EXCLUSIVE: Director, Stephen Merchant Discusses Entering The Wrestling World With “Fighting With My Family”
The Bevis family is not your average family from Norwich, England. Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey) may be an endlessly supportive parental duo but there is no doubt their passion for wrestling and a collective dream of a career in the WWE has turned their entire family, including their children Raya (Florence Pugh) and Zak (Jack Lowden), into a rambunctious bunch who is always ready to rumble. Even if it means getting a bit lost along the way.
Based on a true story and documentary, Fighting with My Family is a story of perseverance, heartbreak and challenging the status quo, with a whole lot of wholesome humor. It comes at no surprise writer/director Stephen Merchant (The Office, Extras) is the creative mastermind behind this — even the dangerous wrestling prop test runs and an ode to a Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel feud will have you tipping your hat.
The underdog saga begins after Raya (under the stage name “Paige”) and Zak receive a call to audition for WWE’s NXT division. When only Paige gets chosen, the siblings must fight their own battles in life post-audition — including Zak’s downward spiral as he tries to come to terms with the reality of his shattered dreams. Paige moves forward by herself, moving thousands of miles away from home to prove herself worthy of being signed by the WWE without Zak in the ring with her. Throughout her journey, Paige must harness her ability to win over the crowd just as easily as she can win a match and show the world that her uniqueness is actually her greatest strength.
The Voice had the chance to sit with, Stephen Merchant, director of Fighting With My Family at a round table interview in Boston and ask Merchant about the film. Check out the full interview here:
Press: First off, what got you interested in this story itself.
SM: Well, what got me interested was Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. He had seen this documentary about the family whilst making Fast & Furious 6 in England. He became involved with their lives and then subsequently realized it was a sort of Rocky underdog story and would make a good film. And I also think he knows about two English people — me and Jason Statham — and I’m a faster typist than Jason so he asked me to be involved and here we are. He sent me the documentary and I wasn’t terribly interested, I’m not a wrestling fan, or I wasn’t at the time, so I thought “oh this is going to be a chore” but when the Rock tells you to do something, you do it. I was just really won over by them and by their story and by this family with this dream and the particular relationship between the brother and the sister — you know, will they succeed? Will they fail? And I just learned to love wrestling over the course of making the film.
PRESS: So now that we know you have literally no wrestling fandom or background to speak of did anyone else in the cast come into it absolutely loving wrestling?
SM: Obviously, Dwayne responded to it because he came from a wrestling family and, I don’t know if you know this, but he’s a former wrestler so he brought a lot of insight and passion to it and it was important to him that we kind of make it feel authentic. Nick Frost, who plays the Dad, is a wrestling fan and was also familiar with the story and with Paige. Other than that I think the rest of us were all novices, really. I had to educate myself on both British wrestling and American wrestling. Through Dwayne, I met Vince McMahon backstage the night before WrestleMania in Dallas, Texas and Vince McMahon was just eating a bloody steak at midnight — it was exactly midnight — eating just a steak. And then Dwayne said “this is Steve. He’s going to make a movie about Paige” and Vince was like “Okay!” and then went back to eating a steak. I was real fun of it by the thrill of it. If you’ve never been [to a match] it’s amazing. The fans are amazing. the atmosphere is electric. The combination of athleticism, gymnastics, stunt work and showmanship. Somebody described it to me In my research as a “soap opera in Spandex” and that is when it made sense to me. But it was important to me that the film was both for fans and for non-fan, so I tried really hard to not make it for just people who knew what was going on.
VOICE: Did your initial vision of the film change it all from the beginning to the final product?
SM: Well, the documentary initially only covered about half of what is in the movie. I went to meet the family and I went to meet Paige and they filled me in on the rest of the story. I started writing the story and working on it and, of course, their lives continue while you’re working. At some point it was like “this film is going to be 8 hours long if I keep everything in” and I think I just felt like the story just had such a nice beginning, middle and end, but I never really wanted to go beyond that. I wondered about a sequel and I even wondered about a prequel because of [Paige’s] family. But I never really changed the shape of it really. It’s an unwieldy thing because it’s a real life. You feel a responsibility to the real people because their lives are important to them, as you can imagine. But their lives carry on even when the camera stops so it is a little weird and it must feel weird for them in particular.
