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Film & Literature: Push to Precious

Screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher talks about the challenges and joys of adapting a devastating-novel-with-hope (Push, by Sapphire) into Precious, the provocative new film by Lee Daniels.

Gabby Sidibe as Precious

, the new film directed by Lee Daniels, may just be the most-talked-about movie of the year, and it hasn’t even opened yet. (Did you see this week’s cover story in the New York Times Magazine?) Amassing praise at film festivals around the world since last winter—Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, New York—the heart-wrenching film tells the story of a teenage girl in 1987 Harlem who faces incredible hardships (illiteracy, sexual abuse, poverty, and more) with resolve, determination, and a fierce will to survive.

Last week, screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher sat down to talk with Tribeca about the challenges he faced in adapting Sapphire’s critically-acclaimed 1996 novel Push. The story is, at times, brutal, but the humanity of the characters is brought to vivid life by—among others—actors Paula Patton, Mo'Nique, Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey, Sherri Shepherd, and newcomer Gabourey 'Gabby' Sidibe . Opening November 6, the film—now with Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry among the executive producers—has the distributors wondering just how broad an audience it will find.

Geoffrey Fletcher

Tribeca Film: What prompted you to turn Push into a film? Were you involved from the beginning?

Geoffrey Fletcher: Lee Daniels had the rights to the book, when he saw a short film that I’d done, he was really taken by it and asked if I would be involved on the spot. I had never heard of the book before, about which I am now both embarrassed and grateful—embarrassed because this is such a heralded work of art, and grateful because I probably would have been intimidated by its stature and following, which might have inhibited making the larger leaps from the source material.

But I felt, from word one, a really strong connection to it. I fell in love with the character right away, and I fell under the spell of the book. My number one priority was to honor and transfer the spirit of the book into the screenplay.
Tribeca: When I read the book, I wondered, How are they going to do this? There’s so much that’s interior and so much on the page—literally—but I think you did a masterful job in transferring it to the screen. Had you written a full-length screenplay before?
GF: Oh, I had written thousands of pages, but for original screenplays. [In the time] between film school and Precious, I was trying to figure out a way into the industry, and I thought writing would be good, even though most of my training was as a director. With this being my first adaptation, my ultimate goal was to create pages that spoke for themselves, without needing my explanation or direction for them to make sense to someone else. I’d always had admiration for people who could do that.
Sherri Shepherd in Precious

Tribeca: How did you find the adaptation process? You obviously wanted to be true to the book, but you added some things of your own.

GF: I do believe it’s a perfect novel, and refashioning something like that can be a bit daunting, because where do you go from perfection? But I drew on a number of things—having put myself through boot camp with those thousands of pages, studying psychology as an undergrad, the fact that education has always been a big priority in my household growing up. (My mother was a school principal for most of her career.)

Bringing a character to the screen that we hadn’t seen before, in as dignified and respectful manner as possible, was a thrill for me. And there are a number of departures from the book, but they are all inspired by the richness of this source material. It’s really an honor to have been given that trust, and during the writing process, I had a remarkable amount of freedom and support. Lee and I had many conversations as I was writing, but “Keep going” was the bottom line; I think he could tell how taken I was by it. It was a wonderful experience.

Tribeca: What are some of the things you added to the story?

GF: 1. The red scarf—the significance of which I kind of want to leave to the audience, but it means a lot to me.

2. The character of Ruby, the little girl who tries to connect with Precious. How Precious treats her throughout the film is a reflection of how Precious feels about herself.

3. Lenny Kravitz’s character is only one or two sentences in the book, but I thought it was a great opportunity to bring a male into her life who is different from her father—the male characters in Precious’ life are either in her fantasy or in the horror of her past. Compassionate, intelligent, sensitive males exist as well—they don’t always get all the attention, but they are out there. And Lenny brought so much humanity and warmth to the role.
4. Ms. Rain’s home life—
Tribeca: Was that not in the book? That scene, where Precious goes to Ms. Rain’s house?
GF: No, it wasn’t. When people say they aren’t sure where things appeared, that’s the third greatest compliment I could get, because anything that can flow seamlessly into Sapphire’s universe makes me thrilled. The first two compliments are making Sapphire happy, and when someone who has seen it tells me how much it affected them or resonated with them.

