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FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY

Production Information
THE JOURNEY BEGINS

The story behind Fighting with My Family begins with a documentary - and an international motion picture megastar's restless night. In 2012, Dwayne Johnson was filming Fast and Furious 6 in London. Unable to fall asleep, Johnson turned on the television and began watching a non-fiction film produced by the U.K.'s Channel 4. Entitled The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family, the film followed a young woman, Saraya Bevis, who fought under the name "Paige," and her outrageous, wrestling-obsessed family. Johnson, who founded and runs Seven Bucks Productions, a successful production company committed to making a diverse array of films and television shows, immediately recognized the potential in the documentary. "It had something special that resonated with me, and I thought it could be turned into a really compelling movie."

Johnson's connection to the film wasn't surprising: like Paige, Johnson hails from a family of prominent wrestlers, including his father, grandfather and uncles, and his mother was the sport's first female promoter. He saw elements of his own family's dynamics - both the hardships and triumphs - in the Bevis clan.

The next day, Johnson sent the documentary to his agent, as well as to his producing partner Hiram Garcia. "It was such a random and immediate thing for Dwayne, who was up way too late on a work night when he watched this film," says Garcia, who is an executive producer on Fighting with My Family. "He immediately sparked to the story and thought it was something that needed to be told to a broad audience. 'You've got to see this film!' Dwayne told me. 'I think the world will really want to experience this.' He was really taken by Paige's story - how she and her family loved wrestling so much, even though they were always struggling to make ends meet."

A few months later, Johnson introduced himself to Paige at a WWE match in Arizona. He then broke some life-changing news to the young and largely untried wrestler: "I told her she was going to make her WWE debut under extraordinary circumstances," Johnson hints with a smile.

Paige will never forget the fateful encounter: "I started sobbing uncontrollably because this was my dream becoming a reality," she says. "Dwayne had to keep passing me tissues because I was such a mess."

But the incredible news didn't end with that disclosure. "Dwayne then told me that he had seen the documentary and thought it was a beautiful story that reminded him of his own family," Paige continues, still incredulous at the sudden turn of events. "Then, he said, 'I'm going to make a movie about it.' And I'm, like, 'Whaaat??' It was all very overwhelming. Dwayne kept telling me to relax, but of course I couldn't."

Concurrently, producer Kevin Misher, who had worked with Johnson on The Mummy Returns, Scorpion King and The Rundown, was in contact with Johnson for tickets to a huge WWE "Summer Slam" event in Los Angeles. As he explains: "my son, who was then eight years old, was a huge fan; we'd watch televised matches together, every week. So, I thought it'd be fun to take him to this big match, for which Dwayne was kind enough to provide tickets. When we spoke, Dwayne asked me if I knew who Paige was - and of course my son loved Paige. I was intrigued by Dwayne's passion for the project, which reminded me of a film I had overseen the release of as a production president at Universal: Billy Elliot. It had that same kind heart and humanity." This in turn led to Misher taking a producer role on Fighting with My Family.

That heart and humanity speaks to the film's independent spirit, as does Johnson, Misher and Stephen Merchant's passion for the story and characters. Wanting to maintain the project's authenticity, the filmmakers set it up at the prestigious English company Film4, which is known for working with some of the most distinctive and innovative talent in UK and international filmmaking, and has co-financed director Yorgos Lanthimos's current Academy Award nominated The Favourite, as well as three recent Academy Award winners: Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave and Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire.

Fighting with My Family was also on the radar of the WWE, whose support was essential to capturing the big arena scenes. Misher offers, "because so much of the film is about the family's unique relationship, we felt it was important to get that right first. Asking Vince McMahon to allow a behind the scenes look at the WWE was a big ask even with Dwayne at the helm, so we wanted to make sure the film had the integrity it does before going to him."

When Johnson decided to appear in the movie as well as produce, everything caught fire. WWE confirmed that it would co-finance with Film4, and ultimately MGM would obtain distribution rights at the Berlin Film Festival. "Film4 allowed Dwayne, Stephen and I the time and opportunity to get it all on the page independently of any corporate agenda." Misher continues, "Ironically, it is that spirit - present in the film - that is then what attracted everyone, particularly the WWE, to get involved later." The next challenge facing the filmmakers was crafting a screenplay that captured that story's universal humanity and humor and finding a director who could bring this true-life narrative to the screen in a way that was both entertaining and faithful to Paige's journey.

