Even in the most tumultuous points in my relationship with the “Twilight” brand–no matter how much I insisted I was over it, that it was stupid and I just didn’t know any better at the time– the love for first film never disappeared. Yet despite being into New Moon enough in 2009 to see it thrice in theaters, I didn’t revisit the latter on my own in the same way… until quarantine. “On my own” being the key phrase, as the opportunity to rewatch New Moon with my oldest friend who’d had the same “Twilight” journey never came up by the time I’d come around from the whole internalized misogyny thing. You see, while Twilight ‘08 is genuinely beloved by fans and criticized for some as a film where “nothing happens”, New Moon is the beginning of perhaps the most unintentionally baffling collection of heinous story arcs and characters, terrible CGI, hilarious performances and schlocky action. It’s a ride that can’t be truly experienced without other people joining you– and an actual drive-in midnight screening, ending at 3am thanks to the time change, is the perfect place to revisit New Moon or go nuts with your friends for the first time. And while I’m not here to persuade you of these facts (Twilight is unironically great, New Moon is, in a word: whack), the reasons behind why is worth exploring and reveals a whole lot more than we’d like to think.
There’s quite a lot to admire about Twilight ‘08 that one can see even in a first viewing. For one thing, it’s gorgeous, the distinctive blue hue an automatic stand-out and beautiful locations with grand shots which perfectly capture the vast landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. The close-ups and copious amount of staring is broody and intense, coming off silly to those a bit older, but are nothing but genuine towards the target audience and between the characters. I notice more and more with every re-watch that Edward is playful and teasing, Bella outspoken with him and clear in her determination and desires. Some moments are so romantic and tender and set up for wonderful things, it still makes 23-year-old me swoon. The most quotable, memorable lines are dumb in the best way, and the action just feels different– emotionally-driven by characters over the the sole desire for stunts. All these elements culminate in moments like a pivotal baseball sequence, which features one of the most legendary needle-drops in cinematic history that makes even those watching for the first time go a bit feral. New Moon beyond the initial bewilderment (which don’t get me wrong, is amazing in itself)? The soundtrack is objectively a better album than Twilight ‘08’ (but not the closest to my heart?), and complementary sequences such as Bella’s depression montage through the seasons is a very distinct, memorable method of way of visualizing entirely blank pages. The first 15 minutes are the most fun of the whole film, with an intriguing dream sequence, and the Cullens’ individual re-entrances– while more akin to Marvel movies’ “there he is, time to cheer” presentation– spark joy in those who liked them in the previous film. The handsome and kind father Dr. Carlisle Cullen, tending to Bella’s wounds and discussing grander moral dilemmas and the purpose of eternal life as a vampire humanitarian? Simply confirms the suspicions from Twilight ‘08 that he is the true catch of the series. Oh, and the entrance of the Volturi and Michael Sheen into the franchise via oil painting transition into a flashback is appropriately lavish.
Yet with all those cool shots and a near religious adherence to the book, all the personality of the first film and its characters severely dampens, clinging to life only by the talented cast and hard-working stunt people and SFX artists doing their damn best; everything else just feels wrong. Despite $13 million more in its budget, the new wigs on main characters are terrible and the styling of the Cullens a massive downgrade with cheap-looking contacts and clown white makeup. Somehow, despite requiring less work than simply leaving the actor’s natural skin as is, the sole vampire character of color is severely whitewashed to the point of looking like a new person. The leads don’t crack more than a smirk to each other, even in their “happy” moments, Edward instead coming off as chronically pained. The interesting concepts of aging with an immortal lover or the moral quandaries of vampirism and soul are shallow, quickly overshadowed by toxic “love” triangles and the most contemptible appropriation of a real indigenous group’s existence + history in recent memory. Edward launches Bella halfway across the room against the wall and into a table that couldn’t be any farther away from the rest of the scene if it tried. The majority of Bella and Jacob’s flirting revolves around half-jokes about their age difference, how weird it is for the 16-year-old to be physically appealing, and the actual bonding is largely told in a montage that features one of the worst attempts at a transition I’ve ever seen (no sane person would ever think of throwing a loose piece of pizza– note that Jake is solely human at this point and has no capacity to catch it like a frisbee). And oh, of course, Edward shows up as a ghost in what is admittedly a cool effect, but ultimately confusing to anyone unfamiliar with the book or the fact that it’s solely in Bella’s head– which, regardless: yikes!
