With a true life story that is better than fiction, Fighting With My Family gives us the background on the humble and quirky beginnings of WWE Diva Paige, traveling from her humble beginnings wrestling on her family’s local circuit to claiming the Diva’s Belt in her debut match.
FOG! sat down with the very tall Stephen Merchant (best known for co-creating The Office, Extras, Life’s Too Short, and Hello Ladies) to discuss his feature film directing debut to see what brought him to the world of WWE, Dwayne Johnson, and empowering heroine leads.
* * * * *
FOG!: What originally brought you to the project?
Stephen Merchant: It was Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson. He had seen this documentary about the family while making Fast and Furious Six in England. I’d never seen it, I didn’t know anything about it. And he became involved with their lives and then subsequently realized it was a sort of Rocky style underdog story and would make a good film. I 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. I’m not a wrestling fan, or wasn’t at the time. I thought, “this is going to be a chore”, but when The Rock tells you to do something you do it. And I was just really won over by them and by their story and by this family with these dreams and particularly that relationship between the brother and the sister. Will they succeed and will they fail? I was just won over and then learned to love wrestling in the course of making the film.
So now that we know that you have literally no wrestling fandom or background to speak of, did anyone else in the cast come into it just absolutely fangirling about wrestling? Or was everyone else like, ‘I guess, wrestling’?
Well obviously Dwayne responded to it because he’s a former wrestler, so he brought a lot of insight and passion to it. It was important to him that we make it feel authentic. Nick Frost, who plays the dad, is a wrestling fan, and had long wanted to make a film about wrestling. I think he was familiar with the story, he was familiar with who Paige was. And 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.
I went to Florida, met with WWE, and through Dwayne met Vince McMahon, who I met backstage the night before WrestleMania in Dallas, Texas. And Vince McMahon was just eating a bloody steak at midnight. It was exactly midnight and he was eating a steak. And nothing else. No fries, nothing.
And 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 like, okay. And then I stayed for WrestleMania and I was really won over by the fun of it, by the thrill of it.
Are you a wrestling fan? Do you …?
I grew up watching Hulk Hogan.
Well, if you’ve never been, it is amazing. The fans are amazing, the atmosphere is electric. I mean yes, it was WrestleMania but that combination of athleticism and gymnastics and stunt work and showmanship…
Someone had described it to me in my research as soap opera in spandex. And that is when it made sense to me, and now I would say I was a fan. But it was important to me that the film was both for fans and non fans. So I tried very hard to not make it for just people who knew what the hell was going on.
Did your initial vision change at all from the beginning to the final product?
Well the documentary initially only covered about half of what’s in the movie. I went to meet the family, I went to meet Paige, and they filled me in on the rest of the story. And her win, her kind of first Diva’s title win when she won on her debut match on RAW, was not something that was in the documentary. And that seemed like a natural and amazing kind of payoff to the story. So then I started writing the story and working on it and of course their lives continued while you’re working. Various things occurred that it’s like, well, at some point this film’s going to be eight hours long if I try and keep everything in. And I think I just felt like the story just had such a kind of nice beginning, middle and end when it ended with that that I never really wanted to go beyond that.
But it is weird, because you feel a responsibility to the real people obviously because their lives are important to them, as you’d imagine. But yes, their lives carry on even when the cameras stop and that sort of movie ends really, which feels a little weird and it must feel weird for them in particular.
Now doing a WWE match in the ring is a lot of steady cam and boom crane. Was that much more difficult than you expected, dealing with thousands of extras in the arena?
Well, I wish I could take all the credit there but the truth was that WWE gave us one hour after a Monday Night RAW match to film that whole sequence. And so we went down to Staple Center, we had the 20,000 fans. I mean they were invited to stay, they didn’t just get locked in the room told to cheer. And Dwayne came down, went out in front of the crowd and explained what was happening. And I’d asked him, I said “Please don’t get carried away because we’ve only got an hour to shoot.”
