With the writers’ strike currently raging in the US, we’re showing solidarity by focusing on screenwriters in the Unsung Auteurs column. The hardscrabble world of roller derby – a tough sport in which (mainly) women barge and bash their way around an arena on roller skates – has given wheels to a few great films in 1972’s Unholy Rollers (starring the great Claudia Jennings) and Kansas City Bomber (starring the even greater Raquel Welch), the 2020 doco Queens Of Pain, and in a kinda-sorta way, the sci-fi dystopia of 1975’s Rollerball. There’s also 2013’s horror-romp-on-wheels MurderDrome, which takes the sport into serious supernatural horror territory.
The world of roller derby also gave the film world screenwriter Shauna Cross, who initially rolled hard as Maggie Mayhem for The Los Angeles Derby Dolls after moving up from the smaller TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls league in her home state of Texas. While playing roller derby in LA, Cross was also trying to break into the world of filmmaking (Cross had worked on film productions in Texas before moving to LA), working various jobs and eventually optioning scripts here and there. One family-themed script went to Disney and was never made, but Taking 5 (about two geeky girls who kidnap a famous boy band so they’ll play at their prom) did go before the cameras, and was released (and quickly forgotten) in 2007.
Though Cross had never intended to write about her experiences in roller derby, it was this wild sport that would give the burgeoning screenwriter real kick-off. “I never expected to write about it,” Cross told Crow River Media in 2008. “But every time I met with my [screenwriter] friend Kirsten ‘Kiwi’ Smith to discuss writing, I would end up telling her all the latest, hilarious derby stories and she kept saying ‘You have to write about this. You have to!’ So, finally I tried writing it as a young adult novel, which seemed less risky. It quickly sold in the form of Derby Girl. Meanwhile, the derby phenomenon started to grow, and I learned there were a couple of competing roller derby film projects in Hollywood.”
At this time, and before her novel had actually been published, Shauna Cross took her concept to Drew Barrymore’s Flower Films, with the production company optioning the idea, and getting Cross to script it for Barrymore to direct herself. The resultant film – which followed innocent teen Ellen Page’s journey into the world of roller derby, where she is rechristened Babe Ruthless, and discovers a team of wildly divergent characters, superbly played by the likes of Kristen Wiig, Juliette Lewis, Zoe Bell, and Barrymore herself – was an absolute charmer deserving of way, way more success. A tasty slice of female empowerment, Whip It comes complete with right-on messages about being yourself and doing the right thing by your friends and family. Despite the bad attitudes and breakneck nature of roller derby, this is also a great film for young girls: there’s no overt violence or bad language, and it puts young, aspirational female characters front and centre. Cynics might balk at the heartfelt sentiment and brimming positivity, but hey, that’s their problem: Whip It is an absolute delight from start to finish.
Despite not receiving the acclaim and box office rewards that it deserved, Shauna Cross has since gone on to a consistent screenwriting career. Though her most fascinating sounding projects (a rebel cheerleader movie for Disney called Shake It Up, and a proposed film from a true story about a group of San Francisco strippers who formed a union), Shauna Cross had penned some solid material. Along with Heather Hach, she ingeniously turned author Heidi Murkoff’s series of birth instructional books into the multi-strand 2012 comedy What To Expect When You’re Expecting, which boasted a big cast (Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez, Anna Kendrick, Chris Rock, Rebel Wilson) in its tale of five couples dealing with the challenges of pregnancy and impending parenthood. Cross also expertly adapted Gayle Forman’s novel If I Stay, effectively navigating its complex themes. More in line with her raucous work with Whip It, Cross was drafted to co-write the script for the belated 2017 sequel Bad Santa 2, and provided Billy Bob Thornton with an appropriately wild array of bad attitude one-liners.
“I guess my thing is funny, smart rebel girls,” Cross told Crow River Media in 2008, and we hope that she gets the chance to create a lot more of them in future.
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Troy Kennedy Martin, Kelly Marcel, Alan Sharp, Leslie Dixon, Jeremy Podeswa, Ferd & Beverly Sebastian, Anthony Page, Julie Gavras, Ted Post, Sarah Jacobson, Anton Corbijn, Gillian Robespierre, Brandon Cronenberg, Laszlo Nemes, Ayelat Menahemi, Ivan Tors, Amanda King & Fabio Cavadini, Cathy Henkel, Colin Higgins, Paul McGuigan, Rose Bosch, Dan Gilroy, Tanya Wexler, Clio Barnard, Robert Aldrich, Maya Forbes, Steven Kastrissios, Talya Lavie, Michael Rowe, Rebecca Cremona, Stephen Hopkins, Tony Bill, Sarah Gavron, Martin Davidson, Fran Rubel Kuzui, Elliot Silverstein, Liz Garbus, Victor Fleming, Barbara Peeters, Robert Benton, Lynn Shelton, Tom Gries, Randa Haines, Leslie H. Martinson, Nancy Kelly, Paul Newman, Brett Haley, Lynne Ramsay, Vernon Zimmerman, Lisa Cholodenko, Robert Greenwald, Phyllida Lloyd, Milton Katselas, Karyn Kusama, Seijun Suzuki, Albert Pyun, Cherie Nowlan, Steve Binder, Jack Cardiff, Anne Fletcher ,Bobcat Goldthwait, Donna Deitch, Frank Pierson, Ann Turner, Jerry Schatzberg, Antonia Bird, Jack Smight, Marielle Heller, James Glickenhaus, Euzhan Palcy, Bill L. Norton, Larysa Kondracki, Mel Stuart, Nanette Burstein, George Armitage, Mary Lambert, James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.