I talked with Stephen Merchant recently about his new film Fighting with My Family. The English funnyman wrote and directed the film which tells the story of Paige, a British girl born into a wrestling family who would find herself becoming a WWE champion. I asked Stephen how he got involved with the project and if he was a wrestling fan himself. Stephen Merchant, “What got me interested was Dwayne The Rock Johnson. He had seen this documentary about this family while making Fast & Furious 6 in England. I hadn’t seen it, didn’t know anything about it. He became involved in their lives and subsequently thought it was a Rocky sort of underdog story and would make a good film. I think he knows about two English people, me and Jason Statham (laughing). I’m a faster typist. He asked me to be involved and here we are. I wasn’t a wrestling fan at the time, but when The Rock tells you to do something you do it. I was won over by them and this story, this family and their dreams.”
Even though he wasn’t a wrestling fan at the time, he talked about whether cast members were fans. “Dwayne was a former wrestler (laughing) so he brought a lot of passion to it. It was important to him to make it feel authentic. Nick Frost who plays the dad was a wrestling fan and long wanted to make a film about wrestling. I think he was familiar with the story, familiar with who Paige was. Other than that, I think the rest of us were novices. I had to educate myself on both British wrestling and American wrestling. I went to Florida, met with the WWE. Through Dwayne I met with Vince McMahon who I met the night before Wrestlemania. I stayed for Wrestlemania and was won over by the fun of it. If you’ve never been, it’s really amazing. The fans are amazing. The atmosphere is electric. That combination of athleticism and gymnastics and stunt work and showmanship, someone described it to me as a soap opera in spandex and that’s when it made sense to me. It was important to me that the film was for fans and non-fans though.”
Stephen is known for directing television so I asked if directing a feature film like this with action and fighting was a lot different. With fighting in rings, there’s usually boom cranes and cameras in the ring, thousands of extras and everything in between. He explained how filming Paige’s debut match in the WWE happened. “I wish I could take all the credit there, but the truth was, WWE gave us one hour after a Monday Night Raw match to film that scene. We went down to the Staples Center, we had the 20,000 fans. They were invited to stay, they weren’t locked in the room. Dwayne came down, went in front of the crowd and explained what was happening. I asked him not to get carried away because we only had an hour to shoot. He did like 20 minutes on the mic, ad libbing, doing all his catchphrases and I was like ‘Get on with it!’ but he was amazing. He got them to cheer when we needed it. Florence (Pugh, who plays Paige in the film) comes out and at that point had been doing about a month and a half of wrestling training. She has to come out in the fourth day of shooting and recreate this match. At one point she’s lying on the mat and hears this 8-year-old boy saying ‘You suck’. Because we only had an hour I couldn’t orchestrate shots so I asked them for specific things I wanted. I had the WWE cameramen themselves and I had 3 of my own cameras. We did it four times back to back, we kept on repeating it which is confusing for the fans. They know it’s staged, wrestling, but this is clearly staged. I just had to hope we had the material because I didn’t have a chance to do retakes.”
The film is hard to label because there are times it’s laugh out loud funny. There are times it’s dry British humor. It’s a drama and biopic plus sports underdog story. I asked Stephen how he labels the film. “They say it’s a comedy because you have to pick a lane to market a film, but I never specifically saw it as that. I kept going back to meeting them and how they spoke. I didn’t try to chase jokes. The dinner scene where they meet Zak’s girlfriend’s family for the first time was based on an anecdote they told me. She (Paige) did try to change her hair and her face and got a tan. I kept thinking about David O. Russell’s The Fighter because that has this sibling relationship. I kept thinking it’s not just about sport. In Rocky when he’s hitting Apollo Creed you know he’s supposed to be knocking him out, that’s the victory, but in wrestling you know it’s not real. So what’s the victory? If she wins the match you know someone decided that so then the victory becomes winning the crowd over. That’s the real success of being a wrestler. So now it becomes this sort of old 1930’s musical where someone in the chorus line gets their chance to go on Broadway. It’s your big shot kid!”
Best known for comedies like the UK version of The Office with Ricky Gervais, I asked him if he was surprised by the comedic personalities wrestlers can have. “I had underestimated it beforehand. My admiration has gone up. There’s a lot of wit, there’s a lot of humor. I’ve met a lot of people who work behind the scenes and they are very smart. You find the most unlikely people who have worked or are fans of wrestling. Dwayne is really funny. That promo he does on the kids where he sort of trash talks them in the corridor, I had written a bad imitation ripped from the web, all his funniest lines. He looks at me, goes to a corner, comes back tells me to get the camera running and just does it. The rhythm, the shape of it, the build up, it’s a skill I couldn’t do. Florence at the end doing her promo, he helped her with that. We took what Paige said for real from that match and other matches, but we wanted Florence to own it for herself. It was important that she was feeling it out there. It’s a testament to her that you can feel her emotion.”
Fighting with My Family opens February 22nd.
Written & Directed by: Stephen Merchant
Staring: Florence Pugh, Lena Headey, Nick Frost, Jack Lowden with Vince Vaughn and Dwayne Johnson