'Derby Baby' Growing Up in Public
New doc tracks the complex adolescence of Roller Derby
By Richard Whittaker,
8:00AM, Sun. Jan. 6, 2013
In sports, it's easy to tell when the game is over. The whistle blows, and you're done. In sports documentaries, it's a lot harder to know when you need to call cut. And for Dave Wruck and Robin Bond, creators of Roller Derby doc Derby Baby: A Story of Love, Addiction and Rink Rash, the overtime was as long as the main event.
Derby Baby is an heir to the original derby doc, Austin's Hell on Wheels. Yet where that held a micro-focus on the birth pangs of the flat track revolution, this pulls out to cover the whole universe, from the Women's Flat Track Derby Association to independent leagues in Ireland. The Colorado-based indie film-makers started making their chronicle of the ever-widening derby experience in 2010, and concentrated on their home Mile High scene. Back then, Bond explained, they didn't really know what they were shooting. She said, "We started in our back yard because there's derby here in Denver."
However, the scale quickly increased, as they became aware of the national and international expansion. Wruck said, "Everything was cruising along just great and we were convinced that we were going to be starting post-production. And then almost exactly that time the world cup was announced." The pair debated whether to plunge on with even more filming, but quickly realized, Wruck said, "We'd be shooting ourselves in the foot if we said this was an international story and we didn't cover the first ever world cup."
Bond and Wruck's project owes a debt to the sport's first drama, the Austin-set Whip It. Not only did they recruit star Juliette Lewis to perform the commentary, but Drew Barrymore's passion project caused an explosion in mainstream media coverage of derby. "That's how my kids became enamored," Bond said, "and my youngest daughter started with a junior league." When she and Wruck saw their first bout, "we were enthralled, and we couldn't look away, so we just started shooting it."
Wruck said, "We're independent film makers, so we're capitalists at heart. Almost the very first thing we saw when we walked into a derby bout was that it was 100% volunteer. There were 4,000 people coming to see this thing, and yet no-one was making a single penny. We couldn't figure out what the hell was going on with that."
Initially, the pair half-expected to uncover some "Al Capone," Bond said. Instead, they found a DIY, not-for-profit ethos that inspired and energized the whole movement. That's what fascinated them, because that's what helped shape the sport to date. Yet as it gets bigger, with more leagues, men's derby, junior derby and so on, the nature of the sport is in flux. Those huge challenges are what shaped the film. She said, "We just started asking questions, and the questions that inspired most emotion where the ones that sparked the most emotion. Whether that's corporate sponsorship, pay, things that would get people really wound up."
Across the two year filming schedule, from Rollercon and the 2010 nationals in Chicago to the inaugural world cup in 2011, the duo interviewed just about everyone with anything to say about the sport (Texas Rollergirls fans will recognize Molotov M. Pale, Luce Bandit and WFTDA executive director Juliana Gonzales, aka Bloody Mary). "It was an epic effort of getting to know as many people as we could," Wruck said. "They would lead us to somebody who would lead us to somebody who would lead us to somebody." But when it came to finding the right people to put on-screen, he said, "We literally just had to sit and watch the bench. It didn't matter how good the player was on the track, I was just hoping to see who had the most dynamics from a personality standpoint. So once they got off the track, how did they react on the bench, who did they talk to, how did they interact with the fans."
And when it comes to fan interaction, there are few personalities in the film bigger than the irascible, unstoppable and universally adored Robert Emerson Stroupe, aka announcer extraordinaire Dumptruck. There's even an extra on the DVD, 'Dump Truck: The Man, the Myth, the Mouth', dedicated to the larger-than-life icon of the microphone. Wruck said that Dumpy was one of the first people they ever interviewed, "but at the end of the day, a lot of his stuff didn't make it in." That was one half of the problem. The other was that they had a section explaining the interaction of leagues and how the seasons work, "and it was really long and boring and tedious. So Ron (Patrick), one of our other producers, said, 'We need to have Dumptruck doing this.' I don't know where he had this genius from, but that's great, because now we get to bring Dumptruck back into the movie."
The end result – two minutes of that 'glass and honey in a cement mixer' voice, breaking down the incredibly complex tourney structure – became "one of the best received sections of the story," Wruck said. "As soon as he comes on and says, 'Hi, I'm Dumptruck,' everybody erupts, but then by the end of his little spiel, it's like, 'Wow, that's a really interesting way to explain Roller Derby.'"
Even though it's still a nascent and under-covered sport, Bond and Wruck knew they didn't want to retell what's become 'The Derby story.' It's been told a thousand times, what Wruck called the "librarian by day, roller derby doll by night" angle. As outsiders, Wruck said, "It's taken then a long time to accept us because of the way that the press has already been treating them."
Bond said, "We heard straight away that they do not appreciate the lifestyle, 'isn't this weird and sexy' angle, and I think we really honored that – almost too much at the beginning." Still, the pair had to work hard to prove to the derby community that they were serious about treating the scene with respect. She said, "It took until about the tenth major event for people to say, oh, you're still really here. You're not just messing with us."
Derby Baby is available on DVD and Blu-Ray via www.derbybabythefilm.com.