Writer-di­rec­tor Geremy Jasper and his ‘Patti Cakes’ cast share a bond with the dram­edy’s out­siders.

Los Angeles Times - - SUNDAY CALENDAR - By Mark Olsen mark.olsen@la­

Some­times big dreams pay off in a big way. The new film “Patti Cakes” proves that point both on­screen 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 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, a singer and per­former best known for her reg­u­lar ap­pear­ances on “In­side Amy Schumer,” 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.

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 mil­lion to $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 this year.

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: “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.”

Jay L. Clen­denin Los An­ge­les Times

WRITER-DI­REC­TOR Geremy Jasper, cen­ter, is shown with the cast of “Patti Cakes,” his new comedic drama set in New Jer­sey.

Sun­dance In­sti­tute

“IT SCARED me, but that was also part of why I wanted to do it,” says Danielle Mac­don­ald of her role as the tit­u­lar rap­per.

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