CATCHING DERBY LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE:
INTERVIEW WITH THE FILMMAKERS OF DERBY BABY: A STORY OF LOVE, ADDICTION, AND RINK RASH
By: St. Violentine (Priscilla Boksan)
Anyone who plays or avidly watches roller derby knows it has a certain “je ne sais quoi.” The unique blend of individual expression and athleticism, along with the sense of community it offers, can easily go from being fulfilling and empowering to downright addictive. The upcoming derby documentary, Derby Baby: A Story of Love, Addiction, and Rink Rash, is filmmakers Robin Bond and Dave Wruck’s effort to shed some light on the infectious nature and culture of roller derby, where the sport stands today, and where it’s going in the future. Juliette Lewis, known to both derby and film fans as “Iron Maven” from Drew Barrymore’s 2009 feature film on roller derby, Whip It, narrates the film.
The Oly Roller’s “Rettig to Rumble” © Derby Baby, LLC
ACDG: In making “Derby Baby,” did you get an idea of its common draw to derby girls?
ROBIN: Absolutely. For some reason that I couldn’t explain, I instantly related to the skaters’ love for this sport. I was attracted to derby the first time I saw it, but I couldn’t quite say why. When I started to realize how attached and how passionate and personally involved with it they were, it seemed different from any other topic or sport that I had looked at. So Dave and I wanted to hear everybody’s take on what is this thing. It’s kind of elusive. People don’t get this attached to their soccer teams. We’re still trying to get our arms around what it is that’s so addictive about it.
DAVE: We’re trying to figure it out, but at the same time we know what it is. There’s that magic term in sports, called the “It Factor.” The top athletes have the “It Factor.” You can’t explain what it is, but everyone knows what it is. It’s what makes Lance Armstrong or Sean White or any of those people great. The sport of roller derby itself has this “something factor” that everybody latches onto. We know what it is, but like everybody else, we can’t tangibly show it or explain it, but were just trying to convey the point that something’s there and everyone latches onto it and it becomes addictive.
ACDG: The “It Factor” seems analogous to the qualities of anyone captivating, like celebrities in the entertainment industry. These players are totally worshipped by girls.
ROBIN: It’s like a charisma factor in the sport.
DAVE: It’s one of the many things we talk about it the film. We’re comparing it to not only other sports, but even rock bands. It seems to be going down that line so at some point, you’re going to have to develop a rockstar. Suzy Hotrod seems to be the one walking away with that title, but there needs to be more than just Suzy. More rockstars means more fans. And promoting matchups between rockstars (and teams for that matter) creates story arcs which fans love to follow.
ACDG: Was it the goal of Derby Baby to illustrate this elusive “It Factor?” Or did you have something else in mind?
ROBIN: There were so many themes that presented themselves in this film that we had to narrow them down to make it into a manageable story. Of course, in this journey we do look at how does this sport compare to other sports if we’re going to talk about media coverage, going professional, or whether it can be an Olympic sport. Several people we interviewed compared it to skateboarding. Every sport that we looked at that had similar qualities seemed to be propelled by a rockstar.
So that was one of the many rabbit holes that we got into in this film: “Who’s the girl that’s gonna be the poster child for derby?” There are so many talented people, but again, it’s kind of a mix of the type of person who has the star power as well as who is also willing to embrace the rockstar quality.
DAVE: When I finished [attending and filming my first bout], I had a million questions. So Robin said, “Let’s dig in,” and we started buying every derby DVD we could find: “Hell On Wheels,” “Blood on the Flat Track,” and “Brutal Beauty,” which I think had just come out. And after every single documentary I watched, I went “This doesn’t answer any of my questions.” They were decent and interesting, but they were specific as to how a league came together, not necessarily about the overall picture of roller derby.
So my overall goal with the film was to answer my questions and those of any person who had any inclination to walk into a bout and actually watch a game just to see what it was. We wrote down the list of questions: “Why aren’t people getting paid?” “Why is it all volunteer?” “Who runs this thing?” “Why are these people doing this?” and “What’s with the names?” We just had a million questions and started answering them.
ROBIN: I also had questions because as I was so drawn to the sport. Of course I was thinking, “Yeah, I bet I could do this sport. This looks like it could be fun, I like to roller skate. What’s involved?” But it’s so much more. I started digging a little deeper and found out the skaters drive downtown to practice three times a week, they risk injury, and nobody’s getting paid! And then it became even more intriguing because the question now was: “How can anybody like me be able to do this without sacrifice?” And then that elevated the question to: “Who are these characters that are these skaters?”
Two Denver Derby Dolls study the bout © Derby Baby, LLC
ACDG: Out of all the questions you had about roller derby, how did you decide what to keep in the film?
ROBIN: Dave and I are coming from different perspectives. I am trying to keep my sense of feminism in check because the further along in this film we’ve gotten, the more prominent the “League of Their Own” and “DIY” themes become. The girls get out there and learn how to skate, and then transfer that sense of empowerment to other areas of their lives. This sets this awesome example for the next generation of women. I’m a divorced mom of two daughters and it’s hard for me to not get swept up in the movement. There’s a reason that women and their daughters and females all over the world are doing this now. And that’s been what’s interesting to me.
