Exploring a Coming of Age Hip-Hop Tale with The Director and Stars of ‘Patti Cake$’

Danielle Macdonald, Bridget Everett, and Geremy Jasper discuss their Sundance smash Patti Cake$.

After gestating in the Sundance Institute Lab Program, debuting at the festival, and sparking a $10m bidding war, Patti Cake$ was poised to jumpstart the careers of the fresh faces at its core. The coming-of-age rap movie (with shades of 8 Mile, Run DMC, and the Beastie Boys) stars Danielle Macdonald as New Jersey lyricist Patricia Dumbrowski who embodies a plethora of hip-hop handicaps: she’s white, female, overweight, and broke as a joke. She lives with her mom, a burnout rocker-turned-karaoke-queen played by Bridget Everett, who attempts to save her daughter from the heartbreak of crushed dreams. Over the course of the dramedy, a band is assembled, tracks are cut, and the quirkiness comes to a musical head. All of this springs forth from first-time writer/director Geremy Jasper, a former musician and music video director, who – along with Macdonald and Everett – spoke to me about his indie hit.

Here are the best bits:

Danielle, how did you get involved with the movie?

Danielle Macdonald: I got a call from my manager that this first-time writer/director, who I’d never met before, wanted me to come into the Sundance Lab. I didn’t know what that was, so I looked it up and asked: “I don’t have to audition?” They said nope, I don’t. They said one of the producers saw my first film The East and Geremy watched like five minutes of something I’d done and wanted me to come in. I read the script and went “What? What did he watch? There’s literally nothing I’ve ever done that could’ve made him think I could do that.” It seemed really out of my reach, I just had to warn him I was going to suck.

How was working in the Lab?

DM: They put us up in these amazing mansions. Just huge houses on hills. Sid [Dhananjay, who plays Jheri] had the best house out of everyone. Twenty-seven bedrooms or something. The balcony was so enormous, you could see all the mountains and a waterfall. It made my ridiculous mansion look cheap. And mine had a hot tub in the woods. There’s no cell service and only hotspots for Wi-Fi, so nobody’s on their phone.

I heard you had a rap coach.

DM: Yeah! Skyzoo, Brooklyn-based rapper. The sweetest people in the world, spent like eight hours with them the first day we hung out. He helped me with breath control, finding the beat, and getting out of my head. The hardest part was just the confidence. I never knew the lines because Geremy rewrote up until the last minute, so there was always the stress of “Shit, I don’t even know what’s coming out of my mouth.” But it’s just what you do. The biggest thing was the confidence. “I don’t know how I sound, I don’t know how I look doing this.” You just have to do it.

Sometimes I’d go to the bathroom and cry a little bit and come back and be like “I’m good, what up?” Nobody can ever tell. Geremy would be like “You used to go to the bathroom and cry?” and I’d say “Yeah. A lot. Well, not a lot. Ok, at least once a week.” I’m good at masking, that’s something Patti and I share.

How was coming to LA for the first time?

DM: It’s a whole new world. It’s suddenly like “Oh, there are a whole lot of people that look like me that want the exact same thing as me.” It’s funny because I’m a “character type” as they say, so people would be like “You don’t have much competition.” And that makes me…[sighs]. The first role I auditioned for they auditioned for 5,000 people. Don’t tell me that’s not competition.

Do you see that “character type” bias changing at all?

DM: Yes and no. Hollywood is very strategic. They still see you as a “character type.” But they now go “Hmm, we can put a ‘character type’ here and see what happens.” Now that Patti has happened there are all these doors that I didn’t know existed. It’s not like there’s doors that are now opening. It’s like it was a wall earlier and now there’s something there. People will change a role for you, and you meet people that want to tell different stories and show different people. In gender, age, race, religion, and sexuality, more stories are being told. We see the world from these movies and we have a warped perspective if we don’t see these different stories.

Who should we be listening to or watching for these?

DM: I like Girls. It’s women that aren’t perfect. You can be flawed, what? There are mean girls out there. There are catty, bitchy people. It’s not like the typical thing where you’re either perfect or you’re the psychotic girlfriend to the man. I love men, but I want equality.

Bridget, how did you get involved with the movie?

Bridget Everett: Geremy saw me on Inside Amy Schumer doing a riff on my live act, which is wild where I run the audience and motorboat people, and he was like “She should play the mother in my movie.” My agent told me a first-time writer/director wanted me for these Sundance Labs, do I have any interest? I said no. I’d never done anything dramatic. I was afraid I was out of my element. Normally, I constantly cockblock myself, but [Geremy] seemed genuine and I didn’t feel scared for some reason.

How was working in the Lab?

BE: You go off in little rooms and approximate where your movie is set. You get all these mentors. Geremy got Quentin Tarantino at one point. They’re just there to help. A support system. It’s weird to come somewhere where people only want to help. Nobody’s trying to sabotage you or undermine you.

That’s the opposite of what a lot of people may think about artists.

BE: Yeah, I came up in the New York club scene and it’s not like people are trying to cut you down, but everyone’s hungry. But having mentors that want you to flourish? It’s something special. Also, Robert Redford is a total fox.

Were you able to incorporate your experience climbing up, ironically, to [Everett’s breakthrough Off Broadway show] Rock Bottom into your role?

