A British Celebration of Failure: Stephen Merchant on Fighting with My Family

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When Stephen Merchant landed in Chicago late last month on the first stop of a press tour for his solo writing/directing feature debut, “Fighting with My Family,” following its premiere at Sundance, the city had descended into a record-breaking Polar Vortex. “It’s colder here than the North Pole, but it goes to show how much I love this movie that I will brave these conditions to share ‘Fighting with My Family’ with the world,” declared Merchant in an Instagram video, waiting a beat before adding, “Also I’m contractually obliged to do so.” In many ways, this hilarious off-the-cuff monologue from the Emmy-winning television icon encapsulates the appeal of his work, which deftly mines the humor and absurdity in even the bleakest of situations. Along with Ricky Gervais, Merchant co-created the landmark BBC series, “The Office,” as well as the equally brilliant “Extras,” a sitcom about a longtime background actor, Andy (Gervais), eager to be taken seriously as a performer. 

Merchant’s new fact-based film certainly has laughs to spare, many of them inspired by real life, yet its dramatic depth is more bruising than one might expect. Florence Pugh, the star of “Lady Macbeth” quickly proving to be one of the leading actors of her generation, plays Saraya “Paige” Bevis, a pro wrestler from Norwich who became the youngest to win WWE’s Divas Championship. The “fighting” referenced in the title refers not only to Paige’s upbringing, where she battled her older brother, Zak (Jack Lowden), in the ring, but to the tension that emerged between the siblings after she was selected over him for WWE training in America. Though it remains unclear what precisely Zak lacked, in the eyes of coach Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn, emulating his role in “Hacksaw Ridge”), that removed him from competing, Merchant celebrates his legacy of educating youngsters at his family’s WAW Academy school. Here’s hoping the director next sets his sights on a biopic he theoretically teased at Sundance about David Prowse, whose own reconciliation of triumph and disappointment—as the body but not the voice of Darth Vader—is a fitting subject for the Merchant treatment.

In the following conversation with RogerEbert.com, thankfully conducted indoors, Merchant discusses his love of “Saturday Night Fever,” his rebuke of media snobbery and why he doesn’t feel comfortable being himself on social media.

What has always made your work so breathtaking to me is how you mine the humor in moments where we question whether or not we should be laughing. The characters’ despair isn’t sanitized in order for hilarity to be achieved.

Oh that’s lovely, thank you. I’d like that quote, please. Even dating right back to “The Office,” we were always drawn to the realism of it. We were scrupulous about the realism to the point of it becoming paralyzing, and there’s been modulated levels of that since. Whenever I get to a point where I’m like, “Is this too broad a joke,” or, “Is this too silly?”, I always ask myself, “Can I believe that it’s true to this world?” Even in this film, something like the dinner table scene, which seems on the surface to be kind of a comic conceit, was actually based on an anecdote the real family had told me about when they first met the in-laws. When Julia, [Paige’s] mother, met the very prim woman, her idea of a greeting was to grab her boobs and go, “Welcome!” And I was like, “I can’t even put that in the movie because people would think that I made it up.” 

In fact, sometimes you find yourself editing out things because you think no one would believe that they could happen. Comedy and tragedy are just two sides of the same coin, and you’re constantly walking that line. So to me, it never seems extreme to jump from a funny scene to a tragic scene in a second. I always think of shows like “The Sopranos,” which did an amazing job of doing exactly that. There’s that famous episode where they are lost in the woods, and they try to bump that guy off, and Paulie’s lost his shoes. It’s hilarious, but then they’re also trying to shoot a man. It just feels very much like that’s what life is, right? Everything’s going great, and you’re having a great time with your friends, and then you get hit by a train. [laughs]

There are traces here of “Saturday Night Fever,” which you’ve cited as one of your favorite films, in how the script doesn’t shy away from the grit or the heartache of the storyline. These movies also illuminate the meaning of physical performance for the protagonist, whether it be in the ring or the dance floor.

