Out now in Irish cinemas is Laura McGann’s Irish roller-derby documentary Revolutions.
Produced by Ross Whitaker is one of Ireland's most respected documentary filmmakers. His work includes Katie, Between Land & Sea and Unbreakable: The Mark Pollock Story. for True Films (Saviours, When Ali Came to Ireland, Unbreakable), Revolutions was four years in the making, and sees McGann chronicle the Irish roller derby community throughout the Island to create an intimate portrayal of this female driven sport during hard economic times.
Ireland’s recession pushes young people out. Surplus to requirement in the world beyond the Roller Derby track, the fast paced & aggressive derby world becomes a haven for determined, pissed-off women in a crippled country. Young Irish women go on a high-octane Roller Derby odyssey in search of a means for self-expression, a fight to be fought & above all a team that needs them. But how will responsibility & power affect the new leaders? With total access over 4 years, starting with the first ever-Irish team as they prepare for the World Cup in 2011, Revolutions follows this exciting sports arc, capturing the story as it unfolds, fascinating rivalries and observing real character development.
Scannain caught up with director Laura McGann to talk about the film:
Roller derby is not the most obvious sport for a feature documentary. “The way I describe it…when I found out about roller derby first. When I found out about the Irish team and then the word cup and I met the people. I was like the characters are amazing as well. I was like I need somebody to give me some money to do this. I’m a vegetarian now, but I used to love fries, like breakfast, with sausages and I remember speaking to my friend Aisling. I said “Aisling, I have the plate in front of me there’s sausages rashers, eggs beans mushrooms I just need a knife and fork. I need to be able to eat it”. That’s a really weird analogy. now that I’m a vegetarian especially. That’s how I felt. It’s there and it’s waiting to be made. That’s how I felt. I was like “This is just amazing”. I kind of feel that it was just handed to me. Brilliant characters, really colourful, and a story to follow. It just felt like a no-brainer. It felt like the right thing to do. I was really excited by it. I loved the characters I loved how forceful and not give a shit and themselves they were. They were very themselves. They didn’t really give a shit if I gave a shit about them. They were just whatever. And I liked that. They weren’t looking for attention. The most interesting people on screen are the people who aren’t really looking for it. They don’t really want to be on screen particularly. That’s challenging for me as a filmmaker as you’re just trying to pull them back the whole time from running away from you. You see so much where people are just kind of doing what they think you want them to do. They were just like “If you’re here you’re here if you’re not you’re not”. It didn’t make a difference that I was there. It didn’t change their behaviour. That’s what I loved. I didn’t want them looking over their shoulders to see if I was getting them doing this thing. There was none of that. When they’d see me they’d go “For fuck’s sake”. That was a bit of a complex that I got for the first while…well the whole thing actually. I’d walk into the room with the camera and the whole team would go “Awh”. I was like “I won’t take that personally”. And they were like “It’s not you, it’s just the camera”. Some of their parents hadn’t even seen them skate, and their parents were “What are you at?” and people in work too. It’s not that it was secret, it’s just not out in the public. And I know for sure that some of them were like “Oh it’s great that you’re making this film because people will know about roller-derby and they’ll join the team and we need people to skate with us, but at the same time we don’t want everyone to know because we’re really enjoying it and maybe bringing the outside world in was going to change it or something”. They were really protective, even of me as an outsider coming in, when I had the camera down they were still…there was a certain part of the groups were trying to manage me. “What’s our line on that?” Okay, give me your line and now tell me what’s actually going on. And you can understand that as well. They were keen..but they have committees…and some of the committees were “We have to put out a positive this, that, and the other, and they don’t need to know x, y and z.” But they stopped seeing me like that eventually.”
Between the start of production and the film’s release in cinemas was a six-year process. “A long journey! I thought it wasn’t going to end! In year two and a half or three, I was like “I think I’m going to be doing this for the rest of my life”. It had become part of my life that was just going to continue forever.”
Did she ever worry that it was becoming her Boyhood? “Oh, not even that. [Richard Linklater’s] film was like triple my one. I remember when that film came out a couple of years ago and I wasn’t even nearly finished this, and I was like man up Laura if he can do it for like 14 years then you can do it for 5.”
Was she aware of the commitment that the film would be going in? “My mindset was I’m going to make a film and the world cup is in December and the European Cup will be in July and we’d be sitting down to a screening in January. That’s the plan. Perfect. It’ll be so great. All the work I’ve been doing so far has been leading up to this beautiful project that I’ve been handed and it’s going to be so straight forward and so handy and so interesting. and then the European Cup was cancelled. but there was talk of a world cup in December so we’ll keep our plan for that. and then that didn’t happen. and then the world cup was set for the December after that…and then it was set for 2 years later. And that’s when myself and Ross sat down and were like “Will we continue with this? It’s not such a big thing. The bookending with the two championships isn’t everything. Maybe we can change the way that we think about it.” But it just felt right. and I just knew that there was more in it, to discover. And it really only felt like we were just getting started. Like this was like a whole world that just needed more time. And especially because of what was going on in the girl’s lives. They were making steps towards what they wanted, but they weren’t yet in a completely different place. the obstacles that they had at the start, they still had them. I was like “this isn’t over. We need to keep going, and I don’t know what the resolution is going to be, but it’s not now, and it’s not in two months time”. That was the trickiest part. It was people’s lives. And that way it was handy to have those two things to be able to wrap it in and give it the context I suppose. But there was a good while where we were following the threads, and you do think about where you think their lives are going to go and what decisions that they are going to make, but at the end of the day it’s never that. You plan for that and you usually have something to tell the story with, but the outcome is rarely what you thought it’d be. There was a nine-month period around the end of the second world cup where things started to feel like our three main characters were certainly in different places to where they were when we started. That was the key to bring them somewhere. they each had their own specific goals at the very start, and there’s an argument as to whether they reached those goals or the goals changed, and I like that. It’s like the Rolling Stones song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. That rang true with me when I was making the film, and I was trying to figure out “what is this film?” That song led me in the direction that the film ended up being. They were all really set and know what they wanted, but it wasn’t what they needed are really wanted. But they found a really nice place, a happy place now. And it’s not actually doing what they thought that they wanted to do, and that’s just normal life really. It’s not to say that you won’t get what you want, but that you’ll learn stuff along the way that informs your decision.”
