If, looking at Roller Town, you can’t imagine why anyone would bother parodying the short-lived roller derby film genre by sticking actors in booty shorts and inserting absurd disco interludes like “Fuck O’Clock,” you’re probably not familiar with Canadian sketch comedy sensation Picnicface. The eight members of the group (Mark Little, Andrew Bush, Kyle Dooley, Cheryl Hann, Brian MacQuarrie, Evany Rosen, Scott Vrooman and Bill Wood) have evolved as a uniquely 21st-century creature: performing a weekly standup and sketch comedy show at the now-defunct Joker’s comedy club in Halifax, driving hundreds of thousands of hits to their YouTube sketches with an energy drink parody called “Powerthirst” and landing a self-titled, short-lived sketch show on the Comedy Network.
But as filmmakers, Roller Town is their most ambitious work — a feature-length film produced before they’d cut their teeth on a network television show, financed by a film development fund but also by hundreds of fans who earned the right to give themselves any credit they desired — a souvenir from a deeply silly movie from their favourite comedians.
Roller Town is the story of Leo (Mark Little), a roller skating prodigy who dreams of being admitted to the classical roller skating academy where his love interest, Julia (Kayla Lorette), performs. But when the thugs who killed Leo’s roller-skate-pioneering dad move in on the town’s roller rink, Leo has to fight to keep roller disco alive.
By design, Roller Town is the sum of its gags — from a training regimen led by a corn-fetishizing hermit to Leo’s insensitive attempts to mash, press and pull Julia’s face into a shape he likes.
“We had a certain interest in Zucker Brothers movies like Airplane, and Wet Hot American Summer was also a huge influence,” explains Mark Little, who starred in and co-wrote Roller Town along with Andrew Bush and Kyle Dooley. “The idea of how much narrative to sacrifice for jokes, and I think in most cases that’s the route we decided to go: of focusing on the jokes and hoping the narrative would be strong enough to get from joke to joke.”
The troupe was also influenced by another pair of Internet sketch groups — Lonely Island and Derrick Comedy. Like Picnicface, their films, Hot Rod and Mystery Team, were the result of a Internet comedy celebrities taking a swing at the feature filmmaking.
“And we walked away going: ‘They did make a lot of mistakes. We won’t make those mistakes,’” says Little. “You think you can seal yourself off from failure, but no matter how many notes you make on mistakes, you have to make your own. “
For Picnicface, filming a feature film was drastically different than producing online sketches. Rather than being able to play around and crack up the production team, Little found himself having to consider the needs of a professional cast and crew.
“It’s like taking a kid who really wants to play, and saying, ‘Hold… hold,’ and building a pen around that,” he says. “And then you go: ‘You’ve got one take to play. Play!’ And the pressure of that makes it incredibly difficult to play.”
Like most of Picnicface’s online sketches and, later, their television show, Roller Town was directed by Bush. But the familiar dynamic that the troupe had built didn’t always serve them on set.
“I think it made me a bit more obnoxious than I needed to be,” says Little. “If I had an idea [in a sketch] I could go: ‘What about this?’ And we’d do it. But on set that can be disruptive, but Andy’s no longer just there to check in with me, he’s got to control 30 crew members.”
Still, the film itself began as a kind of creative improvisation — riffing an entire movie from a fake trailer. Inspired by the Canadian-produced Hobo With a Shotgun, which got its start in a submission to Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse trailer contest, Picnicface sketched out the first draft of Roller Town with a three-minute trailer starring troupe members. The trailer was enough to get funding for another round of script writing, continuing Picnicface’s history of enticing new fans with absurd videos.
Picnicface has always been a unique commodity — a group of Halifax-based performers who managed to find thousands of online fans producing surreal sketches. And, with its deliberate camp and over-the-top dialogue (“Sorry,” says Leo as someone tries to talk him out of a fight, “my fists don’t speak mouth”), Roller Town is a worthy entry into the Picnicface oeuvre. On whether Canadian audiences are generally ready for a roller disco parody movie, Little is pragmatic, but hopeful.
“I’m curious to see how it goes over in theatres, but I will not be surprised if some people…” he pauses, continuing: “there’s a lot of things that won’t surprise me. I’ve felt all along that it’s the kind of movie you want to watch on your computer with your friends. And by ‘you’ I mean some people. It’s just a silly movie. I don’t know, we’ll see what people think.”
Roller Town is now playing at Scotiabank Chinook
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