Stephen Merchant: 'When Dwayne Johnson goes in front of a wrestling crowd it's like Elvis has come on – it's insane'

Stephen Merchant: 'When Dwayne Johnson goes in front of a wrestling crowd it's like Elvis has come on – it's insane'

Writer and director of Fighting with My Family explains how The Rock got him into wrestling

The extraordinary tale of WWE superstar Paige was memorably documented in 2012 Channel 4 documentary The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family. It's a fascinating portrait of two generations of professional wrestlers all living in a modest Norwich council house while attempting to break into the lucrative US market. Dwayne Johnson, himself from a family of wrestlers, happened to watch the film while in London, and it stayed with him. A few years later he decided to turn it into a feature.

'I think there's probably only one or two English people in his phone: me and Jason Statham,' explains Stephen Merchant. 'And Statham he hires when he needs someone shorter than him to pretend to beat up in a film, and he comes to me for everything else.' Johnson had worked with Merchant on 2010 comedy The Tooth Fairy, and the pair had stayed in touch. Johnson asked his friend to watch the documentary. 'I sat down expecting to think, "I don't care about wrestling, I'm not interested," and very quickly I was charmed by this family's story. I found it very moving, particularly the hardships of chasing this wrestling dream.'

And so Merchant wrote and directed Fighting with My Family with the intention of keeping it as authentic as possible. 'There was a kind of Rocky quality to Paige's story anyway: the underdog story.' He auditioned over 60 actors for the lead role before finding his Paige in rising star Florence Pugh. 'We needed someone who had the physicality and the charisma so that you believe she could become a star in that world. But we also needed someone who could power the movie and carry it on her own shoulders. It wasn't an easy role to cast, or to play.'

Pugh was sent to the US for weeks of physical training at the same Florida facility where Paige had trained. 'On day five of our shooting schedule, Florence had to walk out in front of 20,000 real-life wrestling fans at the Staples Centre in LA to recreate one of Paige's matches, and I was terrified for her. But she had nerves of steel – or she just sucked it up – and she went out there and was kind of incredible.'

Although Merchant has spent plenty of time behind the camera as co-director alongside Ricky Gervais, he finds directing solo quite a different experience. 'When you're directing with someone else you have a sort of creative ally which is very beneficial because you've got two people who are sort of in the trenches together. [Directing Fighting with My Family] was very hard work but it was also very nutritious, it was like eating a giant steak: there was something very kind of meaty and nourishing about the whole enterprise which I found exciting. But it certainly wasn't easy.'

One ally Merchant did have on set was Dwayne Johnson, although even The Rock had to be carefully managed. 'That big sequence we shot at the Staples Centre: we had one hour to shoot after a real televised WWE match. They kept the crowd back and Dwayne very graciously MC'd the event. But when Dwayne goes in front of a wrestling crowd it's like Elvis has come on – it's insane. And I said to him please don't get carried away cos we've only got an hour; just get out there, explain what we're doing and get off. And that guy walks out in the ring, he's doing 20 minutes on the mic and making phone calls and playing with the crowd, and I'm the only person who's ever been screaming to get The Rock out of a wrestling ring.'

Fighting with my Family, Cineworld, Glasgow, Thu 21 & Fri 22 Feb.

Fighting with My Family

  • 2 stars
  • 2019
  • UK / US
  • 1h 48min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Stephen Merchant
  • Cast: Florence Pugh, Lena Headey, Nick Frost, Jack Lowden, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson

Based on the true story of WWE champion Saraya-Jade Bevis, aka Paige (Pugh), following her journey from dismal Norwich via Florida boot camp to the stadium. Pugh and Lowden as her brother are good, but the innuendo is crude, the characterisation shallow and the attempt to depict Saraya’s rise as some kind of feminist…