What should be noticed is that the vast majority (though not all) of what is concerning about Twilight ‘08 is residual squick from Stephenie Meyer’s writing. The significant amount of new elements brought in through excellent filmmaking formed an adaptation not as close to the book as New Moon’s would be, but instead an elevated version of Twilight that stands completely on its own because of it. This past year of exploring neglected commentaries, deleted and extended scenes, and interview extras on my (~Borders exclusive~) 2-disc special edition DVD painted a very clear picture: nearly every commendable, interesting, and memorable moment in Twilight ‘08 and its creation comes back to Catherine Hartwicke in some shape or form. A true auteur, Hardiwcke’s ingenuity, dedication, and detail-savvy background as a production designer permeate every second of the film, with love in every step from talent-scouting to credits. Moreover, it is precisely the absence of a similarly invested, caring figure in New Moon to blame for one of the most severe drop-offs in quality in any similar film series, and the unfortunate president set for the remainder of the Twilight Saga.
Just a few minutes into Twilight ‘08’s commentary track, you’ll notice there aren’t very many out there like it– mainly in that the teenage lead actors are present as well, and feels more like eavesdropping on a group of friends who happen to work together professionally. Despite their embarrassment by talking about themselves or overall rowdiness (Rob’s lowkey always been a freak), there’s clear respect for each others’ craft and contributions, even in the casual setting. Hardwicke’s explanation and background information for how shooting played out as it did, what effects were used, and how got worked on until the last moment or on the fly, adds another bit to the surmounting pile of evidence that Twilight ‘08 was a diamond in the rough, formed under pressure in the director’s nurturing, compelling hand.
According to Rachelle Marie Lefèvre (Victoria), Hardwicke was shockingly hands-on with wardrobe from the early stages for a director, pinning, fitting and cutting fabric herself with a backstory and reasoning for every accessory and piece (Victoria collects “charms” from her victims as momentos, adopting them into her outfit). Hardwicke’s Twilight: Director’s Notebook is an extensively illustrated testament to this attitude’s presence in all areas, 176 pages of annotated insight on inspirations, concept art, storyboards, and on-set images to highlight the process of her and her crew.
CH shares in the director’s commentary that she personally did the research on the history of vampires which Bella pours over online, auditions and chemistry tests were held in her own home (like her previous films), some of the young actors even crashing on her couch after the film’s premiere; all anecdotes she shares quite fondly. Nearly every scene was rife with technical challenges, from dangerously cold weather and precarious terrain without proper structures. You’d really never know that the scene at La Push beach nearly froze all the actors in what “99% of the cast and crew agreed it was the worst day of filming they’ve ever been in”, or that the quintessential meadow scene— the dream imagery which spurred Meyers to write Twilight— was filmed on Griffith Park’s golf course in LA with the help of some creative production design and reshoots.
A stand-out part of all this is that not only was the film made, but it turned out incredible and the actors were taken care of. Stewart, still a minor during shooting, had on-set school sessions and could legally only so many hours a day. Rather than make her actors endure the horrendous weather or become frustrated at the need to constantly make scene-altering adjustments to accommodate for it, she made it work with the needs of the people on set in mind. Needing the actors to stay warm, she asked local surfers to borrow their trucks for the scene to replace the bonfire. The final result is laid-back, perfectly giving of the feel of a bunch of friends hanging out on the unpredictable coast that adds more character to the setting. While it’d be easy for anyone to focus on how exhausting it must be to film complex stunt sequences and effects shot in four or five days on a tight budget, she simply knocks it out of the park instead. She cried for 30 whole seconds in private (Robert “The Batman” Pattinson also cried on set, by the way) for a moment, then proceeded to create a fine piece of art and billion-dollar franchise as a bonus.
