Drew Barrymore Finds Her Directorial Voice with 'Whip It'
Drew Barrymore will never forget her first all-girl roller-derby adventure, the rough-and-tumble spectacle that inspired her critically acclaimed directorial debut, the lighthearted coming-of-age drama Whip It.
“When I walked into my first game, I literally thought it was my Wizard of Oz moment, where everything was in black-and-white and the world became Technicolor,” says the onetime child star, 34, whose Flower Films production company helped establish her as a bona fide superstar with comedies like 1999’s Never Been Kissed and the following year’s Charlie’s Angels.
“There was just the most eclectic crowd, the most amazing women and this incredible environment with really interesting lighting. You feel as if you’ve entered some parallel universe, but it’s real, and it’s awesome.”
For Barrymore, who was first drawn to the hard-hitting sport by author Shauna Cross’ semi-autobiographical tale of Bliss Cavendar, a 17-year-old small-town misfit (played by Ellen Page, the Oscar-nominated star of 2007’s Juno) who becomes an unlikely derby star, Whip It presented an irresistible outlet for her creative ambitions.
That’s not to say Barrymore, who once presented her godfather, Steven Spielberg, with a script she’d written at the ripe age of 6, has any plans to cut back on her acting. In Whip It, she costars as hot-tempered brawler Smashley Simpson, and she will soon appear opposite Robert De Niro and Kate Beckinsale in the holiday comedy Everybody’s Fine.
But she remains eager to direct again, and credits her veteran cast, including Juliette Lewis, Daniel Stern, Marcia Gay Harden and Saturday Night Live’s Kristen Wiig, with helping make Whip It such a rewarding experience.
Harden is quick to return the compliment.
On working with first-time director Barrymore:
Marcia Gay Harden: “Drew on skates wearing a director’s hat is lovely. She had an absolute joy and gratitude for being in the place she was, and she brought that to the set every single day.”
Daniel Stern: “The point is to do your homework and create a good workspace – that’s professionalism. I thought Drew was not only the leader of the movie but also its emotional core. She took time to make sure it was about the emotion of the thing. I’ve directed a tiny bit myself, and it’s easy to get wrapped up in the technical aspects of the job. It takes a lot of strength to push all that away and get everything right. That shows a lot of confidence and experience. And as an actor, I love working with a director who’s an actor, because the performance comes first.”
Ellen Page: “This has been one of the craziest journeys I’ve gone on in a movie because it is a mix of different genres and worlds and energies. It seems like every moment is so crucial to Bliss’s growth and development. What’s great about this film is that it’s got this rock n’ roll, cool, sporty aspect to it but behind that is an honest story of a young woman going through a lot of changes. The challenge was molding all that together, and Drew did it brilliantly, with her high energy and positive spirit.”
MGH: “There was Drew, this little girl that we remember from E.T., who’s now a beautiful woman, and there she was directing this film about the darker side of femininity and doing it beautifully. And she was in total control. That was the biggest and happiest surprise for me.”
DS: “I wasn’t surprised by that.”
MGH: “Not surprised – inspired!”
On choosing to direct Whip It:
Drew Barrymore: “This film is really personal and important to me because it’s about a girl finding out who she is, going after what she believes in and bringing out the best in herself. It’s set against the world of roller derby, which is about grit and toughness, but there’s also this great wink and celebration and fun to it. It’s feminine on its own terms, it’s about power without anger and it’s exhibitionism that entertains. It’s a world where you get to be your own hero and find your own tribe.
“I thought, ‘I have to direct this, this is the film I have to start with.' It felt like something I was practicing for my whole life. I took every little detail I had ever seen and learned and experienced, whether it was a song I heard, a museum I went to or a person I met, and I pictured it all as an emotional and cultural piggy bank. Then I took my piggy bank and broke it all over the floor for this film.”
On working with Harden and Page, whose on-screen relationship as mother and daughter is perpetually strained:
DB: “Ellen is such a beautiful creature and has a vulnerability and sexiness that is also tomboyish. I was determined to show every aspect of her. I didn’t want Bliss to be the cliché of a geek who becomes a badass by the end, or the ugly duckling who turns into a swan. Ellen understood that, and you watch her transform very subtly.
“We started this movie before Ellen even shot Juno, so watching her go through that experience was really exciting, but that’s not why I wanted her. The mother-daughter relationship is so important yet complicated in this movie, and I understood that. I felt so much like [Bliss] growing up, wanting to be on the same page as my mom but having a totally different mentality and constantly being at odds with her. For those two characters, I wanted the most awesome, badass, heavy-hitting boxers I could find to get in the ring and dance. And Ellen Page and Marcia Gay Harden – are you kidding me? They’re masters.”
On adapting her popular novel to the screen, with a little help from Barrymore:
Shauna Cross: “We kept asking, ‘What genre movie are we making?’ And the answer was that it’s a new genre. Depending on which part of the script we were working on, it was sometimes a coming-of-age sports movie, while at other times it was a very intense drama about a mother and daughter in conflict, and other times it was a fun, modern romantic comedy. I think that mix of tones reflects roller derby, because roller derby is about all different worlds coming together. It’s this raw, dirty, chaotic realm where the beautiful part is that, no matter what, you get to be yourself.
"When we first started working on it, Drew hadn't said whether she would be in the movie. But we kept writing jokes for Smashley, and I kept waiting for that moment when she'd embrace the character. Finally we came up with another good joke, and she turned to me and said, 'OK, face it, we know I'm playing this part.' I'd been hoping she would, writing to her and for her. It was like a silent love letter."
DB: "I selfishly wanted to play this character who's a bit of a dichotomy – half hippie, half chick-with-anger-issues. I kind of identify that, and I think the best filmmaking is and always should be personal. There is a part of me that is totally laid back and everything is great. Then there's a part of me that really enjoys action, the kind of rush that roller derby gives you."