Bob Ray & Werner Campbell
We are a local entertainment paper dedicated to bridging the gap between local, national and international personalities and our audience. They are two film makers that decided to spotlight a group of women who fight and push their way around a track in weekly bouts to overtake the opposing team. What do we have in common? More than we could have ever expected. See this film because I guarantee it is not what you could have ever expected. It is not sexy chicks in short shorts and skates (yes, they are wearing them but, no, it’s not the point). It is not a longer version of the A&E series. It is a powerful documentary about vision and struggle; what it takes to realize a dream and how much more than that it takes to keep it going. See this movie, and marvel in the discussions and arguments that it brings about. Which side are you on? You know you have a good film when you can get in a debate a day after and a month later.
AUSTIN DAZE: How did you guys get involved with making this documentary?
HELL ON WHEELS: We had done a few projects together and had been working with this guy, Hasil Adkins, who was the original one man band. He turned out to be as crazy as the legend and we didn’t think that it was going to work. In December 2001, literally the day we told Hasil it wasn’t going to work, we went to Emo’s to see Honky play and have some drinks. And we saw all these women on skates, several of whom we knew. They said they were forming a roller derby. We kind of thought like everything in Austin, it was just lip service-it never goes anywhere. And then when we saw a few people that we knew were credible and didn’t just spew hot air-they had a pretty good reputation for organizing tasks and completing them-we said, “All right this is really going to happen.” We had just lost a project and here was a good idea for a new project. They had heard about Rock Opera and some of the other stuff we had worked on so they knew we were credible and they welcomed us with open arms. We started filming immediately. Had a meeting one night for about three hours and the next thing you know we are at their practices and meetings. It just kept going.
It’s just something that was happening in our subculture. We are always down on Red River. Those are the venues that we frequent when we go out like Beerland, 710–those kinds of places. We were familiar with the scene and Rock Opera took place in a similar punk rock scene so we already had kind of an in. It just sort of made sense.
AD: Did you have an idea about what the movie was going to be or did it just happen organically?
HOW: That’s a great question. We knew we were filming roller derby and women getting together but we didn’t know if they were really going to successfully get a bout and really make a roller derby and have bouts consistently-we didn’t know any of that. So really, a lot of in the beginning was filming every meeting, every practice that we could, and doing one on one interviews–asking people what was going on. So our first natural questions were: “What brought you into this? Are you into sports? What do you think about violence?” All that kind of stuff.
Once we knew they were serious and passionate and had drive we knew that they were going to make this happen or go down fighting trying to make it happen. It had been trying to happen for almost a year with that first guy Dan. And then there was some turmoil related to that so they were still trying to organize and there was a revolving door of people coming and going, but we knew that a lot of these core women were really committed to this project. So our take on it was: whether they succeed or fail if they really try and they really put their energy and their passion into it it’s going to be a good film.
One thing we did work on was that we wanted a real story about these women, not just the superficial tits and ass experience-Girls Gone Wild crap. It’s more than that. It is women putting a lot of their blood and time into this. We didn’t know how much more blood and time they were going to put into it but obviously there was a lot. So it was exciting for us to do a film about a cultural scene here in Austin that we already new about; we knew the genre and so it was so natural to just start filming it. We wanted to be as out of the way as we could but also right there.
AD: When did you know you had your story?
HOW: Well we thought from the get go that we would film at least until their first game and maybe that would be the ending-we were trying to think about where the peak was. In the weeks before the first bout there was a lot of friction we saw there was a lot more than just, “Hey look, they did something.” It was more than just a chronology of a unique band type thing. We realized that wasn’t meaty enough in terms of drawing people in and getting people to root for or against the characters to make people empathetic with the story. They were really serious about making the sport legitimate-they didn’t know the old school derby was fake so they did theirs by not scripting things-and we realized there were some unresolved issues and we kept our foot in the door and kept in good graces. And then it started ramping up and became the dramatic arc of the story. Everything we thought was our entire movie from the get-go became Act I. You know after the championship bout we decided we were going to start peeling off. It all goes back to that we didn’t know what was going to happen. We were trying to film a documentary of this organism and how it is going to fail or succeed. Right before the split we thought we were done and then when it happened we said, “We can’t quit this. We have to keep going and find out what happens.” And luckily, we did keep going because a lot of important stuff happened after that. Now when you go back and look at footage there were issues going on already. That split was already happening almost right after we started filming. It was really subtle, small things in the beginning. It just accumulated.
