Even though “Patti Cake$” is set in a small town in New Jersey, the underdog tale about a white female rapper began its 10-year voyage to movie theaters in New Orleans.
In 2012, Court 13 made an international splash with “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” A fantastical drama about a coastal Louisiana community overtaken by the Gulf of Mexico, “Beasts” received four Oscar nominations.
Like “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Patti Cake$” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Following a bidding war, Fox Searchlight, the same studio that acquired “Beasts,” won distribution rights for “Patti Cake$.”
“Patti Cake$” opens in New Orleans and many more cities Wednesday, Aug. 30, following its Aug. 18 debut in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
“Patti Cake$” writer-director Geremy Jasper planted seeds for the film a decade ago during production for the Court 13 production, “Glory at Sea.” Jasper played the leading role in the short film directed by Court 13 co-founder Benh Zeitlin, director of “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
“Beasts” co-producers Michael Gottwald and Dan Janvey would later produce “Patti Cake$,” Jasper’s directorial debut.
“We spent a lot of time with Geremy when we worked on ‘Glory at Sea,’ ” Gottwald said. “Because of that bond, we worked on his vision for ‘Patti Cake$.’ He’s a fascinating, creative person.”
“Those were the positive vibes that I needed,” the Brooklyn-based Jasper said. “I thought, ‘These guys know about film. They say they’ll work with me. I need to figure out how to be a director.’ ”
In “Patti Cake$,” 23-year-old Patricia Dombrowski, aka Patti Cake$, dreams of rap stardom. Her real life, with an alcoholic mother and sick grandmother, is anything but glamorous. Jasper, who’s also a musician, based the Patti character on his own post-college years in New Jersey.
“The movie,” Gottwald said, “though it is a Jersey story through and through, started in New Orleans, in the spirit of creative collaboration and community. I hope that same community comes out to see the film when it comes to New Orleans. It’ll be great if all our old friends can see what Geremy Jasper has done since we put him on a rickety raft that broke apart in the middle of Lake Pontchartrain 10 years ago.”
During the production of “Glory at Sea,” Jasper began moving from musician to filmmaker.
“He established a strong career for himself as a music video and commercial director,” Gottwald said. “After ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ came out, Geremy saw what happened for his friend, Benh. He said, ‘I want to do that, too.’ He wanted ‘Patti Cake$’ to be the film.”
“Benh’s a thoughtful but scrappy artist,” Jasper said. “His work is handmade. Seeing the success that he had with ‘Beasts,’ that the world noticed, blew my mind. I found it so inspiring.”
In 2012, Jasper spent some time in his native New Jersey following Hurricane Sandy. Inspired by the devastation the superstorm wrought, he told Gottwald that he was ready go forward with “Patti Cake$.” New Jersey needed a hero, Jasper reasoned, and hip-hop music had never seen a character like Patti Cake$.
Jasper’s participation in Sundance labs for screenwriters and directors helped him prepare “Patti Cake$” for production. His screenwriter’s lab instructors included Quentin Tarantino.
“He gave me advice that I took through the next bunch of drafts,” Jasper said.
“Those were formative moments for Geremy and the project,” Gottwald said. “He got a lot of good feedback.”
At Sundance, Jasper first worked with Danielle Macdonald, the Australian actress who plays Patti Cake$. Noah Stahl, another of the film’s producers, found Macdonald.
“When Noah put Danielle’s picture in front of Geremy, he fell in love with her,” Gottwald said. “I wanted Danielle to come to Sundance. She and Geremy really hit it off.”
“Danielle is the movie,” the director said. “When I met her, I knew that she’d work harder than anybody I’ve ever met. And she did. She spent two years learning how to rap and do a Jersey accent. She changed her body language. I sensed the desire in her, but also the kindness and incredible work ethic.”
Bridget Everett, who gives a breakout performance as Patti’s likewise musical but troubled mother, Barb, agrees.
“Danielle is easy to fall in love with and easy to work with,” Everett said. “She’s a dream.”
Although it took years to develop “Patti Cake$,” Gottwald always believed in the project.
“I liked the idea and the characters,” Gottwald said. “It’s a fun world that Geremy wanted to play with, his vision of New Jersey. And he’s a clever guy at writing music and lyrics. The characters are extensions of the fun in the lyrics.”
Gottwald, a native of Richmond, Virginia, came to New Orleans in 2007 to work on “Glory at Sea.” He, Jasper and Zeitlin all share the same alma mater, Wesleyan University in Connecticut. After moving to New Orleans in 2009, Gottwald co-produced “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and helped cast the movie’s non-actors, including Dwight Henry and future Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis.
“For about a year I drove around Louisiana holding tons of auditions,” he said. “Benh selects dynamic people.”
Gottwald is delighted that “Patti Cake$” is the Department of Motion Pictures inaugural release.
“In a lot of ways, we’ve had the best possible success with ‘Patti Cake$’ already,” he said. “Making it to Sundance and having Fox Searchlight release it, that was always the dream. We’re still going to do everything we can to get people to go see the movie, but we feel fortunate for what’s already happened with the film.”