Battle of the Jam Bands
Bob Ray and Werner Campbell's five-year rock & Roller Derby adventure
Screw A&E. The cable television network once known for its craftily programmed, seemingly nonstop barrage of shark and/or World War II documentaries (see Surf Nazis) might have dipped a toe into the shallow end of Austin's always churning scenester wading pool when they debuted Rollergirls back in January 2006, but the 13-episode "reality" show wasn't half as real as the story behind the story behind the scenes. For that, you gotta go to hell.
Hell on Wheels, that is. Director Bob Ray and producer Werner Campbell's (Rock Opera, "Sweet Sweetroll's Baadasssss Spin") feature documentary on the birth pangs and the walloping postpartum psychodrama behind the now-legendary Austin all-women Roller Derby league(s) makes A&E's take seem like some sort of well-inked Roller Boogie by comparison.
No semiscripted, quasi-combat-ready, girl-on-girl, TV-ready T&A for Ray and Campbell (well, okay, maybe a little T&A and more than a little combat), just good old-fashioned, four-wheeled, flat- or banked-track knees-and-elbow bashin'. No harm, no foul equals no fun, either; Hell on Wheels is more artistically entertaining than clotheslining a Viacom marketing director. And, of course, it doesn't take 13 weeks to sit through.
The Chronicle spoke to Ray and Campbell a week outside of their five-years-in-the-making world premiere and got the lowdown on the longtime filmmaking partners' first foray into nonfiction. Like Slayer said: Hell awaits ...
Austin Chronicle: Which came first, Austin's Roller Derby revival or your sudden urge to try your hand at a documentary?
Werner Campbell: We had been planning to do a doc on [the late] one-man band Hasil Adkins, but that fell through, and literally the very next night
Bob Ray: the same night! We were at Emo's, and Honky was playing. It was December 2001, and I saw some old high school friends skating around the club, and I was like, "What the hell?" It turned out that night was a benefit for the Roller Derby, and immediately we thought, "Hey, somebody needs to tell this story!"
AC: That was kind of a leap of faith on your part, because at that point there wasn't any real league happening yet, right?
BR: Right. The friend that I saw that night, Jennifer Wilson, was someone I had gone to high school with. She'd been valedictorian, state champion handball player, and was just really, really smart, and so I immediately thought if she's in on this, then there must be something to it.
We did a little investigating, and it seemed obvious that they were seriously going to try to make this thing happen. That was enough for us. Whether they were successful or not, even if they never got a single bout together, as long as they really tried, we'd have enough footage of something to make at least a short film.
WC: There were many weeks that passed where Bob and I were just, like, "Is this really going to happen?" We had a hundred hours of footage well before the first bout even took place.
AC: How many hours of footage did you end up with, all told?
WC: Five hundred hours.
BR: Which isn't all that much. When you say "500 hours" to nonfilmmakers, they think that's an insane amount of film, but if you think about it, we shot 20 to 30 Roller Derby bouts over three years with multiple cameras on each bout, plus one-on-one interviews and lots of meetings and practices. So, it's really not so huge an amount of footage, when you look at it that way. I think those Metallica guys [Some Kind of Monster directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky] shot, like, 2,600 hours for their film!
WC: The rebirth of Roller Derby is a social movement more than anything else, and since we recognized that from the beginning, it made sense to us to shoot it as a bigger phenomenon and profile more people, more participants, than you would if you were making a doc that just focused on a handful of core participants. It's not a film about specific personalities as much as it is a film about a movement.
BR: That said, we do focus on three or four women, but at the time we began, for all we knew they were just as likely to quit as anyone else. Early on, the ratio of women coming in to women dropping out was pretty even.
AC: And, like you mentioned, this was back in 2001. No one else in the country was doing anything like this at all, right?
BR: I think the Bay City Bombers were still holding their own little jams in, like, high schools or wherever, but there was no competitive Roller Derby with actual ticket sales or anything like that going on, anywhere.
AC: What's great about Hell on Wheels apart from ... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead's score, I mean is that it's not really about Roller Derby, per se.
WC: Right. It's about a grassroots organization building a business that is also built around women who want to hang out with other women and just do something other than simply be a part of that Downtown Emo's scene watching their boyfriends play in their bands.
BR: A lot of the women equate Roller Derby to being in a band. It's their chance to be the rock star, to be on the stage with fans cheering them on.
WC: And that's a really good way to look at this whole process. Bob and I have both been in bands all our lives, and when we first started out filming this, it was very obvious to us that being in Roller Derby is a lot like being in a rock & roll band, in the sense that you start a band; you do your first gig; 50 people show up; you're the lead singer, and you fall in love with some girl or whatever; Bob's the bassist, and he becomes a junkie; the drummer steals your girl; and out of all that drama emerges a thing that ends up being the perfect subject for a documentary. And when the money comes into play, then you really start to see the serious drama. And then the miscommunication starts, and then there's all kinds of conflict and personality issues, and, really, it's exactly like being in a band. And that's something that practically everyone in Austin can appreciate, one way or another. I mean, if we could only get the rights to Led Zeppelin's "Communication Breakdown."
AC: How did the Roller Derby schism affect the filmmaking process?
WC: Right before the split, we were looking at it as though things were wrapping up, as far as the dramatic narrative of the film was going. It was right after their first successful season, and we were picking up insert shots and a little camera-angle stuff.
BR: We weren't really sure that we were done. The season had ended, they had their championship game, and we were like, "Well, that's a conclusion ... of sorts. We kept our foot in the door, but we were pretty much winding down when we began to see other things happening. The split that could've and almost did happen in year one of when Austin Roller Derby was starting to resurface. And that was weird for us, too, actually, because we'd already been doing interviews for a year and a half at this point, during which time we'd built up this trust between the women and ourselves. We had never done the she said/she said kind of thing, and because of that, everyone told us everything. Once it became apparent that there was a major rift forming, all of a sudden we found ourselves in the middle of these two separate and distinct camps. And, of course, each group of women knew that we knew what the other group was up to. And that was weird. Thankfully, everyone respected us enough to not even ask us anything about anyone else.
WC: It was intense. And it was sad in a lot of ways when it first happened because we knew so much miscommunication was happening, and yet because we needed to retain at least some semblance of documentary impartiality, we couldn't do anything about it.
AC: Was that the most difficult part of the process for you, as a filmmaker?
AC: Do you think it was more difficult because it was a documentary as opposed to a narrative feature?
BR: Well, here's the analogy I use: Crafting a story is like making a sculpture that begins with a wire-frame skeleton which you then add to in order to flesh it out, so to speak. That's narrative, to me. Hell on Wheels was, like, we accumulated this giant 500-hours-long boulder, and then we had to chisel away down to the ultimate story. And in between that boulder and the finished film were like 100 different stories. We didn't know where it was going to go; there were so many tangents. We had a lesbian love story, we had a death, we had the coup. There was never any shortage of interesting angles to pursue. But luckily we ended up with this overall dramatic arc to the whole story of the rebirth of Roller Derby. And very few people thought that this whole thing would travel beyond Austin. And now there's, what, 172 leagues across the globe?
WC: We've got 150 logos for the end of the film.
BR: Right, so there's 22 leagues that are still designing their logos. And now they're starting to play each other, so it's still evolving in ways that no one, in the early days of Austin's Roller Derby, could have even fathomed.
Hell on Wheels
World PremiereSunday March 11, 1:30pm, Paramount
Thursday, March 15, 4:30pm, Alamo Downtown
Saturday, March 17, 4:15pm, Alamo Downtown