Every year a movie premieres at Sundance, wins over some cynical hearts in the high altitude, and gets picked up by a studio to be unleashed on the masses. You know, the classic underdog story. This year that film is Patti Cake$, which by absolutely no coincidence is itself an underdog story. The movie is about a poor and lost teen in New Jersey named Patti who fancies herself a hip-hop star with Cake$ tacked on as a stage name. At first the dream seems laughable, then she opens her mouth and the rhymes drop and suddenly it’s not quite so funny. It’s a dream worth believing in, even if the world around her makes it all seem impossible.
That might sound a little corny, but thankfully writer/director Geremy Jasper’s debut goes out of its way to avoid all of the weepy indie traps that easily could have sunk the flick. His story comes with a surrealist streak imbued by fantasy and is grounded by some remarkable performances from established performers like actress/comedian/cabaret god Bridget Everett and Cathy Moriarty (Raging Bull) as well as unknown faces like Siddharth Dhananjay and Mamoudou Athie. There’s an honesty to the performances and an authenticity to the world.
Jasper believes in these lost dreamers because he’s one himself (the guy did write all of the fictional music in the film after all, rap and otherwise). More importantly, in Danielle Macdonald the filmmaker found an immensely talented young actress who carries the film with good humour and confidence well above her years. Together, the team took an insane concept and made it work. A charming, crowd-pleasing, and bizarre little tale worthy of all the hype Patti Cake$ has gotten since leaping from indie obscurity through Sundance and Cannes.
With the film finally about to hit screens in general release, Dork Shelf got a chance to chat with writer/director Geremy Jasper and star Danielle MacDonald about their debut. Tucked away in a Toronto recording studio with hilariously themed Patti Cake$ cupcakes resting outside their doors, the duo happily discussed the inspirations, struggles, and success of their already beloved collaboration. Below are some highlights of the interviews with Jasper and Macdonald.
Geremy Jasper on the autobiographical Jersey origins of the Patti Cake$ screenplay:
“You grow up in the shadow of New York City. You constantly have this ache inside to get out and do something with your life, but you’re stuck in this small town. You have a desire to be some sort of artist, but it seems impossible and everybody thinks that you’re ridiculous for even trying. So you fill up secret notebooks and try to find likeminded misfits to make stuff with. It’s a combination of that, my love of hip-hop, and the women that I grew up with. Tough Jersey women who Patti and Barb and Nana are all drawn from.”
Geremy Jasper on his own hip-hop “career.”
“They’d call me Germ, which was pretty lame. For a while I was G. It was always done in secret. There were a lot of demos, but not much that actually made its way out into the world. Luckily, I came up in the pre-internet era. I’m really, really happy about that. There were so many embarrassing incarnations that I went through that I’m so glad never made it out into the world. Bad haircuts galore.”
Geremy Jasper on finding Danielle Macdonald
“We were doing preliminary casting for those labs and none of the actresses that we were seeing felt right. My producer Noah Stahl has an encyclopaedic memory for indie film and he remembered her from the first film that she’d ever done, a small role in a movie called The East. He sent me a small picture and I looked at it and instantly said, ‘That’s her.’ It was that clear to me. So, we got our hands on a small film that she carried called Every Secret Thing. I watched about five seconds of it and offered her the role. Within ten minutes of us working together, I knew that she was the one”
Danielle Macdonald on her initial reaction to the script:
“I thought it was insane in a really cool way. It seemed like something fun, but something that I’d never be able to do. At the same time, it was something that I really wanted to do because I really related to the character. I couldn’t put the script down, which is always a good sign. But yeah, it terrified me. My first reaction was, ‘Oh my god this person is so different from me that I’ll never be able to do it!’ Then I spent more time with it and realized that I could relate to the coming of age part. The whole figuring out who you are and chasing a dream that seems impossible. That felt close to me.”