DAVE: For a while we had pieces of paper taped up all over Robin’s office and my office about the four or five things we had to keep in mind while putting this together that we have got to stick to our guns about: the fact that it’s a social movement, the fact that it’s DIY, that it’s feminine power. Those things we tried to keep for sure, but other things have come and gone. It’s funny; in the two years that we’ve been doing this, we started off with one thing that we thought would be the main storyline, and it got trumped by something else, most notably this World Cup, it’s just thrown us for a loop.
ROBIN: We found out there was a World Cup when we had already set a release date, so we changed everything and we’re hoping we haven’t shot ourselves in the foot by covering it. When we released our first trailer for the film last March or April, we got a huge wave of response. When we decided not to have a fall release, we were afraid of losing all the momentum of everyone being so excited because that excitement is what we need to capitalize on in order to make this film happen, not just within the derby community, but with average moviegoers, or sports fans: because that is who this movie is for.
Gotham Girls Roller Derby All-Stars in formation © Derby Baby, LLC
ACDG: It seems like you’re capturing a new wave or generation of derby, at the cusp of a different progression, with a different public perception, and that it’s going towards legitimacy as a sport.
DAVE: Oh man, I love you! [laughs] This is what’s so hard, we’re trying to convey that. We’re trying to make a movie that’s capturing what’s happening internationally, in derby, and at this moment, and encapsulating it into a visual time capsule for people to say, “This is what’s going to make it or break it.” It’s at a tipping point.
ROBIN: I don’t think we ever intended for this filmmaking process to take quite so long. I’ve been afraid that as fast as things change and move in roller derby, we’d miss this moment in time if we didn’t hurry up and get the film out. But it’s almost like since we started working on it, things that we asked questions about at the beginning have actually come true, which is really cool. In one of our earlier interviews, we talked about “What if there was a Derby World Cup?” And then we have one. And someone said “What if there was a paid league?” And we found one. So we’ve just been riding the wave of the story.
ACDG: I’m sure you saw some challenges that a derby league or the sport faced. What struggles or challenges did you see leagues have to keep afloat?
DAVE: Money is the biggest one.
ROBIN: And drama.
DAVE: Yes, money and drama. Those two things. And each league handles it differently. That’s the interesting thing about this sport. While there are governing bodies, each league is still in charge of themselves so it’s up to each league to figure out how to overcome the problems they face. And each one does it so differently.
That’s why it’s our hope that maybe when you see the Charlotte Speed Demons in the film you go, “Oh, they’ve got an interesting way of doing things. Maybe we at Steel City can apply that.” Or, “That’s interesting. Maybe we should all come together in the WTFDA league and start unifying some of these things and overcome the problem together.”
NOLA Roller Bulls getting ready to smack some runners © Derby Baby, LLC
ACDG: Derby is DIY, punk rock and individualistic, and filled with people who didn’t necessarily “fit in” anywhere else. Did you guys come across a reason why there could be so much drama or difficulty? Derby does attract a group of highly intelligent, individualistic, strong willed – both physically and mentally - tough girls.
ROBIN: I’m not going to generalize, because it’s such a diverse group, but I think a lot of them feel like they’ve finally found their home and they want to protect that home with everything they have. One aspect I’ve tried not to editorialize on is that derby is very funny. The skaters are funny. It’s not “funny” like making fun of them. It’s that they don’t take themselves very seriously. We want to show the light-hearted aspect of what happens when people come together to have fun and don’t take themselves too seriously.
Boutfit Personalization, Texas Roller GirlsStyle © Derby Baby, LLC
DAVE: The DIY thing is not necessarily the biggest problem, but definitely one of the factors of derby being on the cusp of legitimacy. The generation of skaters that started this whole flat track derby revolution is on the outs, for one reason or another. Not that they’re getting pushed out, but that they’re retiring due to their injuries, or they’ve moved on with their lives and have families now, whatever. But there’s all these new people coming up and there’s this second generation and is already on the tracks right now doing their thing.
And the third generations, which is all these junior roller derby teams that are starting up, they are starting up for a different reason than any of their predecessors. Some got into it because they saw “Whip It.” Some got into it because their mom or aunt or cousin is doing it. So they don’t necessarily see that DIY thing. And all of that is translating all the way to the top with the governing bodies going, “What do we do? Do we try to keep the DIY? Or do we really start to seek out corporate sponsorship and television contracts and stuff like that.”
The Mile High Club All-Stars of the Denver Roller Dolls salute their fans © Derby Baby, LLC
ACDG: If derby’s going towards legitimizing as a sport, it’s going to need money to grow. Are people starting to become responsive to the idea of sponsors, or for lack of a better word, “going corporate?”
ROBIN: It’s totally split down the middle. “Yes” or “no” is the answer.