One of many trying sequences was the very first to be shot: the final vampire battle in a room full of mirrors, where Edward shatters the glass windows and blows into the floorboards, James is decapitated and burned. Both of these elements were Hardwicke’s idea, the latter she even storyboarded herself. The former she insisted on doing with practical effects, saying “if you can do it for real, it’s going to be better”.
Hardwicke rehearsed everything with the cast personally, in hotel rooms or with stand-ins for the many low-res references to allow the visual effect team to have a clear, coherent plan before the actual footage ever made its way to them. Her production design and first-hand knowledge of what it means to create environments around the characters shows with Edward’s bedroom, “a hundred years’ worth of journals” scattered; Bella eating veggie burgers, in a nod to her also being a vegetarian like Edward; even sneaking in the fact that footage of the previous sequence at the ballet studio are playing on the hospital T.V. and the in the painting on the wall to reflect the delirious state of her memories and reality blended together.
Yet with all this foresight, she also has an uncanny sense of what just works, unafraid with her “let’s just try it” attitude. There just happened to be apples in the
cafeteria salad bar Catherine wanted as mise-en-scene, which turned into the book cover’s cameo. The “kooky” kitchen scene with the Cullens cooking for Bella, was added the day-of, as were many of the best lines (“is she even italian?” “Money… Sex,,,Cat.” “that’s my monkey man”) directly from Hardwicke. Wherever dialogue was lacking, Rob added a line or two of his own, or would be asked to pick from a list written by Hardwicke the night before (spoilers: he chose “you better hold on tight, spider monkey”); Stewart thought of her “seatbelt” line on the spot, and Mike Newton shaking his butt at Bella through the window came out of actor Michael Alan Welch asking Hardwicke, “can I try something?” Her answer: “Who am I to thwart someone’s creative impulses”. This says so much about her work and herself as a person.
Something a lot of people might not know is that Hardwicke had her own admirable vision for what Twilight ‘08 would look like, even more so than she already accomplished by putting her spin on the “essence” of the books but changing what needed to go just enough that it would still get the green light. The Edward and Bella of the books were pretty unlikable and not necessarily endearing; Robert Pattinson describes in his own words being guided by Hardwicke, away from his “tendency of making Edward super depressed, desperate, and suicidal”, resulting in the sweet performance (the other sure sounds a lot like Pattinson’s performance through the entirety of New Moon). Hardwicke actively worked with screenwriter Melissa Rosenburg to make Bella less passive. She also wanted a multi-ethnic Cullen clan, and for the movie to represent the “diverse, beautiful people” of all “colors, size, shape, and age” that were fans of Meyers’ books; it didn’t sit right with the author, but Hardwicke fought for diverse actors in Bella’s school, friend group, and was just barely able to keep Kenyan-American actor Edi Gathegi as Laurent, who was described to have “olive skin” in the books (“‘I said [to Stephenie], there are black olives out there!’”). While ultimately, Hardwicke didn’t have to adhere to Meyers’ wishes since the rights were already acquired, the project was supposedly doomed to fail anyway, and Meyers was on set a total of around twice, CH did so with respect, saying “I’m bringing to life somebody else’s baby” and that everyone wanted her to feel “comfortable as much as we can”. Meyers understood that changes are necessary when adapting one media to another to a certain extent, and Hartwicke utilized this as much as possible whilst still honoring the author’s worldview; that’s incredible amicable and big of her as an artist and as a human.
Hardwicke never had the sequel in mind, as she “wasn’t inspired” by New Moon and wouldn’t do the rush job needed for the studio to churn out and cash in as fast as possible on the surprise hit. She would have required more time to tackle “a lot of issues” present in New Moon in favor of original ideas like before, where they “ended up doing a lot of scenes that were not actually in the book”. Meyers’ narrative certainly develops for the worse with Quileute characters (portrayed as genetically animalistic, aggressive, violent) as the antithesis to the white vampires’ “civilized” existence, and disturbingly unhealthy romanticization of mental illness and toxic abuse. Though I have no doubt that a direct sequel to the ‘08 film rather than an adaptation would be worth the wait, the amount of reworking necessary would leave the original texts as little more than distant inspiration. But she did it once, and could certainly do it again; anyone in the director’s chair theoretically could, with enough drive, creativity, and heart. Perhaps after seeing what Hardwicke had done with her first novel, Stephenie Meyers would further expand her capacity for changes from print to screen.
