By Adam Yuster
Geremy Jasper’s Patti Cake$, a hip hopera about an impoverished, white Jerseyan 20-something named Patti (Danielle Macdonald) who dreams of becoming a famous rapper, received a 10-minute long standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival. Not bad for Jasper, a first-time director who spent the first half of his career as an indie rocker. I sat down with Jasper and Mamoudou Athie, who plays Patti’s enigmatic collaborator Basterd, and asked them to describe the story behind the breakout festival hit.
Motion Picture Club: Geremy, you started out as a musician. How did you go from music to filmmaking?
Geremy Jasper: It was a long, multi-decade process. I was in a band with a bunch of guys that I grew up with from New Jersey. We spent our 20s making music, living in the studio, and touring the U.S. and Europe. We were slogging away, playing dump after dump. I thought I was living the dream, but it turned into a nightmare. I had to get out of it. Around that time, I started getting very involved with our music videos. After leaving the band, I was like, “Well, I want to make my own music videos. I’m going to start directing.” Then I met Benh Zeitlin, who made Beasts of the Southern Wild. Before Beasts, he made this short called Glory at Sea. He brought me down to New Orleans and I got to watch him shoot it. That’s when I really caught the bug. And then I came back to New York, where my future wife and I started writing and directing together. We had our own production company, and we worked around the clock every weekend for about 7 years on music videos and short films.
MPC: You developed the script for Patti Cake$ at the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Labs. Who were some of the people you worked with there?
GJ: In the Screenwriters Lab, it was Quentin Tarantino, Patty Jenkins (Monster), Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine), John August (Big Fish) and…I mean so, so many others. And then in the Directors Lab, Kasi Lemmons, who did Talk to Me and Eve’s Bayou, was a major mentor for me. Ed Harris was also a big mentor. Miguel Arteta (Youth in Revolt) and the cinematographer Bobby Bukowski were a big help, too. So yeah, there were some amazing people coming through. It was pretty overwhelming actually, because there’s a “summer camp” vibe, and you’re shooting these scenes, but they look pretty janky, you know?
MPC: What were you filming at the Labs? Were you filming scenes from Patti Cake$?
GJ: Yeah. They say pick the five scenes that you’re most scared to shoot. I had never directed actors in a dramatic setting, so most of the scenes I chose had a dramatic side to them. When I was shooting at the Labs, I didn’t really move the camera at all. I was just focused on working with actors on the scenes, so I shot it super meat-and-potatoes style. I knew that I would get the technical side when it was time to shoot for real, but at the Labs it really was about blocking and character.
MPC: Can you name a scene or two in the finished film that took shape due to the influence of a Sundance mentor?
GJ: Kasi Lemmons was really helpful in the kitchen scene, where Patti and her mother, Barb (Bridget Everett), get into a big fight. I was a little nervous about it, but then I had lunch with Kasi while we were shooting it and she said, “There is something there. I’ve seen it over and over again, this kind of jealousy between mother and daughter. You’re on the right track.” That was very helpful. Also, when I did an early version of when the band comes together, Miguel Arteta took me aside and asked, “What are you trying to say here? What is this scene about?” If I had gone to film school, I’m sure I would’ve had an answer, but I was coming at it fresh and I never really thought about it. He helped me break it down and figure out what the beats were.
MPC: In addition to writing and directing the film, you worked on the music that appears in the movie. Did you collaborate with any hip hop artists to get that authentic sound?
GJ: Well, Kirk Knight performs one of his own songs and Bishop Nehru performs one of his songs. But the rest I wrote and produced with my right-hand man and musical partner, Jason Binnick. The only other person that came in was this great MC from Brooklyn named Skyzoo. He helped with Danielle’s movements and cadence. I got really nervous because I would play demos of Danielle’s raps for Skyzoo and I would wonder, “Is this guy going to think I’m the biggest spaz? Is he going to think this is horrible?” But he was like, “No, it’s pretty good man! I like what you’re doing here.” And then he would record his own versions of my demos. To hear a real rapper do it was incredible. I mean, I’m writing all these ridiculous things and he’s rapping them back. He sounded so smooth on those records. But no, other than that it was just Jason and I making music in a basement in Bushwick.
MPC: Did you find any similarities between songwriting and screenwriting?
GJ: Yes. What I like about songs is you can be very direct with what you’re saying. If it’s in a song, you can get away with it, but if someone said the same thing in conversation, it would sound really ham-fisted. For example, there’s a rap where Patti says, “Get me the fuck out of here.” Now, that lyric works as a great punctuation to her song, but if she just said that instead of rapping it, it would be too much. I’m also fascinated by how much you can learn about character through song. When we first meet Basterd, he’s screaming all of this anti-society, anarchist sort of stuff. Basterd doesn’t speak very much, so it would take multiple scenes to get to know that guy through dialogue. But you hear that song and you understand his worldview right away.
MPC: Mamoudou, before starring in Patti Cake$, you appeared in Baz Lurhman’s The Get Down, a Netflix show that was about the origin of hip hop. Was there anything you learned on the set of The Get Down that informed your performance in this film?
Mamoudou Athie: I learned how to DJ. I played Grandmaster Flash on the show, and he was the one who taught me. I didn’t have any rhythm before that, and Flash just gave me this sense of confidence I never had before. I think that confidence carried over into [Patti Cake$].
MPC: Your character in this film, Basterd, is a man of few words. What was it like to act in a role that relies so heavily on facial expressions and tone of voice?
MA: That was a lot of trusting Geremy. Honestly, I hadn’t done anything like that before. Bringing Basterd to the screen, sometimes there were moments where I was like, “I don’t know if I’m doing enough,” but Geremy was very supportive. He said, “You don’t really need to do anything but listen and that will be enough.” I mean, I don’t think he ever used those exact words, but that’s what I got from him.
MPC: Before meeting Patti, Basterd has a very eclectic taste in music. He really likes avant-garde, underground stuff. Did you listen to any of that type of music to prepare for the role?
MA: Yeah. Geremy sent me this band called Horror that was an influence for Basterd. I think they’re a New Jersey-based duo. I watched a couple of their videos and I listened to a couple of their songs and I was like, “Oh, got it. I got it.”
GJ: They’re an industrial hardcore band. They’re amazing. Basterd could be the third member of that band.
MA: Right. The silent third member.
MPC: My last question is for both of you guys. What are your next projects?
MA: I’m in this movie called Unicorn Store. It’s Brie Larson’s directorial debut, and it’s one of my favorite movies I’ve ever shot. I loved making it and I love her.
MPC: Can you say anything about your character?
MA: Yeah. I play this guy named Virgil who works at this Home Depot-esque store. She comes in to get materials to build a unicorn stable, but she doesn’t tell him that’s what she’s building. They start working together, and then she tells him, and he’s like, “You’re building a what?” I’m also in this movie called Underwater with Kristen Stewart and T.J. Miller. That comes out in the spring.
MPC: What about you, Geremy?
GJ: I’m going to write another movie. I can’t say much about it, because it’s in its early stages, but that will be my 2017 and 2018. Hopefully, I’ll be able to shoot it in the beginning of 2019.
MPC: Can you say what the topic is? Or the genre?
GJ: It’s a hybrid, but it has science fiction elements. It could end up being a rom-com! But right now it has sci-fi elements and it’s a lot more stylized than Patti Cake$ is.
Patti Cake$ is in theaters now.