a SIFF 2017 interview
Loosening Up and Taking Risks
Writer/Director Geremy Jasper Raps About Breathing Life into Patti Cake$
Patti Cake$ is an easy movie to dismiss. The story of a young, moderately overweight New Jersey store clerk named Patti who dreams of becoming a major rapper with fans screaming her name, the whole things sounds a little bit too much like a gender-swapped 8 Mile remake more than it does anything else. But writer/director Geremy Jasper’s feature-length debut is so honest, so well plotted, so filled with complex, three-dimensional characters who burst forth from this world with electrical aplomb for every second of the film’s running time, the whole thing proves to be gloriously entertaining no matter how predictable many of the narrative constructs might prove to be. Anchored by a performance from star-in-the-making Danielle Macdonald as Patti that’s enchanting and featuring a supporting turn by Bridget Everett as her emotionally needy mother Barb that’s flat-out incredible, I frankly love this movie. It’s wonderful, and there’s not a lot more to say on the matter other than that.
I sat down with Jasper to talk about his award-winning debut. Here are some of the highlights from are all-too brief conversation:
Sara Michelle Fetters: I’m going to apologize right upfront, because for as much as I always try to leave my preconceptions or feelings as to what a movie might be before entering the theatre, it was hard for me to shake the idea that this was all going to end up being nothing more than a New Jersey set 8 Mile with Rocky-esque aspirations. But this movie is so much more than that. I was honestly blown away by it. It made me want to run outside and immediately start to dance.
Geremy Jasper: Yeah. [laugh]. That’s understandable. A lot of people have said that. A lot of people kind of go into the film with these preconceived notions of what it’s going to be, and I understand that. I do that, too. We’re all guilty of doing that, especially with a film like this one, I’ve come to understand. But I like when people are pleasantly surprised. I like it a lot. So thank you very much. I appreciate the honesty as well as the fact you wanted to dance. That’s terrific.
Sara Michelle Fetters: When you started putting this story together, I know that you’d originally based some of it on your own experiences after college living in your parents’ house, but how did it evolve from that point to become about a white New Jersey female rapper?
Geremy Jasper: Well, I always had the idea for Patti as a character way before I ever even thought about becoming a filmmaker. That time period where I was living in New Jersey, driving around all day and working crappy jobs just like Patti does, she popped into my brain. Just the idea of a character like that, and I thought it was kind of funny and kind of interesting and sort of imagined her as a combination of Mae West and Biggie Smalls with the heart of Bruce Springsteen; very modeled after the women in my family. So I knew the character well. Then there’s a lot of me in there [the script] and there’s also a lot of my family and my friends and ex-girlfriends; it all gets kind of mixed up together. And then, when it was time to write, I had to kind of tell myself, all right, it’s time to write your first screenplay.
I was just very interested in this character. I felt like going back to Jersey and dealing with my own angst from growing up in that place and that desire to get out, which is almost a Jersey cliché. But it’s a very true one. It felt like the right combination of things for me to dig into. It was never a question of who is Patti going to be. It was always about, this is a film about this young woman Patti, Patricia Dombrowski. Now I need to figure out what the story is. The character came first, and then I built upon that, which took years and many, many sleepless nights and dark nights of the soul and rewriting and changes and tweaks and long hours in the studio.
Sara Michelle Fetters: But that’s why it works, right? I think why I love this movie so much, it isn’t so much because it’s euphoric and it makes you feel good, it’s because, and not just Patti, but all of these characters are real. I mean it does those things other thing, too, and that’s great. We want that. We want the movie to do those things. But the characters. They’re complex. They’re three-dimensional. They’re more than the stereotypes or the facets that we think we know going into the theatre, so I think that work that you put into the screenplay shows. Were there moments, though, where you’re sitting there and you’re doing all of this hard, tiring work that you started to wonder if it was really going to be worth it? That you were going to be able to pull this off?
