“Patti Cake$” has lived up to the hype. After its Eccles Theater premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Monday afternoon, the film scored two huge standing ovations, and another for breakout star Danielle Macdonald.
— erickohn (@erickohn) January 23, 2017
This moment was a long and winding journey for writer-director Geremy Jasper. To look at him, you would never guess his alter ego would be Patricia Dombroski (aka Patti Cake$, aka Killer P, played by Macdonald), a 23-year-old, heavy-set Jersey girl with dreams of rap stardom. Jasper is tall, extremely easygoing, and has the style of a Williamsburg creative. In his 20s, he was the front man for a popular indie rock band, The Fever, and starred in Benh Zeitlin’s breakout short, “Glory at Sea.”
“It’s probably about as autobiographical a story as I’m capable of telling,” said Jasper of his hip-hop musical and directorial debut “Patti Cake$,” which is one of the most-anticipated films hitting Sundance this year and has put Jasper on Hollywood’s director watchlists.
Settled into a booth at Diner, a restaurant at the foot of Williamsburg Bridge, he ordered a Bloody Mary, a reward for having successfully output his DCP for Sundance and having worked around the clock as screenwriter, lyricist, director, and composer on the project that’s consumed his creative energy for the last four years of his life.
Like his protagonist, Jasper grew up in New Jersey with what seemed like impossible dreams of escaping.
“I wanted to get out for as long as I can remember,” said Jasper. “I wanted to express something musically, but felt very constrained by the town and I was 100% convinced I’d be stuck there for the rest of my life.”
Virtually every detail, location, and character is based on the year and half Jasper spent living in his parents’ Hillsdale basement after graduating Wesleyan University: working catering and bartending gigs, caring for a grandparent with broken hip, hanging out with his best friend who worked at the pharmacy, and all the while being overwhelmed by a desperate yearning to move the New York City to make music.
After 18 months and a handful of false starts, Jasper eventually found his way to New York. The Fever was Jasper’s childhood dream come to life, a group of friends making music, hitting the road and playing shows. While the band wasn’t a major breakout success, it got good reviews and had a following that sustained them for a few years. Eventually, the rock ‘n roll life caught up with Jasper.
“Traveling the road with a band can be really destructive to your personal life, creative life and your general wellbeing,” said Jasper. “Going up on stage every night, going nuts and also having to be creative, then driving the next day for 12 hours, wears on you after awhile.”
While touring, Jasper started to obsessively watch Fellini movies.
“I didn’t go to film school, I didn’t know anything about making movies, but there was something about his visuals that just spoke to me in ways that only Bob Dylan and Tom Waits had,” said Jasper.
Jasper started sinking all his “crazy visual” impulses into the Fever’s flyers, collages and album covers. Eventually, he thought maybe making a music video could be an initial step toward moving images. In love with stop-motion animation, he was introduced to Benh Zeitlin, a recent graduate of Jasper’s alma mater and whose undergraduate thesis film was the insanely impressive stop-motion short “Egg.”
Holed up in Zeitlin’s tiny Williamsburg bedroom for two months, Jasper and the soon-to-be Oscar-nominated director of “Beasts of Southern Wild” worked obsessively on the Fever’s last music video, “Waiting For the Centipede.”
It was around this time that Zeitlin and his producer/co-writer Par Parekh, who introduced the two, were getting ready to move to post-Katrina New Orleans to make “Glory at Sea,” an epic fable of a band of survivors desperate to find their loved ones buried at sea after a flood. Zeitlin invited Jasper to join the team of recent graduates and to star in the film. At the time Jasper was dead broke, deeply depressed about the disintegration of The Fever, and inspired by Zeitlin’s filmmaking, so he agreed.
What Jasper couldn’t anticipate was that “Glory at Sea” would be a six-month production. Squatting in an abandoned house, he found himself living in squalor with a crew of recent college grads. What he witnessed, however, was the formation of the DYI ethos of Court 13, the team that in a few years would make “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
After six months, having read over 20 books and needing move on with his life, Jasper could see that the crew were so intoxicated with making “Glory” that they would continued shooting indefinitely if he didn’t put on the brakes.
“It had gone on for so long and in the movie I have long hair, so one day I just cut it and said, ‘Sorry guys, that’s it. I can’t do it any more,’” recalled Jasper.
They would finish “Glory at Sea” shooting pickup shots with Zeitlin in a wig and wearing Jasper’s leather jacket. He left on good terms and with the agreement that he would make a film with the Court 13 team down the road. What he really left with, however, was the sense that he could become a director.
“That whole movie was such a mom-and-pop operation, and the whole process demystified filmmaking for me,” said Jasper. “That movie turned into such this beautiful, epic short and to see the little clunky, broken pieces of glass that it was assembled with and to see the chaos and anarchy that was swirling around the thing, I realized, ‘Oh, this is actually really possible.”
When he returned to Brooklyn, Jasper started hanging out with Georgie Greville, an MTV promo maker who also dreamed of new creative outlets. Together, the two formed Leggs Media and started pitching off-the-wall promo proposals to companies and brands.