Director Chris Weisz however, would have nothing less than “the very best and most faithful version that can be brought” on film. The ghost director of Summit Entertainment’s previous biggest hit American Pie saw the (multi-million dollar) position with New Moon as an opportune comeback after the previous critical and domestic box-office failure, The Golden Compass (2007). Reportedly deviated and recut from the footage shot according to Weitz’s closely adapted script, the director says New Line Entertainment was afraid of “offending the right” due to the series’ themes (rejecting religion and critiquing religious institutions). It’s always sad to hear about ambitious projects butchered by cowardly executives who will do anything to follow their notions of what makes money, over the value of artistry or content. Most would sympathize with that, especially since Twilight ‘08 only happened thanks to Catherine Hardwicke’s own initiative and belief in the Twilight novel (a horrible script bloated with FBI agents and jet-skis brought back to romance and deeper themes after the director told Summit: “’You have got to throw that script in the trash and we have to start over’”). In a statement addressing the public concerning his appointment to the project and other various interviews post-production, Weisz emphasizes his dedication to the fans of the book series and his interest in the material despite his “Y chromosome” and the effort to come at things from the target demographic’s viewpoint. “I had this theory that if you stay true to the book, you would win… not only the fans, but other people will get what the fans care about. If the box office tells us anything, then it’s a win. It’s made more in its first day then the entire domestic run of Golden Compass. It’s extraordinary.”
While none of The Twilight Saga’s following films ever had a hope of being as quality as the first, even the smallest adjustments of dialogue or direction for the performers (or the makeup) would be massive improvements feasible making it to the final product. Clearly, the fans of the best-selling novel come through in droves for the first film, and the box office increase for New Moon came from the fact that millions became interested after the unique vision of Twilight introduced them to the property. I testify to this, as I’d never even heard of the books at age 11 before seeing the movie in ‘08 and became entranced in the time before New Moon’s release. Afterwards, I steadily lost interest to the point of not even bothering to watch Breaking Dawn Part 2 until years later (and with a friend). Still, there’s no reason to fault a director for doing what they believe in and truthfully, no one in 2009 would ever have expected a male director to care about the teen love story in the first place, or to abstain from the project in an effort to get a woman director the role– or even someone who cared in the first place. If the source material was his philosophy and it made fans happy, that was already more than female-majority fanbases had (and would continue to be) dealt to them. And anyway, I’d never heard Weisz’s director’s commentary or done much looking into the creation of the film before, so I knew the comparison wasn’t entirely fair, either. He’d get the benefit of the doubt from me, for just doing the best job he could at that place and time.
So imagine my outrage when, in my attempts to hear his own words as I’d heard Hardwicke’s, I came across an official promotion interview where he says the following in the most smarmy way possible: “it’s a challenge to portray something that is essentially terrible and uninteresting, and see what you can do with it visually”.
“Terrible and uninteresting,” he mumbles in the most disinterested, monotonous way. I had to rewind to make sure I heard him right. A “challenge” to make it the “best it can be”, because people are going to see the film no matter what.
Who should be more offended by that statement? That blatant insult? Stephenie Meyer, who created the IP and gave Weisz the green light, calling his film About a Boy one of her favorite of all time? Catherine Hardwicke, whose innovation and talent made the film that would lead to the sequel being made in the first place? Who was thanked by Summit for bringing them to the top 10 most profitable studios of the year with a mini cupcake, balloons, 0 studio offers, and numerous rejections for work? Or perhaps it should be screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg, who wrote the damn adaptation for both films and instead of dunking on the content, worked and thought critically to make Twilight ‘08 better? Which one of the women at the forefront of the franchise, save the Kristen Stewart of the “brilliant cast handed to” you by Hardwicke, are you belittling in particular, Chris?