He did about 20 minutes on the mic, just ad libbing, making calls for the fans, doing his catchphrases. And I’m just watching this guy like, Jesus Christ, get on with it. I’m the only person who’s ever been shouting at The Rock to get out of a wrestling ring.
But he was amazing because he got them to cheer when we needed and boo and the whole thing. And then Florence comes out. She’d maybe at that point done about a month and a half of wrestling training and had to come out the fourth day of shooting and recreate this match. And she said at one point she was lying on the mat and there was an eight-year-old kid going, “You suck.”
And just like, whoa, this is wrestling. But because we only had an hour I couldn’t orchestrate every shot. There’s a couple of specific things I wanted, but everything else I had the WWE cameraman themselves shoot it because they obviously do it day in, day out. And I think we did it four times, back to back. We just kept on repeating it, which was very confusing for the fans because of course they sort of know it’s staged, wrestling, but then it’s clearly staged because they’re doing it again. It was like, what, this is so weird to them.
I loved that scene, too, because in the theater it feels authentic.
Well that was it because one of the things I noticed when I first went to both the wrestling family in Norwich and to the WWE, is that the sound is extraordinary. That’s as much of the live experience. You don’t really get it on TV, but it’s very, very noisy. The crowd makes a lot noise. The mat makes noise. The ropes, everything. It’s just a cacophony of sound. Our sound designers, they went to matches and they recorded the crowds. And they had a mat set up, they had a ring set up and they leaned against the ropes and they got all the squeaks and everything to try and put you there because it’s really a weird, loud, crazy experience when you’re in that ring.
Especially with the struggles with Zak and everything. Did you find that challenging at all, trying to balance that comedy with emotion and make sure you had a good transition?
Well, I’ve always thought that the comedy and tragedy, if you like, do walk hand in hand. Even going back as far as the stuff we did in The Office, I always thought there was a sort of dramatic spine to it and we were very scrupulous in that at least, about trying to be realistic so that when the more dramatic moments happened, or when the romance happened, that it didn’t feel jarring, it didn’t feel fake or phony or that you didn’t care.
And so in this, the thing that was always most moving to me was Zak being left behind.
That just really tugged at my heartstrings and I always thought that that was the core of the story. And so when I was writing it, I wasn’t trying to think well, is it a comedy or a drama or anything. I just wanted each scene to feel as authentic as it could, at least in terms of a movie. And so I do find them very funny and I find they do hit each other with trash cans and things, and they do take bowling balls in the bollocks. I think if you’ve seen the trailer you know where the story’s going, but certainly, when I watched the documentary I had no idea he wasn’t going to get chosen and that was a real sucker punch.
And now in a way, it obviously doesn’t work because people have seen the trailer, but when I showed it to audiences initially there was a real intake of breath, a real gasp when he didn’t get chosen. And I think the reason that happens is because you are laughing and you are kind of sucked in and you do think it’s kind of fun and an easy-going thing. Then this real emotion takes over and then the darkness starts to unfold, which was what happened in real life.
We were talking beforehand. Is it British dry humor, is it American humor, is this a family film? How do you define the film yourself?
I mean I think they say it’s a comedy because I think you have to pick a lane when you market a film, right? But I never saw it specifically as that. I just kept going back to meeting them and how they spoke and what their rhythms were. I didn’t try and chase jokes. The dinner table scene where 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.
The only thing I’d cut out was that Julia, the mother, told me that in order to break the ice she grabbed the other mother’s boobs and went, “Hiya.” And I thought that probably seems a bit much, so I didn’t put that in. But aside from that it was as awkward as it appears.
But I was also thinking it’s not just about sport, it is about performance. Because in Rocky, when he punches Apollo Creed you understand that he’s supposed to be knocking that guy out and that’s the victory. But in wrestling you know that it’s not real. Even within the movie you understand that wrestling’s not real. So what’s the victory, right? Because if she wins the match you’re going, well, someone decided that backstage. So then it becomes actually the victory is winning the crowd over.
