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March / April 2019

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Page 19 of 51 18 POST MAR/APR 2019 DIRECTOR'S CHAIR ou don't have to know the differ- ence between a leg-trap camel clutch and a crossface chickenwing — they're wrestling holds, for the uninitiat- ed — to appreciate the unlikely but true story behind the new comedy Fighting With My Family. It tells the inspiring tale of Saraya-Jade Bevis, a young British woman from a small-town wrestling family who became a WWE superstar with a new persona and name, "Paige." Paige's life story, already the subject of a 2012 documentary, has now been turned into a raucous but heartwarming comedy drama, written and directed by Stephen Merchant, the British writ- er/director/comedian who co-created acclaimed hits The Office and Extras with Ricky Gervais. Paige is played by Florence Pugh, star of the BBC's John Le Carre series The Little Drummer Girl; her parents are played by Nick Frost and Lena Headey, Vince Vaughn plays her coach, and the film's co-producer, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson co-stars as himself. Here, in an exclusive Post interview, Merchant talks about making the film and why he loves the post process. Were you a big wrestling fan? Was that the appeal of making this? "No, not at all! I'm a nerd and I recently made a list of my favorite 500 films, which was so eclectic. I have a very broad taste spectrum, and almost any- thing could pique my interest. This actu- ally began life as a documentary about this British wrestling family, and was discovered by Dwayne when he was over there, and he'd come from a wres- tling family too, so he was really into it. I never saw it and had no interest in wrestling, and when I sat down to watch it I expected to sneer at the family and laugh at this silly little world they're part of — playing to small audiences in little, provincial theaters. But after a few min- utes, I stopped laughing and sneering and became totally enamored of them and their passion for this sport. I was just charmed by them and how they evangelized wrestling. The whole family did it and the parents talked about how it'd saved them from [drinking] and dark times, and they were very passionate about their kids going off to America and getting into the big leagues like the WWE. So it was so moving." Did you ever meet the real family? "I did, and I also realized that the doc- umentary only really covered half their story. There's the whole bit where the daughter goes off to America at 18, all alone, to try and make it in this very competitive world, and meanwhile her brother's left behind, feeling angry and rejected. So it took on this much bigger scale and cinematic scope for me, and it had big sweeps of emotion, and all this theatricality to what they did, and I saw just how visual and dynamic it could be on-screen." What sort of film did you set out to make? "It was very important to me that it could be really enjoyable for non-wrestling fans — that you didn't have to know much about it to understand what's going on. I also didn't want to make a film that was too gritty, bleak and full of despair. I think it's easy to portray working-class lives as full of darkness and struggle, and while there are certainly elements of that in their lives and history, I still felt there was a lot of Hollywood optimism and tri- umph-of-the-underdog about this, which is very appealing. And even though it wasn't a big budget film, I wanted it to have a big, cinematic scale, so when she leaves Norwich, England, for America, I wanted some of that sheen and glamour, but still keeping that authenticity and truth of who they were." Any surprises working with Dwayne Johnson again? "Not really, as we'd worked together be- fore, on The Tooth Fairy, and we got on really well, and he's so personable and affable, and is so focused when you're with him. He was so helpful on this and gave me enormous insight into the WWE and how it all works, and the kind of confusing levels of reality and fiction, and how the performers relate to the audience, and all the terminology that's part of it. He also really helped shape all the fight scenes and their story arcs, which a wrestling match always has — almost like mini-movies within those bouts. He also helped catch me up on the whole wrestling history, which is kind of like catching up on a soap opera that's been running for decades, all over one weekend. It's a lot to absorb. So he was invaluable, and he also worked with Florence and her promos, which is when you talk to the audience, and most helpfully he also came down to Staples Center in LA where we shot the big climactic match. The WWE let us bunny-hop onto their TV broadcast, so after their show had wrapped, we were able to slot our shoot in. We had about 10 WWE cameras running, and three of our own, so it was a big deal." Casting the right actors was obviously crucial. What did Florence, Jack, Lena and Nick bring to the roles? "They all brought so much skill and enthusiasm, and obviously Florence and Jack did a lot of training and prep work, but because of the schedule we had very little time — just six weeks before we started shooting, so they really had to jump in the deep end. They both went off to Florida and trained at the WWE facility there, just as Paige had done." Obviously you worked very closely with the WWE. What were the main challenges of the shoot? "It was very tough as pre-production was so short, and although we were prepping in London, our first week shooting was in LA, which doubled for Florida, and the six-week shooting STEPHEN MERCHANT ON FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY BY IAIN BLAIR THE CHALLENGES OF TELLING A WRESTLING STORY Y

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