For director, ‘Patti Cake$’ is realization of long dream

Aug 24, 2017
From left, Bridget Everett, Geremy Jasper, Danielle Macdonald and Cathy Moriarty at the “Patti Cake$” New York Premiere earlier this month. Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Take heart, aspiring filmmakers.

Not that long ago, Geremy Jasper was 23 years old and living in his parents’ basement in Hillsdale, N.J.

He wasn’t a loser. In fact, he was quite smart, having attended the upscale private liberal arts college Wesleyan in Connecticut, where he focused on American Studies. But his garage band seemed to be going nowhere. He was tired of traveling. And he was tired of living at home.

Then he met Benh Zeitlin, another Wesleyan graduate, who decided he was going to make a film — “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” As movie lovers know, that small 2012 film went on to be an arthouse hit and received four Oscar nominations.

Jasper worked on it, and, he says, “Benh inspired me, basically, to try my hand at filmmaking.”

“I saw he was doing it his way, grabbing up guys in the neighborhood and following his vision,” Jasper says. “It wasn’t like he went to Hollywood and worked as someone’s assistant and was a PA. It was more like ‘Let’s get crazy and make a movie.’ So everybody chips in and wears a lot of hats and you do it together. And that sent me on my way.”

Jasper’s way now can be seen on movie screens with the opening of the inspirational hip-hop tale “Patti Cake$.” It focuses on a character named Patricia Dombrowski, aka Patti Cake$, who wants to hit the road and become a hip-hop star. But, she’s stuck at home, caring for ailing Nana and living with her mother — not unlike the situation Jasper himself faced.

Jasper wrote the screenplay as well as all the songs in the movie, and he says Patti is sort of his alter ego.

“I’m a frustrated songwriter who wanted to write for somebody,” he says. “A lot of my experience has been in New Jersey, and there was always this desire to get out, a feeling of being trapped and living in your parents’ house. You have the dream but nothing really to show for it. So how do you work up the guts to deal with what’s ahead?”

For Jasper, that meant sitting down to write a screenplay and submit it to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, just as Zeitlin had done.

Before long, Jasper was selected to work with such mentors as Quentin Tarantino and Joan Tewkesbury on the script.

“The first draft of the script was so insane, and I really needed to refine the story and the characters, just as Benh had done,” Jasper says.

One of his first advisers was his personal hero Tarantino, who told him the first half of the script was strong but that the second half seemed like a dream sequence. “The lab helped me focus on the characters, the relationships and the world, and I realized that if I was ever going to make this thing, it needed to be in one town,” Jasper says. “It’s a small film, and you have to figure out how you can actually pull it off.”

Jasper says he’s not a religious person, “but if I were, my religion would be the Sundance Labs. It’s like film church.”

In the case of “Patti Cake$,” there’s not much religion involved — just three foul-mouthed women who are incredible characters: aspiring rapper Patti (Danielle Macdonald), her wild and bitter mother Barb (Bridget Everett) and Nana (Cathy Moriarty).

Jasper says the characters not only reflect his past but also his own mother, a “brassy schoolteacher who has a hip-hop attitude.”

“She’s a big woman and has always been big, and she has no shame in her game,” he says. “There’s no self-consciousness, I guess. She’s proud of who she is. She’s the boss of the family, and those attitudes fit very well with hip-hop.”

Jasper says he sees Patti as “pretty tough,” but when you put her next to Barb, “she’s a little girl.” And then there’s Moriarty as Nana, and “she’s like the Mafia boss,” Jasper says.

They all seem to be reflections of one another. But the relationship that dominates the movie is between Patti and her mother, who’s a frustrated singer from the days of “hair metal” music and who has grown bitter about her professional failures.

“She’s definitely bitter and trapped and lonely and very jealous of her daughter,” says Everett, who got the Barb role after Jasper saw her on “Inside Amy Schumer.”

Everett, who grew up in Manhattan, Kansas, can relate to Barb’s feelings of inadequacy. She wanted to be an opera star and went to Arizona State. But she learned that she was sort of “like a wild horse” when she tried to sing opera. “I was like that ‘Bull Durham’ guy. I had the arm but no control,” she says.

So she moved to New York, tried Broadway, then “stumbled into the world of cabaret and comedy.”

And that led to appearances on “Inside Amy Schumer” and her eventual casting in “Patti Cake$.”

“I’m 45, and I wouldn’t have been prepared to do a role like this 10 years ago,” Everett says during a recent visit to Austin with Jasper. But over the years, she has toughened up.

“I’ve been where Barb is,” she says. “I’ve felt like my dreams weren’t going to happen, so I’ve been resentful of all sorts of people. I’m one of those people.”

But her work as a waiter and eventually as a cabaret star has brought out a new persona. She describes her cabaret act as “a wild, blue ride, a full-contact sport, with some tender moments. There’s a lot of racy songs, but I like to show the human side of her, too, not just the wildebeest. It’s Bette Midler, Sophie Tucker, Mae West and a little bit of Richard Pryor.”

Austin audiences might already be familiar with her cabaret act; she has been a regular at Austin’s Moontower Comedy Festival. And “Patti Cake$” seems certain to raise her profile when she comes to town again.

Neither Jasper nor Everett was confident that “Patti Cake$” would ever be seen by a large audience. That changed, however, in January, when “Patti Cake$” was a hit at Sundance. Fox Searchlight acquired distribution rights, and now you’ll be able to see what all the fuss was about.

Sometimes, the little guys win.