Director Bill Condon knew that bringing Stephenie Meyer's young-adult novel Breaking Dawn to the big screen meant wading through some seriously intense themes not traditionally seen in a PG-13 film.
As he worked his way through the book to prep for shooting The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1, which opened at midnight Thursday, he was struck by the sheer number of plot points he refers to as "delicate issues."
"I was reading it going, 'Wow, so much happens in this story,' " says Condon. "It certainly doesn't play safe. It was daunting."
Thankfully, the Oscar winner (for Gods and Monsters' screenplay) found words of inspiration for his first foray into the world of teen fiction.
"There was one very consistent idea that kept coming through," he says. "Don't water it down. There's something crazy and intense about this book, and you just have to embrace it."
Meyer's fourth and final Twilight tome has spent 163 weeks on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list since its 2008 release. Condon hopes the legion of "Twi-hard" fans also embraces the closing of the wildly successful film series, which has been split in two (Part 2 will be released next November).
"This was the longest book," says Condon. "I don't feel like I made two movies, I feel like I made a really long final chapter. It would have given it short shrift to cram that into one movie."
The vampire-romance movie series has proven to be a monster force at the box office, with the previous three films (2008's Twilight, 2009's New Moon and 2010's Eclipse) earning a combined $791 million. But movie fans can be fickle. Breaking Dawn — Part 1 will be a clear gauge to see if they are still feeling the passion for the love triangle between the vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), the human Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and the werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner).
Keith Simanton, managing editor of film database IMDb.com, says that upcoming movies such as 2012's The Hunger Games are taking online attention away from the Twilight phenomenon. "Whether that translates into real-world tracking, we'll just have to see," he says. "We'll find out this weekend if this series has aged well or poorly."
Settling onto a couch in a sparsely decorated office on the former Warner Bros. lot, Condon, 56, insists he has not felt any waning of enthusiasm as fans dissected his every move. The attention has been so great that when a worker climbs a ladder to clean his window, Condon jokes that it's a Twi-hard peeking in on him.
"There certainly has been a lot of eyes on you right from the beginning since people care about this so much," he says. "It's great. But there is a sense that you don't want to screw it up for them."
Beer and brainstorming
Condon met with the movie's stars to tap into their Twilight experience. The first pizza-and-beer meeting with Pattinson at the actor's temporary L.A. home started slowly.
"We spent probably half of the conversation trying to figure out exactly how to order the Domino's," Pattinson says sheepishly. "I didn't know what my own address was."
Pattinson, 25, had to track down his manager for the address. But once the food arrived and the beverages flowed ("we had many, many beers," says Condon), so did the ideas.
"Bill was sensitive to the fact that the entire cast has basically grown up together," says Pattinson. "He wanted to get on the same page as everyone."
Condon also developed a tight working relationship with screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg, who has written all of the Twilight screenplays. She calls it "the best collaboration of my career."
"This movie really had the big scenes," says Rosenberg. "You had to get those right (or face) pain of death from the fans."
Especially large was the wedding of Edward and Bella, which had its challenges in the Pacific Northwest spring.
"It's always hard to play vampires who are not supposed to feel the cold," says Pattinson. "It was freezing. I was wearing a full tuxedo with heating pads on every layer."
While the forest-set location was stunning and Stewart's Carolina Herrara dress divine, there were other issues for Condon.
"It was raining, there was a helicopter with paparazzi in it. It felt like it was taking the magic away," he says. "But the helicopter went away, the sun came out, and Kristen walked down the aisle. It was magical."
The true spark in the scene, according to Condon, was Stewart's reaction to seeing Pattinson at the altar.
"People always say that you put on the dress and the bride glows," says Condon. "But Kristen held back her glow until she saw Rob. And then it was like a light went on."
'Freak out' about sex scene
Pattinson was especially concerned about working on the honeymoon scene with Stewart, 21. The consummation of the relationship, which has been teased over three previous movies, was difficult to handle.
"When there is so much expectation for a sex scene, the actors sort of freak out," says Pattinson. "No one wants to feel like they are doing porn or something."
But Condon walked the couple through the entire process and discussed every shot in detail, smoothing out the concerns.
"Everyone was so terrified about shooting it that it sort of became kind of easy," says Pattinson. "It eventually gets to the point where you're just sort of saturated and you don't feel any expectation at all."
The resulting scenes are intense but "not graphic," he insists. Pattinson says that the close-ups on his and Stewart's faces during the love scene helped capture the emotional aspects rather than the physical. But shooting them was "strange."
"It's kind of difficult to capture that crucial expression in a full-on close-up without looking like a moron," says Pattinson. "In the movie, you don't really notice the absolute, ultimate awkwardness of when we were shooting those scenes."
Another hurtle: dealing with Jacob's relationship with Bella and Edward's infant daughter, Renesmee. Black eternally bonds with the girl after her birth in a process called "imprinting." The scene required careful handling. Condon says he walked the line to clearly depict Jacob as "protective" of the child.
"He's falling in love," says Condon. "But it doesn't get into anything intimate."
The scene emphasized that Jacob could envision an older version of the infant.
Says Rosenberg: "The objective was always to keep it spiritual rather than physical. Otherwise, it's going to get way creepy."
The movie's climax centers on Bella's near-death experience in childbirth and the attempts by her new husband to revive her by injecting his vampire venom into all parts of her body. Condon let the blood flow during the birth scene.
"His horror roots were really starting to show," says Rosenberg. "I didn't think we'd have (Edward) biting the placenta, but (Condon) was like, 'Of course we're going to have him biting the placenta.' "
The director was impressed with his young actors' maturity in handling the emotional aspects of the scene. Even the oft-joking Pattinson was deadly serious as he prepared to channel the feelings of potentially losing his on-screen wife.
"Rob normally has that sense of humor where he (laughs) at everything," says Condon. "But not that day. It was like he was hooking into what it would feel like to lose Kristen."
Meyer, on hand to watch the filming, was touched. "There were people tearing up watching the scene," she says. "You could actually see him going through losing the person most dear to him."
Even after wrapping the film, Condon will not have a chance to exhale. He's already trotting around the world on a publicity tour, and then it's back in the studio to continue editing Part 2. He expects to finish next summer.
But he was able to see Part 1 amid a crowd of more than 5,000 during its worldwide premiere Monday night, his first opportunity to get a true fan reaction. The frequent audience exclamations were a sign that the director had hit the mark. Rosenberg ran into an excited Condon as the two exited the theater.
"Bill was like, 'It worked, didn't it? All the things we were worrying about. They all worked,' " Rosenberg recalls. "He was so pleased. We were both more than a little bit giddy."