Rotten Tomatoes visited the Vancouver set of The Twilight Saga: New Moon, where they observed filming on crucial scenes of the romantic fantasy sequel, including the very first appearance of the Volturi, the franchise's Italian vampire coven.
Day One: Production had just passed the halfway point when we arrived on set at the Vancouver Film Studios in May, where The Twilight Saga: New Moon -- or rather, the Untitled Sports Movie, its secret working title -- was weeks away from completion. Scenes featuring Jacob Black and the Wolf Pack had for the most part been filmed. Production was packing up the next week to do the last leg of shooting in Montepulciano, Italy, where Bella would make her fateful run across the town square to stop Edward from committing the ultimate sacrifice. Finicky weather had forced last-minute changes to the shooting schedule, but we'd be given a glimpse that few outsiders had yet seen: the unveiling of New Moon's Volturi.
Inside, a large stage was dressed in meticulous detail as the inner chamber of the Volturi, the ancient Italian vampires who rule the vampire world who appear in the second, third, and fourth Twilight books. The gold-accented central room in this "underground" lair, hidden, according to the book, in tunnels under the town of Volterra, Italy, is an ornate and refined circular room with 30 foot-high ceilings that give it a stark airiness, punctuated by beautiful marble tiled floors and Latin inscriptions.
A sample passage, commemorating the "history" of the vampire race in Latin, reads, "liberte te ex inferis" -- translated, "Save yourself from Hell." (Coincidentally, the same phrase is also inscribed on the blast door in Lost.) Details like these lent a believable sense that history -- even the fictional, vampire kind --is written into the very architecture of the Volturi headquarters.
The centerpiece of the chamber held three throne-like chairs, belonging to the Volturi leaders Aro (Michael Sheen), Marcus (Christopher Heyerdahl), and Caius (Jamie Campbell-Bower). Standing at attention were all of the Volturi guards, all dressed in vaguely European-style finery -- dark hues, sharp lines, and in a range of period styles.
In the midst of it all, cast newcomers Cameron Bright (who plays the psychically-powered Alec), and Dakota Fanning (portraying Alec's sadistic twin, Jane), were playing out reaction shots (to scenes that hadn't yet been shot!) before their days ended early, ostensibly due to child labor laws.
Focus fell particularly on Fanning, dressed in a soft, vintage-style white dress, a dark velvet cape, and Mary Janes. Her blonde hair swept into a bun, with pale skin and scarlet lips and dark eye makeup, she had the look of a textbook Little Red Riding Hood -- albeit one with blood-red eyes and a steely eeriness about her. "She's immune to all of us," Michael Sheen as Aro mused, directing his warrior to turn her pain-inducing powers on Bella. "Shall we, Jane?"
With nary a peep, Fanning's eyes lit up. She turned her head towards Bella/Kristen Stewart, and gave a slight, cruel smile. Well, the hint of a smile, really. The tension was palpable; in that miniscule movement I was sold on Fanning -- at 15 years of age, one of New Moon's seasoned veterans -- and her ability to convey unadulterated malice. On film, you'll see her bring poor Robert Pattinson to his knees, and you might even enjoy it.
That Fanning made such an impression with so little was, well, impressive. In contrast, Cameron Bright, another seasoned child actor whose credits include X-Men 3, Thank You for Smoking, and the creepy-kid flicks Godsend and Birth, had next to nothing to do as Jane's twin and fellow Volturi guard, Alec. (Sadly, this probably comes from Alec's presence, or lack thereof, in the book.) But Bright is already growing out of his kid roles, so by the time a Breaking Dawn film becomes reality, we hope his part gets juicier.
Then again, the real star of the Volturi is Aro. Michael Sheen, who ironically played the vampire-hating werewolf Lucien in the Underworld series (below right), is a terrific addition to the cast. Dressed in a fine Italian suit, circa 1980, Aro wears his hear in a slick ponytail and wears gold necklaces. His Aro is a sinister villain; welcoming on the surface, but clearly calculating, unpredictable, and off-putting.
"I love the thing in the books that Stephenie wrote about how these vampires are all really beautiful, and that's what lures people into their web," Sheen explained between scenes. "And yet, Aro is not like that; she describes Aro as being not the same sort of thing. I like the idea that it's his voice that lulls people in, or his sort of demeanor, rather than the way he looks -- because he looks quite weird and scary."
"I've tried to go down that route, make him very mesmerizing to people, that his voice is gentle and soft -- and yet, there's something kind of unhinged about him."
It was a single word that gave Sheen the inspiration for his take on Aro. "I read it over and over again, that particular bit in the book, because there are all kinds of things that she says -- like, she describes his voice as being quite feathery -- that's what gave me the idea of making it very soft, and light."
