Q&A: Catherine Hardwicke, Director of Twilight

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As New Moon mania kicks into full gear, TIME spoke to the woman who helped launch the global phenomenon: Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke. Hardwicke took on the challenge of bringing Stephenie Meyer's best-selling novel to the big screen and putting a face to its beloved characters. Selections from her conversation with TIME follow, including her recollections of creating a monster and casting a hunky vampire.

TIME: You directed Nativity Story and Twilight, based on very popular books. So which is a bigger — Twilight or the Bible?

Hardwicke: (laughing) Probably Twilight. I know it seems strange, but at the time it didn't seem that big at all. We knew there was a passionate group of people that loved it. When I took it on it was much, much smaller. At the time [Summit execs] were saying, There might just be 400 girls in Salt Lake City blogging about this — we don't know how big this audience actually is.

A big ingredient of the success are the lead actors. Talk about casting Robert Pattinson.

The Edward character, I had no idea who that was going to be. For him, the bar is so high. He had to be drop-dead gorgeous and a great actor. I met all of these guys I felt were quite good. [But] they didn't seem to have that special other quality that they were alive for 105 years and they had gone through all the things that Edward had gone through.

When I talked to [Pattinson] on the phone in London, at the time he was — as he likes to say — unemployable. He was in between gigs and broke. He took the risk to fly over on his own dime and stay on his agent's couch. She called and said, Be honest, do you really not have your Edward? I don't want to bring him over here for nothing. I said, To be honest I don't have it. And I cannot cast Rob without meeting the person and seeing how he works with Kristen [Stewart]. This is all about chemistry.

You made the final casting decision after seeing all the candidates at your house.

When I do the casting at that point, to find the chemistry between two actors. I have them come over to my house in Venice. I don't like the sterility of the casting office. I like to really workshop things. No producers, no agents. All the four actors came to my house and we did a bunch of scenes.

So Rob and Kristen and the other three candidates all had to do the kissing scene on my bed. When Rob and Kristen met, all of us could tell there was a very strong chemistry there. You know just electricity. It was radical. And then we did the kissing scene about three times. It was very intense. The actors came one at a time, but when everyone was gone Kristen was like, you have to cast Rob. I told her, I have to look at it on tape. I need to make sure it translates, not just the vibes in the room. And we edited, looked at it the next day and said, yah, it has to be Rob.

So where is this mattress, in the Smithsonian?

I still sleep on it every night. It's been the beginning of several cool films. There are a lot of good vibes on it.

There's always going to be a backlash, no matter who you choose.

When Rob was announced people had a meltdown on the Internet. People said horrible things all over. There were a few pictures of him by the paparazzi that were in London, walking out of a club, not having shaved, looking like a slob. I said to Rob, As soon as we get your look down and get your photos out I know you're going to be good. You just have to have faith. This happens to a lot of actors. One day he came to me and said, I got this email forwarded to me about how revolting I am. I said, Rob, you cannot read these things. Don't torture yourself. And he said, I didn't. My mother forwarded that to me.

How did you bottle the passion? Or did you?

That's the tricky thing. As the director you cannot control what people do after hours or in their trailers or on break. Why would you want to? But you can't. There were emotional roller coasters going on between various cast members the whole time. So that's pretty wild. You have this hot, young cute sexy cast and you're out of town at hotels. It's going to happen. How do you keep people focused on the work so that nothing else gets in the way. That's the trick. Rob and Kristen and all the cast members wanted to do a good job. This was a cool opportunity.

The chemistry was paramount between Rob and Kristen.

The fact that they were both so tied to each other in a way, or drawn to each other — it was a magnetic pull. I felt like if that could be sustained during the whole shooting of the film. If I could find a way to get that to the screen it would be explosive. That's the challenge.

You don't know what people are going to go through. Yes I told Rob, Don't even think about having a romance with her after I cast him. She's under 18. You will be arrested. We don't want to lose this great thing. And of course her boyfriend at the time is a great friend of mine. I didn't want to be responsible for anything like that which ultimately, of course, happened. But anyway it was extremely intense right away.

I told him he has to start immediately with the trainer and work out. And get back some muscle tone. He's a Brit and they hit the pubs all the time. They don't look too kindly to gyms. And he did work out with a trainer. He was very diligent. If they did four hours of work, he would do an extra hour on his own. I was like, Rob your body wants to exercise; your muscles want to be used.

Of course we look at it and now we know he's the most beautiful man on the planet. It seems unbelievable now.

How long will this Twilight passion last?

Who knows if Stephenie will write a fifth one? I cannot predict that. So there are two more movies in the can and the fourth one. It touched so many people. This is the first love of so many little girls I have met. The first time they ever had a crush. Edward will always be their first love. They are going to be 80-year-old women in the future that will remember Rob, love Edward Cullen, and remember Twilight. That's kind of awesome.