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.

 

You had a bunch of animatronic robots, but motion capture technology was used for their fighting sequences. Who were the people behind the robots?
Every robot in the movie was cast with a boxer or MMA fighter. I think there’s eight featured robots, maybe 10, and so every robot was a fighter in a real ring with me and Sugar Ray Leonard directing the fight. We could only mo-cap about 30 seconds at a time because robots don’t get tired. We needed our human fighters to go at each other, full contact, full go. So we would get these incredibly violent intense bursts of choreography, and then we’d let our guys rest. And that’s how all the fights were done, with real fighters in real fights converted into a robot avatar for each fighter.

How did Sugar Ray end up working on the film?
I knew that we needed a credibility to the sport, and so I wanted to bring in the real deal. I found a way to contact Sugar Ray Leonard, I spoke to him, I sent him the script, he really responded and he was super helpful in two ways: On one hand, he contributed a lot of the choreography in the fights. He also worked with Hugh Jackman on those specific punch combinations, on how an ex fighter moves and thinks and carries themselves. I know that Hugh feels really grateful that it informed how he built that character.

What sort of problems did robot fighters present for Sugar Ray in choreographing the fights?
The truth is, I was really amused at how completely Ray embraced the notion that they’re robots. In fact, there’s a move in the trailer, a very dirty move that’s in the underground fight, where a bot drops down to one knee and goes with a straight right into Noisy Boy’s groin. That was Sugar Ray Leonard who added that punch in. I was like, “What are you doing, man? You’re here to choreograph the real shit.” He’s like, “Are you kidding? I’m throwing in stuff I could never have done in the ring. The whole point is it’s not human, so let’s do stuff that humans wouldn’t be allowed to do." And he really embraced the fun of the conceit.

The future Real Steel depicts is technologically advanced but also unchanged in many ways. What was most important for you when designing your vision of the future?
In fact, some of it looks past, which was the point. First of all, we’ve seen so many versions of futurism on film that I wanted to try to create something unique. I knew that, if this movie’s gonna work in a unique way, it’s gonna work because people get into the characters and the underdog story and they get into it in the way that we got into the Rocky movies—not in the way that you sit back and get presented a spectacle, but one where you’re actually leaning forward and engaging in what’s going on up there.

I wanted the future to feel relatable so that the characters feel relatable. The whole mantra of the movie was “characters first.” I wanted the world to feel accessible so the characters were accessible. The other thing is that you have a different cell phone than you did five years ago, but a diner is still a diner, and a motel on the side of a highway is still the same damn thing. We wanted to acknowledge the speed with which technology evolves while also acknowledging the lethargic pace with which our landscape evolves. So that’s why we coined this mantra or phrase “retro forward.” We wanted a real melding of old and not yet.

I assume that played heavily into your decision to film in Michigan, and Detroit specifically. The movie’s first fight was filmed in an auto plant. It’s poignant considering that automated assembly lines replaced human workers.
That’s why we went there. There’s this shot where Midas gets introduced. He is standing at the end of this colonnade of auto manufacturing robotic arms. No one’s noticing that, you don’t need to notice that, but there was a genuine poignancy in this cathedral, this magnificent space, the Highland Park Ford Plant.

So many people assume that it’s set extension and visual effects and there’s not one single shot in that entire Crash Palace sequence that isn’t the real place. It is so epic and yet so filled with the patina of obsolescence, of history. As soon as I walked into Highland Ford, I knew I was shooting Real Steel in Detroit. That was literally the location that made up my mind.

 

[The hip-hop dance routine] was always that one scene where I told the writer and the studio, 'This can be cringe-y or it can be crazily winning. We’re gonna put it in front of several thousand strangers and see real quick, and I reserve the right to take it out of the movie if it don’t play.'

 

Did the plight of the people of Detroit and the parallels factor in for you?
To some extent. I was always conscious that the theme of this movie is “coming back,” the dream of a second shot. In the case of the movie, it’s in a relationship between a father and son and between an ex fighter and the sport that abandoned him. Obviously, if there’s any American city that is hoping for that comeback, for that second shot at greatness, it’s Detroit.

How much of the Atom's "Shadow mode" mimicking of Hugh's character was informed by modern video gaming, and the way that people play Wi or Xbox Kinect?
Some people, especially boys, have said, “Oh my god! It’s a video game come to life!” The movie is absolutely playing with that wish fulfillment. I was very aware of that. It’s why, in some ways, the idea is even richer now than it was when Matheson wrote it. We are able now to fight as an alter ego on a screen. Maybe the day is drawing near—maybe not 10 years near but 30, 40 years near—where we will be able to animate our own avatars, both in a video game and perhaps some day in a ring.

What was the genesis of Dakota’s hip-hop dance routine?
That was in the script. It was always that one scene where I told the writer and the studio, “Look, this can go one of two ways. [Laughs.] This can be cringe-y or it can be crazily winning. We’re gonna see. We’re gonna put it in front of several thousand strangers [at screenings] and we’re gonna see real quick, and I reserve the right to take it out of the movie if it don’t play.”

We started screening the movie, and I would literally look to my left and my right and I would see these faces in the theater, and at first it was like, “What? Is this kid gonna…? What?” And 10 seconds, 20 seconds later, you had heads nodding and people smiling in spite of themselves. Certainly I was helped by the fact that Timbaland saw the movie and wrote that song ["Give It A Go"] as an original piece for Real Steel. It’s a good track that helps. Thus far, it’s gone well and it becomes one of those scenes that a lot of people end up being charmed by. You never know with something like that.

Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)