WRITING AND DIRECTING

The search for the right director to helm Fighting with My Family began, in a way, with a 2010 fantasy-comedy that established a continuing friendship between two of its stars. As Johnson relates: "I met Stephen Merchant about ten years ago on the set of Tooth Fairy. We had a blast working together and I immediately recognized his talents. I knew Stephen could understand the essence of Paige."

Misher confirms that Merchant was the right filmmaker for the job. "First of all, Stephen and Dwayne are an inspired creative team, and Fighting with My Family is the perfect marriage of their strong and complementary voices. Then, Stephen has a gift for wringing humor from emotion and vice versa. He is effortlessly honest about his characters and hysterically funny and can dance back and forth across that tonal spectrum."

Merchant expands upon the origins of his involvement with the film. "A budding young actor named Dwayne Johnson stumbled across a documentary about this real-life family," he says with a smile. "He sent it to me and I began watching it, expecting to sneer at the family and its unusual profession. Instead, I fell in love with them, their personalities and their love of wrestling. I became so invested in their story, dreams, tensions and dynamics. Paige and her family are rough around the edges but love one another deeply."

"It's a real coming-of-age story in which Paige and everyone in the family must grow up. It's also a story of ambition, obligation, sibling rivalry, missed opportunities, broken dreams, loneliness, hard work, success and triumph ... involving people throwing each other around a ring. I could see why Dwayne thought it could make a great film, and we were always in sync from there."

Paige's empowerment and drive also resonated with Merchant. "Although I knew little about professional wrestling before beginning work on the film, Paige struck me as a classic movie underdog and her teenage dreams of making it in the entertainment world chimed with my own experience," he explains. "I loved her passion and commitment to her pursuits."

Possessing a unique comic sensibility honed through his work on the acclaimed comedy series The Office and Extras, as well as years of stand-up comedy, Merchant early on found humor in some unexpected places within the family, which in this film is referred to by its wrestling name - The Knights. "There's a moment in the documentary where the father, Ricky, explains his troubled past and how during his younger days, he did eight years in prison, and his wife Julia leans in and says, 'Mainly violence.' It was so open and forthright, but also funny, and I wanted to capture that honesty and humor in our film."

At the same time, Merchant was intent on not treating wrestling like a joke because, he says, "the family treats it very seriously, as others would treat any other sport, or dance or music. I never wanted to undermine Paige's passion for it."

"What unlocked wrestling for me is the notion that it's soap opera in spandex - a kind of theatrical experience, where the athletes tell stories with their bodies. As with Rocky, the story isn't about what happens in the ring, but the meaning of what happens there. It's about Paige's dreams and hopes - and what binds her to her family through good times and bad. You need not know anything about the sport to appreciate the character's journey."

Adds Misher, "Stephen remains remarkably true to Paige's real-life journey. The family incidents are pulled from real life, and even Dwayne Johnson, in his small but pivotal role, plays the role he did in Paige's real life. He was part of Paige's origin story and became surprisingly enmeshed in her wrestling journey (due to his interest in her family story), and provided her with advice, information and inspiration just prior to her real life first match. Art does, in Fighting with My Family, really imitate life."

BECOMING PAIGE

As Merchant completed the screenplay, the search began to find the actors who could embody these unforgettable real-life figures. Johnson was already aboard, playing himself, but the rest of the casting was a process they had to contend with for quite a while, especially when casting Paige. "We saw many, many actresses, some of whom could pull off the necessary physicality but not the acting, others who had the acting chops but couldn't handle the wrestling," says Merchant. "Paige is a striking figure who's glamorous, tough as nails and has been wrestling since age fifteen," he continues. "It's quite a heady combination."

Then, they met a young English actress, Florence Pugh, who had just starred in the independent film Lady Macbeth, for which she won the British Independent Film Award for Best Actress. "We saw Lady Macbeth in parallel with Florence's audition for Fighting with My Family, and it absolutely floored us," says Misher. "With the force of her personality, commitment and fearlessness, we knew she could go further than we'd ever dreamed anyone could go with her performance. Eventually, Florence didn't resemble the woman whom we met when she first auditioned. She transformed her personality and became her own version of Paige." Adds Merchant: "Florence threw herself into the physical aspects, and immediately got Paige's inner-strength, humor and emotion. We knew she could be this girl from Norwich, England, where Paige grew up."

Pugh, who recently starred in the Netflix medieval drama Outlaw King and as a double agent in the TNT adaptation of John le Carré's The Little Drummer Girl, embraced these challenges, while finding much to admire in Paige. "I love her story of empowerment, as well as her feistiness and funkiness," she enthuses. "I had to be a part of this film, which is about this young woman finding the strength to follow her dreams - and succeeding."

