Interview: MurderDrome director Daniel Armstrong on roller derby, horror and indie filmmaking

Interview conducted by Ben Bussey

As regular BAH readers may have noticed, one of my favourite films of 2014 thus far has been Daniel Armstrong’s MurderDrome. A light-hearted, low-budget comedy horror set in the world of roller derby, it aims to capture a very specific niche audience and, in my estimation, does a fine job of it. While the overall reaction from critics and horror fans has been a bit mixed, the roller derby scene appears to have warmly grasped Armstrong’s film to its sweaty heaving bosom, with numerous leagues from Australia, the UK and beyond hosting screenings – and its North American premiere is set to take place in Louisiana next month, hosted by Northshore Roller Derby. It’s also been a great point of pride for myself and my friends in York Minxters Roller Derby that Armstrong and co were so taken with Heavy Petal’s assessment of MurderDrome from our April review, they made a meme out of it (see above).

As MurderDrome is now available to pre-order in the US and Canada, and Armstrong nears completion on his next film From Parts Unknown: Fight Like A Girl (actually shot before MurderDrome, as will be explained later), I figured it was high time I grabbed a few words with the man himself about it all, and happily he obliged. Read on…

BAH: So I see just as we begin this conversation that Murderdrome is now on iTunes in the UK.

Daniel Armstrong: This is correct. I knew it was happening this month just, wasn’t sure exactly when. But it’s there so… sometime previous to now it happened! They rejected it on QC grounds on the first submission, ha! A few technical things we had to fix for their stringent standards. I guess to be expected considering our production gear!

BAH: Oh dear! Well, they let you in eventually, so you must be doing something right. On which note – you’ve been using the #justlikearealfilm hashtag for some time when discussing Murderdrome online. Does it feel like a ‘real film’ to you now, whatever that might mean?

Daniel Armstrong: I guess it does. I started using that because it was never meant to be a “real” film, in terms of distribution in mainstream channels and reviews and scrutiny and such. It wasn’t even written as a feature length film, it was intended to be episodic and online, with a view that we could compile it into a long-form version and screen it through derby clubs and maybe sell copies on DVD at screenings. We pretty specifically figured only a derby crowd would be keen.

I think when it was reviewed in Empire Mag, alongside Machete I started using the tag. Like… what’s our film doing in Empire Mag? And we’ve had so many reviews now, good and bad (but even the bad reviews are positive) that I do feel like we’re being treated like a real film, which is cool.

BAH: [In relation to the derby crowd] I think it works both ways for you – existing roller derby fans are inevitably interested, but widespread interest in roller derby is also on the rise.

Daniel Armstrong: It’s the fastest growing sport in Australia so I would agree. Seems to be well popular in the UK too judging by the response it’s had there.

BAH: How much has the derby connection helped you in promoting the film?

Daniel Armstrong: What percentage is totally? Oh, that’d be 100%. I think without a doubt that’s where it’s all came from. The derby community here helped us make it, and through that has been the groundswell. Roller Derby is more than a sport, it’s a community, and it’s an international one at that. We know people who know people in Roller Derby everywhere and that’s certainly been the core of all our promotion. It’s not like we’ve spent much money – it’s all been thanks to some really over-the-top support from girls and guys in Roller Derby all over the world.

BAH: That’s awesome – and that’s certainly the impression I get of the roller derby scene too, speaking as someone slightly associated with it (my wife plays for York Minxters as you know). I’ve also pondered that this grass-roots DIY philosophy is something the sport kind of shares with the indie horror scene?

Daniel Armstrong: Yes I agree, and the battle for broader respect for what you do too. Roller Derby is often not taken seriously because it’s a girls’ sport, and also because (at least a few years ago when we made Murderdrome) of the image it projects; tattoos and fishnets and pun names. Those girls train really hard and take it very seriously. In a similar vein we make DIY films about really quirky concepts but we take it seriously and work hard at it, but because we’re an unashamedly B-grade or cult style thing people take it less seriously, as if somehow you don’t work hard at it, or require skill or talent and blood sweat and tears to pull it off. Which you do.

BAH: That does seem to be something that derby people can be a little divided over – the conflict between the athleticism and the showmanship (or, I dunno, showwomanship). It’s tricky, because on the one hand the ‘alternative’ image and the sex appeal is a big part of what draws people in, yet as you say the players absolutely deserve to be acknowledged as real athletes.

Daniel Armstrong: It’s the spectacle vs sport debate, and yes, it’s a thing in derby. We made a small nod to it in the film when our heroine is referred to as a Show Pony.

BAH: I found it interesting, then, that you chose not to overplay the sexuality of the derby girls. For instance, it’s mentioned in the commentary that you opted not to shoot the one scripted nude scene.

