From Patti to Killer-P: An interview with director Geremy Jasper and lead actress Danielle Macdonald

PATTI CAKE$
Andrew Boyle/Twentieth Century Fox/Courtesy

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Low-budget films often expose threads of the filmic creative process. The brainchild of its director and the image of its lead actor, “Patti Cake$” relies heavily on both artists for authenticity, perhaps more so than the blockbuster.

“Patti Cake$” is the debut film for both director Geremy Jasper and lead actress Danielle Macdonald, and it reflects their own lives and personalities closely in the fictional story.

Jasper drew from his experience as a musician in New Jersey — he created Patti and her friends out of his perceived necessity to form an alternate persona in music production. “I was a frustrated musician that had all these songs and had a desire to write all these songs and record them,” Jasper said. “I almost had to come up with an alter ego to get them out — which was Killer-P and Patti and Barb and Bastard, all of them.”

But as much as Patti is Jasper’s — his creation, his filmic version of a musical alter-ego — she also became Macdonald’s, portrayed compassionately by the young Australian actress.

“I’d been working on her for so long,” Macdonald said. “She was so different from myself but I really understood her heart, and that’s the most important part to me to first understand, because the rest you can learn — but you have to understand what drives a character and where the heart lies.”

As the film’s director, Jasper controlled the conception of the film, but Macdonald makes up the part that everybody sees, so her absorption and application of Patti’s character to her own values is naturally expected. Where Jasper started, Macdonald finished.

Macdonald took on Patti’s character with her own values in mind. Noting the inherent resilience Patti’s story demanded, Macdonald approached acting with a c’est-la-vie attitude.

“It’s very much a real story in the sense that life is full of ups and downs,” Macdonald said. “This is what’s happening in her life right now, and you can be happy even if this is happening — that’s just life, you have to deal with it.”

The deep-seated focus on the forceful realness with which Jasper wanted to portray Patti’s life lead him to the visual style influence of “The Wrestler” by Darren Aronofsky — a verité hand-held documentary-style film.

“I wanted to make sure there was an intimacy with the characters, especially with Patti,” Jasper said. “Like you weren’t standing back and judging her — you were like up in her nostril, living her day-to-day life.”

But Patti’s life, like all lives, was not all tight close ups and DIY roughness — she was happy sometimes.

“I really like that combination — and I wanted that combination — of (being) in Patti’s kind of rough-and-tumble environment and the camerawork is rough, and then we go into her subjective fantasy world and things kind of open up and become a little bit more stylized,” Jasper commented. “It was about combining those two worlds.”

The colorful playfulness of the scenes Jasper designed appear especially stylized. Jasper remarked on his intent to match a style similar to that of Quentin Tarantino, one of his filmmaking idols and his mentor during the Sundance Directors Lab. This intention for a colorful filmic presence directly translated into Jasper’s writing for his screenplay, sometimes to an extent beyond what actually appears in the film.

Jasper commented that people who read his script had a hard time envisioning what it would look like on the big screen.

“On paper […] people had a hard time understanding what the tone of the film was going to be because of characters like Patti, Jheri, Bastard, even Nana — they can feel bigger than life in a way,” Jasper said. He felt as if what he was trying to achieve visually was independent of the depth of his characters.

Then he recalls Tarantino’s advice to him on the screenplay: “The best thing that he said was, ‘Listen, only you can make this film. Like this is your story to tell and only your point of view is going to make this thing happen.’ ”

Jasper expressed more concern about the film’s reception than Macdonald did — she seemed far less worried about what people would think — despite the fact that both are new to cinema.

“You don’t think about how it’s going to open or where it’s going to go when you’re filming — you’re just thinking about doing it, and that is the fun part,” Macdonald said.

Conversely, Jasper commented on the validation he sought throughout the process of “Patti Cake$”: “When you’re trying to make something you feel like you’re sort of crazy and it’s you against the world.”

Artists often feel the kind of isolation with their art that Jasper does — his complete newness just made it easier for him to express his concerns about the creative process out loud. But “Patti Cake$” has a whirlwind creative process behind it, one that hides his apprehension with the confidence of Killer-P.

Contact Olivia Jerram at [email protected].

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