BE: I really related to the character of Barb because she’s seen somebody follow their dreams and she’s not able to do it. I understand that angst. I also understand loving other people and not being able to tell them or not being able to show them. Sort of lashing out because of your self-loathing. A little too easy to relate to that. I grew up with a single mother – my dad left and she drank and that whole business – and I’ve been around people that have been dumped on. So there are certainly people to tap into.

Your music reminds me a lot of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

BE: I’ve actually never seen it, I auditioned for it and didn’t get it. I’m glad that it exists because to me, yeah, life is a musical.

You said you’ve never done dramatic acting before, but that’s really all karaoke is, isn’t it?

BE: I like the way you think. There are people that go there that want to put on a little show and there are people that go because they just have to let it out. And I’m a let it out person. People think karaoke folks are sad, but for me it’s essential. It’s visceral. A lot of people really feel it. It’s exciting that people get to perform and feel that alive.

Geremy, can you tell me the story of how Patti Cake$ came to be?

Geremy Jasper: I had the idea for Patti as a character, God, almost twenty years ago. I wasn’t even a filmmaker, I was a musician – ok, I wasn’t even a musician, I was a wannabe musician. I was in Patti’s reality. Northern Jersey, working shitty catering jobs, security jobs, and bartending jobs and filling notebooks with secret songs. I was driving around town with my friend that worked at the pharmacy, listening to Hot 97, and I turned to him and said: “One day there’s gonna be this big white girl from Jersey that’s gonna take over the rap game.” It just seemed inevitable. It was going to happen one day. And it didn’t, so then it became time for me to write my first screenplay. I don’t know why, but I had this burning desire to make a film and Patti came back into my brain.

All the stuff I had in me, my love of hip-hop since I was nine, a chance to write all these songs, and Patti was the ultimate alter-ego. A lot was based on the women that raised me.

Tell me about them.

GJ: They were tough, strong, take-no-shit. The women in my family were “The Boss.” They were called “The Boss.”

Collectively?

GJ: Collectively. But especially my mom. You don’t cross her. She’s a big woman and has always been a big woman. She has no shame in her game. There’s a Jersey quality – a bravado and braggadocio – that fits in with the hip-hop attitude. I grew up around kids that were the kids of the Mafia. Where The Sopranos took place was by where I grew up. So the rappers want to be mafiosos and the kids of the mafiosos want to be rappers, it’s all very cyclical.

How did you move from music to movies? Was music video direction your stepping stone?

GJ: That was kind of the in-between stage, yeah. I had been in front of the camera before, receiving music video treatments from people, so I began thinking “Oh, this is what I’d do with this person.” You start developing a compassion for what they have to do on both sides of things.

Did you know the Florence + the Machine people before getting the gig directing their video for “Dog Days Are Over?”

GJ: Sort of. I’d pitched on four of their previous videos. I knew about her very early on, for Americans. Been following her for at least a year beforehand, and we got “Dog Days.” That was the first video I’d ever made, but I made it with my wife [Georgie Greville] who’d been directing for a long time. So that was a blessing.

That song’s one of my girlfriend’s karaoke go-tos. Did it feel like karaoke watching Danielle rapping your songs?

GJ: Definitely. It brought back some memories of being seventeen and going to Newark to play a hardcore show. Getting booed, getting stuff thrown at us, me being really nervous. A lot of those experiences right from the diaries.

Was coaching a musical newcomer easier since you’re a film newcomer? Sort of a “learning together” kind of experience?

GJ: I think because I put in my 10,000 hours into music and Danielle was coming at things fresh – but has a lot of training as an actress – we kind of helped each other out. The studio was my domain and then on set, I would learn from her. We knew the character so well by that point that we didn’t have any huge breakdowns of “Who is this character?”

Did having all that prep time in the Sundance Labs spoil you for future projects?

GJ: Absolutely. I’m really freaked out about that. We were able to establish a family, a trust. Everyone was coming in with a good attitude. I’m really into vetting, I’m very cautious. I hope I can retain that. When you start bringing in movie stars it’s just not that.

That’s going to be hard to toe that balance between retaining that certainty and not being the over-controlling, fingers-in-everything manager.

GJ: I know, now that I’ve done it, how I like to work. I’m not going to be the guy who directs the next tentpole movie but I also don’t want to do this again. You want to grow, do something different, have different toys to play with. All my favorite directors are protected to do what they want to do. When you come into work with them, you’re in their world, which isn’t the conventional Hollywood situation where you just do a gig. So that’s the ideal, we’ll see what happens.

Did you have to balance a directing philosophy with a composing philosophy during the film?

GJ: I was always picking at something. Writing, rewriting. They had to take it away from me. In the editorial stage, we ran into problems. “These scenes are way too long. How do we do this?” Instead of having to call a composer, I would edit during the day, go to the studio at night and almost recompose – remix – the songs and extend them. What was a two-minute song became a six-minute song and those scenes became a montage where we could squish down all those pages and scenes. If we didn’t have that capacity or skills, the film would’ve sagged. We were able to fix all these little things because music was such a big part of it. “This song isn’t working here, we need a dynamic shift,” then run to the studio and throw something new in the edit. I like working like that.

Patti Cake$ is being released by Fox Searchlight Pictures and will open in theaters on August 18.

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