“I didn’t realize how unusual it was until it was finished,” Geoffrey Fletcher said at a screening of “Violet & Daisy” a little over a year after it first debuted at the Toronto Film Festival. However, there should never have been a doubt that Fletcher’s directorial debut would be different, not because he was the one who wrestled an adaptation out of Sapphire’s “Push” into the film “Precious,” but because when asked for his influences, he’ll gladly rattle off a list of filmmakers that run the gamut from “The 400 Blows” auteur Francois Truffaut to Japanese yakuza expert Seijun Suzuki.
Somewhere in between those, it becomes not all that hard to find “Violet & Daisy,” a tale of teen assassins, played by Saoirse Ronan and Alexis Bledel, faced with an existential crisis when they come across a man (James Gandolfini) who has come to terms with his bad deeds and puzzle the two young women by inviting them to kill him. The collision of innocence with the more violent, complicated reality of being an adult that’s made literal here has been a part of Fletcher’s work ever since he began making films when he was a teen himself, with his older brother teaching him how to give life to the action figures he’d mash together by shooting them one frame at a time with a movie camera.
It’s an exercise that taught him patience, a virtue he not only exercises in his work as evidenced by the slow burn of his first feature as a director or in his career, during which he’s long supplemented his time as a psychology major at Harvard and a film professor at Columbia by making short films on the side (one of which eventually caught the attention of “Precious” director Lee Daniels), but in his words, which he considers carefully in conversation, polishing them with a soft, almost-whisper of a voice. As “Violet & Daisy” hits theaters, he was willing to share a few with me about going for broke with his directorial debut, how his filmmaking has been informed by his educational career and working on a larger scale.
At the screening I attended in Los Angeles, you recalled how you made a short neorealist film in college that you thought was a romance and two years later, you realized it was about your father. With a little distance from this film, have your ideas changed about what “Violet & Daisy” is about?
I think at its heart this movie is about friendship and love and redemption. There are other threads like materialism and girl power, celebrity fixation and that’s what resonates and binds the entire piece throughout the humor and the surprise and chaos in the film. Those are the threads that unify it and though the film is a bit of a fable, it’s got one good squarely in reality.
But even though it’s got one foot planted in reality, it’s also got this wonderful subconscious thing going on – I know you studied psychology in college, so is that something you actually draw on for your storytelling?
Oh yes, studying psychology was an enormous contribution to this film and “Precious.” I feel that everything that you study outside of your art enriches your art and the layers that you can bring as a storyteller. Psychology and film happen to be so closely related because psychology deals with people growing, getting past growth, and mending. It concerns itself with motivation and desire. So they’re absolutely related. I use it every day with writing.
What it was like to direct a film of this scale and see what others could bring to it as a collaborative experience?
It was an honor to work with this cast and not only did they all bring their great gift to these characters, but I think some of their essence comes through. And you’ll see different sides to all of these characters. Each and every one of them will surprise and they’re remarkable artists who are all capable of doing so much. That’s one thing that I observed with Mo’Nique on “Precious.”
I heard how the characters would teach one another in “Precious” was something that was a touchstone in order to write that script – those dynamics also exist in “Violet & Daisy,” so did that help you get into these characters and this story?
Yeah, you’ve spoken to the humanity and the heart of this story because we have three characters who grow directly as a result of their interaction with each other. That is the core of “Violet & Daisy” and it is that type of interaction that ultimately makes Violet and Daisy connect with their own humanity.
On that note, what have you learned from the experience of this first feature?
Largely the logistics of working with more people around. I used to shoot many things just entirely by myself and learning. On this, to really keep conviction about many things that I wanted to achieve, particularly the unusual ones and also benefit from the great talents around me. There is that balance that was certainly new from running around by myself with the camera.
There’s a feeling on this that after you’ve got the capital of an Oscar behind you that this is a film where you want to leave everything on the floor. Did you decide this is the film you really wanted to make if you just had one shot?
Indeed. This is foremost in my mind for some time and the thing that you’re living and breathing and you feel you know every square inch of its universe is the thing that you should probably create.