Definitely. I think “Saturday Night Fever” is an amazing example of a film which treads a very interesting tone. On one hand, it has the escapism of seeing Travolta dance. There’s such a joy to seeing him at his prime. He’s a great mover and just delicious to watch. Plus the music is fun, but there’s a real darkness in that movie. It’s got a bleakness to it. It’s always funny to me how people remember it as being like “Grease.” They made a sort of PG-13-rated version of the movie for TV and for re-release, but the original film is R-rated. It has violence, it has an attempted rape, and it’s really bleak. But people have a memory of it being a kind of romp, because all they remember is the Bee Gees and the white suit. So I think it’s a great example of a film that manages to tread a line between escapism and realism, and that’s a really tough thing to get right. 

Zak’s frustration at being unable to achieve his dream is quite harrowing, yet his victory is similar to that of Andy’s at the end of “Extras,” finding fulfillment in a different sort of success.

I don’t know if celebrating failure is a particularly British thing, but perhaps it is. What appealed to me about this story when I saw the documentary on which it’s based is that there are many sports movies, if you like, about people of exceptional talent who go on to succeed. Paige has that, and that’s why she’s a success, but alongside that, there are those whose dreams don’t come true. However, that does not mean your life is of no value, even if you have to recalibrate what’s important. It’s a British celebration of failure. When Paige tells him, “Just because a million people aren’t chanting your name doesn’t mean what you do isn’t of value,” that message is so fundamentally important to me, particularly in the age we live in, where Instagram likes and celebrity is seen as the only victory. That’s a bit rich coming from me, seeing as I’m checking my own likes. But when I met the family and spoke to Zak, he shared with me how there was real sadness and darkness in those days after he got rejected. That seemed to me as key to this whole story of success. It was always very much to me a two-hander story.

Though the models training alongside Paige are initially portrayed as ditzes, they emerge as complex human beings once she confronts them on the bus.

I wanted to play with your own expectations. You’re expecting the “mean girls,” and initially when Paige told me her story, that was my perception of the other girls because that’s how she presented them. Funnily enough, when I went to NXT and met with the trainers there, I said, “Paige told me she felt kind of bullied.” They kind of went quiet and were like, “I don’t know, you ask the girls, and sometimes they felt like they were being bullied by her.” She was a seasoned wrestler and had been doing it since she was 13, so she came in with an attitude of, “This is how it’s done.” That kind of turned it for me, and I was like, “Right, of course. She’s 4,000 miles away from home, she’s young, she comes from a tough family, she knows how to sort of handle herself, she’s fearful, she’s scared, she’s alone—she’s going to lash out.” And that makes the other girls as much a victim as her. When that occurred to me, it affirmed how no one is a villain in life. I mean once in a while, you’ll encounter one or two psychos, but aside from that, most people are just trying to figure it out.

In many ways, that scene is a fine illustration of how much we can learn when we actually speak to one another.

Right, it’s about empathy. We are all in our own little bubble and we feel like the world has an agenda towards us, but oftentimes, that’s not the case. Those people you think are whispering about you are likely not even thinking about you. They don’t care.

Andy’s masterful climactic monologue on the series finale of “Extras” has gained even more relevance over the last decade, as technology has caused practically everyone to be hyperaware of their popularity and appearance. What are your feelings regarding social media? 

I was a diehard movie and TV fan from an early age, and I sometimes think that if I were 16 or 17 now and I had social media, I think I’d be a troll—or at least a movie troll—and I’d be out there criticizing people. Perhaps “troll” is a strong word, but I’d certainly be like the people who are passionate and vociferous about the things they love. I remember seeing Tim Burton’s “Batman” and being outraged because they had made the Joker the man who killed Batman’s parents—which, of course, we all know was Joe Chill in the comics, not the Joker. I remember being furious and boycotting the film, saying, “Oh I’m not going to see it.” I can only imagine what I’d done if I had Twitter. Would I have just been tweeting at Tim Burton constantly? That’s the dark side of the internet.

