FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY
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
Fast and Furious 6 in London. Unable to fall asleep, Johnson turned on the
began watching a non-fiction film produced by the U.K.'s Channel 4. Entitled The
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
array of films and television shows, immediately recognized the potential in the
had something special that resonated with me, and I thought it could be turned
into a really
Johnson's connection to the film wasn't surprising: like Paige, Johnson hails
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
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
on Fighting with My Family. "He immediately sparked to the story and thought it
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
A few months later, Johnson introduced himself to Paige at a WWE match in
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
Paige will never forget the fateful encounter: "I started sobbing uncontrollably
this was my dream becoming a reality," she says. "Dwayne had to keep passing me
because I was such a mess."
But the incredible news didn't end with that disclosure. "Dwayne then told me
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
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
we spoke, Dwayne asked me if I knew who Paige was - and of course my son loved
was intrigued by Dwayne's passion for the project, which reminded me of a film I
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
That heart and humanity speaks to the film's independent spirit, as does
Misher and Stephen Merchant's passion for the story and characters. Wanting to
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
international filmmaking, and has co-financed director Yorgos Lanthimos's
Award nominated The Favourite, as well as three recent Academy Award winners:
McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Steve McQueen's 12 Years a
and Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire.
Fighting with My Family was also on the radar of the WWE, whose support was
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.
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
When Johnson decided to appear in the movie as well as produce, everything
fire. WWE confirmed that it would co-finance with Film4, and ultimately MGM
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."
"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
screenplay that captured that story's universal humanity and humor and finding a
could bring this true-life narrative to the screen in a way that was both
entertaining and faithful to
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
Johnson relates: "I met Stephen Merchant about ten years ago on the set of Tooth
had a blast working together and I immediately recognized his talents. I knew
understand the essence of Paige."
Misher confirms that Merchant was the right filmmaker for the job. "First of
and Dwayne are an inspired creative team, and Fighting with My Family is the
of their strong and complementary voices. Then, Stephen has a gift for wringing
emotion and vice versa. He is effortlessly honest about his characters and
and can dance back and forth across that tonal spectrum."
Merchant expands upon the origins of his involvement with the film. "A budding
actor named Dwayne Johnson stumbled across a documentary about this real-life
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
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
Paige's empowerment and drive also resonated with Merchant. "Although I knew
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
my own experience," he explains. "I loved her passion and commitment to her
Possessing a unique comic sensibility honed through his work on the acclaimed
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
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
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.
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
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
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."
As Merchant completed the screenplay, the search began to find the actors who
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
physicality but not the acting, others who had the acting chops but couldn't
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
Then, they met a young English actress, Florence Pugh, who had just starred in
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,
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
auditioned. She transformed her personality and became her own version of
Adds Merchant: "Florence threw herself into the physical aspects, and
Paige's inner-strength, humor and emotion. We knew she could be this girl from
England, where Paige grew up."
Pugh, who recently starred in the Netflix medieval drama Outlaw King and as a
agent in the TNT adaptation of John le CarrĂ©'s The Little Drummer Girl, embraced
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
journey emotionally, but I didn't know how to wrestle," she admits. Her concerns
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
Zak, turned the young actors into eager and able grapplers. Notes Stephen
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
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
experiences at NXT. Humor, drama and emotion are mined from the sequences, in
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
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
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
Paige's outsider status is amplified by her interactions with the chief trainer
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
candidates to abandon their comfort zones and do whatever it takes to reach the
pinnacle. He reminds them that to be a wrestling superstar they need to be
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
Hutch is a multi-layered figure who mixes humor and relentless demands as he
mold these trainees into WWE warriors. According to Garcia, Vaughn brings all
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
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,
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
achieve what was necessary - because Hutch himself never quite became the
dreamed he would be."
While appreciating Hutch's many dimensions, Vaughn was particularly drawn to
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
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
eccentric and unconventional. Each member lives, eats, sleeps and breathes
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
They're a tight-knit family but Paige is perhaps closest to her brother Zak,
she has shared dreams of WWE stardom since childhood. But when Hutch selects
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
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
being left behind when Paige surpasses him and is selected for training. But he
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
"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
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
build. "Jack looked a little scrawny when he auditioned," jokes Merchant. Lowden
"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
"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
became, says Merchant, "like brother and sister," as Lowden goes on to note his
for Pugh's fearlessness, which he likens to that of the real Paige. "That served
he adds, "and helped her really nail the role."
Another high point for both actors was working with Dwayne Johnson, especially
a scene in which Paige and Zak encounter the wrestling and movie icon in advance
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
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
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
personalities, performers and entrepreneurs, and a loving and supporting couple.
(Shaun of the Dead) and Lena Headey (Game of Thrones) play the unconventional
are very much in love, have persevered through innumerable hardships, and raised
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
sweetness as the matriarch of this family."
Frost, a comedy film veteran, sparked to the family and its world: "I loved how
passion the family has for wrestling and how it wasn't just bound to money. The
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
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
doesn't pick up, he'll go back to robbing banks - and you get the sense that he
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
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
loves him immensely," notes Lena Headey. "They have this great, respectful and
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
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
"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."
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
"We made sure we saw the characters in that world," says Merchant. "To make a
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
London, which stood in for the NXT training camps in sunny Florida, as well as
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
Merchant, who gives a specific flavor to each of the matches. "For instance,
relationship between Paige and Zak is strained, there's a subtext in their next
and suddenly among the pre-planned moves there are some real punches and
Fighting with My Family builds to a huge match at the Staples Center in Los
the end of a WWE Monday night broadcast, the film production utilized the twenty
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
reaches a stunning climax.
And it all happened on the fourth day of filming. "It was a crazy first week of
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
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
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.
However, Merchant, Pugh and the production did have a secret weapon in ensuring
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
sequence, he made an unannounced appearance at the event to warm up the crowd,
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
charisma, he appreciated his help in shaping the moves in the ring. "Our stunt
record all the rehearsals and send them to Dwayne, and he'd provide really
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
but the heart and soul of Fighting with My Family is the story of an unusual
dreams come true when she fights with, and for, her family. Says Paige, the
whose journey is chronicled in the film: "it's about never giving up on yourself
yourself is your superpower. It's an underdog story that I hope will really
"The film is a peek behind the curtain of the blood, sweat and tears that make
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
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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