Patti Cake$ was rapturously received at Sundance. What did it feel like to have your little indie film receive such acclaim?
Well it’s a dream! I still kinda can’t believe it! It’s such a small film about this little corner of the world, with no movie stars. For me, it’s always been a very intimate, personal film, that to feel like people connect with this, it’s bigger than anything I could ever imagine.
Did you meet your star, Danielle Macdonald, before you wrote it?
I met her in the middle of writing it. So there’s probably 10 drafts altogether, and I was probably on my seventh draft when I met her. And she changed everything. There was a part of me that was like, ‘we will have a very hard time making this film, because it all hinges on finding that actress. A very, very, very special actress, that can do all of these things, that can have musicality to her, and that can feel authentic to the world, but also can be emotional, can be funny’, and that’s why Danielle’s a miracle.
But singing is an entirely different skill. Did she have any experience in that world?
No, zero. She started from the ground up. And she’s an incredible mimic. I mean she’s a great actress, that luckily has a good sense of rhythm. If she’d had no rhythm, we would be screwed. And so we started from the ground up and I sent her a bunch of demos that I’d made, and I brought her to the Sundance director’s lab, and she learned those raps that I sent her. And they were pretty rough around the edges, but she could do it. It was a foundation that was a good jumping off point. And then we spent the next two years training. Every week she had a homework assignment.
She trained about two years to do this role? Was she doing a lot of other roles in between?
Yeah. She was doing TV work, and some indies. But every week I sent her a rap song. Not a song that was going to be in the film, but like a Nicki Minaj song, or a Dr. Dre song, or an Eminem song. And they would start a little bit simpler, and we would get more and more intense as we went on.
Do you have a background in music?
I’ve been making music and beats for over 20 years now, so it’s a deep love of mine. I never had any way or reason to put it into the world. For a while, I wanted to be a hip hop producer. I had no idea how you can get into that world, and Patti became my alter ego, so I could kind of get out all these ideas, and have characters perform these songs for me.
Were you interested in performing yourself?
I was in a punk rock band for many years, we put out records and stuff like that, but I was always much more interested in hip hop, but it would just be ridiculous for me to do that. I just don’t have the voice for it, and I always sounded ridiculous on the tracks.
And who were your hip hop influences? Who do you like?
I love André 3000 from Outkast. He’s one of the greatest, greatest, greatest artists. I hope he makes some more music. I love Ghostface from Wu-Tang, Kanye, I like Vince Staples, who’s kind of a younger rapper, I like Cam’ron.
Was it always going to be a female protagonist?
Always a female. It was based on the women that I grew up with in New Jersey. I grew up in that area. My family still lives there, that’s a big part of my life. And there’s a long history of artists and musicians who grew up in New Jersey who just ache to be in New York City. That’s so much of like the Bruce Springsteen dream.
With Patti and her mother, Barb (Bridget Everett) and Nana (Cathy Moriarty), this is very much a generational film, in a way.
There’s this sort of toughness passed down from generation to generation. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough time in the film to have a Cathy and Bridget scene, but you can see Cathy’s ball buster quality. You could see her being very tough on someone like Barb, Barb acting out in certain ways, kind of rebelling against that, and then feeling like because Barb had Patti so young, them almost having like a sisterly competitiveness, that… you’re kind of vying for the matriarch’s attention. And then there being jealousy because Cathy as Nana really loves and believes in Patti, in a way that she definitely would not with Barb. I think it’s when a mother/daughter relationship is that close, there’s a friction there, and it skips a generation. And so it adds a tension to that kind of dynamic of the three of them.
You could have gone down the social realism route of making it all really bleak, but were you keen to capture humour in parts?
Yeah, I think that was important for me, for it to have a certain vibrancy, and colour, and energy, and humour. A lot of films about young artists, there’s a lack of humour. Everybody’s kind of miserable and doesn’t talk a lot. And the kids that I grew up around were always busting balls and cracking jokes, and creating an armour through humour, and being really silly with each other. It’s a very Jersey thing.
Patti Cake$ is in cinemas from September 14, 2017.