Writer-director Stephen Merchant talks about ‘Fighting With My Family’
In the minds of many Americans — the ones who know who he is at all — Stephen Merchant is the tall British fellow who, with Ricky Gervais, created “The Office,” the cheeky British sitcom that was later adapted in the United States with Steve Carell in the role originated by Gervais.
But Merchant, 44, has been busy since then — performing stand-up; writing, directing, and acting in the British sitcom “Extras” and the short-lived HBO show “Hello Ladies”; appearing in the films “Table 19” and “Logan”; and, for a time, podcasting. (It ended a decade ago, but “The Ricky Gervais Show” remains one of the most downloaded podcasts of all time.)
In “Fighting With My Family,” which he wrote and directed, Merchant tells the story of Saraya Bevis, a streetwise English girl (Florence Pugh) who, quite improbably, becomes a champion professional wrestler. (In the ring, she’s Paige.) The comedy, costarring onetime WWE champ Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Vince Vaughn, is based on a 2012 documentary about Bevis’s roguish, wrestling-obsessed family.
During a recent interview at the Ritz, Merchant talked about the appeal — and challenge — of making a movie involving wrestling, a pastime he didn’t know or care much about, and the prospects of a reboot of “The Office.”
Q. I imagine you were a soccer fan growing up?
A. Not really. If I go to a sporting event, it’s more likely to be a basketball game. As a 6-foot-7 man, I love going to basketball games because it’s like I’m among my people. I wasn’t a big sporting fan in any direction. I was always the film and TV fan.
Q. I don’t know much about professional wrestling, so I didn’t know if I’d be keen on this movie.
A. I had much the same reaction when I was sent the documentary by Dwayne. Not being a wrestling fan myself, I was sort of reluctant, thinking this is not going to be my bag. But what the documentary does very well, and, I hope, what we’ve done as well is make you realize it’s not really about wrestling. It’s a story about real people with dreams. They talk about wrestling like its religion, like it saved their lives, which it seems it’s done. But the core of it is the relationship between the brother and sister. It reminded me of a movie like “Billy Elliot,” where you didn’t need to like ballet to enjoy his journey. I would say “Rocky” doesn’t really require a love of boxing.
Q. You met the family after watching the documentary?
A. I did. And I discovered there was a lot that happened subsequent to the documentary that I felt was the second half of our film. Like, the brother really spiraled. He gave into the darkness of being rejected by WWE and it was very tough for him. In early drafts of our script, it was bleaker, but it was just too much. He does train these kids and, to see him in that training facility with those kids he’s very charismatic. They worship him. I find something very noble about what he does.
Q. “The Rock” is an executive producer, but how involved was WWE?
A. Well, we had to involve them because, much like a boy band, they own Paige’s image rights.
Q. And the WWE brand is all over the movie.
A. That’s right. There were two ways to go. One was to make up a fake wrestling thing — the WWB — or get them involved. We originated out of [British film production company] Film4, which couldn’t be more indie. So we ended up with this rather unlikely partnership between Film4 and WWE. But WWE didn’t demand anything. I went with Dwayne to WrestleMania. I met [WWE CEO] Vince McMahon at midnight the night before WrestleMania. He was eating a bloody rare steak — nothing else, just steak. Dwayne said, “We want to make this film about Paige. Is that OK?” And Vince said, “Yup.” That was that. In terms of meddling, or trying to make us portray them in any particular way, there really wasn’t any of that.
Q. Did they have to approve the final cut?
A. No no no. The most significant creative decision we made off of test audiences was when, in real life, Dwayne told Paige she was going to have her first match, he told her she was going to win. We shot a version of that, and I was intrigued to see if people would enjoy a triumphant “Rocky”-style ending if they already knew the outcome. It turns out they don’t want that.
Q. You tried that?
A. We did, and the audience felt both disappointed and confused about why they’d been told. They want to sit and enjoy the moment. But that was our decision. It didn’t come from WWE.