PRESS: Now you have directed mostly television. Now doing a WWE match, in the ring there’s a lot of Steadicam and cranes. Was that much more difficult than you expected dealing with thousands of extras in the arena?
SM: WWE gave us one hour after a Monday Night Raw match to film that whole sequence, so we went out to the Staple Center and we had the 20,000 fans — and they were invited to stay, they didn’t just get locked in the room and told to cheer. Dwayne went out in front of the crowd and explained what was happening. He was amazing because he got them to cheer when we needed and boo and the whole thing. And then Florence comes out, she’s been doing about about a month-and-a-half of wrestling training and that was the 4th day of shooting and she recreate this match.
Because we only had an hour, I couldn’t orchestrate every shot. There were specific things I wanted so some of the Steadicam shots and the crane moves — but with everything else I had the WWE cameramen themselves shoot it because they obviously do it day in day out. But I had three of my own cameras and I think we did it four times back to back and we just kept on repeating it which is very confusing for the fans because of course they sort of know it’s staged wrestling but then it’s clearly staged because they are doing it again! I just had to hope that we had all the material the next day because I didn’t have any chances to do any retakes.
PRESS: So I’m glad the WWE worked with you for this phenomenal scene in the movie but some of the criticisms from the documentary where that [the family] criticizes the WWE and [how] it’s controlling with its images and all that. So how was it working with them as an institution versus some things that you want to keep in or take out?
SM: Well there was nothing that they didn’t let us do or say. To me, the way the family talk about WWE — it was this family’s dream because they what it meant in terms of how it would feedback into the family business. The family had a slightly ambivalent relationship with it because they run their own wrestling organization, right? So I think they regard themselves as rivals to WWE, which is perhaps a little ambitious given that they run it out of a lock of garage in Norwich. And I think they have mixed feelings because Zak didn’t get signed. I wasn’t trying to sugarcoat WWE or make them to saints anyway, it just didn’t seem like it was useful for me to get in to the intricacies some of those valid criticisms of the WWE because that seemed like a different movie.
I tried to suggest how kind of merciless they are in terms of the training — Vince Vaughn’s character’s tough, as many of them are. You know, people do get reduced to tears and the crowd can be abrasive and tough and people get caught mercilessly and their dreams get sucked away in an instant. So I tried to suggest that it’s not an easy business. I didn’t try to suggest it was all peaches and cream. I mean the things the WWE would get hung up on was more like “our logo changed and we want you to use the new logo!” Okay, [laughs] very odd!
VOICE: Well you had mentioned a lot about the dream of the family and everything and it seems they are a very close family. And I really appreciate comedies that really take advantage of those more serious moments, and especially with the struggles with Zak. Did you find that challenging at all trying to balance that comedy with the emotion and make sure there was a good transition between the two?
SM: I always found that the comedy in the tragedy kind of do walk hand-in-hand. And even going back as far as the stuff we did in The Office, I always thought there was sort of a dramatic spine to a it and we were very scrupulous in trying to be realistic so that when the more dramatic moments happened iit didn’t feel jarring, it didn’t feel fake or phony or that you didn’t care. And that’s the thing that was always most moving to me. Being left behind always tugs at my heartstrings and I always found that was the core of the story. So when I was writing it, I wasn’t thinking it was a comedy or drama. I just wanted you to feel as authentic as it could — at least in terms of a movie. And so I do find the family very funny and I find they do hit each other with trash cans and they do take bowling balls in the bollocks. But you know — and I think if perhaps you see the trailer first you know how the story is going — but certainly when I watched the documentary I had no idea Zak wasn’t going to get chosen and that was a real sucker punch. When showed it to audiences initially there’s a real intake of [gasps] when he didn’t get chosen and I think the reason that happens is because you are laughing and you are sucked in and you do think it is kind of fun and easy going and then this real emotion takes over in the darkness sorts to unfold which is what happened in real life. And Zak, in a way it’s a coming-of-age story for him. He thought this was a guaranteed career path. It never occurred to him he wouldn’t get signed and so I think the wind was really taken out of his sails at that moment. He really went to a dark place and I just thought you could use the comedy to kind of lull people into a false sense of security so that when it happens you’re really emotional and you’re really invested and hopefully by the end you’re a bit misty-eyed. It would be my dream.