Lenny Kravitz and Gabby Sidibe in Precious

Tribeca: Did you connect with Sapphire?
GF: Oh, that’s an unusual story. I was nearly done with the script, and I was going into the subway, but I got a phone call and had to run back up to the street for about 20 minutes. After the phone call, I went down and got on the subway car, which was full except for two empty seats. I sat in one. Just as the doors started to close, a person ran on and sat in the only empty seat, which was right next to me.
Tribeca: No way…

GF: Now I’d been looking at the back of the book for months, and so her face was in my mind. So I turned and looked at her, and I said, “Are you a writer?” and she said, “Yes.” And I said, “Are you Sapphire?” She said, “Yes.” And we started talking.

Tribeca: That is crazy! She obviously knew someone was working on the script?

GF: Yes. She was so warm, so gracious, and I was so nervous to talk to her, and so in awe. We rode a few stops together, exchanged information, and had dinner at some point later. The main question I had for her—and I phrased it as respectfully and delicately as I could—was how much of it was true, or where did the inspiration come from? (Which I think is a great compliment, when someone reads a piece of fiction and asks, Did it happen to you?) She was a teacher in Harlem, and she taught young women who had endured some of the same experiences Precious had. It’s fascinating, because she tells it from Precious’ point of view rather than her own, which I think is important on so many levels; this character’s voice is a crucial element. We see that Precious is this alert, and inherently good, person, but she doesn’t have all the tools early on, or the experiences, to express herself. She has a potential, and a curiosity, and an alertness, that all ultimately flourish.
Gabby Sidibe as Precious

Where are you from?

GF: A small town in Connecticut. I grew up with a lot more opportunity, but Precious and I didn’t grow up that far away from each other, and we certainly grew up in the same country. I think at the end of the day, when you step back and look at this story and these characters, you might think, “That’s a very specific story, with very specific characters in very specific places.” But, like any great work of art, this book is universal. We have found that people of all backgrounds and people around the world have connected with the film, in the same way a film can be set in space and move you, or a foreign film 50 years ago made halfway around the world can reveal universal truths.
Tribeca: The novel is a tough read. A lot of brutal things happen to Precious. How did you decide on the appropriate level of delicacy vs. the emotional impact you wanted to have?

GF: One of the big goals was to make the adaptation accessible, while also maintaining the integrity and impact of the book. Cinema is a wonderful thing, because you can communicate a great deal without showing everything. You understand what’s happening early on in the film—not everything is shown, but you participate and fill in the blanks, probably in a way that’s more compelling. But a couple of moments might be more brutal on film: the frying pan, the steps, the television.

Having this great opportunity from Lee, I really tried to pour everything I ever learned and experienced—not only artistically, but emotionally—every bit of pain or knowledge or joy, into the script. I wanted it to be as much of a dynamic experience as possible, but with any action or emotion in clear service of the story.
Mo'Nique in Precious

How did you approach creating the character of Mary [Mo’Nique’s character, the abusive mother of Precious] for the film? Her big scene is so riveting, and so provocative. Did you attempt to make her sympathetic in any way?

GF: I always find it interesting how one handles a villain—to give a villain texture, dimension, rationale for their actions (either internally or externally, from the events in their lives), what led them to behaving and thinking in such a way. But although acting is an interpretive art, what MoNique does here, and I don’t think I’m biased, but I might be—
Tribeca:—No, it was astounding.

GF: Her performance as a piece of art is an inspiration, no matter what medium you are working in. That kind of audacity, exposure, vulnerability, craft, surrender—an interpretation that powerful… when there’s such conviction there, humanity comes with it, and sympathy, and grey areas, ambiguity and texture. That performance was so astounding that it made me as the writer step back and become a pure audience member.
Tribeca: When you heard that she was cast, did you think she could bring this much to the role?
GF: That’s something that runs back to the core of this material. When people look at the cast, at people known in other genres—comedy, music, etc.—that really comes back to one of many audacious ways with which Lee put this film together. And it goes back to the core of the material, in that Precious is somebody who you might not imagine being capable of all that she achieves or endures. So when you see these other actors get a chance—and they deliver the goods, to say the least—it’s a theme that runs throughout the entire production. The people you might not have first imagined in these parts… they soar!
Mariah Carey in Precious