Danielle Macdonald on seeing Brigett Everett’s cabaret act with her cast mates:
“I met her at the Sundance Director’s Lab and I thought she was a dramatic actress since the scenes we were doing were so heavy. I thought she was amazing. And then I heard that she did a cabaret comedy show and I told her, ‘I have to see this, when are you in town?’ She told me she’d be in LA in a few months after we worked together. So, I went to see it and my jaw dropped. I was with a friend just staring at each other gobsmacked, wondering what the hell we had just seen. I’ve now seen her five times. I just saw it a week ago for the fifth time. So that was amazing. I saw it with Siddharth Dhananjay and Mamoudou Athie. Sid had seen it before, Mamoudou hadn’t, so he got some boobs in the face. That was so much fun to see it with the whole crew.”
Geremy Jasper on Quentin Tarantino’s response to the Patti Cake$ screenplay at the Sundance Labs:
“He was the first person who I sat down with at the Screenwriters Lab in January 2014. I didn’t come from the independent film world. I felt like I’d snuck in the back door somehow and to be sitting there with my idol who is kind of the reason that I got interested in filmmaking in the first place…that was…wow…He’s the poster boy for not going to film school and becoming a writer/director. He’s the guy whose screenplays I read to learn how to become a screenwriter. So to sit face to face with him and spend two hours talking about what was at the time a shitty draft of Patti Cake$ was crazy to me. Just crazy. I was so nervous. I was sweating. But he was very kind and very sweet.
The screenplay had a ton of problems. He actually asked me if the second half was all a dream sequence because it just made no sense. There was one surreal musical sequence after the next. But he was very kind. He told me, ‘You’ve got to focus this thing. You’ve got to make it smaller. No one is going to give you this type of money and you wouldn’t want to do that. This should be an intimate film and you have to make the locations and characters much more manageable so that you can shoot it on a small budget.’ At the time it was going to cost something like $50 million. There was a casino and holograms. It was a whole thing. So he really helped push towards making this a more human story and he was really sweet. He told me, ‘Only one person could make this film and that’s you. This is your thing.’ I always carried that in my pocket with me from that day on. He was the coolest.”
Danielle Macdonald on filming her climatic performance through nerves:
“I actually went into the bathroom and cried, weirdly enough. Just like Patti. It was a weird stress cry, just thinking ‘Whoa! I don’t know if I can do this.’ So yeah, I think that was very real. But she had to be good and that’s why I was scared. But the emotion going into it? Very similar. Then there was a guy who had to throw a bottle at me right before the final performance and he got me in the face and got me in the boob. He said, ‘I’m sorry!’ I was like, ‘You’ve got great aim. It’s perfect and it’s making me mad.’ He kept going and he hit me every time. I don’t know how you get that kind of aim with a plastic bottle. It was pretty amazing.
Geremy Jasper on finding and designing the saddest strip club in the world:
“Oh I’ve seen sadder man. I have seen sadder. I’m glad you said that, but I wanted it to be even sadder. I’ve been in places that should just be called C-Section Scar. But yeah, we found that place and they let us move things around and make it a little worse. The key thing for me in that scene was the extras. Those guys and that woman were solid gold. There were some amazing extras who came through that day. The strip club in real life was definitely not that sad, but I’m glad that some movie magic made it feel that way.”
Danielle Macdonald on her own unique experience with the film’s authentically dingy locations:
“The shack was really interesting. There’s a holocaust museum I don’t know where, somewhere in New York. But there’s this whole wooded area next to it and there’s a shack there. So that’s where we shot those scenes. That was very cool and authentic. Meredith who did the art direction did such a great job creating it. That was all very real. We had reshoots there one day and we had to do the love scene again because things had changed. So I was like, “Of course, THAT’S what we have to re-do.” So we were re-doing that, lying on the bed together, and I had my hands in his hair. Then our director walked over in the middle of filming and said, ‘Don’t move.’ All of a sudden Geremy pulls this enormous bug out of Mamoudou’s fake dreads and we both screamed. So in that situation, yeah it felt like a very real place.”