PRESS: We were talking before hand it’s like is it for this dry humor is it American humor is it this family film how do you define the film yourself
SM: Well I think they say it’s comedy because you have to pick a lane when you market a film. But I never saw it specifically as that. I just kept going back to meeting them and how they spoke what their rhythms were. I didn’t try to chase jokes.
The dinner table scene when they meet the family for the first time was all based on an anecdote they told me about when they first met Zak’s parents…it’s as awkward as it appears. Her brother did dress as the Pink Power Ranger to help her in the ring to support her, Paige did try to change her hair and change her face and get a tan. So much of that was real so I feel like I was influenced by many different things. I kept thinking about David O. Russell’s The Fighter because it has this sibling relationship and it’s about boxing. But I didn’t feel our story was quite as tough or as bleak as that one — that’s like drug addiction and all kinds of tough things. And then I was thinking about films like Billy Elliot where I don’t really feel like you need to love ballet to like his dream of wanting to be a ballet dancer. I was also thinking is not just about sport, it’s a performance. Because in Rocky when he punches Apollo Creed, you understand that he’s supposed to be knocking that guy out and that’s a victory. But in wrestling, you know that it’s not real. Even within the movie you understand that wrestling is not real so what’s the victory, right? If she wins the match, you’re going “well someone decided that backstage” so then it becomes “well actually, the victory is winning the crowd over.” That’s the real success of being a wrestler and that’s something that Dwayne had told me. It really becomes more like on old 1930’s musical. The person from The Chorus Line gets a chance to go on the Broadway, “don’t blow it! This is your big shot kid!” and they get to go out there and “all the critics are in tonight” so it kind of becomes this kind of hybrid of all different kind of flavors — plus wrestling and Dwayne Johnson.
PRESS: One of my favorite parts of the movie is definitely the physicality and just having so many wrestling scenes that were just so fantastic. You had come into it not being in love with wrestling already so where their moments were there scenes that you just had written in “here they wrestle,” [laughs] and then just go back to writing the actual script?
SM: What I did initially was I would look at matches that Paige had done and I would basically make up a little “greatest hits” that I would edit together. Then I would just bring them together and go “this looks cool” and then the wrestling instructors and Dwayne would look at it and be like “well we would never do that move after that move because…” I didn’t realize there was a whole shape of a story to wrestling. It is like a dance. And they would take that and reshape it into what was more authentic and I would say “well can we at least have them jump through the ropes” and they were like “all right.” As a whole, the matches were shaped by Dwayne and by the wrestling instructors to feel authentic.
Our actors would train and rehearse those matches like they were dance numbers. And I would think of them as musical numbers, right? You want each one to feel slightly different. And then we shot them almost like you would any other stunt sequence. One of the things I noticed with wrestling is that they hide from the audience the more fake moments and so if figured we would also do the same. We’re try to hide some of the phony punches and things because that’s how it is when you watch a wrestling match. Florence and Jack did most of their own wrestling except with the crazier stunts.
VOICE: So with the scene when Paige comes home and has a match with Zak and it’s less of a choreographed thing now, Zach is more kind of beating her up a little bit, did the actors take part in that as well? Is that something you wanted to include from the beginning?
SM: Yes, they did. Jack has a couple of different sent people including some extended family members of the Knight family who double for him and Florence had a double name Tessa Blanchard double for her but they did the Lion’s Share of it and then the more dangerous things like the pile drivers and some of the more ambitious moves off the ropes the Sun Devils were coming and do those not that one try them but what they do years of experience professional allow them to do that with more definition of more compliments.
But one of the things I learned as I was researching was that, in both in terms of the family in the WWE, sometimes real rivalries bleed over into the ring. So there’s this weird confusion. Where sometimes you’re in the ring and your actual real aggression towards them that person is playing itself out And certainly Paige and Zack told me that they were times where they were kind of annoyed with each other, like brother and sister. Although that specific fight I had taken some liberties with, the core of that animosity and that idea of playing it out in the ring is real and seemed dramatically correct.