Suddenly, all his other statements and drives are framed by what are apparently his true feelings. The effort to make an faithful, money-making adaptation of New Moon was for revenge, and its success a “dish served cold” Wisz was “ready to eat” his “status as a director” was “utterly violated” by botching of The Golden Compass, which he asserts is the “worst thing that has happened to [him] professionally”. Note his word choice: not his vision, ethics, the source material, but Chris’ “status” as a director. In his letter to fans, he assures that “emotions are universal”, and he’s worked with actresses before, so he can definitely capture the experience of fictional teen girl Bella. Oh, yeah? It seems emotions aren’t as apply-all though, because whereas he sees a character who nonconsensually films a female acquaintance as she undresses, pleasures himself, and distributes the footage to their entire school as protagonist material, I don’t. In an unfettered Chris Weisz film, a teen girl’s life being ruined by compromising images of her body and getting sent home from foreign exchange education through no fault of her own is the punchline, and the prom date-less culprit should be sympathized for.
Forgive me if I’m a bit concerned and upset that a male director can: publicly berate his previous employers and those he works with in a two-faced manner, whine about how “exhausting these big CGI films” are, and have a massively consequential bomb one moment and offered a massive franchise the next whilst Hardwicke fought tooth and nail from the very beginning, to not just make the movie happen but make it meaningful and with compassion on and off set. She got told: “girls don’t see movies”, that there would be at most, “400 girls in Salt Lake City blogging” about her film, and working in the interests of the buzzing fanbase of readers wouldn’t lead to ticket sales. CH strove to translate to film the feeling of a first love that feels like life or death, “an interesting impulse, this metaphor for adolescence and danger”, and succeeded on ¾ the budget. CW followed the easiest road possible with the books, hypersexualizing a 17-year-old brown actor (playing 16) with gratuitous shirtlessness and ogling of the camera. Morally fine with preserving and presenting a story in which Bella’s agency is nonexistent– where everyone but her decides her future and the fate of her body and soul, and it’s romantic, epic. (“Love interest” Jacob says “No, I won’t let you” when she shares her decision, the Cullens vote on Bella’s fate and Rosalie votes no because… she would have voted no if she had been able to choose? So defies Bella’s choice because… she was never given one? Huh?).
In a cruel way, it’s these low-expectations and misogyny that lead to the Twilight ‘08 as we know it seeing the light of day. Catherine Hardwicke states that had any studio known “Twilight” could be a billion-dollar action franchise, they wouldn’t have ever hired a female director. It tragically shows, as she was never got a movie deal, an “office at a studio”, but was turned down for action-packed scripts she showed interest in because they “need a man for that job”. Disgustingly, she was called “emotional”, “irrational”, and “difficult”, and had Hollywood say it was not her directing to admire for the film’s stylistic flair, but mostly the work of the director of photography and post-production editing.
It’s easy to get lost amidst the mountains of memes, and although the overall attitude of “don’t take things so seriously, but respect that I love garbage” is true, there is another key component of “Twilight”’s resurgence, of which I’ve been a happy participant since 2018. Accompanying this unapologetic enthusiasm to have fun after so many had become ashamed in their youth for ever doing so, is fueled by the critical looks at everything surrounding the “Twilight” period of pop culture. There is a revelation that so many people deserved better. The women and girls of the fanbase deserved better. Kristen Stewart always deserved better. The Quileute nation deserves justice, equity, and their land. But most of all, director Catherine Hartwicke deserves better, and knows it.
She is outspokenly fighting for this better future as she continues directing, and has collaborated with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and ACLU to investigate discrimination against women directors and hold accountability for diversity. All the while, she strives to be “all positive inspirational”.
It’s the Twilight Renaissance, babey.
Arthouse 101 returns with a new series of free screenings highlighting entries in various countries’ New Wave movements!