The most powerful sports films not only focus on the glory of winning, but also celebrate self-discovery and camaraderie. The upcoming biographical drama, “The Iron Claw,” is one such movie. The biopic thrives on chronicling how the famed Von Erich family embraced a high flying rock and roll style in Texas wrestling in the 1980s in order to overcome their pain and grief.
The film a true Greek Tragedy in the American heartland. Drawing on the tradition of features that explore the tightrope of glory, loss and American masculinity, “The Iron Claw” chronicles the importance of finding love in the relationships between fathers and sons, as well as brothers. The drama’s writer-director, Sean Durkin, also questions the lens with which families are conditioned to see the world in order to find a hopeful new future throughout the project.
“The Iron Claw” chronicles the true story of the inseparable Von Erich brothers – Kevin, Kerry and David (Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White and Harris Dickinson). Together, they made history in the intensely competitive world of professional wrestling in the early 1980s, in part by popularizing the titular hold. Through tragedy and triumph, under the shadow of their domineering father and coach, Fritz, (Holt McCallany), the brothers sought larger-than-life immortality on the biggest stage in sports.
Efron, White, Dickinson and Durkin generously took the time last week to talk about penning, helming and starring in The Iron Claw during a press conference over Zoom. The filmmaker and actors spoke about making the feature to help promote its release in theaters, courtesy of A24, on December 22.
Q: Sean, take us back to your first interest in wrestling, and when you first heard the name Von Erich.
Sean Durkin: I was a nine-year-old boy living in England, obsessed with wrestling. I was watching WWF on TV, and buying every magazine and old VHS tape I could.
I think I came across the Von Erichs on some kind of old, Best of NWA Wrestling tape. I saw the three of them wrestle together for the first time on one of those tapes in the late ’80s.
I fell in love with their energy, as it felt different than anything else I had seen. Everything on TV at that time was a bit more family-oriented and cartoonish. But this footage of them from only a few years prior was raw, and felt more real and exciting. So I was really drawn to them.
I saw Kerry Von Erich when he was in the WWF Live a few times. I just really loved their family.
I remember hearing that some of the brothers had died. I specifically remember the day I read in Pro Wrestling Illustrated in 1993 that Kerry had died. I was really haunted by it and was sad. Like I said, I had seen him perform live, so I thought about the family. So that moment really stayed with me.
My dad’s brother had actually died only a few months before. So I think I made a personal connection between my dad’s family and the Von Erich family, and they were always very meaningful to me.
In 2015, I was having a meeting with Tessa Ross, my producer on the film. She said she was starting a new company, and asked me, “If there’s anything you want to do, what would it be?”
I had just been thinking about the family again, and I don’t know why. But they stayed with me for all those years. So I told her I wanted to make a film about the Von Erichs, and she said, “Yes, let’s do it.”
Q: So how did you navigate the story about this family into the pages of the screenplay? What was your starting point?
Sean Durkin: Well, I was very drawn to the fact that the family is so large and they have such an epic story. It felt like a mythical, American Greek tragedy. I had never seen that depicted, or a great film about wrestling in general, before.
Wrestling is very meaningful to me. As a quiet kid, it felt like it was the only place where I found my voice, and I was only able to express myself as a wrestling fan.
But incorporating that Greek tragedy into the story was tricky. There was so much that has happened to this family that it couldn’t all be included in the film. So the struggle was deciding what to include, and I spent years deciding what to include in the story. I ultimately landed on Kevin and his survival.
Q: Zac, Jeremy and Harris, did any of you have familiarity with this story going into the project? If not, how did the story in the script hit you, since the brothers’ lives were so extraordinary?
Zac Efron: I wasn’t aware of the Von Erichs before I read the script. But after speaking to Sean about it for a few hours in our first meeting, it seemed like it was too much too happen to one person and one family. But the fact that it was all real drew me in.
Also, the fact that it didn’t feel like a wrestling movie, and instead was a really great movie about family and loss, and Kevin being able to triumph over this curse, drew me in. The story was really deep, and I still can’t believe it.
Jeremy Allen White: I also wasn’t familiar with the Von Erichs. But my takeaway echoes Sean’s understanding of the story, in that there’s almost this mysticism and fantasy aspect to the family. The story is so unbelievable that you question, how can all of this happen to this one family?
The environment is also so fantastical, regardless of the tragedy. I feel like these men were so larger than life in their profession of professional wrestling. They really were these heroes, especially in Dallas and Texas, but ultimately, also throughout the United States and the world.
What was fascinating to me was the arc of the family, and how many of them fell. Also, existing in that environment in that time period of the 1970s and ’80s of professional wrestling, which I didn’t know too much about, seemed interesting and intriguing to me.
Harris Dickinson: Whenever WWE came to London, I used to go see it with my mate. But I wasn’t aware of this era of wrestling.
Echoing what these guys have said already about the delicacy of the story and family element, it was really intriguing to me. These three brothers were in a very unique position in wrestling. Their rise to prominence in that world is wildly impressive. Along with that, all of the tragedies came. It’s a fascinating story that I knew Sean would handle so well.
@Photo by Eric Chakeen/Eric Chakeen – © House Claw LLC.
Q: Zac, Jeremy and Harris, what was the biggest takeaway from training to be a wrestler?
Harris Dickinson: How difficult it is to maintain a physique like that.
