If you’re a longtime fan of professional wrestling — the kind that features heroes and villains and predetermined conclusions — you probably know the surname Von Erich.
In the 1970s and ’80s, that Texas wrestling dynasty led by Fritz Von Erich (real name: Jack Adkisson) shot to fame with the increasing bravado and success of his five sons, Kerry, Kevin, Chris, Mike and David, all of whom followed in their father’s footsteps to take up the sport for a time. A sixth son, Jack Jr., drowned in 1959 at age 6. But even hardcore fans probably don’t know the full history of the family’s many tribulations in and out of the ring, which is where “The Iron Claw,” opening Dec. 22, comes in.
The new movie, written and directed by Sean Durkin (“Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “The Nest”), chronicles the rigid upbringing, substance abuse issues and self-described curses that went along with the Von Erichs’ rise and fall. Holt McCallany stars as Fritz, practitioner of the gnarly fingered, face-gripping submission move that gives its name to the film’s title and telegraphs his parenting style. Impressively jacked-up versions of Zac Efron and Jeremy Allen White play Kevin and Kerry. There’s so much real-life tragedy that the screen version can’t even fit it all in: Youngest son Chris is left out of the movie entirely, which Durkin, 42, calls “the toughest decision I had to make.”
Durkin would like for us not to lump his film in with other wrestling movies, such as the 1980s misfires “Body Slam” and “All the Marbles,” or even the well-received 2008 film “The Wrestler,” for which Mickey Rourke nabbed a best actor Oscar nomination. Nor should we dwell on such iconic moments as when the Three Stooges starred in the grappling short “Grips, Grunts and Groans” or when Bugs Bunny went up against The Crusher in “Bunny Hugged.” Durkin sees “Iron Claw” as more of a family drama centered on the evolution of Efron’s character beyond the wrestling-obsessed life that his father expected of him.
That said, the director is a lifelong wrestling aficionado who even put himself in the ring at least once while filming, just to experience being on the ropes. It didn’t go well.
Durkin spoke to us by phone recently from his home in Los Angeles. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Q: What is it about wrestling that causes so many people to watch it on TV and attend arena shows?
A: I can only speak for myself, and from that I think I can recognize what I’ve seen in it for others. As a child, I was quiet and reserved. I had a lot of feelings, but I sort of learned to keep them in. But I think I learned to express them through sports. So, I could go to wrestling, and I could scream and yell. And I could watch people enact the highest highs and the lowest lows, in the most exaggerated forms. The great glories and the great failures. You could feel happy, you could feel angry that someone was cheating. You got to let it all out in a way that you don’t in day-to-day life.
Q: Did you want to be a wrestler when you grew up?
A: I was born in Canada, spent my childhood in England, then moved to New York. When I was a kid, in England, I would say my first dream was to play soccer for Arsenal. Then I pivoted to wrestling, so my second dream was to be a wrestler. My third dream, which happened when I was around 9, was to be a filmmaker.
Q: Had you thought of making a film about soccer?
A: I would love to make a film about soccer, but I haven’t found the story. Because it’s never about the sport, it’s about the story and the character. This film, to me, was about a family that I have been a fan of for so long, and been drawn to for their heroics in the ring and their camaraderie as much as their being haunted by their tragedy.
Q: It really is a tragic story, from the domineering father and the hapless mother to the difficulties of dealing with, or not dealing with, grief. But can we call it a wrestling movie?
A: It’s first and foremost a family drama about a great American wrestling dynasty. It’s a great American Greek tragedy. One of the things that drew me to it was the mythical nature of their story. That it’s so grounded in being so American, and dealing with American athletic masculinity, and the trappings of that. That’s a theme I’ve long been interested in.
Q: The opening credits mention that the film is inspired by a true story. But Von Erich fans are going to know where you took quite a bit of dramatic license. There’s plenty of time spent on the three main brothers — Kevin, Kerry and David — and to a lesser degree on Mike. But there’s not even a mention of the youngest brother, Chris, who had a tragic death.
A: A lot I had in the original script was taken out. Chris was there, Kerry had a family, David had a family and his daughter died when she was a year old. There was so much tragedy, and to focus and find the movie, I had to find the core of it. That core was Kevin’s survival. Cutting out Chris was the toughest decision I had to make. I was writing the script for seven years, and Chris was in it for a long time. … It was sort of too much for the movie to handle. So, I reconciled with it, but it took me a full year to make that choice. Also, the character of Mike is a combination of things that I picked up about Mike and Chris. So, Chris is in there, but he’s in there sort of with Mike.
Q: There’s a wonderful moment in the film where Kevin Von Erich (played by Zac Efron) is picked up by a fan named Pam (Lily James) and he explains to her why it’s wrong to label wrestling as fake. What are your thoughts on that?
A: What’s interesting is that I really thought of this film more in the frame of a boxing movie. I tried to strike this balance that even if wrestling is staged, written, preconceived — whatever term you want to use — the performers still have to perform, and the physicality of that performance is one of the most difficult feats in all of athletics. So, I focused on the idea that even if the end is determined, you still have to go out and perform, and fight the fight. … That’s the real victory in wrestling — how a wrestler wins over the audience. The other thing was the physical toll. Of course, back in Dallas, in 1983, these guys were not pulling punches. When someone got in the ring with Kevin Von Erich at the Sportatorium, he was going to give you a foot to the stomach and let you know that you were in his arena. That side of it was real, and I chose to embrace that.
Q: The ring action in the film is very realistic, and much of that is due to you hiring former pro wrestler Chavo Guerrero Jr. to choreograph the scenes and train the actors. Was there much stunt double work?
A: There are definitely some stunt doubles. But I would say you can probably count those scenes on one hand. The actors really did most of it. We got lucky because Zac was very good at jumping off the top rope.
Q: How did you go about designing the matches?
A: It’s funny, but writing wrestling matches is really easy for me. Coming out of college, it was one of the first jobs I explored and tried to get. I never got far with it, but I always wondered if I could do that. So, when I sat down to write the script, the matches just kind of came out. Then Chavo and I sat down, and I worked with him the way I work with all of my collaborators — actors, cinematographers, designers. I say, “This is the script. I spent a lot of time working on this. I care about the details, but none of them is set in stone. Every idea that I have can be beat. I welcome it.” So, with a lot of the matches, Chavo would look at them and say, ‘This is great, but let’s change this to this.” Or once he started working with the actors, he’d explain that as a wrestler you stay away from the things you cannot do, and you do the things you can do. And it was the same with actors. They learned to wrestle, and they had strengths they used as guides to know what they could do.
Q: Did Chavo put any wrestling moves on you so you could experience them?
A: Well, we built the ring, and we built the Sportatorium. It was like time travel for me. It was the Sportatorium in 1983. So, I had this dream that I would get in the ring, and I would jump off the rope. But when I got in there, I just bounced off the ropes and said, “Oh, man! Those are hard! That hurts!” I immediately realized that the things that look the simplest are just so painful to the average person. So, no, I did not let Chavo put me in an arm bar.