Even though they might not seem as if they have much in common, the former wrestler Dwayne Johnson and director, writer, and actor Stephen Merchant actually do share some things in common and they are even pretty close friends. They have recently appeared in the same movie, “Fighting with My Family,” but this was not the first project that they worked together on.
“Dwayne and I were working with Julie Andrews. We both had this goofy kind of rapport, and we were ad-libbing and joking during the scenes,” said Merchant recently during a press stop in Houston. “Julie said, ‘I don’t care that you guys are having fun, but do you mind when you’re finished, saying at least one of the lines in the script so I know when to say my line?”
As for “Fighting with My Family,” the movie is based on the 2012 documentary “The Wrestlers: Fighting With My Family,” the BBC film that depicts the WWE career of professional wrestler Paige. When he first watched it one night in London, Johnson loved the movie so much that it prompted him to get the rights to it and ask Stephen Merchant to help him make it into a Hollywood movie.
“Johnson came from a wrestling family himself and really responded to their story,” Merchant said. “They have so much passion about wrestling; they talk about it like it’s a religion.”
When he accepted to work on this project, Merchant had to do some studying to prepare for it properly. “I had to do a lot of research because I wanted the movie to appeal to wrestling as well as non-wrestling fans,” he said. “Wrestlers are a little bit like magicians in that they like to keep secrets to themselves. You have to win their trust for them to open up and tell you how it’s done. Someone described it as soap opera in spandex. And when you’re playing to 20,000 people in a huge auditorium, that takes skill.”
“That’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done,” Merchant said. “Working with (Steve) Carell and (John) Krasinski was a blast. When Ricky and I adapted it, we wanted to stay one step removed. We didn’t want it to be a bad photocopy of the original show.”
It might seem like a big change to go from the small screen to the big one, but it wasn’t so for Merchant, as he says. “There’s not a huge difference between television and film, although on movies you’re always working on a tight schedule. I always feel under slight pressure that I never felt working on TV. But the mechanics of actually shooting are the same,” he said.
“I have a reputation for doing comedy that makes people feel uncomfortable, but whenever I’m writing comedy, I just want it to be funny. For this film, I tried to remain authentic to the spirit of the family as best as I could. There was something naturally funny and yet so honest and blunt about the way they spoke. It was organic humor — I didn’t want the movie to be a spoof or satire.”
In addition to writing and directing movies, Merchant also wrote reviews for a local entertainment guide during his university years. “I would write reviews of the smaller films that the main critic didn’t want to see,” he said. “One of the films they sent me to was (the 1996 Vince Vaughn movie) ‘Swingers.’ I was so blown away. I’d always aspired to be a filmmaker, but there was something about that film, shot cheaply by friends. You could sense their camaraderie. Even though Bristol couldn’t be more different than Vince Vaughn running around L.A., it felt completely authentic.”
Finally, he concluded: “I told the other critics in the audience as they were leaving not to mind as I wanted to watch the credits to see who was the best boy,” he said. “That’s how I want people to feel at the end of my film.”