Stephen Merchant brings the story of WWE’s Paige to the screen
Stephen Merchant is the taller - much taller - half of the writing-directing-producing-acting British powerhouse of Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais. They’re the team that has given us the groundbreaking and, some would say slightly warped, TV shows “The Office,” “Extras,” and “Life’s Too Short.” Now Merchant is stepping off on his own as writer-director (along with a small acting part) in the new film “Fighting with My Family,” a based-on-fact comedic drama centering on the Knight family, who own a small pro wrestling company in England, and how its two youngest members - Zak (Jack Lowden) and Saraya (Florence Pugh) - hope to break through to the world of the WWE. Saraya did, taking on the stage name of Paige.
Merchant, 44, hailing from Bristol, England, recently visited a handful of American cities to promote the film. During his stop in Boston, he sat down for a cup of tea, and chatted, at a very fast clip, about his initial non-interest in wrestling, how the film got on his radar through Dwayne Johnson, a late-night meal with WWE’s Vince McMahon, and how he scored a cameo part on “24.”
Q: Dwayne Johnson is one of the film’s producers and he plays himself in a small part. Was your connection to him from when you both acted in “Tooth Fairy?”
A: Yes, that’s where we met. Later on, he was making “Fast & Furious 6” in London, and he saw the TV documentary “The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family,” about the Knight family. He realized there was an interesting story there, and coming from a wrestling family himself, he related to it.
Q: You’ve mentioned in recent interviews that you had no interest in wrestling, so why were you picked to write and direct?
A: Right. I really didn’t know anything about it. I saw a little bit of British wrestling when my grandad would watch it in the1970s, but British wrestling then was largely fat men bumping bellies; it had no athleticism. I think Dwayne (and the backers) wanted an English voice to author the script, and my name came up in their conversations. I think they thought there was a slightly quirky sensibility about the family that perhaps was similar to stuff I’d done before. I don’t know, they just sent the documentary to me, and I was really enamored of the family and the dynamic. I felt they were lovely characters just waiting to be pulled out and turned into something. I love the relationship between the mom and dad, I love their passion for each other, and that they talk about wrestling as if it’s a religion, that it really saved their lives. And I loved the fact that there’s a sort of darkness in their past, which gave it an interesting undercurrent. Then, at the core of the story, there’s the relationship between the brother and sister, and the idea that he was groomed for success, and it was a sort of afterthought that she should do wrestling, and that she succeeds, and he gets left behind. It just had so many readymade elements.
Q: WWE Studios has a production credit, which means that Vince McMahon was involved with making the film. Do you have any good Vince stories?
A: Film4 developed it with us initially, but at some point, we found that parts of Paige’s image are owned by WWE. So, yes, they had to be involved. I went to Wrestlemania with Dwayne, and I got introduced to Vince the night before Wrestlemania. It was midnight. Vince was eating a steak at midnight, just a bloody, rare steak. Nothing else. No fries, no salad, just steak. At midnight. Somehow that seemed right. Then he gave us his blessing. And off we went. Without WWE aboard, we never would have managed to get that big final match which was shot at a “Monday Night Raw” at the Staples Center, in Los Angeles. They gave us one hour, after a match. Dwayne was emceeing the event, and he got the crowd to cheer and boo. Then Florence comes out, having done a couple of months of training in the wrestling ring, and she recreates the Paige match in front of 20,000 fans, many of whom had been at the original match. We had the WWE film team, who cover the matches for TV. So they shot, and I had three of my own cameras shooting, too. I also managed to do a couple of closeups the following day in an empty ring.
Q: Was there a lot of stunt double work for Florence and Jack?
A: They both did some training, but a couple of people, including some extended members of the Knight family, doubled for Jack in some of the bigger moves. And Florence’s double was the wrestler Tessa Blanchard, who did some of the more crazy falls.
Q: Change of subject: How did you happen to show up in season six of “24?”
A: After the success of the British “Office” happened, we started to hear that it was popular on DVD among Hollywood types. We’d hear that Samuel L. Jackson watched it, and I got an image of Sam Jackson in his slippers, in his living room, watching “The Office.” Then we went to the Golden Globes and kept running into people who were fans, including the guys that made “24.” We were big fans of “24,” and they invited us back to the set. So, we go to CTU, and they were shooting a scene. They said, “Do you want to throw on a tie and be in it?” I said, “Definitely!” It was as simple as that. I didn’t have any lines, but I did get to hand over a floppy disc to someone!
“Fighting with My Family” opens on Feb. 22.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at email@example.com.