Stephen Merchant on the writing complexities of Fighting with My Family

February 15, 2019 Danny Munso

For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this excerpt from Backstory’s interview with Fighting With My Family writer/director Stephen Merchant from Backstory Issue 36 – out now exclusively for subscribers.

This story begins in the most unlikely of places: on the set of the horrible 2010 kids movie Tooth Fairy. That film’s star Dwayne Johnson had successfully made the transition to acting from his previous life as professional wrestling legend the Rock but had yet to become the global superstar he is today. Also in that film was Stephen Merchant, a successful writer-director in the world of television who was giving acting a real try for the first time. The two had a good time working together, and the relationship would pay dividends for both years later. One night after filming Fast & Furious 6, Johnson was in his hotel room and couldn’t sleep so he started channel surfing, eventually landing on a British TV documentary called The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family, about a small-town wrestling family that ended up spawning a real-life WWE superstar. Johnson thought the doc could be turned into a feature film and bought the rights to produce. As for whom he had in mind to write and direct the project, his old Tooth Fairy co-star was his first call.

Merchant may not be a household name, but he’s an icon to die-hard comedy fans and has been involved with some of the most critically acclaimed works of the past 15 years. He and co-writer and co-director Ricky Gervais won Emmys and Golden Globes for the 2001 BBC series The Office (which led to him co-creating the wildly popular U.S. spinoff) and Extras. In 2013, he created and starred in HBO’s Hello Ladies, which garnered Merchant joint writing and directing Emmy nominations. But feature filmmaking was the lure, as he’d gotten a taste when he and Gervais co-wrote and co-directed 2010’s wildly underrated indie Cemetery Junction. “I’ve always wanted to do movies,” he says. “From a writing point of view, I never saw a distinction of movies or TV being more enjoyable or more important than the other. They’re just slightly different disciplines, but I think the creative challenges of them are comparable. The Office just sent Ricky and I down a certain path, but I always assumed I would do another movie at some point, and this landed in my lap.”

Merchant hadn’t been a wrestling fan before approaching Fighting, so he was skeptical he would latch onto the source material the way Johnson hoped. And yet he soon found himself enthralled with the documentary and the family at the heart of it. “I was enamored,” he recalls. “As a writer, you’re looking for worlds you can jump into, and it felt like a lot of groundwork had been done already. The characters were very vivid, the story was very strong, the interpersonal relationships had plenty of conflict but also humor. There was drama at every turn.” Fighting with My Family is the origin story of Saraya-Jade Bevis (played by Florence Pugh)—who would later become a WWE champion under the moniker Paige—and her family, the Knights, who ran their own small wrestling operation in the English town of Norwich. Though her parents (Nick Frost and Lena Headey) groom both Saraya and older brother Zak (Jack Lowden) to become WWE superstars, only Saraya is chosen by the company when the two are given the chance to try out. “I felt there was a Rocky-like underdog story waiting there to be plucked out. It’s quite rare to be handed a true life story where you felt the shape of it was already there.”

He began by speaking with each member of the family to get both insights into their characters and ideas for plot points. “It turned out the documentary was really just Act 1.5 of what became this three-act movie,” Merchant says. “Although I had the structures of the true story, it’s still a story that covered three to four years and had multiple people in it, so I had to edit the true story down to the fundamental structures.” He used notecards and Post-it Notes to create some semblance of an outline before moving on to the script, but that only went so far. “I guess it gives you a good overview, but I find I can write one or two words on a Post-it Note and that turns into a 25-page sequence. So it’s a useful sorting and editing process, but I don’t know if it helps me see the script through to completion.” This was the first time he was penning a script without a co-writer, whether it was his many collaborations with Gervais or writing Hello Ladies with Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky. “It seems to be when you’re writing in collaboration, you arrive at decision much quicker because you shut down a lot of unnecessary and bad options just through conversation. When you’re writing on your own, you’re faced with a blank computer screen and you can kind of go down any road. Even when you’ve got the structure of this true story, you still have a thousand options at any turn.”

The real Zak was particularly forthcoming, regaling Merchant with tales of meeting his wife and mother of his children and sharing how she really saved him from the crushing disappointment of his WWE rejection. While his stories were all beautiful and meaningful, the writer eventually realized he didn’t have room for much of them in the actual script. “They were funny and sweet, and so I explored going down those avenues for a long time and spent quite a lot of weeks writing their romance,” he says. “Then I realized this is a whole separate movie. I feel in some ways I wouldn’t have even gone down that road if I had been thrashing out the idea with another writer.” Wanting to ensure the movie didn’t appeal only to WWE fans—and better understand it himself—Merchant dove headfirst into the world of pro wrestling. “In the case of WWE, it’s kind of like catching up on a 30-year soap opera,” he jokes. “I put a lot of work into laying the pipework in the script that told you what you needed to know about wrestling even if you weren’t a fan. I had to describe certain things that would later become important in act three. It became surprisingly complicated.”

Of course, the biggest complication in centering a story on that sport is the fact that in professional wrestling, the matches are all fixed. The physical toll the wrestlers’ put their body through is very real, but the outcome is predetermined. So while Merchant seemingly had an amazing ending taken straight from real life—Paige wins the WWE women’s championship belt in her very first match—he had to navigate the fact that it was decided ahead of time that she would win. This is a far cry from Rocky knocking out Apollo Creed. “When she knocks someone out, it’s not real, so what’s the victory?” he says. “That became a real problem.” First, he tried simply spelling it out for the audience. He wrote and filmed a version of one of the film’s climactic scenes where the Rock (Johnson portrays himself in three scenes in the movie) not only informs Paige she will be wrestling for the title in her first-ever match but that she will also win, which is exactly how their conversation played out in real life. “I was interested to see if the audience would still be rooting for her in the final match if they’d literally been told the outcome. And the test audiences all came back and told me, no, they didn’t want that. They wanted the suspense. They wanted to experience the wrestling match as you would if you would have been watching the match on TV. You know it’s fixed, but you don’t know what the outcome will be. You’re invested enough to suspend your disbelief.” In the final version of the film, the Rock informs Paige that she will wrestle for the title but doesn’t reveal the result, and Merchant shoots the match straight, as if the outcome had not already been decided.

Johnson was also instrumental in helping to solve Merchant’s other problem with the final match: If the audience knows Paige would win, what is her actual victory worth? “He told me what’s important for wrestlers is whether they get over with an audience and whether or not they win the crowd over,” the writer-director says. “That’s what ultimately builds your career and determines your victories in the ring. It’s whether the audience responds to you and takes you under their wing.” Merchant then added a moment before the match starts where Paige is given the chance to challenge champion AJ Lee (Thea Trinidad) verbally. In a fit of nerves, she falters at the mic yet still wins over the crowd with her performance in the ring. “That opened up the ending for me because it’s not really about her winning the match—it’s about her winning the crowd. That was the final turning point.”

To read the complete article in Issue 36 of Backstory, click HERE to subscribe or buy it as a single issue.

For more info about all the other articles in issue 36, view the Table of Contents.