Their big break came when landing a account out of Sweden for Diesel Jeans. They were tasked with with making “anti-branded content,” which essentially amounted to making 50 extremely short and extremely weird pieces of video for the web. It was a perfect sketchpad for Jasper to unleash all the psychedelic imagery that had been dancing around his head for years.
“It was almost too good to be true. We never had it that good again,” said Jasper. “It was supposed to be this cult underground, sort of surreal thing, with a slightly “Tim and Eric”-type vibe, which couldn’t have been more perfect for me. The first thing I directed was ‘Meat Puppet,’ an absurd piece about a musical puppet that was made out of meat.”
The Diesel campaign gave Greville and Jasper a boost and Leggs was now a real company with a reel. The duo eventually became a romantic couple — now married with a three-year-old son — and continued their business until early last year, when Jasper started making “Patti Cake$” full time.
Leggs also started branching into shooting music videos, where Jasper realized his experience as the singer in band gave him a natural ease working with performers.
“I had instant empathy for the performers. I know what it’s like on the other side and to be nervous, or feel out of control, to feel awkward,” said Jasper. “It’s a really strange, unnatural thing to be used to being on stage performing for a crowd, and suddenly you’re performing for key grip in a baseball hat while you are supposed to pouring your guts out.”
Working with performers became a skill set that would be invaluable for “Patti Cake$.” Jasper had to train his Australian leading lady, Danielle Macdonald, who never had rapped before in her life, and transform her into the hip-hop musical force who propels the film.
As Jasper became more confident in his ability to visually tell stories and work with performers (most notably Florence and The Machine, on their celebrated “Dog Days Are Over” video), he became desperate to make a feature film. Meanwhile, his Court 13 buddies, now with Sundance breakout and Oscar hopeful “Beasts” on their hands, were constantly nudging Jasper to come up with feature idea.
In fall 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit Jasper’s parents’ house, he found himself back in Hillsdale helping out. He was emotionally transported back to the post-college year he spent living in the basement.
“It was a crazy time,” remembers Jasper. “Lights were out, people were freaking out. I was listening to Springsteen’s ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town,’ and I had this idea for Patti way back years ago and for some reason it flew right into the front of my brain. And I knew that’s it, that would be the perfect way to make a feature because I knew I wanted it to be music based.”
For a white, former indie rock singer, Jasper knows the first question will be: Why rap?
“Writing rap lyrics is my secret superpower. I’ve been doing it since I was eight years old,” said Jasper. “I was in a rap group in high school and made beats after college. If I had my druthers, I would have been in a rap group instead of a rock group, but I’m ridiculous, I sound fucking ridiculous. Patti isn’t ridiculous, not by any means, but that feeling of ridicule she experiences from everybody in the town for her rapping was definitely there for me.”
Jasper quickly pumped out his first-ever feature-length screenplay, which got into the Sundance Writing Lab. It was at this point Jasper was confronted with his biggest hurdle: He had no clue how to tell a feature-length story or write a script. It was a stark reality that smacked in him the face when he sat down with his filmmaking hero.
“Quentin Taratino was my first advisor at Sundance,” said Jasper. “You have to understand, besides Fellini, Tarantino is the reason I wanted to be filmmaker.”
Jasper can still remember exactly what the “Pulp Fiction” director said to him.
“’Geremy, I got say first thing, you’re the only person that can ever make this movie. That’s a good thing,” said Jasper, impersonating Tarantino. “’Second thing, so you start really strong, second half of the movie, all a dream sequence? You kind of lost me there.’”
Talking to Tarantino, Jasper instantly realized all the writing he’d been doing up to that point was the long stream-of-consciousness proposals he’d used to pitch companies and bands. It would take him over 10 drafts and two years to learn the form of screenwriting and connect with how to tell Patti’s story. He credits the Sundance Institute for playing a huge role in nurturing his education and helping him figure out how to do it.
“The labs revolutionized my life,” said Jasper. “I feel like it there’s one religion that I would have, it would be the church of the Sundance Labs.”
The biggest breakthrough was when Jasper was invited back to Sundance for the Directors Lab and he was able to fly in the three actors, including Macdonald, who would anchor the film.
“Workshopping with my actors and developing those characters over 18 months before we shot was an enormous breakthrough for me,” said Jasper. “Especially Danielle, creating Patti with her is what made it real and helped channel my writing and figuring out the story.”
Between the concept, Court 13, and the Sundance pedigree, “Patti Cake$” has become one of the more anticipated films for buyers in Park City. With its lovable underdog story and fun, and at times extremely powerful songs, the film has the goods to win over what will be a sold-out Eccles Theater.
Whether the film hits or not, Jasper has walked away knowing how to make feature films and doesn’t plan to stop.
“This has been the most fun, intoxicating and rewarding year of my life making this film,” said Jasper. “I’m so thankful for the winding path that got me here, but there’s something about it that feels so right about it.”
“Patti Cake$” premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival