Drew Barrymore's Female Fight Club
by M. Faust
It’s about the biggest press conference I’ve ever seen. There are so many people in this Toronto hotel room from the ensemble cast of Whip It, in fact, that they split the session into two parts, because they don’t have a table big enough to fit writer Shauna Cross and actors Kristen Wiig, Marcia Gay Harden, Juliette Lewis, Daniel Stern, Eve, Alia Shawkat, Eulala Scheel, Landon Pigg, and Andrew Wilson (you already know his brothers Owen and Luke).
They all may as well have stayed home, though, because most all of the questions are for the diminutive but wholly self-possessed young lady with the two-tone hair, skin-tight jeans and shoes clearly chosen for style rather than comfort. Whip It may be based on a semi-autobiographical book about Shauna Cross’s experience with the roller derby (nom du skate Maggie Mayhem), but Drew Barrymore has made it her own. Whip It is her debut as a director after 15 years of producing films and 30 of appearing in them, with a lengthy interim period as a star of the nation’s tabloids.
Barrymore, who also plays a supporting role in the film as skater Smashley Simpson (“the ex hippie with anger issues, that was my backstory”) begins by talking about how she was determined to keep her film as real as possible. (Several hundred “you know”s and “like”s have been edited out because the internet is only so big):
I was like, I will be damned if we have a bunch of doubles and I'm shooting faces and doing editing trickery. The audiences are smart; they can smell that. Instead, you see everyone being a total badass on the track, because they trained and they learned. And thank God all of us lived through it."
We got seriously banged up – we wore our bruises like merit badges. We got into female fight club, which was really fun. It’s fun for girls to do what boys do, get all rough and tumbly.
What was your first experience going to a roller derby match like?
The first time I went to a game, I had been wondering what the world was like from Shauna’s writing. So that when I walked into my first game it was that Wizard of Oz moment, where it had been in black and white and suddenly the world became Technicolor. I tried to film that cinematically with a handheld shot over [co-stars Ellen Page and Alia Shawkat] as they walk in and the whole world just opens up to you and there’s the most eclectic crowd, the most amazing women, and this incredible environment, interesting lighting and you just feel like you walking into a parallel universe but its real but its awesome.
This sport is amazing. It’s been through many evolutions, and now it's on the precipice of being something really important because all these leagues are popping up across the country. It’s a very welcoming sport. You can be any age, physical size, your economical background, your ethnicity – nothing matters. It’s about this really welcoming environment, and to me that’s the kind of party I want to go to.
How did you enjoy your first experience as a director?
I love the challenges of being a director because I’ve worked my whole life to get there. I think the more buttoned up and well prepared you are, the more disciplined, it enables you to have more fun because you’ve got all that homework done, you’re free to take the time and think about the scenes and think about the performances. And that’s what’s important, to be a problem solver and have the ability to lead and guide but also preserve the kind of impulse and conversation.
A substantial part of the film is the dynamic between Bliss, this 16-year-old Texas misfit who wants to join the derby, and her mother, who wants her to compete in beauty contests. Was that a theme you were able to relate to?
That’s really personal for me because I felt so much like her growing up. And I think filmmaking should be personal. I spent a lot of time with [Shauna Cross] shaping those scenes and trying to bring in personal moments. Trying to be in touch with what it’s like to be young and wanting to find your tribe, feeling like you don’t fit in where you are, the desire to get it right with your mom, especially if you’re on a different page.
But at the same time I’m a 35 year old woman on the same page as the mother, and appreciating the fact that this is a woman who is just clawing her way for her daughter to have the best life possible. Because they’re on different pages, it’s not a villainizing thing. I didn’t want to wrap that up in a Hollywood bow. I was so obsessed with happy endings in my 20s. Now in my 30s I’m like, a good day is a good day. That’s what I wanted to be the end of this film, that honesty and acceptance in this family.
The film also plays like a love letter to Austin Texas, where it is set
Shauna was on the Austin roller derby team, and that’s a city that I totally love and get cause it’s so authentic and unique. I really studied the town because we had to shoot in Detroit and Michigan cause of tax reasons. So when we got our little crew to be able to go to Austin and shoot all the [exteriors] I was like, I’ll be damned if we’re just going to do a drive by shooting – I can buy those [shots] on line for $20! I wanted to show where roller derby people hang out, I had a responsibility to show the Alamo Draft House and Waterloo Records and South Congress and places like those. It wasn’t about the city but where the people hung out.
Why are’t there any openly queer players in the movie?
If you’re not picking up the sexual undertones you must have had headphones and horse blinders on! Your economic backgrounds, your ethnicity, your sexual orientation, your body shape, all those are things are check all that at the door—you’re welcome in to this world. You can be theatrical, you can be 200 lbs, you can be on the same team and fit well together. You asked what was [my] revelation in going to the derby for the first time, it was, Thank god I found this place where everybody’s reality is celebrated.
A lot of people who know you as an actress don’t know about how many films you have produced through your company Flower Films.
I love to talk about that more—people are always asking me, “So what are you wearing…” I do a very serious, disciplined, mature job. That said I love to go get plastered with my friends on a Saturday night and have a good time, let it all go. But the only reason those moments are rewarding is because I’m up Monday morning at 6am and I don’t stop for 7 days straight. I’ve been working for the last 15 years diligently creating ten movies at our company, and you have to be concerned about every aspect. You have to work with the right studios and collaborate with them and protect them and protect their investment and protect the filmmaker you’re working with. And care about every detail from cost and production to casting. You have to do shot lists and storyboards and maintain the energy on the set every day. But it’s a wonderful opportunity and its worth giving it 24 7 and being a mature focused responsible person and giving up a lot of your social life for it.
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