Shooting over six years gave McGann a lot of material to work with. I tried to shoot scenes. So you’d go in at the start of the day and people walk in the door, something happens, people walk out the door. That’s the way I tried to shoot it. And so I was going through the footage as I shot it, as much as I could. In the months preparing for the edit, I had prepared. Some filmmaker was talking about his process, I think it was David Lynch, but he writes his scenes on post-it notes and throws them on the ground and that’s the way he tells the story. That’s not what I did obviously. I just took the post-it note bit and I was able to go scene, scene, scene, and I think we ended up with 37 scenes. I remember ringing Ross and asking him how many scenes were in Unbreakable. Depends on how long they are! Was I like “just give me a ballpark!” And he said 17… I was like grand I’ll do 17. So I put them all there and I was like “Right…bones of the story…what is the story in it’s most simple form? What scenes will tell that.” Then I was like “I can lose that one as they are kind of the same thing. Oh, we might need this one so bring it back it.” It was like playing Numberumba. It was just about getting the sequence right, but it was nothing like playing Numberumba. It was just trying to work it work with a pace and a flow, and bringing you from one scene to the other. We did have good fun in the edit. It was just fun playing around with all the footage that I’d been shooting for years. I went through every single frame that I shot and wrote it down. That was a pretty labour intensive part of the film. So by the time I got to the edit I had everything stored in my head. I’d every shot in my head so I was able to go “do you know what will work here?” And I mean just like a shot of a bird or something.”It was February…I was just home from whatever. It was my sister’s birthday. February…I think she was 25…so February 2013. Yeah, I think there was a shot of a bird there. Yes, there is!” And that was really important. Just to know the footage inside out and back to front.
Revolutions is really the story of the characters more than the sport. “From the first day when I went into the Team Ireland training session, Crow practically landed on me. They were kind of like, for me they looked like the leaders, they were the people who were saying “Sorry I don’t think you should be doing this” so I was like, “Who’s your one?” It was just there on the first day. And then Bob, I could just see him trying to negotiate and be careful of his tone. And then Kitty was the captain of the Dublin team so I got to know her through Bob. And then Zola was another person who was taking control of the situation. The 3 of them had that. They just hopped out at me. It was really obvious. There was no “who will we follow?” It was pretty clear. They each had something really specific that they were going for, and I felt that they wanted something. And that helps any film if the character wants something at the start then they are going to do whatever they can to get whatever they want. It was just natural, and then stuff started to happen and I just followed it. they were reluctant to be part of it. I didn’t have any money, I didn’t know who it’d be for. Maybe for RTÉ and it’ll be six months. So Crow was like “I’m happy to talk about roller-derby” and then I discovered that she had such an interesting life and started to go more that direction. So she was like “Wait, hold on, I thought this was about roller-derby, why are you asking about my job or family”. So I said, “We might include a bit more of you”. So there was a bit of push-back. There was always push-back from them. Bob turned around to me at one point, I think it was 9 months into the filming, and looked into the camera and went “I can’t believe you are still filming me!” Little did he know there were another 3 years to go! It evolved into being more about them as it became a longer project and so there were times when they didn’t want me to film. Especially when things weren’t going so well for them. I’d push a bit and they’d push back, and we’d find somewhere in the middle where we were both happy and do that. But it was a constant back and forth. There were times when I’d leave them alone for a few weeks and then come back. Especially when things weren’t going so well just saying to them “Look just for the story I need to see this. I need you to let me in a little bit here. Because when things start to go well again for you then if we don’t see something of this then that is really not going to mean anything. You need to trust me, and you need to trust that if there’s something that I capture and that you say that you’re not happy about then you can come straight to me and we’ll talk about how we can cover it without covering this bit of it.” So it was a collaboration between all of us. It was always really important to me from the very start that at the very end that they be happy with the film. I mean come on they were giving so much. Not everybody is as generous with their time and their life as they were. So when I was showing it to them we had individual screenings at the office and my house. I was a nervous wreck. I remember Bob coming over and he turned up at the door and he was so rattled, and I went “I didn’t know you were so nervous. I was so nervous!” And he was like ” I haven’t slept in a week.” And so I was like “Would you like a drink?” So he had a beer and sat down. And I knew that there were particular points in the film for each of the characters that they’d find hard. Sometimes because they were behaving in a way that wasn’t like how they like to be behaving and other times it was because somebody was saying something about them that I knew would be hard for them to hear. And maybe they’d never heard it before and it was captured years before. Imagine that. imagine sitting down and being shown all the ups and downs of your life and having to watch it! That’s not easy. They were all so thoughtful, and they got it. And they were thankful. And there were a couple of bits that they weren’t sure about so I took them out. I saw it as our film, and I wanted them to be proud of it. That was really important. They were the first people that I wanted to like it. Once they liked it I relaxed. Then It was screening at Galway and there were loads of the roller-derby people there and when the small roller-derby crowd we had there liked it then we had the two things. then if anybody else like it after that then it was happy days. they had trusted me so much so it was really important to me that they could stand behind it. That it be something that they were proud of.”
Revolutions is out now in Irish cinemas. To find out more about the film and where it’s playing see the film’s website www.revolutionsfilm.com.