Q. The actors did some training beforehand?
A. They both went to Florida and trained where Paige trained. They spent a couple of weeks there and then did basic stuff back in England. In their down time, they were either working out or learning wrestling moves. The fourth day of filming was at the Staples Center, in Los Angeles, in front of 20,000 people. At some point, Florence was on the mat and she sees an 8-year-old boy screaming at her, “You suck.”
Q. The family is very appealing.
A. I went to their home to meet them and, initially, they were a little cagey. They thought maybe I was there to satirize them or to mock them. It took a moment.
Q. I wondered. They’re outrageous, but that’s really them?
A. That’s what they’re like. They are themselves wrestlers, and I think at some point it bleeds into your real life when you spend that much time amplifying who you are. Certainly they’re very in-your-face. They don’t hold back. They speak as they wish to speak, and they act as they wish to act. They realized I wasn’t there to mock them and I had a lot of affection for them. They were very honest about their past and the demons they’ve had.
Q. As the end credits roll, you have pictures of the real-life family. You even re-created their dingy living room.
A. The thing I’ve learned over the years is that specificity helps you reach a wider audience, because the more specific something feels the more that translates to an audience, because they see a parallel to their own life. The way they look and the way they talk is so specific. One of the things that appealed to me was that they are ready-made characters. I play a few things for laughs, but I really did not have to exaggerate them. There’s so much love among the family, I just tried to capture it. Also, because they seem so exaggerated, I wanted to show the clips at the end to assure you I didn’t make this [expletive] up.
Q. Was it daunting to shoot the wrestling? Did you watch films like “Raging Bull,” “The Fighter,” and “The Wrestler”?
A. Of course. But this is a low-budget movie, so we didn’t have a lot of time to prepare — only about five or six weeks. That’s a very short amount of time, particularly when you have action sequences. I had to arrive at a style that would allow me to shoot quickly, so I went with the handheld, grabbing-it-on-the-fly feel. One of the things I observed when I went to watch WWE was the noise. It’s very loud, very theatrical, and energetic. And it’s constructed in such a way that the artificiality is hidden from the audience as much as possible. In doing the wrestling sequences, I wanted to disguise the fakery to some degree. I wanted you to experience it like you were there.
Q. Did you learn anything specifically from “The Wrestler”?
A. It’s interesting that they never really clarify whether it’s real or fake in “The Wrestler.” I tried to lean in more to the acknowledgment that there’s a lot of artifice. But you can’t keep making that point, so you just give over to just doing it. There’s a version of this movie that could have been “The Wrestler,” but I wasn’t terribly interested in that version. It’s not often you get handed a “Rocky”-style story on a plate. It’d be a shame not to take advantage of it.
Q. Professional wrestling is enormously popular. You should have a built-in audience.
A. Yes, but I tried to make a movie that catered to both non-wrestling and wrestling fans.
Q. What’s the thing that gives you the most pleasure — writing, acting, or directing?
A. My heroes were people who did a bit of everything, people like John Cleese, Woody Allen, or someone like Billy Wilder, who did funny films and dramatic films, and also Orson Welles. At my core, I think I’m probably a writer.
Q. Last thing: “The Office.” People get excited about a possible reboot of the American “Office.” What about the British “Office”?
A. It hasn’t been discussed. I don’t know that we’d get everyone back. I can’t imagine a scenario where everyone’s schedule would work. And I’m not sure it’s a good idea to revisit it anyway.
Q. Maybe, but then the Rolling Stones are still at it.
A. Yes, but I guarantee that when you go to see the Rolling Stones you’re not screaming for the new material. You’re cheering for the hits. It’s the same with reviving a show, right? Do people want the new material?
Q. If it’s like the old material they do.
A. I don’t know. Before it imploded, I thought the “Roseanne” revival was very strong, so I guess it’s possible. But that reflected the changing times. I think office life is very different now. What’s interesting to me is that the American “Office” is very popular on Netflix with teenagers who haven’t even entered the workforce. Why is that?