Professional wrestling: Broken bones! Badass costumes! Smack talk! Wry … British … comedy? Director Stephen Merchant, co-creator of the original British “The Office” and one of the forces behind subsequent sitcoms “Life’s Too Short,” “Extras,” and “Hello Ladies,” brings an outsider’s perspective to Fighting with My Family, out February 14 from MGM.
Florence Pugh, who wowed indie-leaning crowds in 2017’s Lady Macbeth, trades corsets for black eyeliner to play real-life wrestling star Paige, née Saraya-Jade Bevis. Born and raised in Norwich, England, Paige comes from a family of wrestlers, including father “Rowdy Ricky Knight” (Nick Frost), mother “Sweet Saraya” (Lena Headey), and brother “Zak Zodiac” (Jack Lowden). But it’s Paige who’s chosen to train for the WWE—cuing drama, doubt, and eventual triumph as the youngest WWE Divas Champion in history. It’s “like a little Norwich wrestling version of Rocky,” says Merchant. Except Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is there. Playing himself.
Boxoffice spoke to Merchant about making a wrestling movie for non-fans, working with star-in-the-making Pugh, and probably being “the only person who’s ever screamed at Dwayne Johnson to get out of the wrestling ring.”
Were you familiar with wrestling before you started on this movie?
I’d never watched it before. I had no knowledge of it or any interest in it. The project began as a documentary that was on British TV [2012’s “The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family”], which The Rock saw while he was filming in England. He ended up reaching out to the guys, and he kind of became involved in their lives. He kept track of the story as it went on, and somewhere along the line he thought it might make an interesting film.
I did this movie called Tooth Fairy with him some years ago. You’re welcome. I stayed in touch with Dwayne, and we’d occasionally check in with each other. I think probably he’s only got two English people’s phone numbers: Mine and Jason Statham’s. He calls on us for very different reasons. If he needs a shorter man to be on camera, he gets Jason. And if he needs anyone else to do anything else, he gets me.
He sent me this documentary, and I watched it thinking, ‘Well, I’ll have no interest in this. It’s about wrestling, who cares?’ And for the first five minutes I’m sort of laughing and slightly sneering at this family. And then very quickly I became really charmed by them. I loved their passion for wrestling, which they talk about as though it’s a religion for them. It saved them from their troubled past. There was something very sweet about both the passion they have for this thing and the dreams they had for their kids. I started thinking about films like Billy Elliot. It’s not really about ballet. It’s about a little boy who wants to be a ballet dancer. You don’t need to care about ballet to root for him.
So did you have a research period, when you were diving into this world and figuring out how things worked?
Yes, absolutely. Initially I went up to meet the family. I hung out with them, and I got a lot of backstory on them and on British wrestling, which apparently is different from American wrestling. And then Dwayne himself was very helpful with the WWE bit, explaining to me the levels of reality and the way that you have to amplify parts of your own personality in order to create these versions of yourself.
Once I got to writing the story, it was very complicated for me. I wanted to make this a film for people that have no interest in wrestling. It’s important to me that you didn’t need to know or care about this subject. But as I went on, I realized there are things you need to know in order for the film to make sense. And so there’s a lot of hidden plumbing in the movie, just trying to pump you with the information you need so that you understand enough to follow her story.
The timespan covered in the film—from the beginning of her training to fighting in Monday Night Raw—is enormous. How were you able to make it coherent for viewers?
Yes, it was a lengthy period. It was probably a span of two, three years. There are various divisions in the WWE. There’s this NXT training division, and then that itself has its own fan base. It starts to get really complicated and incredibly detailed. It’s a bit like trying to catch up on 30 years of a TV soap opera in a weekend.
I knew I couldn’t convey all of this to the audience. She had multiple trainers over the years, and different people were good cop and bad cop for her. She had different rivals, and she had different friends and enemies within the training world itself.
In the end, I just had to refine it back to the core stuff. Vince Vaughn’s character is a conflation of a number of people who trained her over the years. What I tried to do was remain true to the core of her journey and the big highs and lows of it.
Have you gotten any feedback from wrestling fans? Because they can be intense.