Yes, Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey are the visible ones. And then also the amazing discovery of Gabby [in the lead role]. She’s perfect.
GF: She really is. She stepped off the page and brought a great deal more than the physicality. Her performance is so beautiful and subtle at times, and layered. It’s clearly brilliant, but deceptively so.
Tribeca: The screenplay opens with a quote from the Talmud. “Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’” Is that how you view the relationship between Ms. Rain and Precious in the film? Or is about something larger?
GF: I brought that from the book. It’s a fine interpretation to think that it’s the teacher and Precious. But I love things that you can read multiple layers into. When you see that quote, it’s also saying that every living thing—no matter how substantial you think it is or isn’t—had greater forces that brought it to be, through bizarre coincidences, through luck and bad luck. Everything—from a blade of grass to a bird to a human—is not only worthy of respect, and something of value, but was also put here for a reason.

Tribeca: What do you do when you are not writing movies?
GF: I teach writing and directing at both NYU and Columbia. I love the undergraduates—they are at a point in their life where they are learning so much. Their enthusiasm, their energy—you can see lightbulbs go off daily.

Paula Patton in Precious

I imagine they keep you young, and tuned in. Speaking of kids, and schools, do you want to talk about the NYC public schools, and how things may have changed over the past 20+ years?
GF: [If you can’t read,] you are simply cut off from the modern world. The things that are discussed in Precious are still an issue today—promoting children who do not have the skills needed to progress… We need to see education become more of a priority in this country. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s encouraging to see how many people do understand that it’s a serious problem. So if that continues, real progress can be made. Anything out there that makes people more conscious of it is a good thing.
With Precious, though, it’s not only about what she learns, but also about what we can learn from her: 1. How she looks at situations might provide an opportunity for others to see things differently, and 2. the belief that, in spite of unspeakable injustice or obstacles, you can reach a place where they don’t define you, where you can define yourself, and find hope.
Tribeca: How did the whole Oprah Winfrey/Tyler Perry thing come about? Are you optimistic that their support can help Precious find a broader audience?
GF: Early on, going through the book the first time, writing all kinds of notes and marking it up, I felt I was working on something special. I knew it meant a lot to me, but I didn’t know what would happen—I knew a lot of things had to happen for the film to get made and to get out there. But I couldn’t have imagined this. If someone had said to me, “Write your dream scenario,” this would have exceeded it.

Oprah is a person whose significance and humanity is difficult to describe properly with any brevity. Upon meeting her, it doesn’t diminish; it grows. And with Tyler Perry, it’s a similar thing. I had begun to wonder if the American dream is as alive or possible to achieve as it had been in other generations, but I think Tyler reflects such hope and positivity, not only in his work, but also in his life story. As in Oprah’s. Time will tell how many people the film will reach, but there is so much positivity embodied in all that they do, it’s simply an honor to have them involved.
Oprah Winfrey on Precious Panel in Toronto

In terms of reach, the story has a characteristic of a lot of great works of art: there’s a universal element to it. I’ve found that people of all backgrounds have been affected by the film, not only people who have been through these sorts of hardships, but also people who haven’t, and who might see a young woman like Precious—I mean, really see her—for the first time. That idea of invisibility is another theme that runs throughout—it’s interesting because we’re talking about the film’s visibility…—and our various struggles are often not as different as we think. Some are more difficult than others, but at the end of the day, we aspire to so many of the same things. I think that Precious’ dreams are very similar to all of ours.

Tribeca: Can you tell us about meeting Oprah? I imagine that was a thrill!
GF: After meeting Oprah at Toronto—ah, she was so gracious!—the next morning, before the press conference started, she turned around and said [casually], “Oh, hey, Geoff.” [Astonished:] How many people does she meet a year? Absolutely awesome.

And the thing that I don’t think I’ll ever forget—and this might be the single, most memorable thing that happened in Toronto—in the press conference, Oprah said she watched the film, and when it was over, she didn’t react until she saw on the screen, “For precious girls everywhere.” While I was writing, that just came out as the ending of the script. I was so glad that Lee kept it in. And for her to have said that to me was something I’ll never forget.

Precious opens on November 6. Look for tickets now.

Watch: Lee Daniels, Gabby Sidibe, and The Daily Beast's Tina Brown talk about Precious.

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