolves that reflects this as well? Are they more sinister or fearful?
I think certainly that really comes into play in the second movie. These movies so far have mostly dealt with these vegetarians who don’t attack humans except for some of the newborns in the last movie and some of the people in the first couple, but here it’s a collection from around the world of vampires with specific gifts. So, I think yes, there was a sense of maybe seeing a darker side of them. And I also think we spend a lot more time in the final movie with Arro and his more overtly sinister group of Volturi.
I think you know this, I was on the set of ‘New Moon’ when they shot those first scenes with Michael Sheen and the Volturi and it seemed at the time that it was the funniest thing to him. To be playing this character. Is he just having a ball when you work with him?
Yes, he is. That whole group. It’s interesting, because you spend chunks of time with just Rob, Kristen and Taylor and then the Cullens. And there is a moment when it’s Volturi time and it just brought a completely different vibe. It’s British camp at its best. I don’t mean camp in a bad way, I mean just people who are having a blast and being very clever all the time.
One of the other things that’s interesting for fans of your work and fans of the first movie is this is the first time you’ve worked with Carter Burwell since ‘Kinsey,’ right?
Yes, that’s right.
I know that the last two scores have gone in radically different directions than the first movie, but what did you want to do with the score for these two movies?
First of all, I was just so thrilled that Carter wanted to do it again, but Carter is someone who is just so original that for him it’s not about repeating or getting back to the sound of ‘Twilight.’ That was a specific sound for a teenage story and I think you’ll find it’s more romantic and more lush. However, I always think of this fourth movie as a bookend to the first and it did give us a chance to play around with Bella’s Lullaby, the theme he had developed for the first movie and bring it full circle, because obviously things are coming full circle for Bella. In general, the one of the things that is consistent in all the different approaches that Carter is taking — and he’s taking his cue from what he sees — but it happened over and over again. It’s thrilling. It happened to me when I heard sketches and when we were in London recording the score, he is an actor’s best friend. I saw it happen with ‘Gods and Monsters’ and ‘Kinsey’ and I saw it happen here. [He can] get so deeply inside a character and it just fills out a performance and bring what sort of happening underneath to the surface. I think he’s a hidden weapon. I think actors should request him in their contract. He’s extraordinary in that.
Hardcore fans will recognize Bella’s Lullaby I’m guessing?
Yes, it definitely plays a part.
is there a theme that’s repetitive through the movie?
If I say there are three, I probably mean five. There is a Renesmee theme that really comes to fruition to movie two that is quite prominent in movie one. There is a Bella/Edward love them that plays a lot throughout the first half of the movie. There is Jacob’s theme and there is a theme that suggests the love of everyone around Bella at the wedding, especially her parents and that’s really lovely. I probably am missing one, but those are the big themes.
Look for more on “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Pt. 1” on HitFix in the coming weeks.
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