Early on, Pugh watched the documentary that had captured Johnson's attention. "I remember instantly connecting with that family and thinking, 'How has this not been made into a film before?'" Then came a grueling period of physical training at the WWE's NXT boot camp in Orlando, Florida, which initially worried the young actress. "I knew how to convey Paige's journey emotionally, but I didn't know how to wrestle," she admits. Her concerns were quickly assuaged when she began training with wrestling professionals and stunt people. "They are so precise and wouldn't let you do a specific move until you proved you could do it," she explains, adding, "it also helped that I studied dance."

The training, which Pugh undertook with Jack Lowden, who portrays Paige's brother Zak, turned the young actors into eager and able grapplers. Notes Stephen Merchant: "after Florence and Jack had been training for some time, they insisted on doing as much as possible in the ring during filming. In one of the matches, there is the infamous 'pile driver' move, where you appear to drop someone on their head. It requires a lot of skill to pull off." Garcia adds, "Florence performed with a very high level of ferocity and intensity, and her work in the ring is unforgettable. She did many of her own stunts, for which she, deservedly, had a great sense of pride."

Pugh also got some lessons from none other than Dwayne Johnson, himself: "I met Dwayne during stunt rehearsals, and he was as wonderful as we had all heard. He even got in the ring and taught us how to punch. It was so surreal. When is that going to happen in my life again? I really cherished that moment."

A big part of Paige's road to becoming a superstar stems from her "fish out of water" experiences at NXT. Humor, drama and emotion are mined from the sequences, in which Paige learns that just because she's achieved her dream of being selected for training, it doesn't mean it's going to go smoothly for her. In addition to the physical rigors, she must deal with feeling like an outsider: Paige's pale, Goth-like makeup, multiple piercings, black hair and rocker-chick clothes provide a stark contrast to the bombshell physiques and pin-up good looks of the other trainees. "The others are put off by Paige's look," says Pugh. "It never occurred to her that she wouldn't be brilliant and loved once she made it to training. Paige grew up in a wrestling family, so she expects that everybody will walk and talk the lingo. But she soon discovers that the other women are more conventionally beautiful and more in line with a typical WWE diva."

THE TRAINER

Paige's outsider status is amplified by her interactions with the chief trainer at NXT, Hutch (Vince Vaughn), who recruited her, but not her brother. Hutch works with the women to prepare them for the next level. He's a stern taskmaster, challenging Paige and the other candidates to abandon their comfort zones and do whatever it takes to reach the sport's pinnacle. He reminds them that to be a wrestling superstar they need to be physically and mentally tough and be able to tell a story with their body. Beyond that, they'll need that ineffable spark - the magic dust and inner light that fans will fall in love with every week.

Hutch is a multi-layered figure who mixes humor and relentless demands as he works to mold these trainees into WWE warriors. According to Garcia, Vaughn brings all these qualities in a compelling way. "Vince was the perfect fit for Hutch," he explains. "He injects the character with wit and authority that really helps the story pop. Vince delivers exactly what we were looking for with the character - that special Vince Vaughn edge."

That unique edge, which has entertained audiences since Vaughn's stunning big screen starring debut in Swingers, certainly impressed Pugh. "Vince is one of the quickest ad-lib actors I've ever worked with," she says. "It was magical; the camera would roll and we'd improvise, and I felt so safe with Vince because no matter what I'd say, he'd come up with something brilliant. I had to be ready and try my best to keep up with him."

Merchant notes that in addition to imbuing the role with the requisite sarcasm, comedy and irony, "Vince also brought real empathy and warmth to Hutch, as we learn more about him and his past. You learn why Hutch didn't select Zak for training and how he knew Zak wouldn't achieve what was necessary - because Hutch himself never quite became the wrestler he dreamed he would be."

While appreciating Hutch's many dimensions, Vaughn was particularly drawn to Paige's relatability. "Paige leaves her family and becomes an independent adult in order to pursue her calling," he explains. "It's a story that's applicable to anyone pursuing their own dream, facing their fears and learning to move out of their comfort zone. It's about a woman from a small town who crosses the threshold from the ordinary to the extraordinary. The fact that this heroic odyssey is a true story was very compelling."

ALL IN THE FAMILY

Paige's family, which was instrumental in shaping her path to stardom, is lovably eccentric and unconventional. Each member lives, eats, sleeps and breathes wrestling. To them, it's more than a sport or an entertainment; it's life itself. No matter that the family is eking out a living performing in low rent venues across small towns in England. It's their mission to bring the sport's fun, spectacle, stories and insanity to as many people as possible.

