Whip it good

Sep 30, 2009 at 12:00 am

By Hollywood standards, Whip It is practically an independent film. Working with an $11 million budget, a large cast and the need for kinetic roller derby sequences, Drew Barrymore's directorial debut was no small endeavor. 

What makes it work? 

Well, the obvious chemistry between the cast members, which include red-hot Ellen Paige, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, Juliette Lewis and Jimmy Fallon. Also the Michigan Filming Incentives, which convinced Barrymore to pick up her production from Austin (where the movie is set) and move it here, giving the budget a much bigger bang for its buck. For more than a month, metro Detroit, especially Ypsilanti, played home, host and set for this old-fashioned ode to grrrl power. And rumor has it Barrymore really plugged into the local community.

Meeting up with the 31-year-old actress-producer-director at Skatin' Station II in Canton, it was clear that the PR wheels had been spinning hard; with local TV crews and feature writers stacking up like flights at DTW. "Fifteen minutes. Period. No photos, she hasn't slept," we were told by worried reps. It was hard not to feel like a schmuck, keeping someone who was just dying to take a nap from their bed. And yet, despite all the PR angst, Barrymore couldn't have been more earnest or gracious — or chattier. 

Metro Times: So, the reps were telling us you're pretty exhausted promoting the film.

Drew Barrymore: Well, we go city to city doing interviews till midnight then get up for radio shows at like 5 a.m., so, yeah, there hasn't been a lot of sleep.

MT: And how long will the grind continue?

Barrymore: About a month. But it's really important to me to bring the movie personally to places because it's such a personal experience for me. It's the first film I've directed and I put everything that I've sort of ever learned about life into it. 

MT: Yeah, you've been saying you've wanted to direct since you were 6 years old. Why wait 25 years?

Barrymore: Well, you know, slow and steady wins the race. Obviously, I probably would not have gotten hired as a director at 14 years old. That said, you never know — especially nowadays. The game is definitely changing. But I started a company when I was 19 and this is the 10th film we've produced, so I feel that I've been very prolific. And I also didn't want to step into the position of director before I knew as much as I possibly could about the process of filmmaking. I think you have to understand and know every single aspect and detail, otherwise you're going to go in and be over your head and indecisive, or let other people dictate your vision. And those are things I wasn't willing to do.

MT: Action sequences are tough to direct. Even directors who do it all the time don't necessarily do it well. Were you concerned with how the derby scenes would play?

Barrymore: I learned a lot on the Charlie's Angels films that I produced about what works with action and what doesn't. We used a lot of different cameras; techno cranes and ATVs and doggy-cams to get shots and perspectives, but I actually wanted a more traditional look and lighting schema, sort of more true to an old boxing film. That said, one of the things I really took from Charlie's is that training is so important, because you have to see the people [actors] doing these stunts, you know, skating, so that it doesn't feel edited and manipulated and stunt double-y. And also you just develop such a great camaraderie from having to go through such a crazy experience. It really bonds you. That's something that can't be faked.

MT: Whip It centers on a troubled mother-daughter relationship. In Grey Gardens, your last big project, you play a daughter who sticks by her mother no matter what. I know you've had your own difficulties with your mom and it's interesting to look at the relationships in these two movies. Does filmmaking have a therapeutic aspect for you? 

Barrymore: Yeah, I definitely think you should bring a personal aspect to it. You can bring a truth and emotionality that will be far more valuable, and so I'm happy to explore those emotions very personally. That said, the older I get the more of my own person I become and it's not about me or my mother, or what we went through. ... It's really about me facing challenges that I didn't know I could meet — personally and professionally. That's what Grey Gardens and Whip It is really about. It's ironic that there's a mother-daughter theme in both, but really it was about me saying "can I do this thing?"

MT: And how do you think you did?

Barrymore: I feel really proud. I know that I scared the ever-loving shit out of myself, and I've been more disciplined than I've ever been in my whole life. It's been work-first since I turned 30 and everything else has kind of gone onto the back burner.

MT: Derby has this wonderful aspect of irreverent female empowerment behind it. And it's a hard, hard sport. But despite the hard-ass physicality of it, most people considered it more of a spectacle than a sport. Can you envision a time when women get taken seriously at kickass sports?

Barrymore: I think Derby girls would sort of take that comment and probably want to put their skate in your face. When you take on what you have to take on physically and athletically to be a derby girl I would love for anyone to say that to a derby girl's face and see what happens. I've always believed that girls can do what boys can do, which is why I made Charlie's Angels and why I made this movie. I have a 13-year-old boy inside of me that's alive and raucous.

MT: So, you mentioned how things were changing in the industry and how you could almost imagine a 14-year-old directing films. And yet you come from this very illustrious old Hollywood legacy. Do you see yourself as a bridge between those generations? Is the ghost of John Barrymore, or even Ethel Barrymore, kicking around inside you?

Barrymore: Definitely. I carry them around wherever I go. I'm so bonded spiritually to my family, and that's not something I make up or just sounds good. It's something I deeply feel. I mean, it can't be a coincidence this is what I love to do. So, yes, I would love to be that bridge and I'm proud to continue the family name.

MT: Have you ever considered introducing their influences to younger audiences?

Barrymore: Yeah, I do. I'm actually doing a piece right now with 60 Minutes, where we're talking a lot about them and their history.

MT: So, you're in your 30s. And Hollywood isn't always very nice to women in their 40s, 50s and 60s? Do you have a vision of where you want to be at, say, 60?

Barrymore: Well, there are a lot of actresses who are in that age bracket who are working and are just phenomenal. But you know, I have no idea what I'll look like, nor do I care. I just want to do great work and I love directing and that's something I want to continue to do. And when I become an old bag with my tits down at my ankles it'll be great to be behind the camera.

Whip It hits theaters on Friday, Oct. 2.

Jeff Meyers is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]