According to writer and director Geremy Jasper, his movie “Patti Cake$” started with a fascinating gender swap.
“Patti Cake$” is the story of Patti Dombrowski, aka Patti Cake$, an overweight white woman from New Jersey who dreams of escaping her small town life by becoming a rap star. She lives with her alcoholic mother Barb (Bridget Everett), whose dreams of music stardom were dashed when she got pregnant with Patti, and her wheelchair-bound grandmother Nana (Cathy Moriarty), who spends her days popping Percocets and watching courtroom dramas on TV.
“Growing up in New Jersey, I had this Springsteen-esque angst to get out,” he says. “In some ways, I was Patti. In the film, she is going through what I was going through when I was 23. I was sleeping in my parent’s basement and taking care of my grandfather with a broken hip and working shitty jobs. I just wanted to make music. They say write what you know, and that’s a world I know very well.”
He took those experiences, combined them with his life-long love of rap music and admiration for “big, tough, strong women who raised me,” to create the title character. He sees the film as a “tribute to the women in my life as well as Jersey.”
Jasper found his cinematic alter ego in Australian actress Danielle Macdonald. He was invited to develop the script for “Patti Cake$” at the prestigious Sundance Institute Directors Lab in 2014. Co-producer Noah Stahl suggested Jasper talk to Macdonald. Despite her Australian accent and lack of musical experience, Jasper knew he had found his lead. During their four weeks in Utah, they developed the character and formed a string working relationship.
Over the next two years, while Jasper refined the script and found financing for the film, he gave Macdonald weekly homework assignments.
“He started sending me a rap a week,” Macdonald says. “I’d record it and send it back and he would send me notes. There were a few that I never really quite got. That was part of the process, figuring out where my natural ability was and where I really struggled. That helped us both understand how I was going to do this.”
Jasper wrote the songs performed in the film.
“I was still trying to figure out what Patti’s voice was, what kind of flows sound good, what kind of attitude, what is her register. We were figuring that out right until we started shooting.”
Macdonald says what made the final cut was “what felt natural and worked with the accent.”
“There are a lot of people who influenced Patti’s voice, but listening to Biggie Smalls really helped me find the vibe of Patti,” Macdonald says. “That wasn’t even necessarily her rap style, but her body language and her confidence. There’s a natural swagger that comes out of me when I listen to Biggie.”
Jasper admits he was not surprised by Macdonald’s discovery. He says, “my initial idea for who Patti was a combination of Mae West and Biggie Smalls with the heart of Bruce Springsteen.”
Actress recalls ‘Horror’ of Ryan Murphy adventure
While “Patti Cake$” will be actress Danielle Macdonald’s breakout performance, she may already be known to LGBT audiences for her guest appearances in several iconic American TV shows, including “Glee,” “Pretty Little Liars,” and most notably “American Horror Story: Roanoke.”
Her experience with the show gives fans an idea what it’s like on the set of a Ryan Murphy production.
“I didn’t think anything would be as hard as ‘Patti Cake$’ and then ‘American Horror Story’ happened,” Macdonald says. “AHS was harder.”
Macdonald appeared as “hard-core super-fan” Bristol Windows in the final episode of the season. She found out at 6 p.m. she’d have to be on the set the next morning at 10. She was told someone would deliver her lines that night, but she would have to sign an non-disclosure agreement before they handed them over. Macdonald asked if she got to know anything about the script and was told no.
The page-long monologue she had to learn overnight made no sense as only the first two episodes had aired at that time. The producers also wanted the monologue delivered in a Manchester accent. Luckily, Macdonald had a friend from Manchester who was allowed on the set as her dialect coach.
“I didn’t sleep that night, Macdonald says. “On set the next day, my friend said he had never seen me so stressed. I was pacing in the trailer. Once the first day was over, it was more fun. The whole cast was there and I could relax a little.”
— BRIAN T. CARNEY