They're a tight-knit family but Paige is perhaps closest to her brother Zak, with whom she has shared dreams of WWE stardom since childhood. But when Hutch selects Paige for training, leaving Zak behind in Norwich, his dreams are dashed, and Zak must begin a journey that's just as transformative as Paige's, but in a very different way.

"I was attracted to how the film uses humor and emotion to explore how Zak deals with the sudden end of his quest to become a professional wrestler," says Jack Lowden, who stars as Zak. "As an actor who's constantly auditioning for dream parts, it was easy to relate to Zak's experiences and tap into that process. Wrestling has been his entire life, so he struggles with being left behind when Paige surpasses him and is selected for training. But he eventually finds enormous satisfaction and fulfillment in teaching wrestling to disadvantaged kids in the neighborhood - which inspires him to find a different kind of wrestling glory - as well as with his girlfriend and newborn son."

The British actor, whose recent roles include heroic R.A.F. pilot "Collins" in Dunkirk and "Lord Darnley" in Mary Queen of Scots says it was fascinating to "play a character who wears his heart on his sleeve more than I do, but it's also what I found to be most rewarding. It might even have changed me a bit. I hated letting Zak go at the end of filming."

Merchant says he was impressed with the warmth Lowden brought to the role, "but at the same time he really dials up the intensity." That intensity, adds Merchant, was critical in dealing with Zak's story. "In reality many people don't quite make it; they don't see their dreams become reality. So, how do you pick up the pieces?"

Lowden was initially lacking one important element in performing the role - a wrestler's build. "Jack looked a little scrawny when he auditioned," jokes Merchant. Lowden confirms that "Zak is a big lad, so I put on a stone and half [about 21 pounds] by eating at least four meals a day." When he wasn't piling in the calories, Lowden spent many hours training with Pugh.

"There was a lot of grappling going on behind the scenes, like bending back fingers and pulling hair," as he describes the wrestling moves he learned with his co-star. Pugh and Lowden became, says Merchant, "like brother and sister," as Lowden goes on to note his appreciation for Pugh's fearlessness, which he likens to that of the real Paige. "That served Florence well," he adds, "and helped her really nail the role."

Another high point for both actors was working with Dwayne Johnson, especially during a scene in which Paige and Zak encounter the wrestling and movie icon in advance of their WWE try-outs. It's one of the film's more humorous moments, as the duo seek advice from their hero. Johnson provides them with some counsel that is both inspiring and as ferocious a takedown as any they've experienced while wrestling. "We loved playing with the idea that Zak could quickly get over Dwayne's fame and start talking to him like a peer," says Lowden. "It must be both amazing and frightening to meet an idol like that."

Zak and Paige's parents, Ricky and Julia, are an intriguing mix of bigger-than-life personalities, performers and entrepreneurs, and a loving and supporting couple. Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead) and Lena Headey (Game of Thrones) play the unconventional couple, who are very much in love, have persevered through innumerable hardships, and raised a family defined in part by its love of wrestling.

"Nick and Lena are the perfect pairing as Ricky and Julia," says Merchant. "Nick brilliantly conveys Ricky's larger-than-life attitude, as well as his patriarchal gentleness. Lena, like Nick, has a great and dramatic edge when she's in the ring, but also conveys such sweetness as the matriarch of this family."

Frost, a comedy film veteran, sparked to the family and its world: "I loved how much passion the family has for wrestling and how it wasn't just bound to money. The Knights would wrestle in a town hall in front of forty people but would put as much effort into the matches as they would had they been working in front of forty thousand."

The only thing surpassing Ricky's love for wrestling is his devotion to his wife and children. "In the ring, Ricky is a bit of a baddie, who loves to shout at and taunt the audience," says Frost. "But outside the ring he's just a regular father with a wife and kids he loves and supports. There are a couple of times in the film when Ricky says that if the family business doesn't pick up, he'll go back to robbing banks - and you get the sense that he is being completely honest. He would do that if he had to for his family."

Having been, in his younger days, "a keen amateur wrestler," Frost respects that world and its practitioners. "It is the ultimate soap opera full of tremendous athletes," he says. "People assume that wrestlers' lives are glamorous, but they work so hard for it. If they're not in the ring getting smashed up, they're training and getting smashed up. For most wrestlers, it's all about what the audience takes away from their performances."

Ricky's wife, soulmate and business partner, Julia, shares his insanely colorful life. "She loves him immensely," notes Lena Headey. "They have this great, respectful and loving relationship. They find great joy in each other's company."