That deceptive lightness is what makes Sheen's Aro so effective. We watched New Moon's pivotal "meeting" scene unfold, as Edward and Alice are forced to bring Bella into the Volturi's nest to meet Aro and the others for the first time.
"What a happy surprise! Bella is alive after all," Sheen exclaims, oblivious to the looks of trepidation on the faces of his new guests. He approaches the trio, arms open, reaching out to sniff Bella's "sweet" blood and to "read" Edward's thoughts. Sheen's eyes blink open with discovery.
"You can't read Bella's thoughts," he announces, abruptly. Sheen turns to Stewart, a gleam in his eye. "I'd like to see if you're an exception to my gifts as well. Would you do me the honor?"
Bella (Stewart) hesitates, looking nervously to Edward before offering her hand. After a moment, Sheen lets out an enormous cackle of amusement. Aro cannot "read" Bella, an anomaly that at once delights and perplexes him. "Interesting," he says. "I see nothing. I wonder...let's see if she's immune to all our powers, shall we Jane?"
Of course, "Jane" is not there. Fanning's already gone home for the day, her scenes shot out of sequence. Weitz plays out the "meeting" a few more times, before calling a wrap on the scene with a polite, "Cut. Thank you."
Behind the stage, huddled around a bank of playback screens, author Stephenie Meyer and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg have been watching dailies. They giggle at Sheen's maniacal Aro. They marvel at how gorgeous Fanning looks on the screen. Later, Rosenberg tells us what she thought of the footage.
"I've written a lot of hours of television," she began. "I'm almost always disappointed; not because I don't have great, great directors but because you get in your head what you see, you know? A director can't physically do what's in my head because it's not physically possible."
But when it came to the Volturi scenes we'd just observed, Rosenberg seemed almost surprised. "Oh my God, it's fantastic," she shouted. "The cast is phenomenal!" (Stay tuned for our full posting of our chat with Melissa Rosenberg.)
On set, I got the feeling that the New Moon production was moving along at a faster clip than normal. It made sense, given that Weitz had an unusually tight window in which to film and edit the film, after which the third adaptation, Eclipse, would itself rush into production under director David Slade. So accordingly, the shooting schedule jumped back and forth between entirely unrelated scenes, as we moved directly from the Volturi chamber to the darkened Port Angeles street, where Bella would see visions of Edward trying to save her from imminent danger.
Robert Pattinson stood patiently against a green screen as Weitz rehearsed camera movements to film Bella's hallucinations. A long camera track ran the length of the stage, perhaps to use film speed techniques to create Edward's disorienting "appearance." A remote-controlled camera set on a mini crane moved fluidly to capture Pattinson, murmuring lines of stern warning.
"We are still in the late R&D phases of what Edward looks like when he's hit by sunlight, what the vampires look like when they're hit with sunlight, the diamond effect," Weitz told us by phone. "And also the hallucinatory effect that Bella has when she hears Edward's voice and she imagines him there." (Read our full interview with Chris Weitz here.)
The Edward-as-hallucination is a particularly good solution to the severe (some might say, tragic) lack of Edward in Meyer's source novel. When a distraught Bella finds herself in jeopardy in the book, she merely hears Edward's voice. When it will happen in the film, we'll actually get to see Edward -- an almost necessary fix, considering how Pattinson-less New Moon might be otherwise.
"New Moon is very internal," Rosenberg explained. "There's been a lot of talk about how Edward and the Cullens are not a part of the middle of New Moon, but actually they really are. Certainly, Edward's very much alive in Bella's mind throughout New Moon. As a reader, you feel his presence; he's helping drive that story."
She continued: "It's harder to do on film; you have to somehow find his presence and bring it there without having thought bubbles, constantly. And I think the solution that we found is going to satisfy fans. It's very much in keeping with the tone of the book, so it will be interesting...I think fans will feel pretty satisfied with what we're doing. One, because it's true to the book, and two, because we'll see more Edward! Can't be bad."As with the first film, certain changes are necessary to fit the medium of film. Rosenberg's philosophy is that as long as the viewer's experience is the same, Meyer's book has been faithfully adapted.
"Things have to move out of an internal place and into an external, visual reality," she began, "so there are many things I changed. But as long as we hit the emotional experience, I think, it will resonate the same way. Twilight was that same thing. There were a lot of things that were in the book that weren't in the movie, but because we hit the emotional stepping stone all the way throughout, you took the same journey that you took with the characters in the book, and that's what's really most important about an adaptation; you have to take your audience on the same emotional journey, take your characters on the same emotional journey, as they do in the book and then everyone will have the same experience."