Sean Durkin’s The Iron Claw picks up right where the acclaimed filmmaker’s first two films left off. 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene and 2020’s The Nest both received critical praise, as did the staggering performances of Elizabeth Olsen and Carrie Coon, respectively. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Zac Efron is now receiving the best reviews of his career in Durkin’s latest well-received drama about the tragic true story of the Von Erich wrestling family.
The A24 film centers on Efron’s Kevin Von Erich, as he’s the sole survivor of a real-life nuclear family that once included five other sons: Jack Jr, David (Harris Dickinson), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), Mike (Stanley Simons) and Chris. In a tough decision, Durkin cut the youngest brother, Chris, from the proceeding, since there’s only so much trauma an audience can handle in one two-hour-plus sitting. However, each brother was raised by their father Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany) in a pressure cooker environment, where they were not only held to impossibly high standards, but were also subjected to Fritz’s ever-evolving rankings of his favorite son.
Fritz taught his sons to withhold emotion no matter whom or what they lost in the process, and so Durkin purposefully saved the film’s concluding emotional scene for the final day of principal photography. The end of a production rarely coincides with the end of the story it’s telling, so Efron and his character finally got to experience the catharsis that was denied throughout the story and shoot.
“It was all leading up to that for Zac, because there were so many moments in the film where his character just wants to cry. His character just wants to break, and I just kept saying to him, ‘No, not now, not here,’” Durkin tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And so he was keeping it all in, and when we finally got to that final day, he was just full of tears. We did seven takes of that shot with the boys. He just kept going, and it was really amazing.”
Durkin shot the film’s wrestling scenes in such a visceral manner that the audience can feel each moment of impact and the ensuing pain that comes with it. As a wrestling fan himself, the Canadian-American filmmaker partially wanted to make a point to anyone who demeans the work of professional wrestlers.
“On some level, I must be, because, as a wrestling fan, I feel so defensive about that argument,” Durkin says. “I feel outraged when people dismiss wrestling, because every form of entertainment that we consume is scripted, so what’s the difference?”
Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Durkin also compares the toxic patriarchal figures that appear in all his films so far, before detailing why he omitted Chris Von Erich from Iron Claw.
Well, let’s cut to the chase: do you believe that this family was actually cursed?
I do not believe in curses, at least not in the mythical sense. I do believe in the psychology of a curse, and when you’re in a family where a lot of bad things have happened and happened to you, it’s very easy to believe that you are going to get sucked into that pattern. And sometimes, that can almost become self-fulfilling, but that psychology certainly can take a toll and almost act as much as the idea of a mythical course could act. So, no, I don’t believe in it, but yes, I think the results of it can be the same.
We’ve seen “sports dads” drive their kids to breaking points. For example, Todd Marinovich, the famous “test-tube QB,” had his diet controlled as far back as the womb, and he eventually had a lot of problems. So I think the Von Erich family is just the most extensive version of that since five wrestling brothers were all raised in a pressure cooker.
Yeah, I think so. Fritz is a really interesting story because he was going to play in the NFL, and then hurt his knee. Kevin was potentially on his way to the NFL, but hurt his knee. Kerry was on his way to the Olympics, but the boycott happened. So there were these alternate athletic paths for them, but ultimately, the family business was the thing to fall back on. Fritz fell into wrestling and then claimed he never wanted his boys to be wrestlers, but he obviously wanted them to be wrestlers. And so there’s a contradiction there. But I do think that Fritz operated from a place of love, as hard as he was and as damaging as some of his decisions were. I think he loved his boys and thought he was giving them the best life and setting them up for the best life they could have. Obviously, he had some blind spots there, to say the least, but I think his intention was for them.
When you have a ranking system for your kids, you’re really flirting with disaster.
John Hawkes’ character in Martha Marcy May Marlene, Jude Law’s character in The Nest and Holt McCallany’s character in Iron Claw all seem like chips off the same block. They’re patriarchs who hold their respective families hostage with their dreams and delusions. Am I onto something here?
You’re definitely onto something. A cult leader [Hawkes’ character] is typically manipulating and harming people, consciously, for gain. The characters of Fritz [McCallany] and Rory [Law] are certainly gaining from making decisions for their family, but they don’t mean to harm. So I would say that’s the difference, but they’re still very much, like you say, patriarchs, making selfish decisions that cause harm, whether intentional or not.
