March 5th, 2024

‘Iron Claw’ director Sean Durkin was ‘haunted’ by film’s real-life wrestling tragedy

By Alex Nino Gheciu, The Canadian Press on December 22, 2023.

Canadian-American Sean Durkin directed "Iron Claw," a sports drama about the famed Von Erich professional wrestling dynasty. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Elevation Pictures **MANDATORY CREDIT**

When pro wrestler Kerry Von Erich died by suicide in 1993, it left a mark on Sean Durkin. The Ontario-born writer-director was 12 at the time, but he’s been thinking about it ever since.

The death resonated with the filmmaker on an even deeper level when he began to look into the late brawler’s family. The Von Erichs were a close-knit wrestling tribe of five Texas brothers raised by their ring veteran father to achieve triumphant highs in the ’70s and ’80s, only to be overshadowed by tragic lows. All but one of the siblings would die before the age of 35.

Their story is back in the spotlight with Durkin’s new A24 biopic “The Iron Claw,” which stars Zac Efron and Jeremy Allen White as Kevin and Kerry Von Erich.

“Kerry’s death definitely hit me as a kid,” says Durkin. “My dad’s brother had died previously a few months before. My dad had six brothers, too. And so there was some connection I made there. I just felt connected to them and that loss haunted me. It just stayed with me.”

The film follows the Von Erich brothers, anchored by Efron’s eldest Kevin, as they suplex their way to the top of the wrestling world while attempting to live up to their domineering father Fritz’s sky-high expectations, no matter how much it hurts them. We see the sons grapple with the pressures placed upon them in an industry where masculine vulnerability was seen as a weakness.

“I was really drawn to this conflict between wrestlers who are in the ring performing these extreme acts of emotion – these high highs and lows and injustice and all of these big themes,” says Durkin.

“And then in real life, they’re stepping behind the curtain and they’re not allowed to show any emotions. You have to be tough, you have to carry on. So I was really interested in that complex. At the core, my aim was to tell a story about this family, but it’s also very much to explore those questions of masculinity and expression and how not expressing can really destroy you.”

Three of the Von Erich brothers – Mike, Kerry, and Chris (the latter was left out of the film for narrative purposes) – died by suicide while one, David, died of acute inflammation of the small intestine.

Durkin consulted with Kevin, the sole surviving brother, and made sure to gain his trust before filming “The Iron Claw.”

“The first thing Kevin said was, “˜There’s a lot of things that aren’t true on the internet about me and my family. I want to make sure that the movie shows that me and my brothers loved each other,'” he says.

Durkin assured Kevin the events portrayed in the film would only be based on reliable sources, including the former wrestler himself.

“I took great care with that and the movie is essentially about this brotherly connection and this love and it celebrates that. And so, once he knew that, he put any sort of guard or hesitation down. That was within the first five minutes of us talking.”

For the role of Kevin, Efron transformed into a hulking mass of muscle and underwent rigorous training to learn the basics of being a real-deal wrestler.

“I knew he had the athleticism, the physicality, and he’s clearly got a hunger as well,” says Durkin. “But even before that, you could tell he wants to try stuff. He’s unafraid. A lot of actors in his position don’t necessarily have that same hunger to try things.”

But the film ultimately has a gentle, beating heart, and Durkin says it was Efron’s ability to portray the repressed sensitive side of the second-eldest Von Erich brother that made him a perfect fit for the role. He says when he met the “High School Musical” actor, Efron exuded an innately “sweet, kind” nature that Kevin also possessed beneath his strong, silent surface.

“That sweetness has to just be there, and I don’t believe it can necessarily be performed. So that was really the deciding factor. He just had all the pieces I wanted.”

“The Iron Claw” is in theatres now.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 22, 2023.

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