[INTERVIEW] ‘FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY’s Stephen Merchant on his friendship with Dwayne Johnson, becoming the next Orson Welles
James C. Clay // Film Critic
Actor-director-and-writer Stephen Merchant has been a longstanding personality in the worldwide comedy landscape, which started when he created the original version of THE OFFICE back in 2001. Since then, you might have recognized him from his work in LOGAN, THE TOOTH FAIRY, and his hilarious HBO sitcom, titled HELLO, LADIES. Merchant has developed and challenged his skills with his feature directorial debut, FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY, starring Florence Pugh, Vince Vaughn, Lena Headey and Nick Frost.
Produced by Dwayne Johnson (who also appears in the film), FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY is a remarkable true story. It follows WWE superstar Saraya “Paige” Knight (Florence Pugh) and how she came from a lovable wrestling family and rose to international stardom. Merchant was brought this to this project from his unlikely friendship with Johnson, who requested that Merchant watch the documentary about the Knight family, which, of course, is called FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY. (You can watch it on YouTube now.)
The story takes Paige on a journey of self-discovery and hardships that are both physical and emotional. Merchant’s goal as a director was to create a story that was honest, exciting and, naturally, funny.
This is your first time directing a feature film solo, do you have any lessons learned along the way?
“Well, I did my HBO show HELLO LADIES, without Ricky [Gervais], but I did have co-writers along the way, and anytime you have allies like that it’s a great security blanket because they are on the exact same wavelength, with the same agenda. Whereas when you are on your own, you have a director of photography, producers, or what-have-you, who all have a slightly different role to play. So, when I am looking at the monitors for playback and I have a bit of doubt about character decisions, and I don’t have anybody to turn to, I just have to trust myself.”
I thought about how this film is a fish-out-of-water story, but it’s more than that. FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY is about identity and learning to trust yourself. What does that mean to you as you are making this film?
“Well, I didn’t know much about wrestling. My grandfather showed me a bit of British wrestling, which is nothing like the WWE. It was a big deal on Sunday afternoons, and it was just two really fat guys running around – there was no athleticism involved . So, as I watched the documentary, I was thinking it was going to be a chore; however, I was charmed by this family and how they adapted and bonded so much over this sport. Then, I finally met them, and what was moving was the fact that at 18 years old she had the responsibility of her family dream and her own dream hoisted upon her shoulders with her support network being 4,000 miles away. The idea of trying to retain your own identity while creating a new persona really spoke to me. Being yourself at 18 is a tough thing to do, because when I was 18, I was trying to be James Bond.”
Many Americans won’t see a working-class British family on the big screen, but I wanted to speak to the universality of the film. You can show this film to anybody, even somebody in backwoods rural area, and they will say, “Yep. I know that family.”
“Absolutely, 100%! The only association I had with it was the fact I came from a working-class background. My dad never had a criminal record, or a mohawk. There was just something about how they love each other, dearly, and love wrestling more. They fight with each other – quite literally – in the ring, and I went to meet them and they were a bit skeptical based on my show business background, but, of course, I had no intention to do so and immediately I just warmed to their honestly. Wrestling is their religion.”
When do you know to trust the creative process and to trust studio notes?
“The thing about having [Gervais] around is he is 14 years older than me, and we created THE OFFICE, he was in his mid-30s and I was in my early 20s. I had all this youthful excitement and he had this blasé attitude that he was OK to walk away from a studio if they we weren’t on the same page as us creatively. I would say, ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” But, at the same time, I had this arrogance when executives would ask, ‘Why should we let you direct this project?’ I would reply, ‘Well, we could be the next Orson Welles.’ In my mind, we had never had this type of opportunity. So, I was thinking we might be. It’s all a learning process.”
In this film, you have Dwayne Johnson and Vince Vaughn, two masters of the mic on screen, which, of course, is a huge component of the WWE. How did you capture the spirit of the sport in your film?
“I wrote this trash talk promo for [Johnson] after I (sort of) cheated and watched numerous bits of his past work online. He came in and looked at it for about five minutes and left. When he returned he had completely reworked it in his own voice, as he worked with [Pugh] to help her find her own voice in the ring. It’s much harder than it looks to hone in that ability.”
FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY opens nationwide Feb. 22.
Feature Photo: Actor Dwayne Johnson (left) and director Stephen Merchant (right) on the set of FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Credit: Robert Viglasky / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2018 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.