- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2017

If it were up to filmmaker Geremy Jasper, the Hillsdale, New Jersey, native would have shot his entire new film, “Patti Cake$,” in the Garden State. But thanks — or no thanks — to the regime of Gov. Chris Christie having killed the state’s tax incentive in 2011, Mr. Jasper was forced, due to budget constraints, to hop the Hudson River.

“I thought, all right, we’ll be able to shoot the entire film there — places that I knew like the back of my hand,” Mr. Jasper said of his wishes to film near where he grew up in Bergen County, New Jersey.

However, because of his film’s microbudget, he had to go instead to nearby New York — which does offer such a financial incentive.

“Every single location, every [setting] in the film, would have been in a 2-mile radius [in New Jersey], and it makes me insane,” Mr. Jasper said, shaking his head — and his fist — in anger at the severely unpopular Mr. Christie.

Although Mr. Jasper was able to get three filming days in New Jersey, Yonkers and Queens in New York filled in for much of the shoot due to the low budget. (A Springsteen song or two helps maintain the illusion.)

But what Mr. Jasper may have lacked in actual footage of New Jersey, he more than made up for thanks to the East Jersey accent flawlessly assayed by his Australian star, Danielle Macdonald, as Patti, a young suburban Jersey girl with dreams of a rap career — her skin color be damned.

“Maybe three months before shooting, I started working on the accent,” Miss Macdonald said of her coaching by vocal adviser to the starts Tim Monich, who has worked with filmmakers as high-caliber as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood to help actors perfect regional dialects.

“He [coached] Daniel Day-Lewis for ‘Gangs of New York.’ And he ‘slummed’ it with us,” Miss Macdonald, who now lives in Los Angeles, said of Mr. Monich. “He and Geremy had a long conversation about specifically the type of Jersey accent” they wanted for Patti, she said.

In the lead-up to filming, Mr. Jasper brought Miss Macdonald with him to his Jersey haunts to interact with the locals and to get a feel for the towns where Patti, who lives in modest circumstances with mother Barb (Bridget Everett of “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Trainwreck”) and her grandmother (Cathy Moriarty), would likely inhabit.

“Going to Jersey helped me so much. I felt like I understand this world now,” Miss Macdonald said. “I understand these people that I’m meeting and these places and this vibe.”

“Patti Cake$” begins with Patti working an ill-paying job at a bar. Her mother Barb, who once hoped to be a professional singer, comes into the bar, terribly drunk, to sing karaoke, and insulting her daughter in the process.

To escape her difficult life, Patti and her best friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), hope to get a rap group off the ground, but they don’t have the resources or the connections. That may change when they meet a mysterious drifter (Mamoudou Athie), who has more talent than he knows what to do with.

Patti even enlists her grandmother to help out with the upstart musical act, which they call PB&J.

Mr. Jasper — who, like his leading lady, is white — describes rap as his “first musical love.”

“I just flipped like crazy and became obsessed,” Mr. Jasper recalls of being exposed to the genre as a kid. “This was before the internet, so even getting your hands on tapes was really difficult.

“Run DMC and the Beastie Boys were like The Beatles and The Stones to me. Then LL [Kool J] and the Fat Boys were really a big deal.”

Mr. Jasper later gravitated to N.W.A, a Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy and Dr. Dre’s solo work.

“In Australia, we got a lot of American artists, but hip-hop was much more limited,” Miss Macdonald said. “And then with the audition process, Jeremy invited me to [rap],” she says, adding she was initially hesitant, but her director saw something within her that she did not.

Incredibly, Mr. Jasper not only penned the screenplay but also all of the raps featured in the film. He had written poetry and rap lyrics privately for years, but then faced tremendous anxiety handing off his rhymes to Skyzoo, the Brooklyn-born rapper who served as a technical adviser for Miss Macdonald on “Patti Cake$.”

“When I first started working with Skyzoo, Geremy was like, ‘What did he think? Did he like it?’” Miss Macdonald recalls.

“These characters are such oddballs and misfits, [so] me being a misfit writing their songs, it was kind of OK,” Mr. Jasper, who describes himself as “some funky white boy from Jersey with long hair,” said.

When working with such a small budget, the talent involved had to agree to smaller fees, but Mr. Gasper said that even Miss Moriarty, Oscar-nominated for her turn in Mr. Scorsese’s “Raging Bill,” was game not only to come aboard but to “age up” to portray Patti’s grandmother.

“We mummified her,” Mr. Jasper said of aging the 56-year-old actress with makeup well beyond her years for the part.

“Patti Cake$” opens in the District this weekend, and has enjoyed acclaim at both Sundance and Cannes earlier this year. While getting any film to a national audience is an achievement in and of itself, Mr. Jasper remains morose he wasn’t able to shoot where his story actually takes place.

“The fact that New Jersey does not give you a tax break is infuriating. We’re a small film, and we needed all the money back we could get,” he said of the necessity of shooting the lion’s share of “Patti Cake$” in New York. “They gotta change it, man.”

In addition to the three days of actual location filming in New Jersey, Mr. Jasper added a “secret day” of second unit exterior shooting to better capture Patti’s habitat. Mr. Jasper also recently returned to the Garden State to shoot a promotional music video for the film, with Miss Macdonald in character as Patti.

The filmmaker is philosophical about a return of the tax incentive to lure moviemakers back to New Jersey.

“When we do the sequel,” he said, “I want to film it all in one town.”

Entertainment Editor Eric Althoff is a native of New Jersey.

• Eric Althoff can be reached at twt@washingtontimes.com.

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