Sometimes big dreams pay off in a big way. The new film “Patti Cakes” proves that point both on-screen and off, as its celebration of misfits and outsiders became the toast of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
The comedic drama features a commanding performance by Danielle Macdonald in the title role as a young woman in a dead-end New Jersey town determined to achieve her goal of rap stardom. Writer-director Geremy Jasper recently described the character as “Mae West meets Biggie Smalls with the heart of Bruce Springsteen.”
In the movie, Macdonald’s character Patricia Dombrowski — alternatively known as Patti Cakes or Killa P — sees rapping as a way out of the life she feels stuck in, living with her bitter, boozy mother (Bridget Everett) and ailing grandmother (Cathy Moriarty). With the help of her best friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), a self-styled hype-man, and the moody goth rocker-slash-producer known as Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), she just might make it.
Jasper, from the same parts of New Jersey where the story is set, is a musician who turned to directing music videos before making “Patti Cakes” as his feature debut. Along with the relatively unknown Macdonald, an Australian actress who has been living for the past few years in Los Angeles, Jasper worked with something of a ragtag team on the project.
Everett is a singer and performer, best known for her regular appearances on “Inside Amy Schumer,” who had never taken on such a dramatic role before. Dhananjay was discovered from videos he posted to the WorldStarHipHop website. Athie is a Yale School of Drama graduate who also appeared in Baz Luhrmann’s “The Get Down.” And Moriarty is an Oscar-nominated actress known for her performances in “Raging Bull” and “Soapdish.” Veteran rapper MC Lyte also has a small role.
“I’m a nonprofessional director, this is my first time,” said Jasper. “I didn’t feel like I had the background in really working with actors. There was a quality of getting people out of their comfort zone. I’m a musician who’s done some music video directing but now I’m really trying to direct this thing and we’re all kind of in it together.”
For Macdonald, the project presented the challenge not only of learning to talk with a thick New Jersey, but also learning to rap with that accent too.
“When I first read the script I was like “Me? Noooo,” Macdonald said, sitting alongside Jasper for a recent interview in L.A. “But I also wanted to see what happens. And as I kept reading I felt I was so not right for this but loved it.
“After I read the script, Geremy and I had a conversation and I said, ‘I need to be very straight with you. I don’t rap, I can’t do a Jersey accent and it’s so cool and I want to, but there is all this stuff that’s not me.’ And Geremy was just like, ‘I have a good feeling. Just learn the raps. It’ll be fine.’ And he seemed so chill, I figured it would be fine. It scared me, but that was also part of why I wanted to do it.”
Jasper was undeterred, as from the first time he saw Macdonald in a photo he was struck by how much she looked like the character he imagined in his head.
“And that’s a one in a trillion thing,” he said. “It’s so crazy to me. If you had a sketch artist that could dip into my imagination in this Michel Gondry way and draw what I was thinking for Patti as I was writing it, it’s her.”
Once they began working together, Jasper was even further convinced, tailoring the part to Macdonald.
“Meeting Danielle as an actress opened up a whole new world for me as a writer,” he said, “and we were able to develop it together and change some of the scenes.”
Likewise, Everett could not see herself playing the part of Patti’s mother Barb at first. A longtime denizen of New York City’s cabaret scene, Everett has seen her visibility soar after “Inside Amy Schumer” — it’s where Jasper first saw her too. Her character of Barb once had dreams of her own to be a singer, a hair-metal belter back in the days when Bon Jovi topped the charts. The idea of dreams set aside, reconciled with and even revived, spoke to Everett.
“I waited tables for 25 years. I didn’t think it was going to happen for me,” said Everett. “I really related to that sort of bitterness, when you think the thing that you wanted to do so much has passed you by. She’s very different from me, but in many ways the same. It was actually kind of therapeutic to play her, to revisit the bitterness that passes across my plate from time to time and get some perspective.”
For inspiration, Jasper told Macdonald to watch “Rocky” for its underdog vibe and “The Sopranos” for its Jersey verisimilitude. (Also upping its New Jersey realness, the movie includes a rare Bruce Springsteen track.) Another movie that influenced Jasper was “Saturday Night Fever” for its restless bridge-and-tunnel longing, a sense that something better was out there.
Some of the most tender, heartfelt moments in the movie are simply Patti and Jheri looking across the river to the lights of the New York City skyline and hoping for more out of life.
“That stuff is 100% autobiographical,” said Jasper. “That feeling of sitting at a lookout, looking at New York, listening to the radio and trying to visualize myself, how do I get there? It’s so close but it might as well be the moon. It just feels so far away. And culturally Jersey is so different form New York City, it’s bizarre. To me that’s the heart of what ‘Patti Cakes’ is about.”
Yet as much as the story of “Patti Cakes” is rooted in Jasper’s own dreams, aspirations and where he grew up, Macdonald never felt she was his stand-in.
“I didn’t feel like I was playing a version of him, but I felt like he was my guidebook,” she said. “If I had anything I needed to know, he was the book I could look into to find that. He was the best reference point. And that’s not always the case. You might have a conversation about a character, but it’s not coming from a place where the director knows this person inside and out.
“And then, I’m also a woman and Geremy’s a man,” she added, “so I think that having him knowing exactly who Patti is, and then me being able to feel her as a woman, brought her out. So it was an interesting dynamic. It was very easy to just talk and figure it out.”
For Jasper, the path to becoming a filmmaker and bringing the personal story of “Patti Cakes” to the screen has not been an obvious one.
“This is not an overnight success,” he said. “It’s been long and drawn out.”
After his indie rock group the Fever broke up Jasper landed in New Orleans, where he would collaborate on the 2008 short film “Glory at Sea,” made by director Benh Zeitlin before “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Having directed some music videos, perhaps most notably “Dog Days Are Over” for Florence + the Machine, eventually Jasper wrote the “Patti Cakes” script and took it to both the Sundance screenwriting and directing labs in 2014. The film sold to Fox Searchlight Pictures after its premiere for a reported $9.5-$10.5 million.
Even before “Patti Cakes” has opened in theaters, it has already done more for the team behind the film than they ever expected.
“I always say, if my dream had a dream then had a dream that had a dream, that would be what the Sundance experience was,” said Jasper of premiering the film at the festival earlier this year. “I’ve done all kinds of stuff, and after taking your licks for so many years and putting stuff out there, you don’t expect anything. The fact we got the film there was enough for me. Everything else was an amazing surprise.”
For Macdonald, the attention from “Patti Cakes” is already paying off. It was recently announced that she will play Jennifer Aniston’s daughter in the beauty pageant comedy-drama “Dumplin’” and will also star in “White Girl Problems,” produced by Elizabeth Banks. Taking the lesson of “Patti Cakes” to heart, Macdonald has come to realize that the way things may seem is not the way they have to be.
“There’s a process: you audition, you get rejected, occasionally you get jobs and it’s exciting, but it’s all little stepping stones,” Macdonald said. “I knew how the industry worked from my perspective and then all of a sudden this happens and there’s a whole other side to this industry that I haven’t even begun to touch upon yet. Suddenly people can see you in a role they wouldn’t see you in before. Or they’ll change a role to fit you.
“You’re put in a box at first,” she said. “And it feels like the box has opened up.”