DAVE: It’s a big part of the story. Not only do we talk about the corporate sponsorship, and the division that caused, but then later on we talk about can a skater start getting paid to play, and the division there, which runs along the same lines as the corporate sponsorship issue, and it’s a heated battle. There is no one on the fence.
ROBIN: As far as money goes, there were people who said, “Hey, just pay for my knee pads and airline tickets, and I’m fine.” So there was some of that.
DAVE: Yeah, but they certainly did not want the sponsorship in order to get paid to skate or in order to pay for TV contracts or anything like that.
ACDG: Does this come out of a fear that it would change the spirit of derby?
DAVE: Yeah, that’s the biggest thing. Can you keep the fishnets, the crazy names, the music during bouts, all that kind of stuff, and still get [money and sponsorship]? Probably not. I think everybody is afraid of losing that and I think the people at the top are really afraid of losing the control they have. Because as soon as the corporate sponsorship comes in, everybody’s hands are going to be tied from top to bottom.
They way we see it is derby right now sits in the same place that skateboarding sat around 1977 or 1978, and snowboarding did around 1995. It’s either going to explode or implode, one of the two.
ROBIN: But the numbers in derby are just vast, especially because of the fact that you have leagues. Yeah, you had a million kids skateboarding in the street, but you didn’t have an organization around them. The numbers are staggering how big this sport is.
DAVE: The thing we got so fascinated by was that all the stuff that we’re talking about, everyone just thinks about in terms of the WTFDA inside the United States. Well, there are 600 other leagues outside the WFTDA and there are hundreds and hundreds outside of the United States. And guess what, not only are they going through the same things, but going through even more. But they have just as much passion. To see all these little leagues in the UK or Dublin in Ireland, and Argentina and Brazil, it was like, “Holy cow.”
Nobody understands the international phenomenon that is just sweeping the world right now, and what’s going to happen and nobody can step up to manage this. We have one guy in the film that says the thought of an organization that can come together to solve all these problems is mind boggling. It’s too big of a job.
ACDG: I don’t think I appreciated how big derby was until I saw the international Official Roller Girls roster and tried to pick a name. And now seeing the girls in your film from all over the world, I think this isn’t just something that me and my friends down the street really like. It’s huge and I don’t think anyone’s really sat down to say how big it really is.
DAVE: The one thing I want to capture is what the World Cup is going to do for the sport. So many people pooh-poohed the idea. And it’s very interesting how many opinions we heard about this World Cup. Comments like, “It’s just a fad.” “It doesn’t mean anything.” “Why would anyone tryout for that?” or “Who cares?”
But the things people don’t understand outside the US and maybe Canada is that these girls who played in the World Cup walked around the streets of their countries saying, “I’m on team Finland and I’m playing for the World Cup of roller derby.” And for all of those countries that don’t have a sense of what roller derby is right now, they’d say, “Oh, I think I saw that on TV.” A lot of them have no clue. A lot of the South American countries have no idea what roller derby is, but as soon as they hear a girl was playing in the World Cup of roller derby, suddenly, they take on a completely different perspective.
And that is the thing that I think is going to change the sport drastically in those countries outside the US, and people should really embrace that. And that if people really want this sport to grow, then and really want these things to happen that we are talking about, or they don’t want them to happen, then they need to pay attention to what the people outside the US are doing because they were all so excited about this. Everyone outside the US is already used to World Cups of soccer and cricket. To play in those is such a huge deal. And now that there was a World Cup of roller derby, they were walking around saying, “I’m playing the World Cup of roller derby.”
ACDG: So how was the World Cup?
DAVE: As it turned out, the World Cup was a wonderful experience. The energy in that building was amazing. The support everyone showed for each other was incredible. When Scotland scored that one point against the US, the place erupted. Not because everyone hated the US team, but because they wanted to encourage the Scottish team. And that spirit prevailed throughout the weekend and in my mind overshadowed any of the logistical problems surrounding the event.
Everyone loved New Zealand’s Haka, they loved Argentina’s enthusiasm and spirit, and everyone felt George W. Tush’s pain. It really was an incredible event and judging by the fact that a Euro Cup has been announced for 2012 in Copenhagen and talks have started for a 2013 World Cup, I’d say it was definitely a success.
ACDG: It seems like putting derby in a recognizable international construct (like the World Cup) or something that people recognize as legitimate elsewhere will legitimize it.
DAVE: Yes, it’s the legitimacy they are looking for right now that we don’t recognize. But everywhere else, like in Ireland, where we were at when we were filming the movie, and looking at the girls who were playing in the World Cup, people were saying, “Really? Oh my god, that’s amazing, congratulations!”
ACDG: It’s different than “We play in a warehouse down the street.”
The Rocky Mountain Rollergirls win the 2010 WFTDA Western Regional Tournament © Derby Baby, LLC
Derby Baby makes its world premiere at the Atlanta Film Festival on March 31, 2012 followed by a screening at the Sonoma County International Film Festival on April 14, 2012. For more screening updates and info on the film and its producers, visit: http://www.derbybabythefilm.com and www.RobinBondMedia.com.
© 2012 Priscilla Boksan All Rights Reserved