Interview: Bob Ray and Werner Campbell on Hell on Wheels (2008)

hellonwheelsIt was a big few weeks for Bob Ray of Crashcam Films: A second child, a “Best of Austin” award for best emergent filmmaker, and the DVD release of his Roller Derby documentary Hell on Wheels.

The film tells the story of how modern-day rollerderby in Austin almost didn’t happen. For the 300-plus leagues around the world, it’s a lesson in the potential problems and internal politics of getting to the first bout (it’s amazing how many leagues have gone through very similar problems, and how many survive to thrive like both the flat track Texas Rollergirls and the banked track Lonestar Rollergirls.)

Catching up with Ray and his producer/partner in crime Werner Campbell recently, they were talking about how the film almost didn’t happen.

In part, they only started filming because their original planned project, a biography of Appalachian wildman musician Hasil Adkins, collapsed. Campbell’s explanation for that is pretty simple: “The reason that he’s so great for a documentary is he’s totally insane, but the reason you aren’t able to make a documentary about him is that he’s totally insane.”

Making a zero-budget indie doc is a labor of love, and Campbell’s advice to novice film makers is pretty simple: Say goodbye to your credit rating. Both describe the decision to bring Conor O’Neill (editor of the magnificent sports doc Murderball) on-board as a great decision, but not the cheapest step. At least, by that stage, they had some footage to edit: According to Ray, who was there from the earliest practices, “There were times when we’d say, what if they never roll a bout?”

The film-making process took so long that soundtrack contributors … And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Dead changed line-ups twice between filming and releasing the final film. Then there was the famous and unsuccessful A&E series Rollergirls: When that failed, Crashcam Films found that distributors were wary of another Roller Derby project, which Ray found kind of, well, dumb. His description of the mindset is pretty simple: “You know that shitty vampire movie that failed?” he said. “Well, you can stop making vampire movies.” Fortunately, that’s where distributor Indiepix, (who their acquisition manager Jason Tyrell described as “supporters of independent films that other people won’t touch, no matter how good they are”) came in.

In hindsight, Ray’s a little more philosophical about the impact of the show (“Whether it was a good show or not, or well-received by the general public or not, it got the name of Roller Derby out there.”) The big winner, as Campbell and Ray have been able to see, is Roller Derby, and how far it’s come from those early knock-around practices. As Ray explained, “To see 2,000 or 4,000 people in LA, where everyone is so jaded, screaming their heads off is just so cool.”

(a version of this story previously appeared in the Austin Chronicle)

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