You can witness a number of memorable debuts in “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” including the introduction of leading lady Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe and an initial glimpse of singer Mariah Carey as an accomplished character actor.
But none of those premiere performances would have been as resonant were it not for the first produced screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher.
“Precious” tells the unrelenting story of its titular character’s emerging out of sexual and psychic abuse. She discovers, thanks to a patient teacher, her voice as a writer and her identity as a person -- she realizes, in other words, her dream. Fletcher’s journey out of obscurity wasn’t remotely as traumatic, and yet the making of the critically acclaimed movie taught the 39-year-old screenwriter that, like Precious, a seemingly unattainable ambition for himself was, with enough determination, achievable.
Since graduating from Harvard University and receiving his master’s from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts 10 years ago, Fletcher never abandoned his hopes to write movies. His short films attracted festival attention, and director John Singleton expressed interest in turning Fletcher’s 23-minute movie “Magic Markers” from 1996 into a feature. Fletcher briefly was signed by a talent agent, but his paychecks came from New York temp jobs, not Hollywood writing assignments.
“I often felt like Precious -- out of the picture and invisible,” Fletcher says. “I was within reach of my dream of filmmaking but also a million miles away. I kept trying. But it’s tough to get people to listen to what I had to say. It’s the nature of the industry -- there are so many people trying to get in. All the doors in the industry seemed to close, and I couldn’t seem to do anything right.”
Rather than despair, Fletcher plugged away, writing by his count thousands of pages of unproduced screenplays, determined to figure out ways to put something on a movie camera, which he had been playing with since age 14.
“I devoted myself to writing for years without representation or a promise of anything,” Fletcher says from his New York home. “And there were times when I felt quite down about my prospects.”
One particularly low moment came in a temp job, where Fletcher was working in a windowless bank office doing data entry. “Looking around that room, it drove home the point that I was very far from where I wanted to be,” he says. “But I’m so thankful for that job and any job I’ve had.”
Adapting to it
The gratitude hinges in part on what those experiences taught him about the struggles of ordinary, working-class Americans. It was information -- and a sensitivity -- that would prove critical when director Lee Daniels, who had seen “Magic Markers,” approached Fletcher three years ago about adapting “Push,” as novelist Sapphire’s 1996 book was known.
Fletcher wasn’t aware of the book and its following and also had no idea that other screenwriters had tried without success to revise it for the screen. His filmmaking taste wasn’t exactly a perfect prerequisite either, as Fletcher leaned toward Italy’s neorealist movement. But he knew a good story when he saw one, even as he understood “it was difficult and grim.”
Readers of the book know that Fletcher and Daniels made several departures from the slim novel, which is written in the first person and mimics Precious’ struggles with literacy. “I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver,” the book begins.
Fletcher says he decided to create a number of fantasy sequences for Precious, now central to the film. “Characters who experience great trauma will sometimes create an escape,” says Fletcher, who studied psychology as an undergraduate. At the same time, he saw the colorful fantasy scenes -- Precious sees herself as a fashion model in one scene, as a pop singer in another -- serving an equally important role. “I thought it would make the story cinematic,” he says.
As he was adding, he was also taking away. Though the book’s incest scenes remain, they are less graphic in the movie, and Fletcher and Daniels redacted the novel’s sexual abuse committed by Precious’ mother, played by Mo’Nique.
“We don’t see everything,” Fletcher says. “But we do see enough to connect the dots and to be fully aware of what’s happening. One could look at the movie as graphic as the book, if perhaps worse. But I wanted to leave enough room so each viewer can bring to it whatever experience they have had -- they can fill in the blanks. I think it’s great to leave a little bit of room for the audience to project their own interpretation of how far it goes.”
Though “Precious” unspools with a knowing authenticity, Fletcher’s own background is miles from the movie’s. He is not only well educated but also was raised by married parents. Still, he said, “I’ve known people on assistance, and I’ve met billionaires” and, as the son of an educator (his mother was an elementary school principal) he saw the power of teaching. “We always looked at education,” he says, “as a way to change your surroundings and expand your possibilities. My mother enjoyed few things more than investing in the underdogs and showing them that they were special and could achieve their dreams.”
Sexual abuse, he adds, is not limited to people of color or in poverty. “This goes on with women of all backgrounds.”
There’s now a lot more adaptations being sent Fletcher’s way, and he’s hoping to direct an original script he wrote. Like Precious at the film’s conclusion, the future suddenly looks much brighter. “I’ve been preparing for an opportunity like this,” he says, “for 25 years.”