One of the most unexpected breakouts at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Danielle MacDonald for playing Patricia Dombroski — aka Patti Cake$ — a 23-year-old, heavy-set Jersey girl with dreams of rap stardom. MacDonald carries the film not only with her acting, but her hip hop performances. There was just one problem that the Australian actress faced: She had never rapped before in her life.
“I just wanted an actress first,” said writer-director Jasper in an interview for IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast this week. “We decided to cast an actress over a musician just because there are so many heavy scenes, there’s comedic scenes, there’s dramatic scenes, she had to do some much – she had to carry the film, she’s in every single scene.”
Jasper, who was musician before he was a filmmaker, had a strong sense that it would be easier to craft a musical performance from scratch than cast a musician as the lead.
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“You have more control with music,” said Jasper. “If you can find someone with a decent sense of rhythm, you can spend the time to find it.”
Timing was key. Having brought MacDonald to the Sundance Directors Lab two years before production, Jasper was not only build the character around the actress as he continued to rewrite, he would have time to teach her how to rap. One of the things that helped MacDonald was Jasper had written each of the songs in a different hip-hop style.
“The film embraces a lot of different rapping styles from different times in history,” said Jasper. “Over those two years between when we did Sundance and when we shot, I would send her particular songs to learn and different styles to learn. She went through hip hop history and different flows and when it came time to get into the studio I was like, ‘OK, I remember you learned this.’ It was nice that she had this kind of foundation [to reference].”
Jasper also felt that most experienced rappers have their own particular styles and it would be tough to coach a specific character with them. With MacDonald, he was starting from scratch, so the pair could build the character through a collaborative process. There was ample time in the studio to get each track right – doing it 200 to 300 takes per song – recording most of the music that would appear in the movie before the start of production. For each performance, MacDonald would perform a capella (without backing tracks) live on camera.
While Gasper had been developing the project for two years, time was not a luxury once the cameras started rolling on the low-budget, 30-day production.
“I think films that have the luxury of time and money, you can spend a day, or half a day, on a super-emotional scene and someone can really dig in and create a mood and go there,” said Jasper.
What happened on the run-and-gun “Patti Cake$” was they would arrive at a location and quickly shoot all the scenes – most of which varied greatly in tone and style – that took place there. It was something Jasper could never imagine a first-time actress doing. “She was able to be limber enough to [go] deep emotionally when it was time to and then be funny and then rap,” Jasper said.
More than anything – removed from the rapper versus actress decision – MacDonald embodied Jasper’s sense of the character, which he had an incredibly hard time casting.
“I had an image of who she was in my head…I grew up with Patti, basically,” said Jasper. “I was seeing actresses that felt so wrong and when I saw just a picture of [Danielle], that’s a face that… felt very much like the women I grew up with and could be cute, could be beautiful, could be sexy, could be aggressive – there was a real mix of her personality and what she brought as an actress.”
“Patti Cake$” opens in the theaters on August 18th, 2017.
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The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.