The film stars Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton, a former boxer forced to change with the times, hang up his gloves and get behind the controls of a robot that will do the fighting for him. A series of brash decisions leaves Charlie without a robot and nearly out of the business. Complicating matters further, Charlie’s ex passes away, leaving him with their young son Max (Dakota Goyo). However, what Charlie first sees as a major inconvenience not only helps him turn around his career, but his life too, as Max’s heart and enthusiasm is infectious.
And that’s not only in reference to Max’s effect on his father. In true Levy fashion, he brings us a child actor who’s wonderfully animated and impossible not to love. Combine that with the visual spectacle of massive robots going at it in the ring and you get Levy’s specialty, a film that aims to wow via incredible effects and wild scenarios, but not without infusing a great deal of heart.
In honor of Real Steel‘s October 7th release, Levy took the time to talk about bringing his robots to life, tracking down the ideal young actor to portray Max and much more. Check it all out in the interview below.
How’d the Real Steel script land in your hands?
Shawn Levy: Steven [Spielberg] called with Stacy Schneider, who’s his partner at DreamWorks, and they told me they had a movie that they thought would match up well with me and would I come to New York and chat with them about it. I read the script and the script was good, but it wasn’t yet great, but the good news for me was that I had an instant instinct about the movie I would want to make out of it. I went to New York and I pitched that vision and the vision in simple terms was a movie that would be equal measures humanity and robo-action and, turns out, that’s why they had thought of me in the first place was to do a different kind of robot action picture, one that is as much about the hearts in the characters as it is about the metal on metal carnage.
That makes me think of some of your other films like Night at the Museum where there’s a balance between the CGI action and heart. Do you think that you drew from your other films here?
You know, I think that that’s fair and frankly that’s why Steven told me he thought of me. He said, ‘Look, I’ve seen your other movies. They’re always commercial and they’re big, but they’re always warm hearted.’ Increasingly what I hear is, while I don’t think about whatever my own mojo is too analytically, certainly the combination of visual scale and, for lack of a better word, heart or a kind of humanism, that’s my instinct and I think probably it’s fair to say all of my movies reflect that and none more so than Real Steel and Night at the Museum.
As a director and producer, what’s step one for you when signing on for a new project?
Step one was script. Well, step one was two steps simultaneously. The first step was I immediately went to Hugh Jackman and pitched him the movie that was in my head. So locking down Hugh right away was job one and that’s what I did. And then I immediately dove into re-writing the script with John Gatins and we spent four to six months revising the script and really bringing out this underdog drama, bringing out the heartfelt aspect of the movie. [Spoiler Alert – Highlight Text to Read] I guess the most meaningful change is what I pitched in the first meeting with Steven, was calling back and utilizing the shadow mode in the climactic fight against Zeus because that didn’t exist.
How much did your hope to up the heart effect the robot design? Seeing the practical effects really makes a difference. They feel real.
Because my version of the movie relies on audience engagement with the characters and a certain heartfelt connection with this redemption story, the movie had to feel realistic. It had to feel realistic so that it would have relatable characters. I didn’t want people to hold the movie or the characters out there at arm’s length. And so to that end, I decided very early to build real robots and the real robots, not only give the movie a visual reality, but they give the acting, particularly Dakota Goyo’s acting, a grounded reality that is essential.
The scenes between the boy and Atom, people keep commenting on them specifically and the magic in those scenes, and those scenes have magic to them because that boy really loves that robot. That isn’t a 10-year-old pretending with a tennis ball on a stick, that’s a 10-year-old doing entire scenes with a fully remote-controlled, 18.5-foot robot. The reason he looks like he loves Atom is because that actor did love Atom.
How far does that go? Where’s the divide between the practical robots and the CGI designs?
Any shot in the whole movie where the robot is not walking or boxing, is a real remote controlled robot. So that’s a lot of shots right there that are fully practical. The boxing, I want to specify, it’s not computer animation, it’s motion capture that is then rendered as CG fully photo real robots. And again, the reason the fights feel visceral and hopefully really rousing is that those were real fighters, boxers and MMA fighters. Each guy played a different robot, they went in a real ring coached largely by Sugar Ray Leonard and directed by me, and they just wailed on each other for weeks. When we got the most brutal, compelling fight, we converted the fight to their robot avatars.
It was really cool and again, the advantage is it’s not animation, it’s real and it’s not some animator who I’ll never meet doing the boxing. It’s me and Sugar Ray Leonard and Garrett Warren, our stunt coordinator, actually directing the fighters in real time, real space, real life.
