Director Shawn Levy’s new family-drama set against the imagined world of robot boxing, Real Steel, opens in theaters this weekend. Set in the near future, the film stars Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton, a struggling robot-boxing promoter and former fighter who finds himself in the precarious position of spending a summer with the son he abandoned. During the course of their time together, Charlie’s young son Max (Dakota Goyo) finds Atom, a cast off robot in the bowls of a junk yard and decides that this unwanted sparing bot has what it takes to be a champion.
We had the opportunity to sit down with Levy at the Los Angeles press event for Real Steel to talk about working with producer Steven Spielberg, the value of practical effects and the American dream.
Screen Rant: One thing that people are consistently talking about is the success of the robots and the effects in the film. Steven Spielberg compared the importance of the practical effects in Real Steel to Jurassic Park and talked about how crucial it was to the process of making that film to have the dinosaur puppets on set. We understand that the benefit for the actors is that they have something solid to react to, and that the director has a more immediate sense of framing and composition and how the shots will play out as a whole. I also have a theory that the use of elements like practical effects, and live performers in motion-capture suits, leaves an organic imprint that comes off the screen. And that we, the audience, feel that, and as a result we are able to give over the “reality” of the created world that much more.
“A hundred percent. You’ve answered your own question. It does two things. You do it because on the surface of it, it demands a higher standard of the visual effects because the visual effects need to match the real thing. So you can’t delude yourself into thinking, ‘oh that looks real’ because real is right there in the room. It’s really two things. One, what you get from the actors performances is incomparable. Hugh Jackman will tell you that it was a thousand percent easier to react off of a real remote controlled robot. The reason that those scenes between Atom and Max are magic is that, that’s a real ten year old boy doing a scene with a live robot. The reason that the character Max looks like he loves Atom is because Dakota loved Atom — real life and on screen.”
“So that’s the performances, and the other is what you said, and I haven’t heard it articulated quite like that — the organic imprint. We may not be able to put our finger on why a visual effects thing doesn’t feel quite real but you feel it, and it gives you that one degree off really connecting. And I knew that if Real Steel was going to work it needed to be a great spectacle, but it also needed to be a successful underdog story. You needed to connect to the story and the organic imprint of having real robots gives the movie a reality and connectedness with the audience that CGI alone wouldn’t.”
The effects in the film do indeed resonate on a visceral level. We had the opportunity to see the full scale puppets for both Atom and Noisy Boy and can report that they are legitimately stunning. Atom is of course designed with the intent of appealing to our natural sympathies, wide-eyed with a puppy-dog tilt of the head, and I could not help my heart melting a bit when he turned his gaze on me. In addition to the practical robots that were built and used throughout production, legendary boxer Sugar Ray Leonard choreographed real fighters in motion capture suits for the bouts between the bots. (Stay tuned for our interview with Sugar Ray.)
SR: How involved was Spielberg in the process?
“It was the best of all worlds because we had a very critical and defining meeting up front where I told him exactly the movie that I was going to make and he said, ‘look, go make your movie, it’s yours.’ I had zero interference and I had creative autonomy on this movie more than I’ve ever had. But he said, ‘if you ever want any input, call me.’ And I was like, ‘okay I’ll call you… Steven Spielberg,’ but I secretly knew he was doing like seventy-four other projects. Meanwhile, when I designed the robots, when I had a new version of the screenplay, when I had a first edit, when I started getting visual effects I would call Steven and I would say, ‘hey, can you come down?’ And he would find a way to get there, give me his input — take it or leave it — I most often took it, and then he would leave. So, at every critical decision juncture in the movie Steven was my main number one source of advice and reactions.”
SR: What was that experience like?
“It’s the dream mentorship. I will tell you when I showed my directors cut to the studio (it was Steven and twenty Dreamworks executives) and the lights came up and Steven looks over at me and I see that there were tears in his eyes… He so validated the movie that I had made and that moment was more thrilling to me than any box-office success I’ve had so far. So it’s been a generous mentorship from start to finish with Steven, and it’s now one of the defining collaborations of my career.”
SR: You’ve talked about this being an underdog story. We have Atom, the junkyard bot fighting in underground matches who then rises to confront Zeus, the undefeated champion of the official WRB (World Robot Boxing league). One is a discarded relic and the other robot is equipped with all of the best technology that money can buy. So we have this theme that shows up in a lot of these tales — the wealthy corrupt figure and then the underdog – the less wealthy, heroic figure. Is there something about that theme that appealed to you?
“In our movie the wealthy are not corrupt. They are arrogant, pompous, exclusionary and elitist. Let me say this as a Canadian who has a moderate understanding of this country but a deep and profound love of all things American lore. This country was founded on principals of an uprising, of a challenging of the status quo, and a challenge to the people in control. The whole notion of an aristocracy is an un-American notion because we believe in the American dream which states that you can be nobody, from nowhere, but if you work your ass off and are willing to outhustle and out-commit the next guy, you can win, you can rise up. So, funnily I was interviewed by some snobby intellectual German critic recently and he’s like, ‘this movie is a metaphor for the American dream yes?’ I’m like, ‘wha?’ And he’s like, ‘yeah, well Atom is literally found in the junkyard and betters himself to ultimately challenge the aristocracy. So, yeah… that. It’s a very American notion.”
POTENTIAL SPOILER FOR REAL STEEL AHEAD
SR: The idea of Atom’s sentience is introduced in the film, but is never fully explored, was that a conscious decision?
“I had three versions of the movie. One Atom is alive, confirmed, a soulful, sentient being. Two, we confirm that Atom is just a machine regardless of what this boy believes, and three, maybe. Maybe the boy is right, but maybe he isn’t and we will never know and obviously I went with version three. Because when I confirmed or denied Atom’s consciousness the movie lost a certain magic. I think it’s epitomized in the scene where Atom is alone in the locker room and he’s looking at himself in the mirror. Some people think they see him move, and some people don’t.”
SR: I saw him move.
“Well I’m not going to tell you whether he moves or not but…”
SR: Just slightly…
“If I break my own rule with you Roth, every other journalist will be pissed. I really love the wonderment that comes from maybe, and For “Real Steel,” that’s what I went with.”
END OF SPOILERS
We will be bringing you more from the world of boxing robots as the week continues. Watch for our interviews with legendary boxer Sugar Ray Leonard and the man behind the short story that inspired the film, beloved and revered author, Richard Matheson.
In the interim, take a look at our previous article from our interview with Levy in which we delve a bit further into the notion of a class warfare that is present in the film, discuss story details for Real Steel 2, and provide updates on Frankenstein and Fantastic Voyage.
Real Steel opens in theaters this Friday, October 7th.
Shawn Levy directs a cast that includes Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly, Dakota Goyo, Kevin Durand, Anthony Mackie, Hope Davis and James Rebhorn with Steven Spielberg producing.
Follow me on twitter @jrothc.
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