The famed screenwriter discuss life before, during, and after the Bennington years
Before Melissa Rosenberg ’86 was known for her screen adaptations of the bestselling Twilight Saga, including Twilight, New Moon and Eclipse, and her work on Dexter, she was a dance and drama student at Bennington College. In June, Rosenberg will return to Bennington as the 2010 Candace DeVries Olesen ’50 lecturer and Commencement speaker. Here, Rosenberg talks about her previous work crafting sharp characters for TV and film and about what she learned at Bennington.
What could a teen movie about dance and cable show about a serial killer possibly have in common? Answer: Melissa Rosenberg ’86, screenwriter of the former and, in the case of the latter, writer and co-executive producer. Beyond that, only the speed-talking, six-foot, former dancer can say.
Variety writes that the 2006 feature film Step Up “neatly balances grit and gloss” and “achieves a level of grace and exuberance not unlike that of a classic MGM musical.” Aimed at young teens, the movie Rosenberg scripted follows the story of Tyler Gage, a foster kid with terrific agility, who, while doing community service at the Maryland School for the Arts, becomes the unlikely dance partner of a ballerina-in-training. The two fall in love, and the dance they subsequently perform fulfills each teenager’s dream. “The movie doesn’t try to be anything other than an entertaining and joyful experience—and moving; it goes in that direction, as well,” says Rosenberg. “But dance movies are always the Big Performance at the end and someone seeking a dream. That’s just my favorite theme in the world. It’s totally corny, but if I only wrote movies about pursuing and realizing one’s dreams, I would do it.”
“That’s what Bennington was for me,” she continues, “a way to realize dreams. The school really taught me you can make things happen in your life on a lot of different fronts.” Rosenberg’s route to Bennington was circuitous. After attending a “massive public high school with a crowd of people bunched in a classroom and expected to learn” in southern California, she moved to New York City to join a small improvisational theater dance company. For two or three years, she worked to support herself financially and still dance: “It was one huge, long struggle.”
When she finally came to Bennington, she says, “I walked into VAPA [the Visual and Performing Arts Building] and I lay on those sprung wood floors and just laughed with joy at how fantastic this incredible space was to create in. And I knew my entire job was to create and learn.” Her dream was to become a choreographer. Once she graduated and returned to Los Angeles, however, she set that dream aside. “I said to myself, ‘You know, if I did nothing but dance for the next five years—nothing but dance—I would probably only get really good. I’d never be great. I’m six feet tall and I started too late.’” She had begun dancing at 15.
Back on the West Coast, many of her friends worked in the entertainment industry, and Rosenberg became intrigued. She went to graduate school, obtaining an MFA in film and television producing from the University of Southern California’s Peter Stark Producing Program. (The extremely selective program—it accepts only 25 students a year—has only existed since the early 1980s but boasts four Bennington alumni.) Paramount immediately commissioned her to write a feature—a dance movie. The movie was never produced, but that first job got Rosenberg into the Writers Guild, and since then, she has never stopped working. Her pre-Step Up credits include the TV shows Party of Five, Boston Public, The Outer Limits, The Agency, and The OC.
“I love [writing for] television,” Rosenberg says, “because you’re working collaboratively with other writers. There’s a thing called the writers’ room where there are dry-erase boards on every possible surface and the writers sit together and figure things out. ‘Okay, we’ve got 12 episodes for the season. What happens over the course of this season? What happens in each episode? Now what happens in each individual scene?’ Each episode is then assigned a writer who goes off, outlines it, then writes the teleplay. It becomes his. Initially, though, and whenever there’s an emergency or someone’s stuck, you work very collaboratively. Every day I’m with my favorite people in the world—writers.”
Only such a wild workshop could have created Rosenberg’s latest project, Dexter. The program, enjoying its second season on Showtime, is based on Jeff Lindsay’s novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter and concerns a blood-spatter specialist on the Miami police force who happens to be a serial killer. A bizarre second-cousin to the police procedural, Dexter questions our culture’s attitudes toward violence. “The thing that’s wonderful to write,” says Rosenberg, “is a seduction of the audience into thinking Dexter is a hero, he’s the good guy, he’s out killing bad guys. When the viewer realizes, ‘Oh, he’s not killing them because they’re bad; that’s the excuse he uses,’ the viewer has to look at himself and at issues like the death penalty—what we do in the name of justice.”
Addressing viewers who might be scared off by Dexter’s “overly analytical premise,” New York magazine writes, “The show revels in the kind of unprintable black-humor wisecracking you imagine actually happens at crime scenes but that you rarely hear from the grim centurions on CSI.” The New Yorker agrees, quoting several of Rosenberg’s one-liners in its review, concluding, “At such moments, the show finds its voice—not as bleak police procedural but as black comedy.” In one scene, Dexter and his weeping girlfriend sit side-by-side on a couch, watching Terms of Endearment. Dexter turns to her and widens his eyes, thinking, in voice-over, “Maybe if I don’t blink, my eyes will tear up.”
“Dexter is this dark, sardonic thing,” Rosenberg says. “It has disturbing themes and explores the human psyche—very different parts of the human psyche—and this is what makes the show interesting and where the humor is born. But like my other projects, it’s character driven. If a story is character driven, I can connect with it, I can bring something to it.”