CS Interview: Stephen Merchant Talks Fighting With My Family
MGM and Universal Pictures Home Entertainment have provided ComingSoon.net the opportunity to speak 1:1 with director Stephen Merchant (The Office, Extras) about the film Fighting with My Family, which is now available on Digital HD and on Blu-ray, DVD and On Demand May 14.
Based on a true story, Fighting with My Family follows reformed gangster Ricky (Nick Frost), wife Julia (Lena Headey), daughter Paige (Florence Pugh) and son Zak (Jack Lowden) as they make a living wrestling together in tiny venues. When Paige and Zak get the opportunity to try out for WWE, the family grabs a once-in-a-lifetime chance to turn their wildest dreams into a dazzling future. However, brother and sister quickly discover that to become superstars, both their talent and their relationship will be put to the test.
Fighting with My Family is a heartwarming and smart comedy that proves everything is worth fighting for when it comes to family. The film is inspired by the Channel 4 British documentary The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family.
Stephen Merchant (The Office, Hello Ladies) wrote, directs and executive produces Fighting With My Family. Seven Bucks Productions’ Dwayne Johnson, Dany Garcia, and Hiram Garcia serve as executive producers alongside Andy Berman, Daniel Battsek, Tracey Josephs, David Kosse, and Rhodri Thomas. Kevin Misher of Misher Films produces alongside WWE Studios President Michael Luisi. WWE Studios are co-financing the film with Film4, who have developed the project from its inception.
ComingSoon.net: This is not necessarily a subject that you’re known for in your previous work. So what drew you to the world of wrestling?
Stephen Merchant: So you’re telling me that it seems unlikely that the co-creator of “The Office” and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson would team up to do a British film about a female wrestler? You’re saying that’s an unlikely combination? Because that makes perfect sense to me. Yes, no, you’re right. It is an unlikely origin story, you know, as the best super hero origin stories always are. You know, I think the thing that attracted me to it was there was a documentary made about this real life family and as you speculated, I had no interest in wrestling. I had never wrestled myself. I had never watched wrestling. I have no sort of prior interest or knowledge in it. And the documentary was discovered -although it was a British documentary- it was discovered by The Rock. As you may or may not know, he was working in London. He was making “Fast and the Furious 6”. He couldn’t sleep one night, took in some TV here in England and sees this documentary on TV about this family of eccentric wrestlers from Norwich, England.
And he is obviously from a wrestling background, connected with the story immediately and felt a great affinity with them struggling to kind of make ends meet and to make their dreams come true. And it sort of, it connected with him and was interested in making into a film. And we had worked together in the past. He sends me the documentary, and I sat down thinking, ah, this is going to be a chore. Who cares? You know, am I interested in wrestling? But you know, when Dwayne Johnson tells you to do something, you do it, if you’ve got any sense. And I just completely fell in love with the family. I just was so enamored with them and their dreams and their background and how hard they’d struggled and the way that they talk about wrestling like people who’ve been evangelized into Christianity, and they talk about how it saved their lives and turned their lives around. And I just was so won over by that that the wrestling side of things sort of became here and there, it was always secondary. You know, it was, seriously.
I mean, it really could’ve been about anything. It could’ve been about, you know, it could’ve been a family of musicians or a family wanting to be in the fashion business trying to get clothes into haute couture or anything. It was just about them and their dream and their humble beginnings. And sort of at the core of it was this “Rocky” style underdog story was just added bonus material, really. So actually, when you sort of look at it more carefully and you realize it’s a story about characters and family and dreams and eccentricity and feeling like an outsider, I think that then it sort of shines more obviously with my previous work.
CS: You used very similar terms to describe your previous film, “Cemetery Junction”, that it was kind of like a “Rocky” underdog story.
CS: Were there any other specific parallels that you found while you were making the film, between “Fighting With My Family” and “Cemetery Junction”?
Merchant: Well, I think they’re both coming of age stories, in a way. They’re both stories about working class people, some of whom have dreams for grandeur and bigger things, this fantasy of escaping your small town and living some grander or greater life, about some of those dreams being crushed and never quite coming to fruition and what you do, how you find alternative meaning when perhaps your life didn’t quite play out as you’d hoped. It was about relationships with parents and kids. There are a lot of obvious parallels with that. And I think also, with even shows like “The Office”, which in many ways was about people sort of trapped in a particular situation and are they sort of bold enough and brave enough to change their fortunes. And you know, in the case of the Tim and Dawn, Jim and Pam characters.
