Movies: "Whip It" behind the scenes

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Over the past decade, while developing an onscreen profile as one of Hollywood's most consistently likable performers, Drew Barrymore has also become a veteran producer with her company Flower Films. Its slate includes the Charlie's Angels films and Never Been Kissed, as well as the cult favorite Donnie Darko.

But it took roller derby to get Barrymore into the director's chair. Her feature debut, Whip It, uses Shauna Cross' novel as the basis for a crowd-pleasing coming-of-age story set in the world of competitive women's roller derby.

Ellen Page leads a fine ensemble cast as Bliss, a teenager who finds in Austin's roller derby league a way to escape her small-town life and a mother (Marcia Gay Harden) who's forced her beauty pageant dreams onto her daughter.

Accompanied by Cross, who also wrote the film's screenplay, and much of the film's cast, Barrymore spoke to journalists at the Toronto International Film Festival about her own introduction to derby and what prompted her to capture the sport and its alterna-culture on film.

"I remember the first time I went to a game," Barrymore recalled. "I'd been dreaming what the world was like from Shauna's writing, but when I walked in, it literally felt like that Wizard of Oz moment where everything was in black-and-white and the world became Technicolor. There's this eclectic crowd and these amazing women. You feel like you're walking into a parallel universe, but it's real, and it's awesome.

"This sport's been through many evolutions, and now it's on the precipice of being something really important because these leagues are popping up all over the country," she continued.

"And it's a very welcoming sport. You can be any age, physical size. Your economic background, your ethnicity - nothing matters. That's the kind of party I want to go to. It's just a fantastic sport."

As a member of the Los Angeles Derby Dolls, Cross felt committed to depicting roller derby accurately, from basic rules to camaraderie between players, to the importance of players' taken names (she lent her own, "Maggie Mayhem," to Kristen Wiig's character).

"I think it's very theatrical and a good hook, but it's also permission to leave who you are at the door and totally redefine yourself," Cross explained of the noms de skates. "It's like your permission slip to be a badass."

Barrymore carried the writer's attention to authenticity into production. Aside from casting real derby players in supporting roles, with Cross she tailored characters to performers as they were cast, to make the most of the actors' individual qualities. This includes Barrymore's own role as "Smashley Simpson."

"Smashley the hippie with anger issues, that was my little backstory," she said. "I love her. I am a hippie with anger issues."

The filmmaker also joined the others playing derby girls in a month of training to make choreographed moves look like the real deal.

When asked how much they were banged up, Barrymore replied, "Seriously banged up. We wore our bruises like merit badges. It's fun for girls to do what boys do, be rough and tumble.

"But yeah, derby is a really dangerous sport," she said. "I've seen girls taken away in ambulances. We risked it all, but you have to make it real.

"I was like, I will be damned if we have a bunch of doubles and I'm shooting faces and doing editing trickery," Barrymore added. "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."

Click to the Bad and the Beautiful blog for our "Whip It" name contest. Leave your best roller derby name as a comment, and our favorite entry gets a "Whip It" T-shirt and soundtrack.

"Whip It"

Opens Friday