There have been a couple of guys who I know in the UK who were big wrestling fans, and they were very enamored of it. What I didn’t want to do was satirize or mock this world. Because to me, the fact they take it so seriously is what was so appealing about the family. And I thought if I try to undermine it and satirize it and mock it, then I’m cheapening the whole point of the story. I wanted to be respectful of it, but also show the toughness of it, the impropriety of some of the more ragged crowd.
The wrestling fans are as vociferous and tough as, I would argue, the Star Wars fans. I expect there are people who will see where I’ve changed things or conflated them. For instance, the WWE logo changed in the time that her story unraveled. Well, am I going to have two different logos in the movie? At that point, where do you stop? The fans I’ve shown it to have been very pleased and happy and really enjoyed it. And they could tell that there was a love of the sport behind it. But yes, I fully expect there to be entire websites devote to the inaccuracies.
We’ve seen how bad DC fanboys can get on Twitter. People are going to find something to complain about.
Sometimes I wonder, as a comic book fan in my teens, would I have been that person? I remember when the first Batman movie came out, and in that they made the Joker the person that killed Bruce Wayne’s parents. I remember being furious because that wasn’t what it was like in the comics. So I completely understand that passion.
But I also understand, having made films subsequently, that you can’t please everybody. You only have an hour and a half to tell a story, and much like the DC world, if you compress 60-odd years of comic books into an hour and a half, you’ll have to make some choices.
What was the first thing you saw Florence Pugh in?
I saw Florence in Lady Macbeth. I thought she was terrific, but I couldn’t judge from that whether she could play this character. This was a very tricky one to cast. You’re beholden to aspects of the real person. She’s a working-class girl from England. She is a wrestler. She’d been doing that since she was 13, so she’s incredibly good at it. She also has a charisma and a star power, which is why she is successful. So you needed an actress who could do all of that and who is also a good actress.
I saw maybe 60-odd young actresses, either in person or on tape. Many of them were excellent, but none could quite tick all of those boxes for me. I brought Florence in, and I read with her and had her read with Jack many times to convince myself not of her acting ability, but simply that I believe her as this girl. And she worked really hard and proved her mettle.
She and Jack went off to Florida, and they trained with the NXT wrestling facility. They did as much of the actual physical stuff as they could physically do or were allowed to do. Florence, when we shot that, she was 20 or 21. And the fifth day of filming was her walking out in front of 20,000 wrestling fans in the STAPLES Center to do that final match. Which was crazy. I was really nervous for her. And she sucked up the nerves and just went out there. It was kind of extraordinary to watch.
You had real wrestling fans as extras?
The WWE gave us one hour after a Monday night live telecast. They kept the cameras there and the ring there. Normally they would dismantle it immediately and move on to the next ring. But they kept the fans, and they kept the cameras, and they let us have an hour to re-create this match.
And, very sweetly, Dwayne came down to emcee the evening, essentially as a kind of first AD. When you see Dwayne in front of a live wrestling audience, it’s like Elvis has come back. It’s crazy. And I said to him, we’ve only got an hour, please don’t get carried away when you’re up there in front of a crowd. He walks out there and spends 20 minutes talking to the fans, interacting, making phone calls. I’m the only person who’s ever screamed at Dwayne Johnson to get out of the wrestling ring.
But ultimately he was invaluable, because he led the audience through it. He told them what we were doing, and then he got them to cheer and applaud and do whatever they needed to do at the right moment. Without him, I don’t know if we could have kept them there in their seats for an hour.
You shot that whole final fight in an hour?
It was absolutely insane. It was an hour, with one or two pickups the next day. It was really tough. We had all of the WWE cameras filming it for us and three of our own cameras, and we had a couple of runs at it, and then that was it. We packed up, went home, and we just hoped that we’d got it, because there was no way of checking the monitors.
What was the first movie you saw in a theater?
I’m pretty sure the first movie I saw was The Empire Strikes Back. Although I was very young. The one that really sticks with me was when I was a little older. I remember lining up around the block with my uncle to see E.T.
Sports movies are particularly good as audience movies.
I think so. We are living in this golden age of TV, and most people have big-screen TVs at home. You can re-create a version of the movie experience in some ways. What you don’t have is that shared experience. There is something very unique about that. I think it’s still one of the reasons why people make that trip to the theater. There’s something about being among other people in the dark. Taking a roller coaster ride on your own is not the same as doing it when all the cars are filled. And I think that’s true of cinema as well.