Toronto 2011: An Oscar winner takes an un-'Precious' turn
If you spend 20 frustrating years trying to get your first movie made, only to suddenly find yourself the toast of Oprah and Oscar voters, what do you do next?
For "Precious" screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, the answer was easy: You go out and make the oddest movie you could possibly imagine. You never know, after all, when you'll get the chance again.
"I have no idea what people will think of the film," Fletcher conceded of his directorial debut "Violet & Daisy," which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday. "It is pretty strange."
Even that admission may be an understatement. As it played for the public and distributors Thursday night, "Violet & Daisy" showed itself to be one of the odder genre mash-ups (action, drama, comedy and surrealist art film are several of its modes) to cross the screens at Toronto, or possibly any screen, in a long while.
Visually imaginative and told in a deadpan key reminiscent of Rian Johnson's cult hit "Brick," Fletcher's movie, which he also wrote, features two young, stylish women (Alexis Bledel and Saiorse Ronan) who earn a living as hit women for a shadowy boss. They speak in the flip shorthand of teenage girls but also are whizzes with guns, gore and the game of knocking people off. Youthful exuberance and a capacity for violence often merge; the pair, for instance, have an "internal-bleeding dance" atop their targets after they kill them.
The "Gossip Girls"-meets-"Pulp Fiction" conceit would be odd enough if Fletcher didn't toss James Gandolfini into the mix as a sad sack whom Violet and Daisy are sent to off. The women wind up talking with Gandolfini's unnamed character about the dark turns in all of their lives, turning the film in the third act from comedic blood farce to chamber drama.
Overflowing with whimsical dream sequences, cryptic symbolism and surrealist touches (the main characters tool around on a tricycle), "Violet & Daisy" features flavors that won't be to everyone's taste, and it's hard to imagine a major distributor taking a flier on it. But even its detractors will concede the film has a degree of style and ambition.
The return of Fletcher in this guise is almost as surprising as anything in his movie. It's been only 18 months since he became famous for crying onstage at the Academy Awards after he was announced as the surprise winner for best adapted screenplay.
But the story of "Violet" actually stretches much further back. Growing up in Connecticut, Fletcher decided at a young age that he wanted to become a director, filming action figures with a camera his parents bought him. But upon graduation from Harvard and then NYU's Tisch film school, he couldn't break into the business. Fletcher spent years teaching at elite New York institutions like Columbia and NYU and doing odd jobs, but couldn't find anyone to hire him. He came close to giving it up several times, he says, and stayed with it only because his two older brothers, a composer and a money manager, encouraged him.
A break appeared in the clouds when Fletcher landed the job to adapt a gritty coming-of-age novel, "Push," from the author Sapphire. The film's director, Lee Daniels, decided to give him the assignment on the basis of a student short Fletcher had done years before. The skies got bluer when "Push" became a breakout at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009, earning the support of Tyler Perry and Oprah (and a new title) along the way.
And the sunshine really poured through when Fletcher's name was called out in the Kodak Theatre in March 2010.
The sudden riches were a bit of a shock, Fletcher said in an interview in New York ahead of the Toronto festival. "I'd spent most of my professional life trying to figure out what other people would do next, so it was hard to conceive that I'd now be the object of that," Fletcher said.
But rather than take the simple path of signing on for some big Hollywood writing jobs, as most first-time screenwriters who find themselves holding an Oscar might do, Fletcher, then 39, decided to go all in. He had a script he'd been working on for years about young female contract killers, and he wanted to direct it. With his statuette and a $47 million-grossing film as his calling cards, he set out to find independent financing and talent.
"I think if I was 25 and didn't have a script I loved that I was ready to shoot, the [overnight success] would have been a lot harder," said Fletcher, who in person comes across as genial but oddly formal. "But I already knew exactly what I wanted to do."
That steadfastness can make for some trickiness. So bizarre are some of the scenes in "Violet & Daisy" that at the post-screening Q&A Thursday night, even the actors there to support the film said they found themselves experiencing moments of confusion. "I came in with lots of questions," Bledel said, "and I still haven't gotten any answers."
To a query from one member in the audience, Ronan jumped in with: "There are so many bizarre things in this film, so many things left open, it might be better off not to ask questions." ("That kind of ruins the Q&A," quipped Cameron Bailey, the festival co-director moderating the session.)
His passion project finished, Fletcher will move in a different direction, writing a story about the Attica prison riots of the early 1970s for director Doug Liman. They've already flown to upstate New York to tour the prison and have talked about how the movie will balance the stories of the prisoners and the guards.
Fletcher says he's ready for a change, even if it means shedding some of his quirky-indie skin. "But I guess it says something," he noted, "when a period movie about a deadly prison uprising is considered going mainstream."
From 'Precious' to prison riots
Photos: Alexis Bledel and Saiorse Ronan in "Violet & Daisy." Credit: Toronto Film Festival. Geoffrey Fletcher on the red carpet at the TIFF premiere of his new film. Credit: Sonia Recchia/Getty Images