You tend to bring out the best in your actors at whatever point in their careers you work with them. Elizabeth Olsen in Martha, Carrie Coon in The Nest and now Zac Efron in Iron Claw are all examples of that. Firstly, how much credit do you want to give yourself?
I’ll take some credit. (Laughs.)
Of course, why not? Did you create a similar environment for all three and direct them all similarly? Or did your direction adjust to each individual?
First of all, it comes down to casting the right person for the role or the person that I feel is right or I see something in them. So it’s very instinctual, and once that happens, I believe in trust. I believe that if you cast someone, trust them to do their work and be there for them as much as they need you to be. And so, for some people, that means talking every day for three months in the lead-up. Or, for some people, it means they read the script, we sit down for 15 minutes and then they say, “See you on set.” So everybody is different, and each requires a different level of communication. So I let them lead that, and I trust that, and I’m there to support it. And once we get there, it’s just about creating the best environment on the day for them to do their best work, and just being sensitive to what they’re walking in with that morning and what the scene requires. It’s just always being tuned in so they don’t need to tell me what they need. At that point, I know what they need, and I try to be there for them in that moment.
Zac has a show-stopping scene at the end with his character’s two sons, and it’s probably the finest scene of his career. What’s the story behind that day?
Well, it was the very last day. I was crying because England had just been knocked out of the World Cup, so tears were flowing. (Laughs.) But it was all leading up to that for Zac, because there were so many moments in the film where his character just wants to cry. His character just wants to break, and I just kept saying to him, “No, not now, not here.” And so he was keeping it all in, and when we finally got to that final day, he was just full of tears. It was incredible. We did seven takes of that shot with the boys. He just kept going, and it was really amazing. He had just saved it all up, and he was just really present. So there wasn’t much to it at that point. The kids were great, and everyone knew what it was.
In the scene that also kicks off the trailer, Zac’s character runs the ropes in dramatic fashion, and the sound design is reminiscent of a moving train. Was that in the mix at all?
I hope it’s not. If it is, I don’t know about it, but it does take that rhythm. The timing is so precise between the steps and the ropes that it certainly takes on the rhythm of a train.
You have to take creative license with biographical films like this. It comes with the territory, and so I think I understand why you omitted the youngest brother, Chris Von Erich. Besides having tragic overlap with Kerry, would it have just been too much trauma to throw at an audience in a film that’s already 2 hours and 12 minutes? Was that your reasoning?
Absolutely. I wrote the script for seven years, and Chris, the youngest brother, was in it for five years. It was not a decision to take lightly, but it was pretty clear. It’s hard enough to cut a character that you love, never mind when it’s a real person. If you have to cut a character you love, it’s heartbreaking. So there’s so much care and responsibility and love wrapped up in this, and when you separate yourself as a writer, it was very clear that there’s a repetition to their tragedy. So I don’t believe that a film could withstand that, and I don’t think an audience could have withstood it. I’m also not sure how many financiers would have withstood it. (Laughs.) Joking aside, it was clearly the best way for me to tell the story, and the story is about Kevin surviving. When you have a story that’s this epic, you have to make a lot of tough decisions, and ultimately, everything in it has to service Kevin’s survival. The character of Chris, as he was on the page, did make it into the movie. A lot of him became a combination with Mike [Stanley Simons]. Mike, as a character, is a combination of Mike and Chris, but this was one of many difficult decisions.
The way you shot the wrestling really emphasizes the physical toll that it takes on each wrestler’s body, and I think it’ll help change the minds of people like Lily James’ character who think professional wrestling is fake. Were you actually trying to sway those people who write off what professional wrestlers do for a living?
Yeah, I think so. On some level, I must be, because, as a wrestling fan, I feel so defensive about that argument. I feel outraged when people dismiss wrestling, because every form of entertainment that we consume is scripted, so what’s the difference? So I really considered it, but the other element is that, back then, wrestling was even more real. Kevin would actually connect with people, so there was a physicality and a brutality to that era of wrestling. I also just wanted to focus on the performative nature of wrestling. It doesn’t matter that it’s predetermined; it’s about how you perform and how you connect to an audience. The same goes for a musician playing a live performance or an actor in a play. It’s not just going through the motions or executing what’s planned. It’s about how you do it and the energy you do it with and how people respond to you, and wrestling is the same.
The Iron Claw opens in theaters on Dec. 22.