'Fighting With My Family' Director Stephen Merchant On Stepping Beyond Comedy And Into The Wrestling Ring [Interview]

Through his years of work as a writer, director, and producer (and eventually performer) on such television series as The Office, Extras, Life's Too Short, and Hello Ladies, Stephen Merchant has proven to be not just one of the great makers of comedy currently working, but also a craftsman of awkward moments. And few moments in life are more awkward than the ones with have with our family, which may have been one of the reasons Dwayne Johnson hand-picked his Tooth Fairy co-star to write and direct Fighting with My Family, the surprisingly engaging and moving film about real-life WWE wrestler Paige (real name Saraya-Jade Bevis and played by Florence Pugh in a career-making turn) and her journey from growing up in a wrestling family in Norwich, England to becoming one of the most successful and popular female wrestlers of all time.

Only Merchant's second feature film as writer/director (following 2010's Cemetery Junction), this features a note-perfect group of actors playing Paige's family, including Nick Frost and Lena Headey as her parents and Jack Lowden (Dunkirk) as brother Zak, who also dreamed of becoming a part of the WWE, only to see his sister do so instead. As much as the film is about a young woman rising through the ranks of wrestling, at its core, it's a family drama with a great sense of humor and solid supporting roles from the likes of Vince Vaughn, Julia Davis, and Merchant himself, as well as Johnson popping in as himself at key moments in Paige's ascent.

/Film spoke with Merchant in Chicago, just days after Fighting with My Family debuted at the Sundance Film Festival as a not-so-secret screening to talk about how The Rock convinced him to return to feature directing, making a movie about wrestlers appeal to non-fans of wrestling, and filming the climactic match in front of an audience of thousands. The film is currently playing in limited release and opens nationwide on February 22, 2019.

Based on what we've seen you do up to this point, this subject matter seems like a strange one for you to make a film about. Tell me about the gestation of the project and when and how you got involved.

Well, Dwayne and I acted together in Tooth Fairy, and we got along well and stayed in touch over the years. I have no particular interest in wrestling and didn't know anything about it. He happened to see a documentary while in Britain filming Fast & Furious 6. He couldn't sleep one night and watching British TV and on comes this documentary about this wrestling family, and a person that came from a wrestling family as well, he really related to them and ultimately became involved in her life, and he encountered her backstage at various WWE events. What I didn't want in the film is to have them followed by a documentary team.

Well, you've used that device already.

Right, that would been recycling. But all the stuff with him telling her that she's going to be a part of Wrestlemania, that's all true. So he drifted in and out of her life, and at some point he decided her story would make a good film, and he got involved with this producer, Kevin Misher, and together they thought I was a good match because of my British sensibilities and, well, they didn't know any other British people. I think Dwayne only knows me and Jason Statham, and Statham he only hires when he needs someone to beat up, who is slightly shorter than him. So I sat down and watched the documentary, not expecting to be terribly interested, and I was really charmed and won over by the family. I loved their passion for this thing that I knew nothing about. It reminded me of Billy Elliot and the fact that he likes ballet, but you don't have to love ballet to enjoy the movie.

Honestly, I was slightly ashamed that I'd never heard of her, so I did some Googling and realized she hasn't been covered by the broad sheet media in the UK. I thought it was interesting that there was the inherent snobbery about this working-class girl who, like a real Rocky, has gone from nothing to the top of her particular profession and wasn't being celebrated. As a working-class kid myself, I had a great deal of affection and admiration for that. It's not often you get handed the real-life, underdog sports movie without having to do much mechanics to make it into that.

You make this point in the film that Paige went against the norm of these other women wrestlers, who were models or dancers. She doesn't look like them, she's shorter than them, but you make that distinction without putting down the other women. Paige actually feels guilty at one point for pigeonholing these other women and assuming she knows their lives.

Yes, that actually came out when she told me her version of the story. She said she was bullied by these other girls. And I went to the NXT training facility to talk to the trainers and said, "Paige felt really bullied," and they paused and were like "Well..." You have to remember, this is a kid who has been doing this since she was 13 and comes from this tough background. She's alone and a little scared, and sometimes the other girls felt like she was the bully. In truth, no one is the villain in this piece. This is a scared kid who was lashing out, and that opened my mind to that side of that. And I didn't want to portray them as that. I wanted the audience to feel slightly guilty that they had assumed they were the mean girls because we're led to believe that's always the way.

One of your specialties is finding awkward moments in life, and we are rarely made more awkward than when we're around our family, and Paige is put in some very uncomfortable moments by them and is embarrassed by them at times.

It's funny, I never seek out embarrassment for the purpose of comedy. I just think those scenes are funny, while other people say, "I had to watch those moments through my fingers." Sorry, I just thought it was funny. The parents told me a story about when they met Zak's girlfriend's parents for the first time. They came in very prim and proper and are meeting this wrestling family with mohawks and tattoos and red hair, and Julia, the mother said, "I wanted to break the ice so I grabbed the other woman's boobs and went 'Hi!'" And I thought, if you're the kid in that situation, that's going to be embarrassing. And I didn't even put that in because I was afraid people would think I made it up.

This entire movie is like that. You couldn't have written it any better than reality.

