Q&A: Director Dawn Mikkelson Talks About New Roller Derby Documentary 'Minnesota Mean' | Hype | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

Q&A: Director Dawn Mikkelson Talks About New Roller Derby Documentary ‘Minnesota Mean’

You may associate roller derby with its ‘70s or ‘80s incarnations when it took on a theatrical, pro-wrestling-like style. After the turn of the Millennium, the sport has taken on a different aesthetic, as demonstrated in the Drew Barrymore-directed 2009 film ‘Whip It.’ In many U.S. cities, leagues affiliated with the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) have attained popularity. 

One of those is the league based in St. Paul, Minnesota, which has spawned an all-star team, which competes in national and international competitions called Minnesota Mean. ‘Minnesota Mean’ is also the name of a documentary film, on the festival circuit throughout last year, about the competitors on that team, who use fantastic monikers like Hurtrude Stein, Smoka Hontas, Shiver Me Kimbers, Scarmen Hellectra and Switch Please. 

‘Minnesota Mean’ is now available to rent from major VOD platforms, and we spoke with the film’s director, Dawn Mikkelson, about the film, its long production process, the power and camaraderie of women’s roller derby, and her appreciation for Jim Tittle, the film’s cinematographer, who passed away following his work on the film. 

Interview conducted by Stephen Silver.

Q&A: Director Dawn Mikkelson Talks About New Roller Derby Documentary 'Minnesota Mean' | Hype | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS
Interview Date:
July 2024
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I should mention that I’m a Minnesota native. I grew up in St. Louis Park. You’re from Minnesota as well, yes? 

Yes, I’m in Lake City right now. I don’t know if that’s familiar. It’s smaller town south of Red Wing. 

Okay, great. You show Methodist Hospital. That’s where I was born. There are other places I recognize and actually, I’ve been in Philadelphia for the last 20 years or so. Oh, I saw some familiar sights in the Philadelphia part of the film as well. 

Congratulations on the film. So tell me first of all, just what was it that attracted you to this this world and this story? And how did you how’d you first become familiar with with roller derby in Minnesota? 

Well, my friend Lisa joined the team, and she was 40 at the time. And so I thought she was absolutely nuts for wanting to hurt herself like that. And, she did hurt herself, but she also became a part of this amazing community. 

And, you know, when she was injured, they were bringing her to doctor’s appointments and bringing her food. And it was clear that this was more than, you know, an intramural volleyball team, that this community had each other’s backs in ways that, I think is not common in our world. 

And so I was drawn by the community also as a filmmaker, being able to follow something that has this much, uh, you know, physicality and excitement, that appealed to me. 

I’ve done a lot of films that have been on much more kind of cerebral topics and very thoughtful introspective films. And, and I was ready for one that was just like, we’re going to be out there and we’re just going to make the thing. 

Which one is Lisa? What was her nickname? 

Bernasty. She actually isn’t in the film. She’s now the announcer for the Minnesota Roller Derby. 

So just to be clear, the Minnesota Mean team is like an all-star team of the people on the Minnesota teams?

Right. Yes. There’s an all-star team. Exactly. There are four home teams that play each other throughout the winter, and then, like March, April through December, the All-Star team plays internationally. 

Right. And what’s the venue? It’s in St. Paul, right? 

Yeah, it’s the Roy Wilkins Arena. Which is amazing. Like a lot of teams don’t have a venue like that.  

So did you have much familiarity with roller derby before your friend got involved with this? 

Not really. Actually, I think she brought me to my first game before she even joined the sport. And, you know, blown away by, by all these women who are doing full contact on skates. 

In the film you could tell the year it was I think in the championship. It says 2017.  So this was kind of a while ago. Did the post-production just take a long time? What was the story there? 

Independent filmmaking is the story there, you know, when you don’t have a budget and everybody’s working on weekends and evenings, it takes a few years. I’ve said that if we had the budget, this film would have been done in six to nine months. 

Actually what happened was that I had a day job until 2021. And then I left that day job and started focusing on this film, as well as another one called Finding Her Beat, that ended up premiering nine months before this one. 

And so now I’ve been on this roll of like two films out in less than a year. So it’s, it’s a very different world. 

Right. What was your day job? What were you doing? 

I was the broadcast content manager for a PBS station. 

Was it the main one in Minnesota?

DM: No, I was in Duluth. I produced for the main one, but yeah, this was management. 

That’s interesting. So, what was your approach for filming the roller derby action? Had you ever filmed anything like that before? Did you have any feel for, you know,  how can I film this, where should I put the camera? What was your approach to that sort of question? 

Well, it was it developed over time, for sure. And it was, you know, developed with my director of photography, Jim Tittle. And so he kind of selected the camera. I trust my cinematographers to select the camera that’s correct for the film. 

But we learned very early on that if we could have access to the cameras of the WFTDA, which we did later in the season, we would utilize their cameras for the broad wide shots. Our cameras were focused on the bench and on the faces of the players so that we could really tell that personal story, as well as capturing the game play. 

I mean, it’s an exciting sport to shoot. Your camera can go into the middle periodically. They take turns. Camera operators do both still and film cameras and that you have to be very aware of what’s happening or you can get injured and your camera can get destroyed. 

And that did not happen. Thank God, we had a couple of close calls, but it did not happen. 

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CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.

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