You might know Geremy Jasper from The Fever, an indie band he co-founded in 2001. But these days, Jasper is better known as a filmmaker. He has directed music videos for Florence + The Machine and Selena Gomez, and his feature debut, "Patti Cake$," is a mash-up of his passions for music and film, inspired by his own life experiences.
"It's about where I grew up and about the people that I grew up around," Jasper says. "All those little things kind of built up to what would become Patti's little universe in Northern Jersey."
"Patti Cake$" follows Patricia Dombroski, a.k.a. Patti Cake$, a.k.a. Killa P, a hip-hop legend in the making. As a white, heavyset, 23-year-old Jersey girl, she's an anomaly in the rap game. But she's got a big heart and an even bigger talent.
The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival this year and features a cast that includes Bridget Everett, Cathy Moriarty, Siddarth Dhananjay and Mamoudou Athie.
In some ways, Patti is Jasper's hip-hop alter-ego. The film is set in New Jersey, where he grew up, and, like Patti, he had dreams of leaving town to make it big. Jasper says some of his old songs could have been written by Patti.
"They were kind of Springsteen-esque, Take that bridge and tunnel into the city, let's get out, let's live a life of romance and danger," Jasper says. "Let's leave this small town behind kind of thing."
Jasper eventually left Jersey with his band, but the toil of touring caught up with him. He gained an interest in filmmaking after starring in "Glory at Sea," a short film by his friend and "Beasts of the Southern Wild" director Benh Zeitlin. Jasper learned from Zeitlin's do-it-yourself ethos of filmmaking, which inspired him to make his own movies.
Jasper stopped by The Frame to talk about his transition from music to movies, and how his own life inspired the making of the hip-hop movie, "Patti Cake$."
On creating the character Patti Cake$:
In my early 20s, driving around Jersey, with my best friend who worked at the pharmacy ... I said, One day, there's going to be a girl from Jersey who takes over the rap game and she's going to be a mix of Mae West and Biggie Smalls and [have] the heart of Bruce Springsteen and a little, you know, Tony Soprano on top. She reminded me of my mom — a big woman who liked to wear jogging suits who's never gone jogging in her life ... who has no shame in her game and just has the attitude of, I am who I am and kind of like, F-U — this is who I am. We laughed about it and I kind of filed away this character.
On his background in songwriting:
I started writing my first rhymes at 9. The first thing I did on stage, I would like to say, it was very early "Hamilton." I did a rap about the constitution when I was in fifth grade. "The Constitution Rap" it was called ... It was like, Yo, I wanna tell you about something great / it was signed and designed in the United States. That's the first line I remember. It could be worse for a nine-year-old. Check that out, Lin [Manuel-Miranda] (laughs). I was writing all the time. It was kind of how I kept a diary, writing these ridiculous rhymes.
On making the transition from music to film:
Years went by, I finally got out of Jersey with that guy who worked at the pharmacy. We started a band and we made some records and went on tour. And I thought that was going to be my big dream come true, but it wasn't. We were playing for five people in Columbus, Ohio on a Tuesday night. It was pretty dark. It was the bottom of the music industry, kind of scratching my way through. And then it got to a point where I was like, Alright, I'm not doing this anymore.
I discovered the films of Fellini and David Lynch and I realized, Oh my god, there's, like, a whole 'nother world that I didn't even know out there. And I was kind of intoxicated by these things and said, I wanna learn how to direct. But I still was really intimidated by it ... And then I met Benh Zeitlin, who was kind of like my beacon through this time period. We'd collaborated on a music video, we really connected, we had very similar tastes in music. And so there was sort of a brotherhood that was established. And then he was going to New Orleans to shoot his first short called "Glory at Sea." He called me — and my band had just broken up — and he said, Do you wanna come to New Orleans? I always had a very sweet spot for New Orleans and I said, Yeah, okay.
On what he learned in film that he didn't in music:
It was storytelling, it was characters, it was heavily musical. So I realized ... wow, you can still write songs and music and melodies, but now you combine it with these characters and these incredible locations and it all comes together with something that felt so much more overwhelming and scary and intimidating. I don't know, it was just a really great combination. It was everything that I loved doing all-in-one. And watching [Zeitlin] work, I realized, Oh, there's like a DYI kind of garage band quality to the way these guys are making these films.
How "Patti Cake$" is an authentic representation of his New Jersey hometown:
It's about where I grew up and about the people that I grew up around. There was a frequency I just needed to kind of tap into ... You know, Jersey can be a little bit of a punchline. ... ["The] Sopranos" is obviously the gold standard and they did it really, really well. But there are other films and TV shows that it's like, Ey yo! Ey! ... Welcome to Jersey! I just wanted to make sure we didn't get into that place.
On Jasper's personal connection to the character Patti Cake$:
I was living at home with my parents in their basement in a house that was quite disheveled, and had this burning desire to make things, to be an artist, to be a musician ... But I had nothing to show for it. It wasn't like I could really play an instrument. All I had were these notebooks and this dream of getting out. And I felt my family — I guess it's three or four generations Jersey strong — I seemed to be the first one in the clan that wanted to get out. Ever since I was 16-years-old, I had this kind of burning desire to get out of Jersey. At that time I was like, I'm trapped ... I was pretty depressed and just didn't know what I was going to do with my life, felt very lost. And so that sensation, which took years and years to work through and claw my way out [from], I always try to tap into that sensation with Patti's story and where Patti's coming from.
To listen to John Horn's full interview with Geremy Jasper, click on the player above.