Whip It represents actress Drew Barrymore's directorial debut, a coming-of-age story about a perpetual beauty pageant contestant named Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) who finds freedom in the rough-and-tumble world of women's roller derby. A lot of people have been calling it "Juno on roller skates," no doubt because Page is in both movies, but Whip It is a lot less affected. Not to mention it's also not about teenage pregnancy or adults with creepy crushes on teenage girls or hamburger phones. Barrymore, who also appears in the movie as derby queen Smashley Simpson (all the characters have wrestling-grade names), brings a sense of gritty authenticity, but also honesty to Bliss' plight. She even manages to get co-star Kristen Wiig (who plays team-mom Maggie Mayhem) to deliver her most understated performance yet. It's really a lot of girlish fun -- call it a teenage girl's Rocky -- and I got to sit down recently with Drew to discuss her experiences making the movie.
Cole Haddon: So why did you choose to direct a sports movie for your first time behind the camera? And what drew you to Bliss' story?
Drew Barrymore: Why did I choose a sports movie for my first film? Well, there are two aspects of this film that I think are the most central themes, which are the roller derby and "find your tribe and empower yourself and be your own hero," but also the mother-daughter love story. I just wanted to find a film that I could really make personal for me. I didn't want to be like a director telling a story. I wanted to be a person who could have taken all the emotional experiences, the cultures I've learned, the music I've loved, the films I've studied, the nature of learning how a film works through being a producer for 15 years, and really just apply that to something that could be something that was not just a movie to me, but really my heart. This story really fit the bill because my heart is something that doesn't like just heaviness. I don't just want to watch Sturm and Drang amongst a family, but, that said, I like comedy. I find when comedy has heart, it's all the more funny and poignant to me.
I feel like with my own friends, they've been so great because they've been so honest with me along the way. They've supported me and they've encouraged me, but they've also said, "Hey, I think you need to check yourself there," or, "I think you're repeating a pattern there." And, I think these women are to Ellen [Page's character, Bliss] the way that my friends were to me.
I [also] really related to the metaphor of pageant and Hollywood.
CH: You don't present the pageant lifestyle like we're used to seeing it in pop culture.
DB: I was very surprised when I did so much research on pageant in film, dating all the way back to the '60s. I just was like, it's always parodied, it's always made into a joke, and I thought, "It's really not that, it's a right of passage, it's a door opener, it's a way of life. It's just not right for [Bliss'] character." And I feel the same way about Hollywood. There are a lot of aspects of it that I just don't think are wrong necessarily, but they're not right for me. You're supposed to act or be a certain way [here] or it's so taboo, this perfectionism that is impossible to live up to. I found, "Wow," I'm more of a derby type of girl. I want to go out there and kick butt, and have a sense of humor and enjoy my life, and not be afraid of what other people think, but try and be empowered by that. So, I just happened to find this movie that I was like, "God, I really relate to all these things. I can put myself into this."
CH: Can you talk about your directorial approach, as well as your approach to Bliss' story?
DB: I don't work with a monitor. I work right next to the camera, so I can see everything. I'm a very performance-driven director, and I just really wanted this to have a lot of different gritty emotions and tones, but done with a cohesive vision. And I wanted it to be a celebration of life. I worked really hard to not make it a Hollywood ending. I think life goes on. I think in my 20s I was obsessed with a happy ending, which was great, and a great fairytale aspiration for me, and I liked telling those kind of stories, but in my 30s I'm like, "A good day is a good day." And so, I just wanted to end it on that note.
It was great for me as a director to see a young girl's side of it, and the parents' side. Being in my mid-30s I understand a parent who wants the best for their child, and it may come from a different generation, or it may not be seeing eye-to-eye, but that doesn't mean they're a bad person or to villainize them. I kept trying to take the archetypal aspect out of it, or the Hollywood aspect out of it, or the happy ending, or people who make a switch that's not really normal to human behavior, or that it's about winning. The person is who they are when they start out. They just haven't found the right place for them, and by the end, through lying, cheating, stealing, and doing everything they can, and then finally having to have everything fall apart and be honest about it, they have some moment of peace in their family. And, to me, that is the great triumph.
CH: For your first directorial effort, did you consider just staying behind the camera?
DB: It would have been easier on some levels, because trying to juggle pre-production while training and doing all of that or directing the performances while you're in the scenes themselves, would have been easier. On the other hand, I felt for me it would have been more difficult because I'm not a sideline dictator, I like to know what the girls are going through. I know the value of a training camp from having to produce the Charlie's Angels movies with actors doing their own stunts. I wanted to be in the trenches with them. And when you're running around, I just think, I've never really related to those directors who seem like they're at the top of the pyramid.
CH: Like everyone else who put on roller skates, you took some doozy falls. Some of them hurt just watching, especially the one where you smack your head against the ring. Did you hurt yourself for real?
DB: Yeah, I did. But I hurt myself walking down the street, so I might as well put it to some good use.