So I guess as much as I’m a fan of superhero movies or fantasy movies or whatever, I will happily watch and enjoy them, they’re not really the thing that I kind of am interested in making. I’m interested in those more intimate, personal stories of family or groups of people or things that feel a little bit more authentic or born from real life or on the doorstep in some way. “Cemetery Junction” was in part influenced by my father’s experience growing up as an insurance salesman in the 70’s, and I think similarly here, obviously it’s a real family growing up, wanting to be wrestlers. And again, I just like the fact they’re born out of truth in some way.
CS: One aspect that really strikes a chord in the movie is that the formulaic thing would be for Paige to come in and the hot girls are the ones that are being very ostracizing and she has to prove herself. But it’s the opposite.All the “hot girls” are the ones that are really in there working hard, and she’s the one who’s slacking off. She’s the one who’s not putting in the effort. Was it important for you to avoid those typical sports movie clichés?
Merchant: Well, it’s funny because I spent a lot of time on the phone with and interviewing and speaking with Paige, the real Paige. In presenting her version of the story to me, initially, she very much characterized, as you say, the hot girls as exactly that, kind of the mean girls ostracizing her and not feeling like she fitted in. And for a while, that was how she had portrayed things to me. And then I went to the NXT training facility in the States independent of Paige, and I spoke to the trainer there and I spoke to some of the other women there. They gave me a different view, where they were like, well, you know, sometimes she was the bully and sometimes she felt a little bit entitled. You know, she had been wrestling all her life and she was slightly dismissive of those that had come from different roots. She was kind of antagonistic and dare I say, you know, arrogant and complacent, some of which was born from nerves and feeling like an outsider. And sometimes when you feel like an outsider, you lash out kind of as a sort of defense mechanism. I was trying to present that opposing view that I’d been given to research that actually inverted my own expectations because I think probably I was automatically siding with her and sort of buying her side of the story. It was very eye opening to me that of course everyone has a different perspective, and no one’s ever really the villain of the story. It’s always more complicated than that.
And so, it was important to me that as I discovered that the real skill of wrestling is you have to work as a team. It’s a performance. You’re a theater troupe. You’re a circus gang. You’re a Broadway company. You have to work in tandem. Someone has to do the lift and you have to work as a unit. That became clear to me, that you’re not really in our position with each other, bizarrely, you’re really in a performance. It made a lot more sense to me, oh, this is about people having to gel as a group and to trust each other and work with each other. On the surface, the movie is a sports film, but actually, it’s not really a sports film, it’s really a performance film. It’s a film about theater folk or the kid on Broadway who gets their shot at the big time, and will she blow it on opening night as her voice cracks because she can’t hit the high notes? It’s a little bit “Star is Born” as much as it’s “Rocky”.
CS: I’m not a wrestling fan either, but I had the experience of videotaping a wrestling match years ago, a regional wrestling match here in the States. A cage match in a high school gymnasium. It was typical: There were the good guys and the bad guys and they were all antagonizing each other. Then, at one point towards the end, a guy did a fall and he landed wrong. You could tell he was really hurt, turning blue. All of the sudden everyone broke character, everyone was just like, “Hey, let’s help this guy. Let’s get him some help. Show’s over.” And it was at that moment I realized, oh, yeah, these guys they’re working together. They’re a troupe. They’re like a surrogate family.
Merchant: Well, they are. And I think that’s it, is that they’re almost like if stunt men did a kind of nightly show, but without any of the health and safety rules that stunt men often are under. I mean, they are, as you’ve seen, throwing themselves around and it is really dangerous. And as you witnessed, someone can get injured, and I think even then someone says in the movie, you can drop someone on their head and break their neck. That sort of stuff happens. When I started to research the film, because I didn’t know anything about wrestling, it took me a long time to kind of piece together how it all works. I think they are a little bit like magicians, wrestlers, in that they do want to keep the tricks of the trade a little bit secret from you initially. You have to win their trust and let them know you’re not there to satirize or mock, you want to just understand how it all works. Once you understand it’s theater, my admiration for it elevated very quickly, because I was like, wow, there’s real skill and showmanship to this that I had underestimated.
CS: Totally. And I thought you circumvented this pretty well in the movie, but you’re making a movie about WWE for WWE with The Rock. How do you avoid turning it into a big infomercial?