AD: The split showed how difficult it is to do this and what it takes to run a business.
HOW: It shows you how difficult to start this or anything like it. It’s like a rock and roll band, and most of us have been in bands most of our lives, it reminded us of a band with ninety people and how hard is it to make that band work. It is amazing that the players, the CEOs, all kept their will–that was the most important thing. The sheer will after taking beatings back and forth; just to keep going and have that drive is amazing. Most bands would just break up.
AD: We sat with Ron Mann at the premiere and he leaned over to us at the end and said, “The movie was about business more than roller derby.” What do you have to say about that?
HOW: We agree. It became more about building a business than about roller derby. There’s almost a consensus on everyone’s opinion when they came out of the movie which was, “Oh my God, that’s not what I expected at all.” Part of that was because we focused on the sociological angle of it instead of on the exploitable elements of girls in hot outfits fighting. Despite us telling them for years what our focus was, it still didn’t register with people until they finally saw it.
It’s a lot about creating a government. It could be about Bolivia or some country in turmoil deciding who should govern and whether or not to have a centralized government or a democratic one. People said, “It’s great because you’ve got the roller derby stuff but then you also show sociology stuff, and women’s clashes. It ranges from grass roots organizations to start-up companies.” We didn’t want to make a movie about business-I wouldn’t put that on the poster–but that’s what it’s about. It’s a society that you get to view from within. A viewer that might not be comfortable being surrounded by these rowdy people can observe the inner workings through what we filmed.
One thing related to this: if we could have one song to enter our movie it would have been “Communication Breakdown” by Led Zeppelin. That would have been the song. Because that is a problem when you have that many people and so many different agendas and it’s hard to keep that all together.
Regardless of all of that, it’s how they got there. They created something that so many other people are going to mimic and learn from.
AD: Something we can watch and learn from.
HOW: Similar things happened to other derby organizations around the globe. We were hanging with some New Zealand filmmakers during SXSW and one of the filmmakers was really good friends with the New Zealand league and she said she had just gotten off the phone with them and the New Zealand league had split. It was over a calendar.
It’s real funny, since we did our world premiere, we’ve been getting calls from different people talking about, “Travis County official saw the film and they are all talking about it. They are asking, “How do you run a government?”
AD: Our paper is going through some of the same things so it helped us.
HOW: It’s universal. We learned so much about business and trademarks.
AD: Did A&E borrow any of your stuff or copy anything?
HOW: They didn’t borrow anything. They never asked to except one shot which was part of our movie, so we couldn’t do that. They said, “We are really excited about this and we really want that shot.” At that time we were just about to hire our editor, Conor O’Neill from Murder Ball, and we were thinking, “Cool. A&E. That’s like a week’s salary.” Then they say, “There’s no money.” They did say they would give us a link on their website. We already have two. It was funny.
It wasn’t right how they went about starting to do what they did in the sense that they knew we were filming for four years. The production company they worked with knew who we were; knew what we were doing; and never contacted us or anything. One of the guys who was pitching it said, “Is this going to be bad for ya’ll?” And we said, “Whatever is good for you. Don’t do it for us.” It was painful for us. We are looking at those billboards and advertisements on buses and the three page layouts and going to SXSW and everyone is saying, “Oh are you guys that TV show?” They pumped millions of dollars into advertising which is kind of a double edged sword because of the one hand they raised awareness for derby and that’s very good on the other hand, where are we when we come out? Why would people give a s***? If the show was a success why would people go to a theater and pay eight bucks to watch a movie about something that they think is exactly the same? The general public doesn’t know that it is completely different. One of the reviews we got was, “Do we need another roller derby thing?” It’s like, we were the first roller derby thing we just didn’t have eight million dollars.
