Shawn Levy talks about some of the challenges of making Real Steel, including getting to work alongside Steven Spielberg, stepping out of his comfort zone and working with real robots. He also discusses casting Hugh Jackman and working with Sugar Ray Leonard.
You've directed some amazingly successful films (Cheaper by The Dozen, Night At The Museum) but it must still be a pinch yourself moment when you get a phone call from Steven Spielberg...
Shawn Levy: It was! I feel like that phone call was my reward for the other movies doing well. It was never my intention to become a comedy director and yet I found I had an affinity to comedy but when that call came in I was editing Date Night and even when he and Stacey Sneider of DreamWorks said to me that it was a robot boxing movie, I didn't know. But then I read it and I really had a specific take on how I would make it, which was different to how other directors might make it, but I knew I wanted it to be a genuinely humanist, rousing sports movie - more than a robot movie, a sports movie. And they were down with that and they really let me make exactly that movie.
Did you go back and take a look at The Twilight Zone episode?
Shawn Levy: I did and I re-read the Richard Matheson short story [Steel] upon which that episode was based, and while our movie is different what I absolutely used from that story is the kind of lonely desperation of the protagonist. In the case of the story, that guy is so desperate for a pay-day that he risks his life to get in the ring at the end of the story. And so in the opening of our movie, with Hugh Jackman driving that truck down that lonely highway, going fight to fight, pay cheque to pay cheque, that was very much inspired by the solitary, desperate protagonist in the Matheson short story.
I would guess that this role requires an actor who has a lot of humility. I mean, he could be overshadowed by the robots or by his young co-star...
Shawn Levy: Exactly and Hugh Jackman knew... the truth is he was on the fence about doing this movie and in my first sit-down with him I explained the character I wanted him to play and the fact that the movie was going to have crazy, terrific robot action but it was going to be about this guy's redemption. Actors want to be in hit movies but they want something to play and hopefully I've given Hugh a lot to play. Certainly, the reaction to his performance has been really nice because we're used to seeing Hugh as the fun song and dance man, we're used to seeing him as the kind of taciturn, hardened Logan [Wolverine] but this is a different kind of character for him and I think he manages to play so many different characters to this guy. I mean, he's a real ass-hole up front but he's f**king heartbreaking by the end.
Did he work with Sugar Ray Leonard a lot?
Shawn Levy: Oh yeah. The Sugar Ray aspect was one of the greatest treats of this movie because on the one hand he contributed to the choreography of the boxing fights. But he also spent time with Hugh and I talking about the mentality of a fighter and the mentality of an ex-fighter, which is what Hugh Jackman plays, and the psychology of the corner-man, which is really what Hugh is. He's the corner-man operating these robots. So, Ray would talk to us about Angelo Dundee, who was Ali's corner-man as well, and would come on a month before every Sugar Ray Leonard fight and he would talk about the connection between the corner and the fighter. A lot of that found its way into the movie and how Hugh thought about the character.
Were you a boxing fan already?
Shawn Levy: Yeah, more in my teenage and earlier years than now. But I think it reflects the kind of transition of the sport itself. I used to love watching Sugar Ray Leonard fight and even though Tyson. I used to love watching a Tyson fight because you would watch with this blood-lust, waiting for the f**king carnage that you knew was coming. So, it's interesting because what we've seen is that the popularity of boxing has waned while the popularity of MMA [mixed martial arts] via UFC is rising. I think it speaks to the premise of the movie, which is robot boxing has emerged because people got increasingly bored with human violence. It's why boxing has given way to MMA, which has a wider range of violence permissable in the ring. So, the idea in this movie is that when people tire of that too, they will devise a spot that isn't limited by the human body and its frailty. So, I've been to a few Manny Pacquaio fights recently and I still love them and I'm still amazed at the primal, electric rush of watching a good boxing fight.
How did you enjoy bringing personality to your robot boxers?
Shawn Levy: Well, that was great fun. We designed 18 robots for this movie and we wanted each of them to have a very specific look and a specific personality. We cast a different fighter for every robot because, again, these aren't animated fights, these are real fighters in a ring wearing these mo-cap suits. And so, I cast a certain fighter to play Midas, a very different fighter to play Noisy Boy or Metro or Ambush. Obviously, our robots don't speak, they aren't people, but they do have a personality in the way that they move and in the way that they fight.
How important then is to have a kid that's not too precocious?
Shawn Levy: I would say this... on the one hand Dakota [Goyo] has some experience but this was absolutely his big break. But I would say this - if you put any 10-year-old boy in front of a real, moving, eight and a half foot tall robot, something is going to happen... because it happened for Hugh and I! We're 40-something men and when we stood in front of Atom and we moved our head one way, and Atom would move his head to shadow us, it's both chilling and kind of amazing. And so what you see in the movie... that boy loves that robot and that wasn't acting; that was what really happened when you put a boy in front of a moving robot for real.
How important was it to you to give Dakota and Hugh real robots to work with, as opposed to CGI ones?
Shawn Levy: I just think that the real robots not only maintained a high bar for the visual effects because we wouldn't accept a pretty good looking visual effects shot because we knew what the real robot looked like because it was standing in the room with us. But also the real robots gave a kind of emotional reality to the performances. I'm telling you, I've done a dinosaur skeleton as a tennis ball on a stick. Hugh has done tennis balls on sticks in all his X-Men movies. There was something different here by virtue of it being a real, moving, live machine.
Interview: Rob Carnevale Photo: Disney