Obviously having grown up and looking back at that teen self, I’ve realized that I was wrong to think that. Tim Burton’s “Batman” is terrific, and now that I understand the business of making movies, it makes sense why he would’ve made those creative changes. I had to make some changes to Paige’s story in order to make it work as a 90-minute movie. It’s just funny as you evolve and you look back and you wonder what you might’ve been like had the circumstances been different. There’s something exciting about how technology has enabled a democratization of opinion. Everyone, in a way, has a voice, which is good, but there’s a danger when everyone thinks their opinion is valid. Not everyone’s opinion is valid on every subject. I don’t know enough about politics to be able to comment, really, on the topic. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, social media.

It seems that you’ve found a way to be true to yourself. You haven’t had to “dye your hair,” so to speak, as Paige or Ally in “A Star is Born” do, in order to achieve success.

Yeah, but I do think that I hold my tongue about certain things on social media because I don’t want to get into a Twitter battle with someone. It just isn’t the right forum. I don’t think you can have proper healthy debate and discussion, so I don’t want to be controversial in terms of social media. In that way, I am kind of modulating and moderating what I say. I’m not quite being myself because I’m slightly watching my words in order to ensure that they aren’t being misinterpreted. I don’t want to spend the next week justifying what I said for what was, in my mind, a flippant joke.

Since being a great comedic actor requires you to be a great dramatic one, was your role in “Logan,” the greatest live-action Marvel movie to date, in any way a stretch?

I was nervous about doing a good job and getting it right, and it was a great testament to Jim Mangold, the director, in that he reassured me. His audition process was incredibly intense. I came in and had the lines, and then he was like, [stands up] “Take your glasses off! Stand up! Hold this! Move around!” He was kind of dragging me here and there, and I left the audition going, “Well I’m not getting that gig.” But he obviously saw something, and was very encouraging, so I felt instinctively that I could do it. If Hugh [Jackman] hadn’t been as reassuring and Jim had not been as supportive, I could see myself in lesser hands panicking and thinking, “You had better get someone else.” It did give me a great deal of confidence to move forward, yet I was less assured as a dramatic actor than I am as a filmmaker. For some reason, directing “Fighting with My Family” didn’t seem as much of a stretch because, going back to “The Office,” we always tried to include drama or at least some real life emotions and pathos in the comedy. We were going for a romantic thing in that show, and as you say, there were slightly grander statements made in “Extras,” so I think everything I’ve done has had that dramatic through line.

In what ways did your first foray into filmmaking, 2010’s “Cemetery Junction,” inform your approach to “Fighting with My Family”? Both films are about young people wanting to excel beyond where they’ve been brought up.

It’s sort of a recurring theme for me, really. Both Ricky [Gervais] and I come from working class backgrounds. I’m middle class now, but my dad was a plumber and a builder and struggled a lot in my early years with money and everything else. So it’s one of the reasons why this film appealed to me and likewise with “Cemetery Junction.” Working class people are expected to stay in their box—I don’t know if it’s an American thing, but certainly in England, there’s that feeling. I remember even as a kid kind of grandly saying, “I’d like to do films and TV,” and people just looking at me like, “You’re a maniac, what are you talking about?” 

The fact that Paige could go from her tiny town of Norwich with these real blue collar parents and manage to get all the way to the top of the Hollywood of wrestling, is worthy of celebration, particularly seeing as, in England, nobody is celebrating it. I think there is a great snobbery, even in the British media, that has led them to avoid celebrating her triumph in the way that they do celebrate, deservedly so, people like Claire Foy and Olivia Colman. I’ve worked with them, they are terrific actors and completely deserve all the praise they get. But they are doing legitimate acing, so they get the broadsheet media going, “Oh, well done.” That same media fails to say, “Well done,” to this working class girl from Norwich because she’s not even on their radar. So there’s an interesting snobbery there, which made me all the more pleased to celebrate Paige’s story.

Header caption: Stephen Merchant at the Sundance premiere of “Fighting with My Family.” Photo credit: Suzi Pratt.

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