Shauna Cross skates to success by writing about her experience as "Maggie Mayhem" of the L.A. Derby Dolls in Drew Barrymore's directorial debut Whip It.
Written by Denis Faye
As is often the case in these stories, Shauna Cross struggled for years as an obscure Hollywood screenwriter, surviving on options and almosts, but never getting that big hit.
As is not often the case, to work off the stress and disappointment, she took up roller derby. “It’s pretty hard, but it’s still easier than being in the business of writing,” claims the scribe. ”It’s the great elixir to surviving a career in Hollywood.”
She quickly grew passionate about the sport, so much that she became one of the founding members of the Los Angeles Derby Dolls. Yet, it didn’t strike her as screenplay material. “I was just so besotted by it and in love with it that I was dying to write about it,” says Cross, who goes by “Maggie Mayhem” on the track, “but I was really convinced it was too small and not commercial enough. I still had to get it off my chest but I thought the lowest stakes would be if I wrote it as a novel.”
The result was Derby Girl (eventually to become Whip It), the coming-of-age tale of Bliss, a young woman who opts out of her promising future in teen pageants to be a roller derby queen. Not surprisingly the book sold with lightning speed, inspiring Cross to whip up a movie pitch that caught the attention of Drew Barrymore’s Flower Films. In fact, the actress liked it so much that she decided to make Whip It her directorial debut.
Mayhem, I mean, Cross chatted with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about her new movie and the difference between writing the novel and the script. She also explained how she learned that writing with passion is the only way to go and how good things happen when you cut your antagonist a little slack.
So roller derby is easier than Hollywood screenwriting, huh?
It’s easier than the business of Hollywood, but they’re both really high stakes and thrilling.
It sounds like you’ve said that before.
No, actually I just made it up it now. I can put words together. It’s true.
Photo: © 2009 Fox Searchlight
Ellen Page in Whip It.
How was writing the novel different from writing the script?
The book sold pretty fast and kind of surprised me and gave me the confidence to put together the pitch, I ended up writing the book and the novel simultaneously. It’s like I got to write the story from the complete 360 because the book is more interior and, of course, the language of film is more visual and exterior and you’re building different characters. I got to see it from so many different angles.
It was definitely great, but it wasn’t the thing that I thought would get me noticed because it was this passionate, personal story.
But isn’t that the first rule? Write what you know and write what you’re passionate about?
It is. It’s painfully the first rule. It’s so funny, when the guy who would become my book agent first got my book, he was all, “You have such a great voice!” We were talking on the phone and I was like, “Are you hitting on me?” Then I realized. “Oh shit! Voice! That’s the goal!” I’m like the idiot who backed into how special that is. It’s your DNA as a writer. That’s what you trade on. So now I’m super-protective of it, and I know it, and I only write things from a passionate place. I’m really going to trust that.
It’s a good lesson to learn because I have a little more of an outsider’s point of view. Before I always set a rule of overcompensating for that by being really commercial, and by doing that, I really snuffed out what was special that I had to say.
I wrote a movie called Noel, a tweener movie about Santa Claus as a single parent with a tweener daughter who decides to run away and live life as a normal teenage three weeks before Christmas. I was trying to write these family movies, and I’m kind of not that family-friendly, actually.
Was it frustrating to take a world so rooted in reality and squash it into a Hollywood script structure?
Screenplays are a thousand times harder that novels. You have to hit all your beats in a finite amount of space. So I have so much more respect for what I actually do and what other people do now. But I definitely picked a really universal story because it’s such a rough-and-tumble world, and I didn’t want people to be scared of it. I wanted them to be seduced by it. It seems like we’re all beating the shit out of each other on the outside, but we’re really giving each other power and confidence in such a special way, so the hook to that had to be a really universal story.
Also, I adore coming-of-age stories. I’m not pretentious about them, because someone else is coming of age every five minutes. When you find those movies at that age, they have a huge impact on your life, so I’m a big defender of the genre.
It took me a while to write about roller derby. As I was playing, I’d always have stories and anecdotes. People would say, “You have to write about this. It’s so funny!” I’d bring up a roller derby story at a party and the whole party would stop. All I had to do was talk about roller derby. So I was really protective and didn’t want to exploit it. I didn’t want the slicked-up Hollywood version of beautiful girls playing and no big girls playing and they’re all 22. But Drew is way kind of cooler than people might give her credit for. She was into the authenticity of it right away. I felt supportive of that and trusted that. She wanted the full flavor. There are a couple places we cheated the rules a little bit. Drew’s character tends to start fights and in a real league, she’d not only get thrown out of games, she’d ultimately get thrown out of the league. That’s kind of a tweak, but it’s our nod to Slap Shot [written by Nancy Dowd].
You cut your antagonists a lot of slack in the film.
The movies lands or doesn’t land for different people, but I think that in what we created, the comedy is always really honest; the heart is always really honest. Everything feels very honest and real and in real life, if you’re going to have villains, I don’t think they stomp through life saying, “I’m a villain in a movie!” That’s how we wanted it to be. That sort of looseness is sort of seductive in this context.
And I think it’s cool for the actors. Everyone wants to play a villain, but when you ground them, you give them even more to play.