Stephen Merchant on Taking Paige's WWE Journey to the Big Screen in 'Fighting With My Family'
Stephen Merchant admittedly wasn’t a devout pro wrestling fan when Dwayne Johnson introduced him to a British documentary called The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family. The story centered on Paige of the famed Knight family of wrestlers who leaves everything she knows in Norwich, England behind for the United States and the opportunity to live her dream in WWE.
“I sat down watching it not expecting to enjoy it but thinking, ‘Well, The Rock sent it to me. I better watch it.’ You do what he tells you,” recalled Merchant, director, writer and producer of the upcoming featuring film adaptation Fighting with My Family.
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“I was just won over by the family. The work they put into it. The pressures, the loneliness when Paige went off to Florida and the brother who was left behind. There is so much humor and heart and emotion and drama and conflict. It was a real delicious mix of stuff.”
For Merchant, known as co-creator of The Office and other collaborations with Ricky Gervais, the crux of the doc went beyond the ring. He was emotionally invested in the slew of interesting characters and envisioned a real-life Rocky story that could inspire audiences. He was sold on bringing all the elements together for a theatrical release on the big screen.
Florence Pugh tackles the main role of Paige with Jack Lowden playing her older brother Zak “Zodiac” Bevis. Not to be outdone are Queen Cersei herself Lena Headley, portraying mama butt-kicker Julia “Sweet Saraya” Bevis, and Nick Frost as patriarch Patrick “Rowdy Ricky Knight” Bevis.
“I wanted it to appeal to all people. I wanted it to pay respect to the wrestling fan. I wanted to celebrate what they loved about this entertainment,” Merchant said.
He began a deep dive into the source material. Merchant spent time with the family, went to their events and training school. From there, the novice wrestling enthusiast traveled to Florida to WWE developmental and NXT to speak with Paige’s trainers and contemporaries. Topping it all off was going to WrestleMania with Johnson, who plays himself in the film and serves as executive producer.
“I went to Monday Night Raw events. I went to Royal Rumble. I spoke to every wrestler I could get my hands on really. I watched endless archive of her and other people. I really tried to catch up on 23 years of WWE, which is quite a daunting task because there is quite a bit of material.
“If you come at it new, it can be very confusing…I couldn’t include everything that happened in Paige’s journey because it becomes way too complicated. I would phone her up every other day asking, ‘Wait, what happened here? You won which belt when?’ I wanted to be respectful of the story, but I knew I couldn’t include every detail.”
Instead of including Paige’s four or five trainers, Merchant decided to make an amalgamation of all of them through Vince Vaughn’s Coach Hutch Morgan. There are certain liberties taken to streamline the young superstar’s journey to the Diva’s championship. However, it was important for Merchant to never lose sight of staying authentic.
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“There is drama, conflict and a complicated family. They are not perfect as they admit. It was pretty raw for the family to sit and watch emotion play out. Particularly, Zak. They seem very happy. I think Zak was very emotional watching it. I think he felt it was a useful reminder in his own self-worth. Their lives continued. This was a snapshot. So, it was very emotional for him. It was emotional for Paige.
“I went to show her the movie at NXT. After watching it in a room, she texted me saying, ‘Do you mind coming back in the room. I’m in tears and don’t want to come out to have the other wrestlers see me crying.’ She gave me a big hug. She has been through a lot before and after what we see in the movie. It’s a testament to her perseverance and talent, and we get to celebrate this moment in her life.”
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The process gave Merchant a new appreciation for anyone who laces up the boots. He can trace WrestleMania 32 with The Rock when he became a full convert.
“It was 100,000 fans. Their energy and joy were infectious,” Merchant said. “Then seeing the performers up-close and seeing this amazing mix of physicality and theatrics and showmanship and story-telling. It was really addictive...”
WWE was fully supportive of the film which isn’t always the case with outside projects. Merchant is grateful to the company for their cooperation.
“I was lucky the moment we began the project they had started to be a little bit relaxed how much ‘insider-ness’ you could share. There was Total Divas where they were beginning to open the doors a bit and let people in. They never gave me any restrictions.
“They never told me what I couldn’t talk about or explore. I did have to meet Vince McMahon with Dwayne to get his go-head. The night before WrestleMania it’s after midnight and Vince sat there eating what looked like a raw steak. Just nothing else. No fries or mustard, just a steak at midnight. I thought, ‘Whew, you don’t want to mess with this guy.’ Dwayne said, ‘We want to make a movie about Paige.’ Vince was like, ‘Well, okay.’ And off we went really.”
Fighting with My Family has the makings of a hit thanks to the early buzz at the Sundance Film Festival premiere and initial positive reviews. And if interest leads to the potential of a follow-up, Merchant already has something in mind.
“I think what tantalizes me is a prequel about the mom and dad,” he said. “They are people who went through the wrong route in life. They discovered each other, came together through this thing called wrestling, and it saved their lives. There is a wonderful romance at the heart of that.
“I love the fact that these two people who are a seemingly unlikely paring are very much in love, which has given birth to this brood of wrestlers. I think there is a really sweet prequel story if I can get them to do it of their unlikely romance. It’s almost like the romantic comedy of this story. “
Fighting with My Family in select theaters February 14 and everywhere February 22