Fletcher Conquers Demons, Hollywood

“You’re not a writer,” an agent once told Academy Award-winning screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher. On a first date, a girl mocked Fletcher for his aspirations in film. For years he wrote screenplays, but producers refused to hire him. As he put it himself, “I kept hearing one word from Hollywood: No.”

Geoffrey Fletcher, who won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay in 2009 for the film “Precious: Based on the novel Push by Sapphire,” spoke at White Hall on Friday about his career, today’s film industry and “Star Wars” as part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Academy on Campus Program.

The program’s goal is to increase awareness of the Academy’s activities beyond the awards ceremony every February by providing film screenings and internships for students.

During the talk, Fletcher gave an account of his own experience at the Academy Awards. He told the crowd of about 100 students that he had no expectations of winning: to be nominated was an honor in itself.

Before the show, Fletcher said he had reminded his family and friends to smile regardless of who the winner was; they could be on television. These precautions proved unnecessary when Jake Gyllenhaal and Rachel McAdams called Fletcher to the stage to receive his Oscar.

Fletcher said he only remembered the first and last lines of his highly emotional acceptance speech. Embarrassed, he stepped outside when we watched it during the talk.

However, Fletcher’s career was not always this great. After studying film at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, his short film “Magic Markers” caught the attention of some producers who explored its potential as a feature-length. But the project fell through.

For more than a decade, Fletcher wrote screenplays in New York City while teaching on and off at Columbia and New York University. He described this as a very solitary time in his life.

Fletcher likened the experience to Luke Skywalker’s time spent in the swamps of Dagobah with Yoda after failing to defeat Darth Vader the first time around. “Magic Markers” was like Fletcher’s own Darth Vader, and as he said on Friday, he “spent 11 years or more in the swamp” trying to overcome his difficulties.

Fletcher’s second chance came when he got a rather unexpected call in 2006 from “Precious” director Lee Daniels who was intrigued by “Magic Markers.”

Fletcher took on the challenge of adapting Push into a screenplay. It was a novel which some had termed “un-adaptable,” though Fletcher was unaware of this until after he had adapted it.

The challenge for Fletcher was maintaining “the spirit of the original text but also putting [his] own work into it,” he said. And if Fletcher ever got writer’s block, he would simply “use the force,” as he puts it, ultimately defeating his Darth Vader once and for all.

Having had the experience of working in the film industry, Fletcher offered his critique of the corporate nature of the business.

“All the studios are owned by corporations now,” he observed, adding that studios would sooner take on a project which has been iterated several times before than take a risk.

He also voiced his disdain for the dearth of women in the industry, saying in an interview with the Wheel that there is a much needed change of environment.

However, Fletcher remains personally ambitious. After he completed “Precious,” he took to writing his next film “Violet and Daisy,” which is set to be released in the next year. He described this upcoming film as “starkly, starkly, starkly” different from “Precious.”

He rejoices in the artistic freedom which he now enjoys, and he is now able to work more “from a place of desire than fear” on his new projects.

Fletcher left students with some positive advice. Despite the challenges presented by today’s film industry, he encouraged everyone to “never give up, and never stop learning.”

As Fletcher was growing up, his parents encouraged him in a similar way.

This is the sentiment that stuck with him all his life, not the agent who told him he was no writer. This is the sentiment he passed on to us so that the next time we’re told we can’t do something — be it writing, as in Fletcher’s case, or simply learning how to write, as in Precious’ case — we can prove everyone wrong and perhaps win an Oscar for it too.

— By William Hupp