Jeremy Allen White: Yes, and also the realization that we were doing this for four months total, including the preparation before we began filming, wouldn’t be as difficult as what the brothers went through during their entire careers. Also, working with guys like (retired professional wrestler) C
Zac Efron: Yes, these guys had shows year-round. We worked with Chavo, whose family is all wrestlers. He comes from a long line of pro wrestlers.
Some of the stories and insight that we got into what it’s like inside and outside of the ring for professional wrestlers was so cool. I think all of us left this set with tremendous respect for wrestling and appreciation for how hard those guys work.
Q: Talking about Chavo, did he assist with the wrestling on set?
Zac Efron: Yes, he did. Chavo really appreciated the fact that we were invested in the wrestling. The harder we went after it, the more he was excited about making it specific and personal, and pushing it the extra mile.
Chavo’s a massive reason what most of the wrestling in the movie looks so good. We took an extra beating, but it was definitely worth it.
Q: Zac, as a brother yourself, what have you learned about overcoming tragedy from working on the film?
Zac Efron: I can’t say that I’ve had any tragedies quite this significant happen to me in my life. But having a little brother myself definitely made the story extra precious to me.
There was definitely a level in which I can relate to the material that really made it personal. There are certain things about having a sibling that make them your best friend and motivator.
That was one of the fantastic things about this script and working with Sean – it was all about the brothers and the love that they had for each other. I think that made it really beautiful and super fun. It was an awesome way to gain new brothers – just throw us into the ring and have us duke it out. It was really fun.
@Photo by Eric Chakeen/Eric Chakeen – © House Claw LLC.
Q: Did that bond come quickly for you guys?
Jeremy Allen White: I feel like we get asked this a lot. (White laughs.) But it was so easy. I’m sure it was a combination of things, but having that time with Chavo and these guys before we started filming was really helpful.
We were trying to work out this new skill the best we could. During the process, we developed a real shorthand, shorthand and camaraderie. They’re all lovely guys, so it felt easy to care.
Zac Efron: We all came into this feeling like fish out of water, especially putting on the wardrobe. (Efron laughs.) But we were all together in that experience, so it was shared, which I think was a really unique experience for us. That definitely helped.
It was also very clear that these guys wanted to go after it. It was fun to be with these guys in the ring because we would one up each other, which was really motivating. It was very clear from the get-go that they were driven and talented actors, which set everything in the right direction.
Sean Durkin: I always try to fill the cast with people who I think would get along. But you never know, and I’m not always right. But luckily here, it was immediately clear that they would get along, which was very sweet.
We shot the first couple of weeks at the ranch. On the fourth or fifth day of shooting, I came back from lunch and I heard music blasting. I got out of the car and saw Jeremy, Zac and Harris lifting weights and taking ice baths. They were hanging out and just said, “Hey!” (The actors laugh.)
Zac Efron: You said, “I want in on this!”
Sean Durkin: I did say that! But I had an excuse and didn’t actually get in (the ice bath).
Zac Efron: Yes, between takes we were lifting weights and taking ice baths. It was fun!
Q: Were you able to meet with any of the brothers before you started making the film? Were you able to have a conversation with Kevin?
Zac Efron: No, we as actors didn’t have any initial conversations, at least not before filming. Sean, did you have any initial conversations with Kevin or the family?
Sean Durkin: I made a decision early on not to contact Kevin.
I had a previous situation where I was working on a film about a real person. I spent a lot of years doing research and meeting a lot of people who were close to that person, who’s deceased.
I got really close to them. Then when I showed them the script, if I wasn’t telling their side of the story the exact way they told it to me, it made it really hard to tell the story.
The thing about Kevin is that there are hours of footage of him giving interviews for documentaries, and he was just an open book.
Q: How difficult was it to bring these characters to life, and then to step out of them once filming was over? You mentioned the footage of Kevin, Sean; Zac, Jeremy and Harris, as actors, did you rely on footage of all of the brothers wrestling during your preparation?
Harris Dickinson: There’s so much content on the brothers, and there’s great material to go off of to find rhythms and action. But it’s tricky because you see different versions of them when they were in promo mode or in the ring, when things were more heightened.
But there’s not a whole lot of them just talking in the family scenario. So you had to wonder a bit about what that might have looked like.
It did become a little bit obsessive when there’s someone to let go of after filming. I spent a lot of time watching and listening to him. It’s a strange thing.
I remember we met David’s nieces, who came over to me after the premiere. They were like, “Hey man, you’re just some British guy. How did you imitate him?” I was like, “I don’t really know.”
Then you feel the pressure even more because the family was there. But it was lovely. It felt like they all received us very nicely.
Zac Efron: Meeting Kevin, and just being able to sit and talk with him for awhile one-on-one was one of the most gratifying moments of my life. I got to see Kevin at this phase of his life with all of his family, which is massive, in such a happy place. He has such a wise quality about him that is beautiful.
It’s beautiful to be able to sit with a guy like that, especially after knowing everything that he’s been through. For him to be able to come out of that, and then for me to be able to sit with him, was amazing. He’s the kind of guy who gives me hope for the future. It was a great moment.
He loves the movie, especially the relationship between the brothers. When he told me that, that was just everything.
@Photo by Eric Chakeen/Eric Chakeen – © House Claw LLC.
Here’s the trailer of the film.