That’s the real success of being a wrestler. And that was something that Dwayne had told me. And so then it really becomes a bit more like an old sort of 1930s musical where a person from the chorus line gets the chance to go on 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. It sort of becomes like it’s this hybrid of all these other different flavors plus wrestling and plus Dwayne Johnson.
Since you had no wrestling background coming into this, can you share a bit about the fight choreography?
What I did initially was I, not so much with the family wrestling, but with the WWE wrestling, would look at matches that Paige had done and then I would make up like a little “greatest hits”. I would edit together on my laptop what I thought were the coolest moves, and then I would just string them together and then go like, “This looks cool.” And then the wrestling instructors and Dwayne would look at it and they’d be like, “well you would never do that move after that move”. Because I didn’t realize there’s a whole shape and a story to a wrestling match.
They would then take that and they would reshape it into what was actually a more authentic match and I would say, “At least can we have them jump through the ropes?” And they’d be like, “All right.”
One of the things I noticed with wrestling is that they hide from the audience the more fake moments. And so it figured that we would also do the same. We would try and hide some of the phony punches and things because that’s how it is when you watch a wrestling match. Or the best ones. You don’t really see the artifice. So it was really hard, but Florence did a lot of her own wrestling. And Jack. Which was incredible. They trained, and except for some of the crazier stunts they did a lot of it themselves.
Could you talk a little bit more about Florence as a lead? I mean she was an excellent, phenomenal choice. What made her stand out, both in casting and then the first couple days that you were filming?
That was Shaheen, my casting director’s choice really. Well not choice, but she 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 somehow that we should emulate her exactly. And Shaheen was very good at saying “I think we just need someone who can kind of capture the essence of who this is but not do an impression of them”.
And I think I saw like 60 women, either in person or on tape. It was a very tall order because she needed to do 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 needed to buy her as this working class kid from Norwich who sort of grows into herself in the course of a movie. And that’s a lot to ask of anyone who also has to be 19 or 20, and Florence had not done a lot of movies. But she auditioned with me several times. She worked with Jack, who plays her brother.
Shaheen kept saying “I think this girl’s the one” and I was like, “I guess”. Because she was quite posh in real life and she worked on the accent and then that reassured me. Later in the rehearsals I was like, I can see this girl’s going to work. And then she just kept on impressing me. That final match was her fourth day of filming in the entire production. I mean it was insane and she went out in front of all those fans just ice cold, just calm as anything, just yeah, I’m ready, go. And I’m like a bag of nerves. She’s exceptional.
You had said that this was for wrestling fans and non wrestling fans. So do you think that this is going to turn a bunch of people onto wrestling? Between this and GLOW, it’s just like a moment for women’s wrestling, honestly.
Yes, absolutely. And again, I was ignorant of all of this. I just responded to the family and this girl’s dream and this idea of retaining who you are and being true to yourself. I just thought those were really lovely, relatable themes. The fact that she also was part of this movement of women’s wrestling, she and some of her contemporaries, I just think is an amazing added bonus. And in a way, when we began the project, the conversation about the absence of strong female protagonists in movies was not a conversation that was really going on three or four years ago when we began the project. It’s something which has picked up a lot of momentum since.
I was kind of shocked when I was going back through my own DVD collection, which is very varied, and I think if you looked at it you’d think this has got all the classics you’d expect to see from art house movies, world cinema. And you look at them and you’re like, as a middle aged white man, “everyone’s represented in movies. What are you talking about”? And then you just look at it and you’re like, fuck me, there’s no women in any movies ever in the lead role. It’s crazy. And I was really shocked, I have to say. Because I always knew that was true, that there was a disparity. But I have been more aware in recent years just how big that disparity is. I mean it’s shocking.
And so the fact that we’ve made this film about this woman protagonist and also this kind of working class woman, I feel very proud of. I feel very proud that we are telling this story now. And I wish I could say it was because I had recognized this huge absence of strong female characters. But I think for me, I just thought she was a great interesting character. In a way, her gender almost came second. It was more like this is a good story.
Fighting With My Family is in theaters today.