“Comedy of Discomfort.” Stephen Merchant Talks ‘Fighting with My Family’
Stephen Merchant is indeed a merchant of comedy. He is best known as a stand-up comedian and his various film and TV roles. He spoke with Creative Screenwriting Magazine about his new film Fighting With My Family which is not about domestic violence. It stars powerhouse actors Dwayne Johnson, Vince Vaughan, and Lena Headey, best known for her role of Cersei Lannister in Game Of Thrones.
“At school, I always had an aptitude for making people laugh, which is probably something I did too much. I remember being criticized in my school report for something like ‘finding the funny side of everything,’ which I thought was an odd criticism in this dark, bleak world,” recalls Stephen Merchant.
Merchant described himself as a fan of television comedy, but always felt a deeper connection to the material than a simple viewer. Eventually, the idea of combining childhood humor with paid entertainment made sense for a potential career. “I had the idea of doing it professionally at quite a young age.”
Audiences recognize the 6’7’’ Merchant from Hello Ladies, Extras, The Office, Logan, and his “Single Ladies” Lip Sync battle with Jimmy Fallon. Behind the camera, however, he’s made a name for himself as a writer and director with both British and US versions of The Office, Meet Ricky Gervais, Life’s Too Short, and now, Fighting with My Family.
A Sense Of Comedic Style
“In a way, I have many tastes in comedy. In the early years of getting into the business, I did stand-up. When you’re first starting out, you’re trying different styles, trying to find your style.”
With The Office, the style was determining what was appropriate for the project. The creators pursued something authentic and realistic. “We wanted it to almost feel like a real documentary. That low-key, deadpan style was born from that and that subsequently became my signature style. I like the naturalism of it,” he added. “I like the feeling of authenticity and observation.”
“As a viewer, there’s an association with the comedy of discomfort, or making people squirm. I think it’s a byproduct. I don’t sit down to do that. I just end up doing it. I like the idea of sitting in a scene because it’s a funny situation. Subsequently, people will tell me, ‘That was so agonizing, I watched it through my fingers.’ That hadn’t even occurred to me that it was anything other than just entertaining.”
“You can make a case that you don’t need to have fun to watch comedy,” added Merchant. “You could watch a comedy and find it excruciating, be entertained, but not need to have fun. I could make the same case for horror movies. Humor and comedy are two sides of the same coin, but you don’t need to have fun to enjoy them.”
Fighting With My Family
In the new film, Fighting with My Family, Stephen Merchant is credited as the writer and director, along with a cameo appearance. The movie stars Saraya-Jade Bevis as Paige Knight, a girl from Norwich, UK, who follows her dream of joining the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE.)
“It began as a documentary on Channel 4 in the UK. There was this family of British wrestlers who traveled around England, but wanted to send their family off to WWE, which is like the Hollywood version of wrestling. Dwayne Johnson sent the documentary to me because we had worked on a film together called Tooth Fairy.”
Merchant described the documentary as a Rocky-like story amongst the adventures of a family film. Despite the fact that it looks like something created in the Hollywood machine, the actual story comes from the documentary, which followed a real family in the pursuit of a big dream. “It’s ultimately a clash of British or Independent combined with The Rock, Hollywood, and WWE. That gives you a sense that it’s a clash of different sensibilities.”
To walk this tightrope, Merchant tried his best to keep the family as real as possible. He filmed in the same location they’re actually from in Norwich and spent time to create the family’s house, along with its speech patterns, and other likenesses.
In the end, it was meant to feel like a universal story, which isn’t necessarily a goal for many British films.
“There are actually two cuts of the film,” said Merchant, who wanted to appease censors in America and Europe. “I had to have quite the back-and-forth with American censors to get a PG-13 rating. We’re sending weird emails like, ‘If I lose a tit, can I have a cock?’”
English Stories of Failure
Merchant wanted to tell this story because he was moved by the documentary. He actually expected to “sneer” at the family in the documentary, but then he was “charmed and won over” by their passion for wrestling and each other. “They talk about it like a religion. They had some dark troubles – like addiction – and talk about wrestling the way former addicts talk about rehab. I was taken by their passion.”
In addition to the overall story, the writer-director related to the characters’ need to be involved with the creative industry from an early age. “Paige’s ambition to perform and get at the top of her profession chimed with me. There’s also a bittersweet quality of her brother wanting [the same goal] and not getting chosen. That felt like a very English story about failure.”
“I like the fact they are this blue-collar family. It’s also about this a young working-class woman from England. I also like that she went from this backwater to the very top of her profession. That’s something that can be celebrated, but it’s also very overlooked by middle-class media in the UK.”
The writer noticed that most American sports movies are about “exceptionalism,” where the goal here is merely to mine that potential. The story of Paige Knight, however, involved talent and charisma, but the movie is more about the long, hard journey to the top. It’s also about the person you must shed to become great.
Creating Real People
When choosing the actors, Merchant and company had to put the real people aside to create the movie versions of the characters. This also came out in writing the parents as three-dimensional characters. “It’s the good cop-bad cop within them. Sometimes the dad was pushing Paige. Sometimes the mom would keep the peace [and vice versa].”
Merchant was heavily invested in the family dynamics. Parents want their children to go off and be their own person, but they also want them to never leave home. “I also think about the film as a coming-of-age story where the parents and kids have to come of age. The parents have to grow up as well and let her become her own person.”
“They love their daughter, but they’re upset at the airport when their daughter is going to America, but they also see it as what’s best for the Knight family. There are mixed emotions.”
In hindsight, Merchant joked the wrestling family was sort of like a cult. Paige was essentially forced into wrestling, but she later made the decision to stick with or exit, based a new view experienced when Paige visits the outside world.
Serious Moments in Comedy
“I didn’t really approach it as a comedy. I just wanted to tell the story as enjoyable and uplifting, but funny when it needed to be, in the way the family is… I didn’t want it to be a mockery of wrestling, because if you undermine what they care about, then why do you care about it as a viewer?”
Merchant noted films like Billy Elliot, where it’s not required to enjoy ballet to enjoy the film. “The story had sadness in it. That’s how I felt watching the documentary. I sort of started off chuckling at these people, but then I was very moved. I found it heartbreaking in a way.”
As a former critic, Merchant understands this emotional involvement. “I like a film that targets you emotionally. The biggest compliment I get is when someone says they cried at the end. People say that with almost shame in their voice, but that’s a great accomplishment to take someone on such a journey in 90 minutes.”
In the end, he felt a connection with Paige and her brother, who eventually found his own path of success. “I was someone who had ambitions. Many of them have come true which is amazing, but there’s always an anxiety about taking a different road or making a mistake when you get that door slammed in your face. I find affection for both characters. I like them as people, their humanity, and their recognition of their flaws.”
American sports movies are often about an individual exception. While this movie has that aspect, but it also has nameless validations and reframed important aspects of life. “For me, the key line in the film was, ‘Just because millions of people don’t scream your name, it doesn’t mean you’re not of value.’ I think we live in a time where celebrity and Instagram “likes“ validate people. But there are unsung heroes, too.”
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