"She's also a strong woman and mother who wants the best for her family and believes wholeheartedly that wrestling is an art that can change lives," she continues. Moreover, it was easy to embrace Julia and her clan, especially after watching the documentary about them. "They live how they want to live, and that's their only rule," she explains. "I'm excited that they'll become more widely known with the release of Fighting with My Family."

PRODUCTION

The Knight family hails from and works in Norwich, which lies approximately one hundred miles northeast of London. That setting is part of who they are and what they do - to the locals the Knights are celebrities. While certain production logistics required that some shooting take place in London, the filmmakers were intent on filming key scenes in Norwich. "We made sure we saw the characters in that world," says Merchant. "To make a story with universal appeal, you need to be specific with things like that. The more specific you are, the more audiences can tune in. It doesn't matter where you're from; it's still relatable. It was so important to me that we captured that place where it all began."

Other U.K.-based locations included the Here East complex of the Olympic Stadium in London, which stood in for the NXT training camps in sunny Florida, as well as London's O2 Arena, where the real and reel Paige and Zak had their tryouts for NXT.

Filming the wrestling scenes in those locales was both challenging and rewarding for Merchant, who gives a specific flavor to each of the matches. "For instance, when the relationship between Paige and Zak is strained, there's a subtext in their next wrestling match, and suddenly among the pre-planned moves there are some real punches and threats."

Fighting with My Family builds to a huge match at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. At the end of a WWE Monday night broadcast, the film production utilized the twenty thousand fans already seated for the real-life event and filmed a sequence in which Paige battles for the championship. The scene and venue's grandeur create huge emotional beats as Paige's story reaches a stunning climax.

And it all happened on the fourth day of filming. "It was a crazy first week of shooting," says Garcia, adding that the WWE had given the filmmakers one hour to capture the action. But it provided them with everything they needed for the scene - and more. "It was so much fun to put Florence in front of twenty thousand people who were gifted to us by the WWE," adds Misher. "To have that scale is something you couldn't buy, and for the cast to have a crowd of real wrestling fans cheer them on was amazing."

The center of attention for these fans was Pugh, who was, of course, playing a real-life figure they all knew well. But neither the scene's epic nature nor its arrival so early in the shooting schedule fazed the young actress. "After we completed the scene, Florence told me that she got into a Zen-like mindset and embraced it all," Merchant remembers. "She absolutely killed it."

However, Merchant, Pugh and the production did have a secret weapon in ensuring the scene was as big, fun and magical as they had envisioned it to be: Dwayne Johnson. He not only lent his years of wrestling experience and showmanship to choreograph the wrestling sequence, he made an unannounced appearance at the event to warm up the crowd, let them know what was about to happen, and get them stoked for the filming. "Dwayne revved up the crowd as only 'The Rock' could," says Garcia, referring to Johnson's iconic moniker from his storied wrestling career. Merchant adds that beyond Johnson's incomparable crowd-pleasing charisma, he appreciated his help in shaping the moves in the ring. "Our stunt team would record all the rehearsals and send them to Dwayne, and he'd provide really invaluable feedback on the shape of the matches, and how to maximize the drama theatrically."

No one was more grateful of Johnson's support that day than Pugh. "After Dwayne warmed up the crowd, I put my hand on the wall - and I could feel it throbbing with the energy of the fans," she explains. "I had never experienced so many people in a single space, and it was a little daunting. Before I took the stage, Dwayne came up to me and said, 'Flo, just so you know, if anything goes wrong, I'll be there outside the ring to help.' It was great that I felt so safe with him there."

Bringing to life a game- and life-changing wrestling event was a key part of production, but the heart and soul of Fighting with My Family is the story of an unusual athlete whose dreams come true when she fights with, and for, her family. Says Paige, the real-life warrior whose journey is chronicled in the film: "it's about never giving up on yourself because being yourself is your superpower. It's an underdog story that I hope will really inspire audiences."

"The film is a peek behind the curtain of the blood, sweat and tears that make up the world of wrestling, but most importantly it's a device that tells Paige's incredible story," confirms Garcia. Adds Misher, "it's about someone who ultimately learns that because of the love and support of her family, she can accomplish anything."

The film's guiding force, Stephen Merchant, sums up his hopes for Fighting with My Family: "we want to give you unexpected laughs, the fist-pumping thrills of a sports film, the chills-down-the-spine pathos of a true-life drama, plus a few tears, a warm glow, and a unique set of characters to fall in love with, and ...Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson."

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