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)

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