Where did this fall in the process? Was this material shot before the live action portions?
Yes, exactly. You do the mo-cap roughly five or six months before you shoot the movie itself.
How about simul-cam? Did you get to use that technology?
The simul-cam was mostly used in the fight sequences. There’s six or seven major fights in the movie and they all employed what’s called simul-cam V. This is all a technology paradigm invented on Avatar, but where as Avatar put mo-cap into the created universe of Pandora, we put our mo-cap into live action fight clubs. So what that means is when we would shoot 2,000 people in these stands and Hugh Jackman at ringside, I would pick up the camera to do a shot, I could already see the robots fighting in synch in the ring in my camera. That’s what’s crazy about simul-cam is you are operating your shot to the real fight that you did six months earlier.
It’s amazing as technology and the really fascinating challenge of Real Steel was that although the technology was staggeringly complex, just remembering every day that that wasn’t the stuff that mattered. We needed to use all this technology in the service of realism, always remembering that these are tools, they’re awesomely cool tools, but they are just in the service of making the movie feel real so that the characters could be people we’d connect with.
And how about those characters? Can you tell me about casting Dakota? Unlike with Charlie, I imagine there was an expansive search to find your Max.
Yup, I saw literally I want to say over 300 boys in every English-speaking country in the world and I finally found Dakota who lives in a suburb of Toronto. He had talent, but a lot of kids have talent. Dakota had something else, something that I can only refer to as an authenticity. He just had that reality that he hasn’t yet lost in the morass of kid acting and it’s that reality, it’s that authenticity that if the movie packs an emotional punch, which I’m thrilled that we’ve been getting feedback that it does, it is tethered to Dakota’s heartbreaking quality in the movie and that’s what I was looking for and that’s what I felt I found in Dakota.
How do you approach working with Dakota as opposed to Hugh? You’ve had a lot of experience working with child actors, so what are the biggest differences between directing younger and older actors?
Sometimes you need more takes, sometimes you need to throw the script out and throw improvised lines at the young actor because kids get very dialed into a certain dialogue that they’ve memorized and sometimes it’s really important to throw new words at them so that they’re actually listening to what they’re saying for the first time. I did a lot of that with Dakota and one other technique that really works, in the critical scene of the movie, when the boy watches the redemption of his father in round five of the final fight, I played music and music is a very effective tool with kids because it allows you to communicate feeling without using words, without getting intellectual about it. So in that final round, I told Dakota, ‘I’m just gonna play some music and I want you to feel what you feel,’ and that scene, that slow motion scene in the middle of round five, that was just the result of him listening to a piece of music.
How about yourself? What kind of tool do you like to bring to set? Script notes, lined script?
The biggest thing I do to be ready since Night at the Museum and certainly through Date Night and Real Steel, I work on the script for four to six months before I ever shoot. By the time I shoot, I have got that movie so clear in my head because I’ve been rewriting and rewriting and rereading and rewriting a hundred times for months so that by the time I film it, it is crystal clear in my head.
How does being a director and producer effect what we get in this film? I imagine that the producer duties require you to be economical while when directing, you want to have the film brought to life in the best way possible.
Yeah, it’s both. The truth is, first I always kind of start off in director mode, like what do I want, what do I want from my movie, but then, of course, the producer aspect of me has to find a way to bed, demand, bully, whatever it takes to get what the director in me wants. So it is a bit schizophrenic, but I think I must enjoy that because it allows for a great amount of creative autonomy if you can wear both hats and since Night at the Museum I found that’s the way I work best. It’s not to say I didn’t have amazing support in Don Murphy and Susan Montford and [Robert] Zemeckis and [Jack] Rapke and obviously Steven Spielberg, but I guess I kind of play both sides of the court as far as I dream big like every director should and then I strategize on how I’m going to get what I need and that’s the producer’s job.
Clearly you’ve put a lot of resources into the design of the robots, but you also paid quite a bit of attention to your set design as you’ve got quite a few locations that are really memorable, particularly the underground fighting location and that zoo scene.
With those sets I wanted a certain timeless Americana in the look of the movie and Detroit has this amazing blend of decaying old America with beautiful, sleek and new. So for Crash Palace and for The Zoo, those are real locations. Crash Palace is a 100-year-old Model T factory and there is not one set extension in that entire sequence. The Zoo is an abandoned zoo, the Belle Isle Zoo. And so these are just these amazing, beautiful, forgotten places in the landscape of this city that served the purposes of what we were going for really well. I’m glad you liked the look of them.