The director of Patti Cake$ on making the feel-good film of the year
New in Northern Ireland cinemas this week, the story of a misfit who wants to make it as a rapper took two years of rewrites, an Australian actress and the help of Quentin Tarantino to finally come to life, as Geremy Jasper explains
Geremy Jasper was only nine years old when he began to write and compile a secret stash of rap songs.
The New Jersey-born writer and director had big dreams of breaking free from the constraints of his home town and making it as a hip-hop producer. He eventually did find his way to the bright lights of New York, but as the front man of indie band, The Fever.
Jasper's rap material, accumulated over a 30 year period, has now been given a voice in the unexpected, plus-sized form of Patricia Dombroski, protagonist of his feel-good debut feature film Patti Cake$. Much like her creator, 23-year-old Patti, aka Killer P, played by breakout star Danielle MacDonald, has had it with life in her rundown New Jersey home town and has aspirations of rap stardom. The hip-hop heroine is ready to hit the road and follow in the footsteps of her idol O-Z, but is restricted by her home life – a bitter mum (Bridget Everett) and her wheelchair-bound grandmother, played by Cathy Moriarty.
For Jasper, writing the film's soundtrack – as well as the script - was a chance to channel his inner rap god.
'Rap was my first love,' he says, ahead of the general release of the much-hyped Patti Cake$ on September 1. 'Hip-hop influenced everything I've done as an artist. I fell in love with it when I was just nine years old. I grew up on talent shows, started rapping myself, making an ass of myself. I fell in love with it and have been a lifelong fan, making beats for years.
'I wanted to be a producer but I couldn't make it, so ended up in an indie band instead. Writing rap lyrics is something I've almost done in secret for a long time now.
'So I created an alter ego to get the songs out that I've been storing up for years. I always had a desire to write in that style of music but could never get away with it. The soundtrack to the film is 30 years of stuff I've wanted to get off my chest.'
Patti Cake$ was one of the most anticipated movies at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, landing Jasper on Variety's 10 Directors to Watch list.
Almost every location, detail and character is based on Jasper's post-college years; a period spent living in his parents’ basement, helping to care for a sick grandparent and scraping by on a succession of food-service jobs. His own sense of frustration and his longing to escape shapes the story of Patti Cake$ but though autobiographical in its nature, Jasper said his protagonist was always going to be female.
'The character came to me first before I started writing the screenplay or thinking about being a filmmaker,' he says. 'I fell in love with the character of Patti Cake$. To me, she felt like a family member, someone I could relate to and tell her story.
'Growing up in Jersey, my friends had lots of female friends and there were lots of tough Jersey women in my family. It made sense to me to make my protagonist female. I wasn't interested in telling it from a male perspective. It didn't quite have the same edge to it.'
Jasper co-founded a production company, Legs Media, and went on to direct music videos for the likes of Florence and the Machine and Selena Gomez, as well as shooting a short for Brit clothing brand Belstaff, starring David Beckham and Harvey Keitel. His interest in movie making was ignited by his friend Benh Zeitlin, who shot the arthouse film Beasts of the Southern Wild. Jasper had previously starred in Zeitlin's breakout short Glory At Sea, and with his encouragement, wrote the first draft of Patti Cake$ in a mere 19 days.
'That was my 'vomit draft' – I was getting out every idea that I'd been thinking about for years,' he says. 'But it took two and a half years to iron it out and get it to place where we could finally shoot a film.'
Jasper submitted his draft to the Sundance Screenwriters' Lab and was shocked when he was accepted. The first mentor he got to work with was his hero Quentin Tarantino and his project began to come to life.
'For me, meeting Tarantino was crazy,' he says. 'I didn't go to film school or screen writing school. The screenplays I was reading were his. They were like literature to me, they were so inspiring.
'I was so nervous meeting him for the first time, I should've been wearing a diaper. I was freaking out, my voice was trembling. But he was very warm and sweet. He told me "only you can make this film. It's so specific, it's your story to tell".'
Tarantino offered up practical advice, suggesting Jasper strip the film back to make it less elaborate and over the top, to move the action from the casino to the town itself and to make it more shootable and less expensive to produce. He also advised Jasper not to open the movie with a dream sequence.
'I did try, but I just couldn't. It had to be there,' laughs Jasper. 'Sorry Quentin, executive order.'
Jasper was invited back to Sundance for the Directors' Lab, bringing three actors with him to workshop, including Australian actress Danielle Macdonald. His search for a female lead hadn't been going too well until producer Noah Stahl showed him a photograph of Macdonald from a film she'd appeared in, The East, and Jasper was hooked.
'She looked like these women I'm talking about, the girls from my neighbourhood,' he says. 'Without knowing where she was from or her acting background, she just looked like she was from the place, even though that couldn't be further from the truth. And also, she was so beautiful. I knew I could look at the face for the next bunch of years. It was love at first sight really.
'She came with me to the Directors' Lab and within 10 minutes of meeting her and rehearsing with her, I knew I wanted to hitch my train to her. She had this openness and great attitude. That was it, I knew instantly I wanted her for the role.'
Over the next two years the character of Patti evolved and developed, almost coming full circle. The tough Jersey girl she began life as took on a softer feel as Jasper began to inject aspects of Danielle's own personality into the role. It took him two further drafts to strike the perfect balance between the tough, gruff Patti and the gentler Danielle.
'Patti Cake$ has Danielle's emotional core underneath something a lot harder on the surface,' he explains.
Each of the roles was filled one at a time. Casting an Australian actress with no rapping experience wasn't the only risky choice made by Jasper. A south Asian college student, Siddharth Dhananjay, who posted spoof rap videos online, was approached and asked to try out for the part of Jheri, Patti's partner-in-crime and best friend. Everett, who plays Patti's mum Barb, was a favourite on the New York cabaret scene but had never played a dramatic role before and Moriarty, who plays Patti's nan, was 20 years younger in real life.
There were other challenges too. A lengthy bout of writer's block between drafts meant it took two years before the script was finalised. Then the money had to be raised to shoot the movie.
'For a whole year we had to stop until I got my act together,' says Jasper. 'That's the loneliest part of filmmaking, when you're sitting in a room and have major story and character problems and you've no idea how to solve them. The rest of the process is collaborative. But when you're on your own and you're in a rut and repeating the same mistakes, it's hard to break out of.'
Patti Cake$ has been described as the feel-good film of the year, an 'unforgettable indie underdog', an 'entertaining and empowering' tribute to rap, New Jersey and the women who helped shape the director's life. But how would Jasper sum up his own movie?
'Patti Cake$ is a film about misfits and dreamers in the suburbs,' he says. 'I was that misfit. I had long, pink hair, wore a dress and made hip-hop music. I didn't fit in anywhere, not even in the indie rock scene.
'So I created my own character to get out. Now Patti's come to life and I couldn't be more delighted.'
Patti Cake$ is on general release from September 1 and at Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast from September 8 - 14. See below for the the full list of cinemas showing the film. To book tickets go to www.patticakesmovie.co.uk.
Moviehouse Dublin Road, Belfast
Moviehouse Yorkgate, Belfast
Omniplex Kennedy Centre, Belfast
Brunswick Moviebowl, Derry