Geremy Jasper: Absolutely! Oh my god, over and over again. I remember the first day on set, we shot in bar. It ended up being a scene that was cut from film, thank god, but it was a disaster. It was wipe out everything. It was rough. I had these two barfly guys who wouldn’t stop talking and just talked over me. I felt like I had no authority. We didn’t really know what we were dealing with the camera. Danielle hadn’t really nailed down the accent. We were just really stiff, and I remember walking away, spending most of the morning with my head in my hands, which is not something I normally do. I went for a walk during our lunch break and almost broke down, being like, I put years of my life into this thing and I don’t think it’s going to work. I didn’t think I was made for this.
And then I kind of snapped out of it. I went up to my DP [Federico Cesca] and I said, “Listen. I don’t care if we make the worst movie of all time we’re not doing something like this again. We need to experiment. Let’s loosen up.”
Doing that, feeling like we’re starting off in a hole and then just being like, well, we’ve got nothing to lose, let’s just have fun, and let’s be experimental and let’s get loose with it, that stuff saved the movie. That spirit changed the rest of the shoot. That was the turning point, which in retrospect was nice to have midway through your first day. I realized this was the kind of director I was going to be and that this was the kind of set that this film needed to have. It needed to be fluid and it needed to be spirited, not stiff and methodical. That was a big breakthrough.
There were multiple times in the edit where I was like, “Oh my god, what the hell is this thing? I don’t even know anymore. Where’s the story, who’s this guy? Is anybody going to care?” You wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and wonder, what am I doing? Am I drunk? But you’re kind of following the muse all the way through. You have to have faith.
Sara Michelle Fetters: I want to cycle back for just one quick second, but I love that you brought up Mae West because I wrote in my notes, “Mae West.” I really wanted Patti at some point to say, “Come up and see me sometime.”
Geremy Jasper: That’s awesome! That is so awesome. Mae West was a big influence for me. I don’t think I ended up showing any Mae West films to Danielle because I didn’t want to throw her off too much. I mean, Mae West is pretty over the top yet amazing and hilarious. Yes, she was a big influence on the character.
Sara Michelle Fetters: We do have to talk about Danielle, obviously. She’s extraordinary.
Geremy Jasper: It’s phenomenal and it’s strange, and I don’t know what is it with me, but I am very cautious and I don’t trust a lot of people to come into that inner circle. But when I feel something with someone, I just believe in them all the way, and that was the case with Danielle. I just knew. I knew she was going to be Patti. I just knew that she had the work ethic and the guts to get to that place that she needed to be. It was a risk, but at the same time the character is so specific that it’s not like you have a lot of other options to play this character.
I feel like I won the lottery ten times over having a partner like Danielle in this film. She carries it. She’s in every single scene and did all the musical elements, while also learning to rap and learning the Jersey accent. She also anchors all the emotional scenes, comedic scenes and the intimate love scenes. She can really do it all. She’s exceptional.
Sara Michelle Fetters: As she was getting ready for the role, as you were trying to convince Danielle to take on the part, how did you instruct her as to what she would need to do. What was the advice that you gave to her to be able to find the character like she does?
Geremy Jasper: It was a long process. I mean, we had two years, basically, from when we first met to when we eventually shot, so it was a slow. She was training how to rap, first thing. She didn’t know much about hip-hop, so I was kind of taking her through hip hop history and sending her songs to learn. She was really educating herself in that sense. But we only had a few discussions about Patti as a character when we were at the Sundance Directors Lab. We built [the character] from there.
I think going to New Jersey, buying her a pair of Timberland boots and hanging out in diners and bowling alleys, having to just talk in character while we had a meal, all of that started to break through. For me, personally, when she got the accent down, and I heard how four-letter words sounded coming out of Danielle’s mouth, I knew we were on to something. Because once I could see her with the Timberlands and the accent, she became like the young women that I grew up around. There was a change.
But I also think more of the internal Patti stuff Danielle really developed on her own. I know she had extensive journals that she wrote in Patti’s voice, and as she would say her and Patti have a similar heart. Everything else is different, but at the heart, that desire they both have, that was the same. She had that desire and she went at it.
Sara Michelle Fetters: What was it like watching her perform that final number?
