Geremy Jasper’s ‘Patti Cake$,’ a tale of working-class dreams, is pure New Jersey

Speaking after a screening of his latest film, “Patti Cake$,” Geremy Jasper seems startled that people are interested in him and his project. Jasper wrote and directed the $2 million dramatic musical comedy about a large, young, working-class, white woman with few options in a New Jersey town, who sees rap as a way of transforming her life.

Jasper developed “Patti Cake$” in screenwriting and directing workshops at the Sundance Film Festival. The film has won awards at the Berkshire International Film Festival, Nantucket Film Festival, Palm Springs International Film Festival, and Seattle International Film Festival, and was nominated Cannes.

The Sundance screenwriting workshop receives about 3,000 submissions a year, and they choose eight to 10 projects, Jasper said. “And that was really — that was where everything changed for me.”

Jasper was born in Hillsdale, New Jersey. The road to directing “Patti Cake$” took him from living in his parents’ basement to having an indie band and gradually working into directing videos.

He got the idea for the film in 2012, but his wife was pregnant, so he put it off for a year. He read screenwriting books and other screenplays, and he watched movies “to learn how the form worked.” In October 2013 he wrote the first draft in about 19 days to get it in to Sundance on time. “And I mean I cranked it out,” he said. “Having thought about it for the previous year meant that I knew the world, because it was the world I grew up in. I knew the world that it took place in and I had all the characters.”

I asked if it was difficult going from writing the screenplay by himself to giving up control and collaborating with producers. Jasper said, “My producers were really, really helpful. Because this was my first time writing a screenplay, they were very enthusiastic about what I was doing, but they could also tell when I was going off the rails somewhere.”

‘I love these characters’

Jasper was influenced by working-class movies such as “On The Waterfront” and didn’t want to condescend to the characters. “I love these characters. I wanted to treat them with respect and dignity. For this project it’s not ‘Ha ha, these guys are so funny.'”

It could easily have been a lowbrow comedy making fun of an overweight white woman who wants to rap, but Jasper said he wasn’t interested in making a studio movie. “That is why we protected it so hard, because we knew that if we got into business with the wrong people, that would be the no-brainer — to take this thing and turn it into that kind of goofball broad, kind of mean. There’s a lot of mean insincere comedies out there, and it would have been that,” he said. “Sometimes people, when they see the concept, that’s where their brains go, but its really not.”

The movie is about how art can lead people out of, and transform their lives beyond, their circumstances. And there is this amazing quality of humanity that, regardless of their condition, people can create art and find a meaning to their lives.

“This is a story about a young poet, basically,” said Jasper. “And she’s using the story of her day to express these things inside of her,” he said.

The women in “Patti Cake$” aren’t stereotypically skinny young starlets. “From the very beginning, these were based on women I grew up with, based on personalities and faces and bodies of people that I know well” Jasper said. “So, when casting that, I was looking for something that reminded me of them.”

He said he instantly fell in love with Danielle MacDonald, who pays Patti. “It was always written that she was built the way that she was built. And it was always written that she was strong and beautiful, even though her body was unconventional. So is Bridget [Everett, who plays Patti’s mother]. … There is an actor type, and I was trying to find someone who doesn’t fit into that type. And so when I saw her on TV and she was a comedienne and singer, it didn’t matter. She had the essence. She looked like she could be Danielle’s mother, and she looked like the women that I knew from Jersey.”

Jasper continued, “The last generation for me to find was Nana …. I needed someone who was going to be the bedrock of this, the matriarch, the one you wouldn’t want to cross.” He worked with Cathy Moriarity for the role. “That voice was so earthy. She really reminds me of my aunt growing up. I couldn’t stop thinking of her as Nana.”

The movie is very honest about the about the way people can be cruel — the harassment Patti receives from people because of her size and the pain of being a lower-class white person without a college education and options. And there’s a petty, casual racism, like when Patti’s mother, Barb, tells her to remember her race.

“I call that ‘casual cruelty,'” Jasper said. “When I go back home I see a lot, I hear a lot. I was raised in a house where you don’t say stuff like that. It could be a Jersey thing. It’s called ‘busting balls.’ … It’s very cutting, but it’s thrown off. … It has a little bit of humor in it, … but it is really cutting and mean.”

The feeling of potential

“Patti Cake$” isn’t a sentimental story. There’s no automatic happy ending. Patti doesn’t win a rap battle and become an overnight success, but when she hears her song on the radio, that validation makes up for everything. She doesn’t have money yet, but she has that validation.

Jasper says his own experience was similar. He was in two bands that were played on the radio. “One more of a Jersey radio thing,” he said, “a very obscure radio station. And we yelled out the window. We were so elated! And the next day we went back to our lives, working on crappy jobs, doing our thing.”

The second time was on a New York City rock station. “I was by myself, driving in New Jersey, and I was overwhelmed,” he said. “I think I honked my horn, I was so happy. I got home, I thought things were going to change. I thought there was going to be phone calls. And nothing changed. It was just this moment of: Okay, I’m hearing my voice on the radio like I’ve always dreamt of — which was incredible — and then, I just went back to everyday life the next day.”

It’s more about the journey than the destination. “There’s a feeling of potential,” Jasper said. “Just like saying the path is all about the sensation that something could happen. Let’s go for it, ’cause there’s hope.”

Patti makes the mistake of pushing her demo on her idol, O/Z (played by Sahr Ngaujah), who shuts her down. I asked if Jasper had that experience or if it was made up for the character.

“It’s a bit of both,” he said. Jasper says he snuck into a record executive’s office once and asked him to play his tape while he was there because he was desperate for a record deal. “He played maybe 30 seconds of it, laughed in my face, and asked me to leave. He said I didn’t know anything about music.”

Nobody is laughing now.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.