Written by Dylan Callaghan
It’s not hyperbole, studio spin or even Oprah-mania to say that the new film Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, will be the most jarringly honest, heartrending movie to screen in American megaplexes this year.
The Oprah Winfrey-backed project is singular story of an illiterate, 300-pound black teenage girl from Harlem, pregnant for the second time by her own father and battered by a raging mother.
The novel is an alchemical balance of despair and hope, so the hard question becomes, what screenwriter could translate such a visceral, one-of-a-kind story to the screen?
The answer is Geoffrey Fletcher. Never heard of him? That’s a big part of why he’s the answer. There is seemingly no connection, other than race, between him and this film’s title character. He’s a man who grew up in Connecticut in an upper middle-class household, went to a tony prep school and graduated from both Harvard and N.Y.U. film school where he focused on directing. In the end, however, Precious is about the desperate yearning to find one’s voice and to have it heard, and that’s what gave Fletcher a magic key to the heart of this story. He has lived long on the outside of his greatest passion and absorbed deeply how it feels.
Beyond being an African American often working in predominantly white circles, he’s toiled for well more than a decade struggling to get his voice as a writer and filmmaker heard and wondering if it ever would. It’s not Precious’ circumstantial struggle, but it’s made of the same essential stuff.
Fletcher spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about the utterly unexpected way Precious came to him, how he entered and transposed the world of Sapphire’s novel, and why his own personal feelings of despair from the wilderness of his art connected him so strongly to the teenage girl from Harlem at the center of this story.
Tell me how you came to this project?
Photo: © 2009 Lionsgate
Lenny Kravitz and Gabourey Sidibe in Precious: Based On The Novel 'Push' By Sapphire.
Lee Daniels saw a short film I’d written, shot, directed, and edited and was really taken by it, and he asked if I would get involved in this project. I had never heard of the book. I’m both grateful and embarrassed to admit that. I’m embarrassed because it’s such a great work of art with a great following. I’m grateful because that might have intimidated or affected me in some way and inhibited my freedom in adapting it.
So, in a way, your ignorance of the book allowed you to come to this material clean and fresh?
Exactly. I came to it fresh and without any preconceptions or fear of changing things. I think it would have inhibited to some degree the freedom with which I felt I could approach it.
How shortly after your first read of this novel were you into the adaptation?
Immediately. And all throughout the reading of the book, I was writing extensive notes in the margins, in the back of the book and in a separate file of notes. Throughout the first reading, I feel like my unconscious was organizing it, so much so that when I sat down to write, it came out fairly polished early on because of all the thinking that went on before the writing starting.
I think all writing is difficult, but for me, thinking about what I’m going to write is the heavy lifting. The actual typing of the pages becomes much easier.
This material is so brutal, tragic, and visceral, and yet it’s hopeful, never maudlin or overbearingly depressing. How do you think Sapphire struck that tone and how did you preserve that in the script?
People told me that they cried for weeks after reading the book, and I was warned how heavy it was. I didn’t experience that when I read it. I saw it as this beautiful journey. I thought it was so full of love and hope. I know that it goes to some grim places but my filter and the prism though which I viewed it was very different. The idea of making it accessible but being true to the novel’s spirit was one of my goals.
With cinema you can communicate a great deal without necessarily showing everything you can communicate everything, which is what a lot of the great, old horror films did. They let you scare yourself, they let you participate. So we didn’t shy away from some of the more graphic areas, but we indicated them enough that the viewer could participate.
How long was it from the time you started reading Precious to your first completed draft?
A few weeks of intense reading, thinking and notes and roughly five months to a fairly polished draft.
And on a practical level, what was that five months like? Did you write every day, in the mornings, a few days a week?
It ranged between five and six days a week. It would start in what most people consider normal working hours. Whenever I write, invariably, it shifts to very late at night, sometimes between the hours of midnight and sunrise.
The world outside is so quiet then, and the darkness sort of wraps around you in this very nice way, you can get into a very special space with your thoughts and the world within which you’re working. I saw a number of sunrises throughout the writing process.
Did this material take an emotional toll, just the process, having those quiet, deep hours with this material and this world? Did it affect you outside of the writing?
It definitely did. I’ve been trying for so long to find a way into the industry. Filmmaking is the love of my life and I feared I might never get the opportunity to express myself or make a living at it. Feeling outside for so long and really starting to wonder if I’d ever get a film made, there were times, particularly right before I got this job, that I’d begun to lose hope. Writing this restored a sense of fulfillment, purpose, and contentment.
This was your dream shot?
That’s an excellent word to describe it. I really did feel as if I’d come back from the dead.
Do you feel as though you maybe grafted your own personal emotional journey onto that of Precious?
These are excellent questions. I mean, really. Precisely. There are a number of specific experiences or theories or things that I’ve studied that worked their way into Precious. Feeling on the outside and feeling like you have something to offer on the inside that other people may or may not see, I can relate to those feelings so strongly. I think it’s partly why I related to Precious so strongly and made sure to use those experiences. Looking back on all the time I felt like an outsider with an uncertain future— I mean, I don’t think anyone has a certain future in this industry or isn’t always hustling to see what’s next— but I wouldn’t trade those difficult days for anything because those experiences make one a better storyteller. They add depth, dimension, and truth to one’s work.