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The Iron Claw Director Sean Durkin on Telling the Tragic Tale of the Wrestling Von Erichs

Sean Durkin’s The Iron Claw is a sports biopic like no other, retelling the story of the wrestling Von Erichs family in a way that contains all the drama, drug use and more than a few deaths, all while celebrating the family’s many achievements. 

The Iron Claw stars Zac Efron as Kevin Von Erich, the eldest of four brothers, whose father Fritz (Holt McCallany) pushes his sons to get into the family business of wrestling at his Sportatorium in Texas. There’s also Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), David (Harris Dickinson), and Michael (Stanley Simons), as Kevin must deal with the fact that his father often promotes his younger brothers ahead of him.

It’s a very different movie for Durkin from his first feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and his more recent The Nest, since it relies more on recreating actual places and events, many that were televised. The story of the Von Erichs and the fabled “curse” is a tragic one, but it also brings more attention to wrestling icons who should really be known about by younger fans of the sport. (You can read my review of The Iron Claw.)

Above the Line spoke with Durkin over Zoom for the following interview..

Above the Line: I know that The Iron Claw was a passion project for you, and it’s very different from other projects you’ve done, being based on real people. How long ago did you start thinking about making it? Were you working on it or writing it even before The Nest?

Sean Durkin: I was working on it before The Nest, sort of at the same time. I started writing this in 2015, or started to think about it as a movie. I was a fan of theirs as a kid and a huge wrestling fan as a kid. I don’t really know how it came to me. I was speaking with my producer on this, Tessa Ross, and she was starting a new company. She just said, “If you could do anything, what would it be?” I had just been thinking about them again, and I said, “The Von Erichs.” She was excited by it and encouraged me to do it, so we started developing it.

ATL: I generally remember that era, especially with the Fabulous Freebirds, but I was also in the Northeast, so very much in WWF territory. Kevin’s obviously very much alive, so at what point do you sit down and talk to him about wanting to do this? Do you start writing first to figure out the story you want to tell?

Durkin: Very much. There was a lot out there about the family, a lot of interviews with Kevin – there’s a lot of material. He’s very honest in interviews, so I could just get to know him, but I wanted to keep some distance. There [were] a lot of very tough decisions to make, and I really needed to know what film I was making before I reached out to him. I waited until we were in prep, and then once I knew the script and the film I was making, I reached out to him and we started talking.

ATL: Is he pretty open about what happened with his family?

Durkin: So open. He’s like a wise man. He’s unafraid to talk about anything — he talks really openly about his own pain, his worst moments, and really focuses on the good things, his survival. He wears his heart on his sleeve.

ATL: I must have seen his family’s Hall of Fame induction, but probably haven’t seen it since it took place. I assume his wife Pam is still around also? Do you go and meet them somewhere for your first sitdown?

Durkin: We spoke on the phone for like a year before we met in person, but we’ve been together a few times in the last month. They all came to the premiere in Dallas, and we got a couple days all together, the whole family – their kids and Kerry’s daughters as well. They were also here in LA for the premiere last night, so we’ve gotten time together in person as well. Kevin’s done some QnAs with us, so it’s been great.

ATL: I didn’t even realize Kerry had kids. 

Durkin: One of the many difficult decisions in the challenge of focusing this epic story.

ATL: Did you show it at least to Kevin and Pam before the Dallas premiere?

Durkin: Yeah, we set up a screening for the whole family and for every member the family, however they wanted to see it, once it was finished but before the premiere.

Lily James, Zac Efron in The Iron Claw (A24)

ATL: At what point did you come up with Zac to play Kevin? It’s an amazing performance, and he’s been doing a lot more dramatic work in recent years, but this is really next level, difficult both emotionally and physically.

Durkin: I’ve always been a huge fan of his. There are very few actors who go so seamlessly between genres the way he does. I think he’s got a real hunger and desire to do good work, and he’s always searching for roles and taking risks. He’s such an incredible performer, and I’ve always been drawn to him – I’ve always wondered how he’d feel in one of my worlds. I wanted to work with him a long time, and this just felt like the right thing for us to collaborate on. I reached out to him, and he responded, and we started working on it together.

ATL: Did he also want to sit down with Kevin and Pam and get some background before taking on the role or did he want to develop his portrayal separately?

Durkin: He sort of followed my lead on that, but he too felt that in some ways, he just wanted to follow the script. He wanted to follow what was on the page and not think too much beyond that, but when they did finally meet, it was very beautiful.

ATL: I can imagine. I still haven’t watched Mindhunter, though I hear it’s amazing, but I’ve seen Holt McCallany in many smaller roles over the years, but he also does amazing work playing Fritz.

Durkin: I sort of describe him as being the fabric of the movie. If Fritz isn’t right, the whole movie doesn’t work. He’s just incredible, completely immersed himself in the role, and he was amazing. In some ways, he was the first person I thought up in a really concrete way. I’d seen him on Mindhunter, and I just thought he was it. The whole cast; I’ve wanted to work with them all for a while, so it’s sort of a dream cast coming together for me. 