PRESS: Coming from a comedy background were you surprised by the personalities and the charisma that the wrestlers have?
SM: I had underestimated it before hand and my admiration for it has gone up because there’s a lot of knowingness, there’s a lot of wit, there’s a lot of humor. I met a lot of the people that work behind the scenes and they’re very smart. There’s a lot of humor and kind of a knowingness about the absurdity of it, in a way, and they pretend to run away from that. Dwayne is really funny. That promo he does on the kids where he just trash talks them in the corridor — I had written a bad imitation of it. So he takes a look at it and goes away in the corner and comes back and he’s like “okay get the camera running” and just does it! Like wow this guy. It’s just extraordinary, the rhythm, the shape of it, the build of it — it’s a real skill that certainly I couldn’t– and I mean like Florence at the end doing her promo. [Dwayne] helped her with that. We took a lot of what Paige said for real both in that match in other matches. But again we wanted Florence to kind of own it for herself because it was important that she was feeling it up there. I think it’s a great testament to her that you can really feel the emotion in her which is what Paige had told me when she won that match. Even though it’s predetermined, the emotion of that win was as real as if she won a gold medal at the Olympics. She had come a long way and it was just important that Florence kind of feel like she was taking some ownership of that. So I had written a version and she had worked with Dwayne kind of give it a bit of her own “florency-ness”
PRESS: Actually can you talk a little bit more about Florence oas the lead? Excellent, phenomenal choice. The casting is like really spot-on. What made her completely stand out both in casting and the first few days?
SM: Well that was Shaheen [Baig], my casting director, introduced me to her. I hadn’t seen her previous work. I think I was very hung up on the real woman and kind of thought somehow we should emulate Paige exactly and Shaheen was very good at saying “I think we just need someone who can capture the essence of who this is and not do an impression of them.” I think I saw about 60 women — it was a lot of people. It was a very tall order because she needed the physicality, she needed the charisma to believe that she could be a WWE Superstar, she needed the acting chops to carry this movie, and you need to buy her as this working class kid from Norwich who kind of grows into herself over the course of the movie, and that’s a lot to ask of anyone who also has to be 19 or 20.
Florence had not done a lot of movies but she auditioned with me several times and she had worked with Jack who plays her brother. Shaheen kept saying “I think this girl is the one” and I was like “I guess?” She was very Posh in real life and she worked on the accent and that reassured me and then later in the rehearsals I was like “yes I could see this girl is going to work,” and then she just kept impressing me. I mean, that final match was her fourth day of filming in the entire production. It was insane that she went in front of all those fans just ice cold, just calm as anything [saying] “yep, I’m ready let’s go” and I’m like a bag of nerves, you know. She’s exceptional. And it’s funny because I work with a few actors — many actors I have worked with are great– but there is a few where i thought having use them early on the career I should get a kind of all future earnings and Martin Freeman is one, Felicity Jones is another Florence another where I am like “oh come on guys don’t I get a piece of the action in her future career when she inevitably wins an Oscar or something down the road, she’s got a friend in me right?” That’s gotta be how that works.
VOICE: Well how was it working with the you know the rest of the cast because it’s a pretty all star cast you got been spawned in frosting and I’ve never seen Lena Headey in a row like this before.
SM: Well neither I had I! They said that she was interested she heard about the project she had seen the documentary and she was interested in doing it and I was like “I guess?” if you know her from Game of Thrones it’s like — and she is very willing and she came and auditions — which she does not need to do — and she worked on the accent and she — again just to convince me, to reassure me that she could be this woman. And then with Nick, Nick is hilarious. Nick has a passing resemblance to the real dad. Nick is also very funny but there’s also an untapped toughness to him that was useful in this. He’s a big wrestling fan; he has been wanting to do a wrestling movie for years. And then he and Lena just had a great chemistry — as do the real couple — and so they were great. I think Jack Lowden has, in a sense, a slightly less showy role than Florence but equally good, another amazing talent. And I think he has this really lovely soulfulness about him that when he gets to the darker depths in his movie I think we are still on his side. And then Vince Vaughn — one of the reasons I do this is that I saw Swingers when I was young. I used to write movie reviews for a magazine and I remember seeing Swingers and I was blown away. So when Vince’s name came up it was unbelievable. I think Vince is one of those people that because he’s been around so long and he’s so good you forget how hard it is to do what he does, well. I mean half the lines in the movie that he says are his own ad-libs or his own improvs. He’s funny, he has that kind of tough exterior but I think there’s this warmth behind the eyes and the means that you believe that he’s actually a sweetheart underneath it all. And he’s very supportive of Florence he helped her and helped me this really great and identifying things we could improve in the script and I think he’s terrific.
