The problem with robot fighting movies: They're so damn robotic. As visually pleasant as Michael Bay's Transformers trilogy was on a big screen—we're always game for ogling a sexed-up Megan Fox or Rosie Huntington-Whiteley—the blockbuster spectacles had less heart and emotional investment than a tin can. Personally, the only thing that made me feel anything was Bay's outrageous introduction of Mudflap and Skids, the Autobot version of a minstrel show, in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Beyond those buffoons, I didn't care which of the soulless characters lived or died.
With Real Steel, director Shawn Levy (Date Night, Night at the Museum) intended to add emotional resonance to the heap of scrapping metal movies. Based loosely on Richard Matheson's 1956 man vs. machine short story "Steel", which was adapted for a 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone, the movie tells the tale of Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), an ex boxer forced to manage robot fighters after they replace human combatants. Saddled for a spell with the son (Dakota Goyo) he abandoned, he attempts to coach an underdog 'bot to the ring glory he was denied and maybe even be a father to his child like Ed O.G. said.
Complex spoke to Levy to discuss the changes he made to Matheson's story, their emotional impact, how boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard and other fight professionals contributed to the action, and the hip-hop dance routine that you will either adore or abhor.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)
Complex: Were you familiar with Richard Matheson’s story “Steel” and the Twilight Zone episode when you signed on to direct Real Steel?
Shawn Levy: I knew of Matheson as a writer. I’d not read “Steel” or seen the episode. So shortly after I met with [Steven] Spielberg and talked about doing the movie, I promptly educated myself and it got me even more excited. The short story is not only a big idea, in that it’s about a robot boxing promoter, but there was also a true desperation to the protagonist that I thought would be a good basis for Hugh Jackman’s character, and in fact provided the foundation for that character.
When you got involved with the project, in September 2009, had the original story of a robot boxer manager and his partner already been changed to be a dramatic father-son story?
When I came on board, there was this father-son story. It wasn’t yet at all poignant but it was definitely this father-son story set against this sport of robot boxing. So, to that extent, yeah, they had already made that kind of shift, but the movie wasn’t getting made. It had been in development for eight, nine years. The script was quite good but I had a real notion of how I wanted it to be made, particularly in the aftermath of the many other robot movies we’ve seen in the last number of years. I felt that to occupy a unique space, Real Steel needed to be more about its underdog story, more of a father-son and sports movie than just a robots-wailing-on-each-other movie.
The comparisons to Transformers were inevitable, but that was more of a spectacle trilogy than an emotional story of any kind.
Obviously Transformers is spectacle of the highest order, and I have massive, massive respect for what [Michael] Bay has done with that franchise; we are going for something different here. Hopefully we still satisfy in our action sequences and in our fights, but the most gratifying aspect of the way audiences have been reacting as Hugh [Jackman] and I travel the world with the movie is that, yes, they love the spectacle, but they love the heart even more.
In the Twilight Zone episode, the robots are human-size, which allows the former boxer Steel Kelly to eventually disguise himself as his broken down 'bot Maxo and get in the ring with one of the machines that replaced him. How and why was it decided to enlarge the 'bots?
Well, I think they only look like that in the Twilight Zone episode because there was no option of visual effects. I’m completely not kidding. One can look back at that early ‘60s episode and it’s kind of comical how clearly human the robots are. We wanted to occupy the space between human scale and Transformer scale, which is why we went with a range of 8'3" to 8'7" in the robots’ height. We were really just trying to make them not only individuated amongst themselves but also from other robot movies, being real clear about the fact that in Real Steel the robots are human-designed, human-built, and human-operated.
With much larger robots, clearly Hugh was not going to illustrate mankind's tenacity and heart by fighting one. Do you feel like that theme is still a large part of your film? Where do you see it living?
It’s absolutely [a theme]. In the sense that the Matheson story is about the primacy of the human element, I feel like Real Steel is even more committed to that message. Atom is a sparring 'bot; the only reason he has any chance at surviving in the ring, much less winning, is that he’s channeling the know-how and training of a human fighter. His secret, his magic, is his ability to channel a humanist sensibility in the ring.
My very first reading of the script, my first idea was, we’re gonna bring the “Shadow Mode” into round five. That wasn’t in the movie, so in my first meeting with Spielberg I said, “Look, the movie’s gonna be badass but it’s gotta pay off emotionally. So, in this last fight, yes, it’s gotta be about our robot maybe having a shot at winning, but more importantly it’s gotta be about the Hugh Jackman character returning to grace. And even more critically, it’s gotta be about the son witnessing the father’s return to grace. And so that entire fifth round I pitched to Steven in our first meeting, and then John Gatins and I wrote it up exactly that way.
How were they dealing with that beforehand without the “Shadow Mode” allowing Hugh Jackman’s humanity to be funneled through Atom?
My memory is that Atom eventually starts fighting with magical autonomy. [Laughs.] That’s a viable movie, but that’s a much younger movie. Obviously Real Steel is appropriate viewing for a wide span of people but you can also see that I made a very concerted choice to neither confirm nor deny Atom’s consciousness, and if we suddenly had him fighting on his own, it maybe would’ve worked but it just wasn’t what I had in my head.