AD: Derby is only one of the many aspects of this film. It should be marketed as such.
HOW: You’re right. The thing that is lame for us is that we know it is different–from what I know, ours is a lot better–but it’s just another hurdle that they have put in front of us. I wouldn’t have been nearly as bitter about it if we had gotten a phone call or an email. Someone saying, “Hey, we are here in Austin too and wanted to see how you feel about it.” The truth is we were in LA about a year before this all started and one of our good friends who is a TV producer said, “Look you all need to stop the documentary and do a reality show.” We did consider it-it could be lots more money. But it was like no we are doing a documentary. We don’t like reality television. We could do what we are doing or sell out.
AD: Would you say in the end this movie was pro roller derby, anti roller derby, or somewhere in between? How do you market it in roller derby?
HOW: It’s pro derby. We never declare whether derby is a positive or negative thing. We let them describe it in their own terms. The only issue about derby that came to ruffle some feathers in the beginning was the whole feminism angle. Some feminists would say that because they were wearing skimpy outfits it wasn’t true feminism in a way. Other feminists would say that they are taking their own sexuality and empowering themselves by using it in a way that they choose to. Aside from that the intellectual types go, “Oh it’s dirty.” They think it is low brow and stuff. The derby crowd is into it. We have had a lot of pro derby reaction especially by the end. Part of the goal in crafting it the way that we did is that we wanted it to have an appeal beyond derby. We want to tell a human story that people could relate to: there is politics in your family, in your workplace, everywhere. I think most people have been in those situations and they are either on the worker side or the management side. The Monday after the premiere we were walking up in the convention center and these two elderly women were sitting there and we were talking to someone about the film and these women said, “Oh did you make that film?” And we said yes. And she goes, “You know what, I hate the roller derby. I hate roller derby and I love your movie. I don’t like wild and crazy women but I loved seeing them making something they believe in.” That was good enough for us. That’s what we want.
AD: It’s been a month and a half since SXSW. Where are you now with the film and where are you going?
HOW: There are two ways you can approach selling your film: you can do it independently or you can get a distributor. Right now we are working on getting a distributor. From the beginning we wanted the theatrical release. Our screening was on a Sunday at 1:30 in the afternoon in the rain and we still had a packed house at the Paramount-so that was a good thing. There weren’t a lot of industry people at our screening and we didn’t have a publicist and had barely finished the cut five days before so there wasn’t a lot of time for us to drum up the proper interest but there was still an informal distribution offer on the table that night that included theatrical release. There were subsequent inquiries following that week and we’ve been fielding anywhere from one to four whether it’s for a screening or a distributor in Japan that wants to look at the film to consider that territory. In all likelihood in the next week or so we will have signed with an agent who will facilitate the distribution deal and then at that point they take it to the distributors. After that, it’s a question of do we go to Silverdocs and really promote it properly to raise awareness among industry people or the alternate route and send it out to screeners and let the agent person talk to people and do all his work? Once we decide on an agent we’ll know. Right now we are sort of in that limbo state of we’re not going to do any screenings that could potentially jeopardize any distribution deal. We would love to have another screening here but we just can’t do that right now. If we get theatrical, we have to keep in mind that lots of distributors frown on that. You have to explain to a distributor that it’s more than just derby. We are trying to find the right fit so we do get the film out to the people that want to see it.We are hoping to find someone that gets the film and wants to do it the way it is. There are lots of stories of people selling their films to the wrong distributor and they see their film re-cut with new music. We have to be real smart about how and when we approach that process. No one wants this process to be over more than us.***