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Q&A with ‘Fighting With My Family’ writer and director Stephen Merchant

February 18, 2019

“Fighting With My Family,” based on a true story written and directed by Stephen Merchant (“The Office”), is a humorous yet meaningful film about a wrestling family, the Knights, whose lives and dreams change as young Paige (Florence Pugh), gets the opportunity to become the next WWE champion.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson not only has a great part in the film, he is to thank for giving Merchant this seed of an idea. While the movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, Merchant was also in Chicago, where I spoke with him at length about creating the film.

Questions and answers are edited for length and clarity.

Pamela Powell (PP): Congratulations on your Sundance premiere. First, tell me how you became aware of this story?

SM: It’s all because of The Rock. He was in the UK making “Fast and Furious 6.” He couldn’t sleep one night, and there it was... a documentary about this crazy family from Norwich, and because he’s from a wrestling world and a wrestling family, he related to it. I think somewhere along the line, he realized it had a ready-made, built-in Rocky underdog story that’s just waiting to become a movie. [He wanted someone with] British sensibility to write it because he knew it was a British family… so, he came to me.

PP: So, we can thank The Rock’s insomnia for this great story.

SM: We can thank The Rock for so many things.

PP: The Rock’s first scene in this film is simply incredible, as he goes off on a hilarious rant. Tell me about that.

SM: I’d written a version where I had watched old [videos] … promos in the wrestling world, when you trash talk your opponent … I had basically transcribed and made a “greatest hits” version. … So, on the day, he comes out, and he looks at [the script], and [goes to get] some water. Five minutes later, he comes back and gets the cameras rolling and then basically spits it out in one long stream of consciousness. It was sort of breathtaking.

PP: I never really watched wrestling, but I have to say, I was very impressed with the athleticism after watching this.

SM: When I sat down to watch the documentary originally, I, similar to you, never had seen any wrestling except a [bit] on TV. I was so sort of won over by the family and their real life story and the passion. And then, I went with Dwayne to Wrestle Mania and a couple other working events. Once I had seen the crowd response and the theater of it, the athleticism of it -- it’s like stunt men, but they’re showmen, but they’re dancers. ... Someone described it to me as soap opera in spandex. And that’s when I started to understand, and my eyes were glued to it.

I went to one of the Knight family events, and [I saw] back flips and crashing through ladders. So, it was important to me Jack and Florence do as much of the wrestling as possible. I sent them to the NXT in Florida, where Paige had trained. They worked with the trainers there for a week or so and learned the basics. We had them do as much of it as we could. I mean the sort of crazier stunt work they didn’t do. In fact, one of the extended Knight family did some of the double work for Jack.

PP: Can you share a behind the scenes story?

SM: We were shooting in an alleyway, [which] backs up to a row of shops … and one of them was a fish and chips shop. It’s AC or ventilation system was the noisiest thing you’ve ever heard. ... We couldn’t shoot. So, we go in and say, “Look, is there any way, we’ll pay you just to close the fish-n-chip shop?” And they went, “No. We are not closing this store until we’ve sold every fish and every chip.” So, we had to buy all the fish and chips they had, but the problem was, when we’d buy a bag they would just put on a new batch. So, we must have spent a fortune on fish. We were giving them to the crew, the cast; we were giving them to passersby.

We were just trying to get this shop to run out of fish and chips. (Laughs) This is just the weird, tough logistics of making a movie. It doesn’t matter how well prepared you are. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got The Rock; in the end, there’s going to be a fish-n-chips shop that’s going to have you over a barrel.

PP: How involved were the Knights in the making of this film?

SM: I went to meet them. … They were very honest with me; they were very open. They talked about their own flaws and shortcomings, and the tough times they’d been through in the past, which was important to me. They are as bawdy and outrageous as I presented them in the film but also as loving and lovable as I presented them. Zac himself, he’s very much in the movie. He plays the drug dealer guy …

The parents were in a scene I actually had to cut out. I was nervous when I cut them out because they can break my legs! (Laughing) They’re very tough people! So, they were involved, and, ultimately, I showed the movie to them. They were very emotional, as you could imagine, because you have to live that stuff again.

PP: What do you hope people will take away from seeing this?

SM: It’s sort of celebration of not failure but how you pick yourself up when your dreams don’t play out the way you want. That’s the real heart of it for me. When Paige says to him, it doesn’t matter if a million people are cheering your name, that doesn’t give you value and meaning. I think that’s very important message for me.

“Fighting With My Family” gets 4 Stars from me and is playing in theaters now.