ATL: Maura Tierney plays Doris a bit like an enigma, because I’ve seen the movie twice now, and I’m constantly wondering what she’s thinking, and at one point, she just decides to start living her own life. What made you think of her to play Doris? She’s pretty amazing.
Durkin: That’s of everyone, I think. I probably wanted to work with her the longest. She’s incredible, and the role of Doris is very focused on religion and the home, and there’s a straight-forward element to it and quite a quiet element to it. I wanted Maura to play it, because I knew she would just bring a whole other dimension in this quiet way that I just really craved for that role.

ATL: Had The Bear already began when you cast Jeremy or was it around the same time?

Durkin: I think it just came out as we were talking to him, but I’ve known Jeremy for years. We made a film together in 2007 called Afterschool, so we’ve known each other a long time.

Jeremy Allen White in The Iron Claw (A24)

ATL: There’s such a physicality to playing the Von Erich brothers, so did you let the actors find their own way into getting into shape and the right physicality beyond learning the wrestling?

Durkin: I let them do their own thing. I wanted them to feel like what they needed to do physically. I wanted to stay out of that, and I just focused on the wrestling. I had a very high bar for wrestling and brought in Chavo Guerrero to teach the guys how to wrestle and work with me on making sure to get the reality of the wrestling world right. It was fun, but it was hard. They worked hard individually, on their own personal training, and then worked hard collectively in the ring.

ATL: I like the wrestlers who make cameos like the Iron Sheik (played by Chavo), but the actor who played Ric Flair did an amazing job, especially since Ric’s remained active in recent years. How did you go about finding someone who could play the younger Ric Flair so believably?

Durkin: Aaron [Dean Eisenberg] was someone I’ve worked with before. He did an episode of an TV show for me called Dead Ringers last year, and he just came in and did this great part. He has this energy, he has this madness about his character, and I thought, “I’m gonna ask him to be Ric Flair.”

ATL: Did you end up building the entire Sportatorium, and did you shoot it in Texas?

Durkin: We shot it in Louisiana, and we searched high and low for a space to be the Sportatorium. It was really hard. We thought it would be kind of easy.  How difficult is it to find that kind of rundown tin shed building? And it was really hard, and my designer found a furniture showroom, the building was the right shape, so he was looking on Google Maps for buildings the right shape and size, and he found it. It looked right from the outside, and we went in, and it was all literal showrooms, like fake living rooms. We had to gut it, tear down all the wall, and there was the perfect space once we did all that. It was pretty crazy trying to recreate that.

ATL: Was that an abandoned space that wasn’t being used anymore? 

Durkin: It was a furniture business for like 50 years, and they were trying to sell the building, and they closed down the business, so it was still full and functioning, but it wasn’t open on a daily basis.

A scene from The Iron Claw (A24)

ATL: The movie brought back a lot of nostalgia for me, but one of my favorite parts is when you used Rush’s “Tom Sawyer,” and not just a few bars, but you literally played almost the entire song for a montage. Was it hard to get that song?

Durkin: It was like the number one priority for the music was that song. If there was one one song I was gonna be able to afford, it was gonna be that. I just really wanted to have… 1.) it was Kerry’s music, so I wanted it for when Kerry joined, because he brought a different energy, but also it’s the right vibe for the texture of the movie. I wanted that sports montage Rush feeling at the height of their powers.

ATL: Well, it worked. Was it generally tough to get this movie financed? Wrestling is popular, but it’s such a tough dramatic story, and it’s one that people should know about it, because I’m not sure how many younger people are even aware of the Von Erichs.

Durkin: It’s certainly not an easy sell. It’s definitely helped that wrestling feels like it’s entering a peak period again, and when I started in 2015, it definitely wasn’t, so I think that riding alongside has been helpful, but I think it’s just about the right person seeing it at the right time believing in it. When A24 saw it, they just jumped at it, and it was the right time for them, right time for the movie and right time for us. 

ATL: Were they involved from the screenplay stage?

Durkin: It was pretty far along when we showed it to them. They were involved for about a year and a half before we shot, so we’ve been partners for a long time on it.

ATL: I’m always fascinated that actors do all this training to learn specific skills, basically for a single role. Do you think any of your actors will show up at Wrestlemania next year because they got so invested in playing the Von Erichs?

Durkin: I think when we’re all in the midst of it and all psyched on wrestling, they had dreams like that, and I think once they go off and let go the wrestler and return to normal lives, it’s like, “Wow, that was tough, maybe we don’t want to go back to that” so I’m not expecting it, but I can dream.

The Iron Claw opens nationwide on Friday, Dec. 22.

Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas has written about movies for print and the internet for over 20 years, specializing in box office analysis, reviews, and interviews. Currently, he writes features for Below the Line and Above the Line, acting as Associate Editor for the former and Interim Editor for the latter.
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