PRESS: In a recent interview you joked that you wanted to play David Prowse in a biopic. Do you see yourself doing another biopic?
SM: Well there something enjoyable about doing a true story because so much of the work is done for you already, right? The characters exist, the story exist so then it becomes a process of editing and deciding what to leave out, so that’s appealing. There’s an extra level of pleasure when you know it’s real, I think, and I’m very pleased when I get to show a few clips at the end [of the film] of the real family and people are like “My god, the house is the same! They look the same! They speak the same!” and that’s pleasing.
I thought about another biopic, but I’d love to do an adaptation of something. I’ve never done that. Like a book or something –I don’t know which. But given that this project originated with the world’s biggest movie star sending me a documentary, I’m sort of hoping another movie star will do the same and that’s just how my career will be. [laughs] Tom Cruise’s phones up: “I just saw a documentary Netflix any interest Merch?” “okay sure Tom!”
PRESS: So minutes ago in this interview you had said that it was for wrestling fans and non wrestling fans. So do you think this is going to turn a bunch of people back onto wrestling? I mean the divas don’t really exist anymore because they have a whole Revolution with the superstars.
SM: Well that changed obviously after the movie so I didn’t want to be appropriate and label it the Women’s Championship when it was still the Diva’s champion at the time of the film.
PRESS: Between this and Glow it’s kind of a moment for women’s wrestling.
SM: Well yes absolutely and again I was ignorant of all this. I just responded to the family and to this girl’s dream and the idea of retaining who you are and being true to yourself. I just thought those were really lovely, relatable themes. The fact that she was also a part of this movement of women’s wrestling — she and some of her contemporaries — I just think is an amazing added bonus. In a way when we began the project, the conversation about, you know, the absence of strong female protagonist was not a conversation that was really going on three or four years ago when we began the project. It’s something that just picked up a lot of momentum since. I was shocked when I was going back through my own DVD collection, which is very varied, and I think if you looked at that you would think this is all the classics you expect to see. You look at them in you’re like, as a sort of middle-aged white man, I’m like “everyone’s is represented in movies what are you talking about?” and you just look at it and you’re like “there’s no women in any movies ever in the lead role”, like it’s crazy! And I was really shocked because I always knew that was true that there was always a disparity but I have been more aware of recently just how big that disparity is. It is shocking. And so the fact that we sort of made it about this woman protagonist, also this good working-class woman, I feel very proud of it. I feel very proud of that we sort of are telling this story now and I wish I could say it was because I recognized this huge absence of strong female characters. But I think for me I just thought she was a strong and interesting character and in a way her gender almost came second. It was more like “this is a good story.”
VOICE: So you have plenty experience behind the scenes and on camera. Are you more of a “just take a project like and do it” or do you prefer the writing, directing, and producing life or the on camera work?
SM: Well the thing about the acting is that it’s fun but it’s tough because you’re only one little cog in the machine. You don’t get to see the bigger picture or influence it really unless you’re a much bigger star than me in terms of acting. So if I do a movie like Logan, I’m there and I show up and I do my stuff but I don’t have any sense of whether the movie is any good or what the bigger picture is. So I enjoy that but it’s a little bit frustrating. Acting definitely helps me work with other actors which is good and I definitely am a better director for having been an actor, but I think at my core I’m a writer. I enjoy the writing — it’s quiet, there’s no one bothering you, it’s easy — well it’s not easy but you know, it’s calm. You don’t have to put any clothes on if you don’t want to, you just sit on your laptop — unless you are working with someone else. Then they let you put on at least underwear. And then the directing is very stressful and fun, and then the editing is great. I love the editing. I love sitting with the editor and just working through it as another chance to rewrite it.
Fighting With My Family is officially in theaters nationwide now!