June 2010 | Geoffrey Fletcher '92

Geoffrey Fletcher '92 (Screenwriter & Director, PRECIOUS)

By Cristina Slattery '97

Fletcher.jpg"My name mean somethin’ valuable—Precious,” the protagonist of the novel, PUSH, by Sapphire, asserts. Geoffrey Fletcher ’92, winner of the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for the film PRECIOUS: Based on the Novel "Push” by Sapphire, and the first African American to win an Oscar for screenwriting, agrees. He says he fell in love with the character and likens her resilience to that of Odysseus and her self-awareness to that of Huck Finn.

"Who hasn’t felt underestimated or discarded?” Fletcher asks.

Many of us may have felt underestimated -- but for Precious, the heroine of the eponymous film, her entire life has been an unending experience of poverty and abuse. Her father, who has sexually abused her repeatedly since infancy and caused her to become the mother of a retarded baby at twelve and another baby at sixteen, and her mother, who is aware of the sexual abuse and yet verbally abuses her daughter, are not the only perpetrators of misery in her life. The community and the school system appear to have discarded her as well. But when her pre-G.E.D. teacher helps her to become literate and pursue her own writing, Precious begins to actually feel precious.

Geoffrey Fletcher, who grew up the youngest of three boys (all of whom went to Harvard), knew he had to tell her story. His mother, a school principal, and his father, a submarine technician, provided an environment that was nurturing and supportive of education and the arts while he was growing up. But Fletcher says he felt that he had a window into Sapphire’s character because he himself knew what it was like to struggle.

Having trained as a director at NYU Film School, his journey to become the Oscar-winner that he is today included early short films that got attention and praise, and many, many rejections from those in the industry as he sought out additional opportunities to write and direct. Fletcher explains that he needed to make his own voice heard for PRECIOUS as a writer and "the goal was to create a pile of pages that spoke for itself.” Getting to his big break with the PRECIOUS project, however, took years of determination. "If one is going to keep going in the face of all that [rejection]” he says, "one is going to learn a lot about themselves [by continuing] to try to refine his or her work and craft.” He acknowledges that he learned a lot about himself during the years after film school in which he worked at temp jobs, one of which entailed showing up to work each day in a windowless room, while continuing to pursue his artistic passions in film. (Of course, not all of his jobs were this bleak: Fletcher taught in the film programs at Columbia and NYU from 2006-2009 and says that he thoroughly enjoyed working with students since they kept him sharp.)

While at Harvard, Fletcher credits his friendship with Matt Damon, a fellow resident of Matthews South during his freshman year, for inspiring him to follow his desire to write and direct films professionally. Damon was "so passionate about acting in film,” he recalls. Fletcher's parents had encouraged his interest in photography and video in his youth, and at Harvard he continued to make short films while concentrating in psychology. (He also played football and baseball his first two years and acted in plays his last two years.) He cites an internship on the set of THIRTYSOMETHING while in college as pivotal in helping him to learn some of the more technical aspects of film, and he emphasizes that many things he had learned on that set crystallized years later.

"Every experience can be drawn up to make one a better artist,” he states. For instance, his background in psychology undeniably informed his understanding of how to depict Precious cinematically. He points out that the fantasy sequences in which Precious escapes into a dream-image of herself as a glamorous singer with her "perfect boyfriend” provides psychological relief to the audience as well.

Fletcher maintains the belief that writing and directing films is what he "was meant to do” and knows that having this sort of calling can be "a curse, in that you live and breathe for opportunities…[and] opportunities to make one’s living at it are few.” But he says that "no matter how long it took, I would keep going.”

With many projects coming to him in the wake of his recent accolades, Fletcher no longer has to struggle in the same way. He is mindful, however, that the most successful people he has met are "alert, curious” and willing to continue learning. He notes that the contribution of writers to the industry "cannot be overstated” and feels that writers are most certainly underappreciated by the industry.

These days, many women who look nothing like Precious stop Geoffrey and say they "are” Precious; it seems that, in being unwilling to give up on his dream, he embodies a significant part of her character as well.

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