Merchant: Well, it’s funny because I think some people look at the movie in its finished form and they kind of assume that the WWE had a lot of creative influence and input, and that they were meddlesome and they maybe censored me or they made me present them in a certain way. Actually, it didn’t really originate like that. It began with development through Film4, and we had to go to WWE with the project because we needed their involvement in order to be able to tell the story because they own certain aspects of Paige’s life. They were actually very hands off. They never told me what I could say or couldn’t say. They never restricted me. Like, they had no kind of script demands or approvals. The only thing they were concerned about was that they had changed the logo at some point and could we use the new logo, not the old logo. But aside from that, there was no real involvement from them. And to me, as someone who’s outside wrestling, they always to me just seemed like they represented Hollywood or Broadway or the music industry or success, that they were just symbolic of something. I wasn’t that interested in the mechanics of how they operate.
If there had been a fictional wrestling organization, it would’ve been fine because they added the authenticity, but I didn’t care about trying to expose the world of WWE. To me that’s not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in this family for whom the WWE is this dream, this big magical Hollywood dream factory, you know? And so, for me to sort of then, I don’t know, try and kind of expose or tear it apart or it’s like, kind of examine it as an organization, it felt like that was a different movie, and that this is not really about that. And so, to me, like I say, they were just another sort of backdrop for the story in the way that the family wrestling organization is a backdrop. And I think because their name is on the credits or because The Rock is involved, it seems like the WWE have sort of come to me and said, “Would you make a film that celebrates the WWE?” And that was completely not the way it came about, really. So only later did I think, oh, people are going to think I somehow tried to make an infomercial for WWE, but it wasn’t how I approached it and it wasn’t how I was thinking.
CS: Yeah, I think the movie would’ve been very similar had it been any wrestling organization, it would’ve been a very similar story.
Merchant: Well, I think so. And I think had I tried to get into the kind of—you know, I’m very aware of the difficulties that many wrestlers have had and that the organization is a multibillion organization and has not always had, over the years, for instance… treatment of woman as performers has always been sort of poor and that it’s taken a long time to embrace their female wrestlers and all of this. And there’s a bigger history to explore, but that is another movie. That’s more like “The Wrestler” or that’s a documentary. That’s a different tale, really. This is more just this girl with a dream. And obviously, Paige has, as a lot of people know, had subsequent adventures, some good and some bad after the movie story finishes, all of which happens once the movie was underway, really. So to me, I was more interested in this relationship with her brother, and how when your dream doesn’t come true that you thought was going to be yours, how can you sit there and watch a sibling and a girl of all things succeed in this very masculine environment that you as a brother thought would be yours for the taking? How do you cope with that? How do you come back from that? How are you supportive of that? So it’s interesting.
There were things that I thought were good, for instance, in real life, The Rock took her backstage and said to her, “Tomorrow you’re going to go on ‘Monday Night Raw’ and you’re going to do your first match and you’re going to win.” And that happened for real. And we dramatized that scene in the movie, and that happens for real, after WrestleMania. And the only thing we left out was him saying, “And you’re going to win the match,” which he had done in real life. Now we had shot a version of that scene in which he does say, “You’re going to win the match,” because I was interested in, would the audience still be rooting for this girl even if they knew the outcome before they saw it happen? Obviously, the real wrestling fans already know the outcome, but for the non-wrestling fans watching, they’re told by The Rock, you’re going to win, and would they still be excited to see how this match played out and how the kid kind of coped in the spotlight?
And it turns out, having shown it to test audiences, that they didn’t want to know upfront. They wanted to enjoy the match as you would a match that you’re watching on TV, where you wouldn’t know what the outcome was. And so, I removed that moment where The Rock says, “Then you’re going to win the match.” On the surface it may look to the outsider like, oh well, of course it’s all fixed and the WWE told Steve he couldn’t include that because they want to keep it hidden from the audience that it’s fake and fixed and dah-dah. No, the truth is, they met me. They were there. We filmed it. The test audience told me that we shouldn’t include it. No one else told—there were no wrestling people that told me I couldn’t. It’s sort of interesting how people had perceived it as, oh well, Steve tried to do a sleight of hand. He tried to make it seem like the match had real stakes, but we know it’s fixed. And it’s like, well, yeah, I guess, but it was because the audience were crying out for that, really.
CS: Well, that scene is less about is she going to win or not than it’s about is she going to embrace her new role.
Merchant: That’s right. That’s right. Can she succeed as a performer, is the point of that. But interestingly, they also kind of want the thrill of, will she win the match.