Barry Mendel is speaking from the set of Peacock in Iowa, an intense drama featuring Cillian Murphy, Ellen Page, Susan Sarandon, Bill Pullman and Josh Lucas, which is financed by Mandate Pictures. But Mendel is not on the phone to talk about that intriguing project but another Ellen Page-starrer with Mandate behind it called Whip It!, which will start shooting on July 14.
And what is most intriguing about Whip It! is that it marks the directorial debut of A-list Hollywood actress Drew Barrymore.
Mendel, a young producer with illustrious credits including three films apiece from Wes Anderson and M Night Shyamalan as well as Steven Spielberg's Munich, explains that the project is based on the novel for young adults by Shauna Cross set in the underground world of female roller derby - a tough sport in which teams of young women on roller skates compete on an oval racetrack.
The book was optioned in 2007 by Flower Films, Barrymore's production partnership with Nancy Juvonen, when it was based at Warner Bros. Cross, herself a Derby star under the name Maggie Mayhem, began writing the screenplay and during the development process, Barrymore decided to make it her directorial debut. It was then the two partners decided to seek out another producer.
"There were two components to bringing me in," explains Mendel. "Nancy was pretty busy working on He's Just Not That Into You (at New Line) and Drew was looking for someone to work with as a mentor through her first film. She met with several producers, including me, and gave a great presentation. She had ambitions to make a movie in the vein of Rocky or Breaking Away and I told her I would get behind that ambition, but not with this script."
Mendel, who prides himself on only going into production when the script is ready, told Barrymore the screenplay would need another year's work. "She thought that was harsh but a week later came back and said she wanted to work with me," recalls Mendel. "The old script was commercial but we have added more substance to it and Shauna was very receptive to it."
Barrymore and Cross came to visit Mendel several times while he was in production on Shyamalan's The Happening in Pennsylviana, to develop the story of an unconventional teenage girl in rural Texas who finds her raison d'etre as a roller derby player without her mother's knowledge.
Page came on board a year ago to play the lead role, a fortuitous move since it was before she achieved global fame and an Oscar nomination with Juno, another Mandate picture. And while she engages in a four-month training programme on the track, Barrymore, who will probably also take a supporting role in the film, is furiously preparing for her first gig behind the camera.
"We've assembled a great team of people to help Drew, including DoP Bob Yeoman (Rushmore, The Squid And The Whale), editor Dylan Tichenor (There Will Be Blood, Brokeback Mountain), costume designer Cat Thomas (Kill Bill) and storyboard artist J Todd Anderson (who has worked on all the Coen brothers' films).
"Her office walls are covered in movie stills and photos expressing aspects of the movie and she eats, sleeps, lives and breathes the project. Bob has taken her to Panavision to show her lenses and film stocks, and he gets to do his masterclass on her. He did the same thing with Wes Anderson on Bottle Rocket."
Mendel says the film will shoot both in Texas and another state, which is yet to be determined. And he is confident Whip It! will be picked up by a studio for distribution on a wide basis. "My prediction is that the final film will be a mainstream commercial movie that can compete with any other wide studio release," he says.