Geremy Jasper: It was unbelievable. It was un-freaking-believable. It felt so real. I mean, we were in a concert hall in this Masonic Temple in Brooklyn with 200 local kids who came in as the audience who all really brought it. So we played the music through the PA and it felt live. It was incredibly emotional. My AD, Inna Braude, who is a really tough Romanian woman who does not suffer fools, was weeping like a child at the end hugging me. It was a very tough shoot, as most small films are, and so it was a really cathartic moment for all of us.
I mean, I didn’t know if it was going to work. I didn’t know if the performance were going to work. We didn’t have a lot of time. I had just finished recording that song with Danielle the weekend right before we shot, so we did that on Sunday and I think we shot on Tuesday. I had a fever. It was just like all the clichés of filmmaking. You’re sick and you’re worn out and nothing’s working and you’re snapping at people, but the scene soared. And Danielle soared. It felt alive. I knew if we could just capture just a fraction of what I was feeling in the room that day then we would be okay.
Sara Michelle Fetters: I don’t want to get into it too much because I want audiences to experience this moment without my spilling the beans, but that mother-daughter bond that you’re able to create, that you’re able to craft, that is hard and difficult and yet filled with love and understanding, it’s wonderful. And in that final scene, what happens should be a cliché; it should just be melodramatic overload. Instead it’s pure and it’s honest. I was in awe.
Geremy Jasper: It was a leap of faith, to be honest. I just didn’t know how that was going to work. I have all respect for the actresses. I think they are the ones who really made it work and really put their hearts and souls out. They’re the ones who make it feel real.
And it was real. They were really going for it. It’s so emotionally raw. That’s what makes it work.
Sara Michelle Fetters: I think that Bridget Everett is going to get overlooked in regards to how good she is in this movie. I mean, just listening to her sing in the film, and how bad yet still obviously talented she is early on, and then how amazing, showcasing that talent in all its ferocity at the end, it’s glorious. That could not have been easy.
Geremy Jasper: Yes! She’s outstanding. And it was difficult. I kept telling her, “Bridget, remember this is a woman who sings in karaoke bars in New Jersey. She doesn’t sing as well as you, so just pump the brakes a little bit.” And Bridget is an incredibly talented! An undervalued performer, I think. I mean, she’s a legend in New York, and is a cabaret superstar, but I don’t think she’s ready to go global. I hope she does. She’s incredible.
Sara Michelle Fetters: I know we don’t have a lot of time, and I want to talk about the whole cast, but we don’t really have the time for that. But I do have to ask you really quickly about Cathy. It took me half the movie to realize that that was Cathy Moriarty, and I’ve seen practically everything she’s ever been in.
Geremy Jasper: That’s awesome! Yeah, people don’t pick up on it until the credits. They’re like, who is that person? I’ve never seen this actress before. Then their eyes pop out of their heads when they see her name in the credits. I mean, she really transformed. We aged her 20 years. But that voice is that voice. There was nothing fake about that.
Sara Michelle Fetters: How much fun was she having making this movie?
Geremy Jasper: Oh, she had a blast! It was crazy. She was so lovely.
But she’s been in big films, and we were a very scrappy production. Everybody was sitting in the same room. There were no trailers. There was no special treatment. And she’s in this funky wig getting wheeled around in this wheel chair having to almost play dead the whole film. So I thought she was going to be a little cranky about it, and she was the exact opposite. It was like it was her first film. She had so much enthusiasm, and there was so much laughter. She really It was kind of like she was the matriarch in that family, but not just in the movie but also on the set. I can’t say enough about all she contributed.
Sara Michelle Fetters: You’ve been successful at Sundance. You were wildly successful here in Seattle. You’ve been wildly successful at every festival you’ve gone to. But now that Patti Cake$ is getting out there into the world for its general release, what do you want those audiences to take away from the film? What are you hoping that the average filmgoer is talking about as they exit the theatre?
Geremy Jasper: You know, I never really give that much thought. I think we’re just so used to seeing movie stars up on the big screen, the fact of seeing people that feel like real people from real towns and real Americans doing real extraordinary things; that excites me. I hope that this movie can change somebody’s mind about what actors, what movie stars, can look and feel like. Changes their mind about what a popular movie can be. I get really excited if it can change some minds like that.
– Interview reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle