A few years ago, musician Geremy Jasper (he was in a band called The Fever) found he had a talent for filmmaking and became a fairly successful music video director, working for everyone from Selena Gomez to Florence + the Machine. He also found time to do a bit of acting, but he was always working toward making his feature film debut that would be drawn from his life growing up in New Jersey, being a huge hip-hop fan. In many ways, PATTI CAKE$ is Jasper’s story with a few notable changes, including the gender of the lead character.
Bringing the first draft of his screenplay to the Sundance Directors Lab, Jasper’s first mentor was…well, you’ll see as you read on. And soon he was pulling his cast together for table reads and other workshop practices. He pulling in Australian newcomer Danielle Macdonald to play Patti, Bridget Everett to play her boozy, would-be-singer mother, and the rest of the cast fell into place soon after the money did. Jasper also wrote all of Patti’s raps, some at the last minute, but it all came together in the joyful, crowd-pleasing and completely heartfelt PATTI CAKE$, which debuted at Sundance back in January. I had a chance to sit down with some of the folks that make the film, including Geremy Jasper, so please enjoy…
Capone: Hello again. How are you?
Geremy Jasper: I'm good, man.
Capone: Well that was fun last night.
GJ: That was so nice. I can't tell you how nice that was.
Capone: When I introduced the film, I mean, you don't want to oversell it, but at the same time it’s like, your life is going to be a little different by the time this movie is over.
GJ: Oh, that's so sweet.
Capone: And that you could clearly tell that they loved it, after being maybe a tiny bit skeptical. You said you went through 9-10 drafts of this thing over the course of this couple of years at the Sundance Lab. What were some of the biggest changes? What were the tough nuts to crack?
GJ: The big thing was that, I came from music videos.
Capone: For big-time people, some of them.
GJ: Yeah, I did some larger ones, and I did some really small ones. Yeah, we did a mix. And with videos, it's all about the crazier the idea, the more fantastical, the more surreal, the more elaborate, the better. They're always looking to push it, or at least I was. It wasn't just like, “Let's get a stage and some sexy people and walk around.” I was always trying to push it. I come from the school of the filmmakers I like, like Fellini, and Jodorowsky.
Capone: I definitely see the Fellini influence in some of those fantasy sequences.There's music video too, but when she starts walking in the air…
GJ: Yeah, I used to call the film 8 1/2 MILE [laughs].
GJ: That was when we had to knock on doors and try to scare up money. So coming from that background, it's all surface. It's all flashiness and designed and camera moves and stuff like that. So writing the first screenplay about real characters took a long time to get right. The initial drafts were… they were the same characters, and it took place in the same locations, but they went into way more fantasy sequences, way more elaborate musical sequences. There was one where she would have these crazy waking dreams and hallucinations, and there was one where Danny, the bully douchebag, shows up delivering a pizza. He comes up, and they take a bath together, and they go underwater. Then she's a mermaid, and they have a whole musical performance. So it was stuff like that.
Capone: That would've been expensive too.
GJ: Exactly, so it was going to be super expensive. Then I just couldn't figure it out. I think I was really resisting the genre. There was just something I was fighting against. It was very elaborate. It become almost an '80s heist movie, O-Z ran a casino, and there was a reality show. It was insane. So I went to the labs. My first advisor was Tarantino, and he was like, "Listen, you're the only person who can make this film." This is my first draft, which was the vomit draft. He was like, "There's some good stuff in here, and this is a great character, but the second half of the film feels like one, extended dream sequence. Is it a dream sequence? Is it that avant-garde?" And I said, "Oh no, no, no." He said, "You gotta bring this down. You have to concentrate on what it's about. Get into the characters. Make the world smaller. Put it in one town. You'll never be able to raise enough money to make this movie."
And he talked about RESERVOIR DOGS, and he specifically wrote it because he knew he was going to have a limited budget, so he was very practical and gave me a lot of advice on that front. And I took that advice through the nine other drafts. But yeah, I think for me, because it was my first time writing—I didn't come from a screenwriting background—this was me working it out one draft at a time and figuring out the relationships and whittling it down and making it simpler. Somethings that seem obvious now, I almost had to do a “choose your own adventure,” and put Patti in every situation imaginable to get to the point where it seems inevitable.
Capone: You mentioned last night how a lot this came out of your own life, and that woman in the audience said something about how this is a story about chasing your dreams, and I'm like, "Yeah but she's chasing her dreams because she wants to get the hell out of this place. It's a means to an end."
GJ: Yeah, exactly. That's the big thing. That’s the big thing, yeah.
Capone: So was that always a part of the story?
GJ: Always, always a part, and that's a part of being from New Jersey. Being a creative person from New Jersey, there's a long lineage of artists making art or singing songs about that.
Capone: A rich tapestry.
GJ: Yeah, there really is. You listen to “Piss Factory” by Patti Smith, and that’s what it's about. It's about working some shitty job, and just like, "One day I'm going to get out of here, and I'm going to go to the big city. You guys will see. You don't believe in me. You don't think I have anything, but I'm gonna make it." Making it does not mean “I'm going to be rich and famous and live this glamorous life.” Making it means “I'm going to get out of this cesspool and actually be able to make something and be around people who are making things.
Capone: We talked about the Springsteen song that opens the film, but you mentioned that the film looks at things from the Bruce Springsteen angle. I'm in the middle of listening to his audiobook, and it's all that's about is getting out of this crazy place that he grew up.
GJ: And then he stayed.
Capone: That's the other thing, and Patti comes to the same conclusions—home and family are in New Jersey.
GJ: That's what it's about. Yeah, and I never really was that into Bruce before making this film because the guys that I worked for, my bosses, were always into Bruce, and you kind of hate those guys growing up. They're the guys yelling at you and telling you you're not going to be shit. But they loved Bruce, and they were always going to see him. They were always talking about him, and it just seemed really outdated and outmoded, but then doing this film, just like it gave me an excuse to dig really deep into hip-hop again, which is my first love, it also let me get into the music of Bruce. Then I used those records, just like you're saying.
If you look at Born to Run and then Darkness, Born to Run is about getting out, and then Darkness is like, "Well, I'm here. I tried to get out, and I saw the world, but okay, I can't get the Jersey out of me. I need to deal with the people that I'm actually from. I need to deal with my family. I need to deal with all of these issues.” Patti never actually leaves. She doesn't go to New York. She doesn’t go to another place.
Capone: So why did you pick that song [The River outtake “The Time that Never Was”]? Then tell me about how you got the rights?
GJ: So I wrote a lot of the script listening to Bruce. I've been through all of his records and bootlegs. There were certain songs that really spoke to the film. There was “Candy's Room,”“Trapped,” and “Dream Baby Dream,” both covers.
Capone: There’s a version of “Trapped” in there.
GJ: Yeah, we covered that for the trailer. That was an 11th hour, “Let's get in the studio, let's just do ‘Trapped.’”
Capone: So who is singing that then?
GJ: A friend of my music partner’s. So Chris Columbus, who is a legendary filmmaker, and kind of wrote and directed the ‘80s—every single iconic movie.
Capone: He and John Hughes took turns.
GJ: Exactly, and worked together on some stuff too. The list is insane. He wrote GREMLINS, he wrote GOONIES, he directed HOME ALONE 1 and 2, starring Donald Trump. Then did MRS. DOUBTFIRE and ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING, the list goes on and on. Anyway, he's a diehard Bruce fan, and he said, "Geremy, we're going to get to Bruce somehow,” which is something I'm so used to hearing, being from Jersey. All my dad's friends are these guys, you have a drink with them at the bar and they're like, "I know a guy, who knows a guy, who knows Bruce. I know a guy who went to Sunday football at Bruce's house." Everyone has some weird story about meeting Bruce or I know a guy. But Chris actually knew a guy.
So I went through all Bruce's stuff, and then luckily we made the film when we did, and The Ties That Bind [The River box set] came out while we were shooting I think or around that time. That's where all of the outtakes were. But the bounty of what they were working on, because he made a record, then scrapped it, and then had all these other songs. When I first heard “The Time That Never Was,” I was just like, "I love this." I didn't even think about it as for the film, I was just like, "I love this song." It has those classic chord progressions. It has this girl-group sound, but it sounds classic. It's really melancholy, but it's powerful.
Then we were editing, and I was like, "Oh shit, remember that song." We put it in there, and it just worked perfectly. It was exactly what I wanted. It was almost like Bruce's lyrics were coming straight out of Patti's head. It's all about “I wake up in the morning. What am I doing with my life? There's gotta be more than this.” Classic Bruce sentiments, but really simple, really powerful, uplifting, but melancholy at the same time, which is his specialty. Then we were going to Sundance. It had been in the cut. Chris said, "Don't worry, I'm gonna get there." He talked to John Landau [Springsteen’s manager]. We just waited and waited, and Sundance was like, "You have to submit." I was like, "We can't change," we tried 30 other songs, nothing worked. This was the perfect song. Then in the 11th hour, we got the call from the Jersey Vatican. The pope had blessed us and he let us have the song. Which is crazy [laughs].
Capone: Talk about Danielle. How did you first see her? How did you connect with her, and why was she the right person, this girl from Australia?
GJ: Patti was written as she is on the screen. She was specific, her build, her hair. She was written as a big blonde from New Jersey. I grew up with those women. I grew up with those girls. They were my friends in grade school, in high school. So we were looking for her. I got into the Sundance director's lab, and you bring some actors, and we couldn't find her anywhere. Then my producer Noah remembered Danielle from a small role she had in his film, THE EAST.
Capone: The Brit Marling film?
