Inside 'Patti Cake$': The Female Answer to '8 Mile' That Stunned Sundance

Patti Cake$
Jeong Park/2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Macdonald (right) raps alongside Siddharth Dhananjay in Patti Cake$.

From 8 Mile to Hustle & Flow, hip-hop dramas often hinge on a performance that makes (or breaks) the MC at the story’s center. Patti Cake$ is no different: The underdog drama, which stars Australian newcomer Danielle Macdonald and was a smash at the Sundance Film Festival, pivots on a scene in which aspiring rapper Patricia Dombrowski (aka Patti Cake$) takes the stage at a talent showcase to perform the anthem “Tough Love.” In the film, Cake$ is a scrappy rhymer from the New Jersey suburbs who imagines herself as a superstar, despite being mocked as “Dumbo” by her detractors; “Tough Love” was written by director Geremy Jasper, a former musician and music video director, and performed by Macdonald following two years of rapping lessons. Before the film opens wide on Aug. 18, Macdonald and Jasper dissect the climactic sequence filmed at Brooklyn’s Masonic Temple in May 2016.

Jeong Park/2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Macdonald before her big performance.

Macdonald: It was very intimidating to me, because it was my first time performing [the rap] -- and for a crowd of 200 people. I knew that was where I had to be good. It was a lot of pressure, and I felt like I wasn’t getting it at first. And then we started shooting it. I did it once, and I was like, “OK! I did it. I can do it again.” After that first time, it got a lot easier.

Jasper: We didn’t have any time to rehearse, and we had just finished writing the song two days earlier. If that scene didn’t work, the whole film would fall apart. We were throwing a concert, and it was like, “Oh, my God, is this going to work?”

Macdonald: We shot that toward the end [of filming]. I was just like Patti -- figuring it out, and getting to this place where I was confident performing. It was really great having [the performance scene] at that point in the shoot. Earlier on, I don’t know that I could have done that.

Jasper: It was a very emotional day. We had this tough-as-nails assistant director who was always yelling at people. We shot that scene, and she was hysterically crying. She came up to me and hugged me. I thought, “Wow, if this is breaking her down, this is working.”

Macdonald: When I first read the lyrics to “Tough Love,” before Geremy put the music to it, I remember crying. I don’t want to spoil it, but I was like, “Wow, you really encapsulated Patti in this one song, and really found the truth of her life.” It helped me understand Patti so much more. The scene is very focused on the lyrics -- you want people to hear those lyrics. It was all about the emotion, the intensity and keeping it very raw.  

This article originally appeared in the August 19 issue of Billboard.