Shawn Levy interview: Real Steel, Real Steel 2, robots and motion capture

With Real Steel out in the UK this Friday, we caught up with director Shawn Levy to discuss the making of the film…

Real Steel offers a rivet-popping, metal-rending sci-fi take on the sports movie, and a refreshing counterpoint to more realistic genre fare such as The Fighter and Warrior. Although special effects play a big part in its entertainment factor, it is, like Rocky before it, a drama at heart, and in many ways this is as important to the movie’s success as giant robots and computer effects.

Ahead of Real Steel’s release on Friday, we caught up with director Shawn Levy to discuss the film. And here’s what he had to say – and do bear in mind, there’s a bit of colourful language dotted about here and there…

Obviously, Real Steel’s a special effects-heavy film, but it’s heavily reliant on drama as well – if that aspect hadn’t work, the film as a whole wouldn’t have worked.

I think that’s the key thing. I knew from day one, literally in my first meeting with Steven Spielberg, I said, “The movie will have amazing robot action, but it won’t be about the robots first. It’s going to be a redemption story for Hugh’s character, a father-and-son movie.” So because the priority was on the drama, the effects had to be seamless, because so many effects movies, you’ll see one shot, five shots, and suddenly, you’re like, “Ah shit, now I’m out of the movie.”

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So because I really wanted it to play like a sports drama, I knew the effects had to be as realistic as the characters and the performances, writing and all the rest of it.

You’re no stranger to special effects, with the Night At The Museum films, but how did Real Steel compare to those?

This is next generation. Hugh and I would laugh, when we’d look back at the Museum movies, and when Hugh looks back at his X-Men and Wolverine movies – those are literally another generation. I feel like, what Zemeckis created with motion capture, and the massive revolution that Jim Cameron exercised in Avatar, Real Steel is the first iteration of a new paradigm, post-Avatar.

I can speak in more detail, but virtually my entire production and effects team came straight off Avatar. As a result, the choice was made to do two things, one of which we’ll return to if you want. The first choice was very retro, which was that we were going to build real robots. The second choice was to take mo-cap simul-cap, which Cameron invented, essentially, and use it so the robot fights aren’t CGI animation. They’re real fighters, fighting each other full contact, in data-sensing jump-suits, with Sugar Ray Leonard and me directing them. They’re converted into robot avatars, and plugged into real venues.

So really, there’s a technological paradigm in this movie that didn’t exist two years. And it’s absolutely the right way, I think, to pull this off, and why people who’ve seen the movie have come out and said, “I didn’t see the seams.” It just looks like a real fight with real things, with real mass. We worked very hard at that.

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This paradigm you’ve talked about, what does that mean to you as a filmmaker? Does it make your job easier?

I’ll tell you. Both on the first Museum and on Real Steel, I spent the first month of pre-production completely lost. I literally would sit in meetings with these tech wizards and understand fucking nothing. [Laughs] I would nod along, and later go off to my inner sanctum of team members, and go, “Okay. I need a fucking tutorial right the fuck now.” It’s like when you’re in college, and you’re not understanding something, and you need to just jam on it until your brain masters it.

I got a crash course in motion capture, and simul-cam technology. After that first month, my learning curve was very steep, and then I got a handle on it. Eventually, I got a mastery of it. Ultimately, the lesson now, to me, is even when I’m daunted by visual effects that I do not understand, view them as masterable, and view them as another great tool in the kit of how you’re going to tell your story.

In Real Story, which aims to be more about the character story than the robots, I knew that I needed to view them as being in the service of the sport and the redemption of the characters. And the truth is, a lot of movies pay lip service to the human drama and the character stuff, but anyone who’s seen Real Steel can attest the fact that it’s a full on sports movie, about the redemption of the central characters before it’s a movie about robots taking over the world or any such thing.

The robots are very much slotted into a recognisable world, rather than a futuristic one, aren’t they?

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That’s why I did it. I knew that I wanted the world to be near-future and recognisably our own. So it’s not the extreme dystopia of Blade Runner or A.I. It’s not the antiseptic gun-metal grey of Minority Report. It is, in fact, a very saturated, unvarnished, gritty, almost Americana iconography, with some future touches. Whether it’s Hugh’s phone or Hugh’s truck, we’re saying that the world hasn’t changed radically, but a new sport has evolved within it.

You mentioned the Americana. It struck me early on that you’ve caught these big vistas, but then the fights are quite shiny and neon-drenched. There’s a real clash there.