GJ: Yeah, exactly. I still have never seen it, but she plays some anarchist or a cult member. He showed me her picture, and it was just like, "There she is. There's Patricia Dubrowski. That's who I've been thinking about all these years.” It was exactly what I imagined her, beautiful but tough. There's a vulnerable quality about her. She could be sexy. She can be more tomboyish. She came out to Utah. I talked to her on the phone beforehand, and the fact that she was Australian didn't bother me. The fact that she hadn't rapped before didn't bother me, because I thought if she just has a decent sense of rhythm, she's an actress, she can learn it. It's a character. I'm going to give her everything that she could possibly need to get there as long as we have time. We had another year and a half, two years to train, and we got her there.She's also the most so hard working, so that's what you need in an actor.
Capone: It was fun watching her rap a little last night.
GJ: It's cool.
Capone: But when she started into it, she cocked her mouth a little…
GJ: She changes.
Capone: Patti was in the room.
GJ: And it's really crazy for me to see that, because I noticed it as I was editing the film. When we were shooting, she would go “Patti feels like home to me,” and then she would become Danielle.
Capone: It's the same transition she makes in that rap-battle scene. As soon as she's ready to go, she smiles a little. You just got put on a list by Variety this week of directors to pay attention to this year, and Danielle also made the actor's list. Can you even enjoy that at this point?
GJ: No, I wish. I don't know, I need to work on that. We enjoy it just because it's really my first time, and I've been working on making stuff for 20 years. So it doesn't feel like it's some overnight success. Honestly, it always makes me nervous to show people the film. With Quentin, he came to labs, he showed us this beautiful print of INGLORIOUS BASTARD. He sat right in the middle. He loved every second of it. His enthusiasm for his work was incredible and infectious and intoxicating. Me, I'm like, "I don't know.”
Capone: Has he seen this?
GJ: Not yet. I'm going to get it to him, but he's working on his next film.
Capone: I can't imagine he's not going to love it.
GJ: I hope so. I mean, he's such a big influence on me on all fronts that hopefully there's something in there for him.
Capone: The fact that you did the score and wrote all the songs, as if there isn't enough of your blood running through this thing. And of course you did, because you have the musical background, but again it just reinforces the idea that this is you.
GJ: Yeah, my wife says it's the most “me” thing that she's ever seen, which is really sweet.
Capone: I thought it was really wonderful that you put MC Lyte in the film.
Capone: I recognized her voice just on the radio, but to see her in the film, in that one scene, it was so great. I haven't seen her in forever.
GJ: Yeah, and I grew up on MC Lyte, and she's such a pioneer. I wrote the role specifically for her, never thinking that she would do it. You write with these people in your mind. I wrote one of the roles for Tom Waits. I didn't think Tom Waits would do it, but you're imagining it for this person, and she was one of those people. “Okay, French Tips is going to be MC Lyte,” because I know her, she has such a particular voice and style. So you're trying to hear that voice in your head. I was like, "Okay, Lyte." Never in a million year thought she would do it, and someone knew a guy, who knew a guy, who knew Lyte, and she signed onto do it, which was great.
Capone: I want to talk about Bridget and Cathy, because Bridget is a force of nature, and Cathy is a legend. One plays a guiding light, and one plays whatever the opposite of that is.
GJ: Right. Confusing darkness, I don't know.
Capone: The sirens on the rocks.
GJ: Yeah, totally. That's exactly right. I know these women. It was crazy. I did a short with Cathy, and the first time I met her, she looked nothing like Nana. She's got long, flowing blonde hair. She's beautiful. She looks like an old-fashioned movie star, but I met her, and she talks, she's like [in a raspy voice], "Geremy, sit down." And there was just that humor, and a warmth that just reminded me of these women that I grew up with. She felt, even though she's Yonkers and I think the Bronx, she's so Jersey. She felt like family to me.
I had already casdt Danielle and Bridget, and I was looking for the last piece. I just knew that she could be the foundation of this entire movie. Cathy is the soul of the movie in a lot of ways. I just didn't know if she was willing to slum it in an indie like that. This is a woman that's been around, been on some big budgets. Would she come out of the semi-retirement that she was in? Would she age up 20 years? Would she put on a funky wig?
Capone: Get in a wheelchair.
GJ: And get in a wheelchair, and be asleep for half the movie? And I was really nervous about it. We clicked when we did this project in Mexico, and then I finally worked up the balls to send her the script. She made me wait it out a couple days, and then she called me. She's like, "Geremy, I don't like it. I love it!” It was classic Cathy. Then we were off to the races. You have three generations of women. It's very important to me that they look related, and also Bridget makes Danielle look like a little girl, but Cathy can make Bridget look like a little girl. You do not cross Cathy. She's the ultimate matriarch.
There's also a thing, it's in the Bruce book too, there's just something about grandmothers treating their grandchildren better than they treat their own children. There's something going on with the three generations there; that's happening. And you know, in a way, that Cathy's character was just as nasty to her daughter, as Barb was to Patti, and you're passing down these really toxic parental traits, and hopefully Patti can break that cycle.
Capone: Best of luck with this. It was really great to meet you.