It's true. I didn't really have to massage the facts. It just kept on presenting me with these extraordinary moments. Unfortunately, it was a three- or four-year journey that she went on that I had to compress into 90 minutes, so I had to compress some of it. For instance, I think she did two auditions and got in on the second occasion. The NXT has a different name to begin with and it changed during the course of her being there. So there was minutia I had to change, but the broad brush strokes and big moments in her life are accurate.

The thing you couldn't change all was that first match. How did you stage that because it looks like it's in front of a real crowd?

That was in front of a real crowd at the Staples Center. We had one hour to shoot. They told us they'd keep the audience in — I don't think they locked them in, but they asked them to stay. And Dwayne very kindly came down and emceed the event. If you've ever seen Dwayne in front of a wrestling crowd, it's like Elvis has come back — it's crazy. And he went in the ring, and I said to him, "We've only got one hour, please keep it tight, explain what's happening and get her out there." He did 20 minutes on the mic; he's ad-libbing, making jokes with the crowd, and I'm trying to scream at him to get out. I'm the only person in history to scream at The Rock to get out of a wrestling ring. But he was invaluable because he got us all the stuff we needed, because he got 20,000 extra to do what we needed by saying "Give us a big cheer! Everybody boo! Shout her name!" And then Florence came out and did the fight for these fans, and she said it was like a real wrestling match. At one point, she was in the mat and looked out and an eight-year-old kid was shouting, "You suck!" It was crazy.

Fighting with My Family

A film like this is going to succeed exponentially if you find a way to appeal to people who don't care about wrestling. I am one of those people, and I was legitimately floored by this movie.

Did it make you emotional at the end? Because that's my dream.

Of course. Florence is so good in this, and you're able to use her dramatic abilities to great impact. She's also funny, which I've never seen her do before. Did you find yourself considering what was for the fans and what was for everyone?

I designed it for people who have no interest in wrestling. Me being one of them. I always thought about my mum: "Would my mum understand this?" She doesn't even know who The Rock is. "Is this movie going to make sense to her? Will it move her emotionally?" I also had to immerse myself in wrestling in order to figure out what you needed to know in order to enjoy it. So I've actually become a wrestling fan over the course of making it. Now I understand the theater and dance of it. Someone described it as soap opera in spandex, and that was a turning point for me. I do really hope that people who aren't wrestling fans will give it a shot because everyone I've shown it to who isn't a fan still is moved by the story. The trickiest thing about it is, like with Rocky, you understand when he knocks out Apollo Creed that that's a real punch and that person has gone down. In wrestling, everyone knows there are levels of fiction and reality, so what's the victory? That was the thing that stumped me for a long time, and Dwayne told me, in the end, it's not about the match, it's about going over with the crowd. It's about winning the crowd over, whether you're a good guy or bad guy in the story. And then I thought, "It's like Gladiator when he says, 'If you win the crowd, you win the fight.'" It's Saturday Night Fever or A Star Is Born. Can the kid become a star? But with fewer suicides.

This film taught me the difference between being scripted and being fake. A lot of this is very real.

The dangers are very real. Paige herself has been so severely injured that they won't let her wrestle, although she can still walk and move around. She's very fragile right now.

Tell me about showing it to her the first time.

I took it to Florida to show it to her. I left her in a room, watching it alone, because I didn't want to be sitting over her shoulder scrutinizing her reaction. She texted me after: "I'm crying so much, I don't want to come out in front of the other wrestlers and let them see me crying." So I went in and she was hugging me. She's been through a lot herself even since the movie's production began, so she was very moved and is such a fan of the film. I showed it to her family, and it was very emotional for the real Zak, as you can imagine having to watch that stuff play out again. He said it reminded him of his own value, because it's easy to forget that you don't need to be famous or a superstar wrestler to have an importance. The real dad wanted Ray Winstone to play him, so he said, "I like it, but obviously Ray Winstone would have been a better choice."

You haven't directed that many films at this point, but did being a part of this open up your mind to types of stories you might want to tell that you hadn't considered before?

It's funny because my taste has always been beyond comedy. I've always had ambitions to do things other than comedy. My hero is Billy Wilder, who did film noir to comedy to a story about alcoholism. It's actually the industry that puts you in box, so I've always had grand ambitions to do a great action movie or horror movie or art movie. I'd always thought in my career, I'd like to try those things. But doing this movie reminded me how hard it is to do all of those things. It's really tough to do a movie well; it's very hard to tell a story in 90 minutes. But now I don't know where to go next. It's not like people are writing me blank checks, but I would never have thought to do this movie if Dwayne hadn't sent me the documentary. So I basically need a movie star of his magnitude to send me an idea. Any movie stars out there who would like me to make a film for them, please let me know.

What was it like being at Sundance with this? Some people might not think it was an obvious choice to bring there, but it was made as an independent feature without a distributor.

It was. It came through Film 4. Even with Dwayne attached to it, it wasn't an easy sell. MGM came on board once we were up and running. We tried to give it a Hollywood scale, but it was shot cheaply and quickly, almost guerrilla style, like that one hour at the Staples Center. In a way, it had that Sundance indie spirit, even if it is a movie with the biggest movie star in the world.

Great to meet you, Stephen. Good luck with this.

Stephen: Oh, thank you so much.