Daniel Armstrong: Yeah we did, but it was less a conscious decision and more a “gee, it’s really really cold here” decision. In the script that particular scene takes place in a different context, and it made less sense the way we ended up having to shoot it. Our location fell through and we were forced to improvise. It’s actually the only reason that beautiful Caddi is in the film – we were like “fuck, nowhere to shoot. How about they’re in a car and we do it at the train station near my joint?” “Okay, let’s do that – who do we know with a cool car?”

On playing up the sexuality of the derby girls – I guess that just never made sense. They’re our heroes, y’know, so they had to be cool characters, and there’s never really a situation that demands they be sexy or anything like that. I mean, they are all sexy but that’s just them. Also, they were all real derby girls, I figured it was best they bring that rather than some imagined thing. We made an effort with the bout scenes to do it legit, by the rules and such. Although the rules have changed three times since we shot. So we’re retro.

BAH: Well, most of the derby girls I know were largely very happy with how the sport and the subculture as a whole was represented in the film – not that there are too many movies out there on the subject. Did you see any of the other derby movies before or during shooting? Kansas City Bomber, Unholy Rollers? I assume Whip It was out around the time you got started shooting.

Daniel Armstrong: Yeah I’ve seen all of those, and the documentaries Derby Baby and This Is Derby, but I never thought of this as a “derby” movie. It’s a slasher and the heroes are all derby players. As we cast real derby players it only made sense to bring that whole world into it to give the whole film the minimal grounding to reality it does have!

BAH: Okay, I guess I’ve asked enough derby-specific questions! In terms of horror, then, what were your key influences on MurderDrome?

Daniel Armstrong: The 80s. Dead End Drive In and films like that. You could (oddly) throw Razorback in there, for the look of the film, and most Duran Duran music videos made in that era. Escape From New York. I guess in terms of horror my influences are actually 1980s sci fi really… and Duran Duran. The schizophrenic neon unassigned lighting is most def an 80s influence.

BAH: I like how you mention an Ozploitation classic straight away there! As I asked Stuart Simpson about a while back, the last few years do seem to have seen a hugely revived interest in your country’s contribution to schlock cinema. Has this in any way impacted the current climate in indie filmmaking down under?

Daniel Armstrong: I couldn’t really say. I’ve never been really aware of any scene to be honest, there are guys like me and Stuart in Melbourne but we work in isolation. I mean, Stuart and I know each other a bit, but we’ve only met face to face all of two or three times. Monstro rocks though.

I think a nod to Monster Pictures Au is appropriate here. They’ve really built their business on supporting the Aussie DIY scene and running their genre festival Monsterfest, and that’s brought a lot of the DIY crowd together. I don’t really feel it’s a scene per se though; I guess more correctly each director/producer who’s doing this has their own little scene going on.

BAH: Well staying with your own films then, what can you tell BAH readers about the tangled web of your last/next film, From Parts Unknown: Fight Like A Girl?

Daniel Armstrong: Wellll….we shot FPU in 2007 and into 2008. I’ve decided it’s a wrestling-horror-action film (keen to invent a genre of one film, thus enabling it to be THE BEST wrestling-horror-action film ever). It was then edited throughout 2009 and we were into sound design. I’ll just remind you we’re a DIY operation, so this involved a contra deal with a sound studio. The names have been changed to protect the innocent but let’s just say the contra deal went… wrong, and there was a bad ending to that which left me without any of the sound files for the film.

At about this time some life happened to me as well, in a bad way. Essentially I was unemployed, close to destitute, sleeping on couches and blah blah blah. Suffice to say one of those “hard times” that help with your character was upon me. So in effect I gave up on FPU and the very idea of DIY filmmaking, and did what I had to do to get life back on track.

Fast forward a little and life’s back on track-ish and I start to think of getting back on the filmmaking horse. FPU seemed impossible to rescue – so we made MURDERDROME. Towards the end of shooting MURDERDROME I decided nothing was impossible, went back to the source and rebuilt FPU literally from scratch! FROM SCRATCH! And now it’s a couple of months away from completion. So I just had to make that film, lose it, make another film, then make FPU again to get her there. I do sure hope someone likes it.

BAH: Well, I for one definitely look forward to seeing it. Right, I think I’ve taken enough of your time so I guess I’ll end on a light-hearted one: you’ve done wrestling, you’ve done roller derby – are you gearing up to become the horror sports film guy, and if so which sport are you going to take to hell next?

Daniel Armstrong: That’s such a awesome idea. I could have a thing! However, next up is a monster movie called THE DISTURBED. If a few things that need to fall into place fall into place, that goes into production at the end of this year.

BAH: Nice. Anything at all you can tell us about that, or do you want to play it all mysterious…?

Daniel Armstrong: No sports. There are some lobotomies though. And a monster that eats bullets and shoots them out of his hand. And a duel with chainsaws. That’s all I shall reveal.

BAH: I like it already. Well, best of luck with that Daniel, and everything else you’re working on, and thanks very much for talking to Brutal As Hell!

Daniel Armstrong: Thank you!

MurderDrome is out now in the UK on DVD and iTunes. It hits DVD in the US and Canada from September 9th.