The shininess changes, right? You’ll see that there’s a certain palette to the underworld fights, that changes quite a lot when we get to the league. And for those who haven’t seen the movie yet, that segregation of levels was important to the storytelling, because Hugh Jackman lives in the underbelly of the sport – underground, unsanctioned fight clubs. Suddenly, he gets invited to a league venue, the WRB, and we really treat the WRB like a real thing, and it’s got its own technology, its own palette, its own aesthetics. But it was really fun to have different looks for the underground and the league.

I think it’s interesting, that over the last year or two, we’ve had a few underdog fighting movies emerge again. We’ve had The Fighter, and now Warrior

Have you seen Warrior? Is it great?

I though it was fantastic.

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And that’s MMA, right?

Yeah, which I didn’t know anything about, which didn’t matter at all. But I was wondering if you had an opinion why these films appear to come around in a very specific economic climate.

That’s interesting. In the 70s you had Rocky, The Champ. Raging Bull was 1980, I believe. I don’t know. I do think that these sports movies, and fight movies in particular, appeal to our craving for a black and white world. They appeal to our yearning for clear winners and losers – clear good guys and bad guys.

Now, increasingly, while there are still some clearly identifiable bad guys in this world, life itself right now is so fluid in terms of what’s right and what’s wrong – and as we know, as soon as you leave school, there’s no clear yardstick. There are no report cards, there are no grades. And fight movies appeal to a primal way of seeing the world, because victory and very clear, and loss is very painful.

Ironically, again, people have said, how are we going to care about any of it? Because Real Steel’s about robots. But everyone who’s seen the film realises that what we’re going for is, you care about the people in the robots’ corner. Sports movies give us this very elemental, rooted interest in the storytelling.

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You mention heroes and villains. I have to say, Kevin Durand was brilliant.

He’s great. I love that he ends up being – some of that stuff, which was improvised, that scene with Anthony Mackey, but it’s two amazing actors. In the early drafts of the script, that’s a character who’s just very mean to Hugh Jackman’s character. And all along, Steven Spielberg was saying, “I’m telling you. I think we should bring him back. He’s got to get his.” And some people thought, at that point, the movie’s moved on, no one really cares about the supporting bad guys.

So I said, I tell you what, we’ll shoot this scene, and we’ll see what audiences think. And unsurprisingly, given his audience instincts, Spielberg was right, because when that character comes back, and there’s a chance to exact some vengeance on him, it’s very gratifying. He’s a great bad guy.

Also, there aren’t that many actors out there who could kick the shit out of Hugh Jackman. But Kevin Durand, at six-foot-six, he’s one of them. He’s really that big.

So how did Hugh Jackman take to the film, given that he has to interact with the robots a lot, and the motion capture artists?

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He loved it. The truth is, like the rest of us, in the days when we were with Sugar Ray Leonard, we’d just sit around listening to the stories. Because this was a guy who’s been through it, who’s been in that ring, and told us what it feels like to walk down that path to the ring. What it felt like when you knew it wasn’t your night. When you knew that you were going to lose, and you had to get in there and get your fucking face hit – it was enthralling. We loved that part of it.

But I have to say, Hugh, along with Dakota [Goyo] who plays his son, when we first brought in the robots, Hugh was dwarfed by them. When you move your head to the left, the robot moves his head to the left. When you nod, that robot nods.

So those moments were real robots, not CG ones?

Oh yes. They’re all real. There’s a scene where the boy’s looking at Atom, and he goes, “Can you understand me?” And he goes, “Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me.” That’s all real. So what you have is Atom, standing there with those lights, the fan belts in his ears, and you have this guy, Jason Matthews, who’s the puppeteer. And Atom has these hydraulic pipes that run out of his back and to the controller. The puppeteer operates a hand controller that you basically slide your hand into, and there’s a mock-up of Atom’s face on the glove, and everything you do with your hand, Atom does on a one-to-one ratio in real time.

So all those scenes where we’re having the shadowing of Atom, I would not tell Dakota or Atom’s operators what to do. I would just go and say, “Dakota, do whatever you want, and see what the robot does.” Then I’d go to the puppeteer, “You watch that kid, and mirror whatever he does.” And so all of that was unrehearsed. All of that was real. As a result, what you see in that kid’s eyes, which is true admiration, that was actually what happened on that set. I think, right there is the special sauce that you get in building real creatures, rather than relying on negative space and tennis balls on sticks.

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I suppose the obvious question is, will there be a sequel?

I would be super happy if there’s a next one. In fact, as has been reported, we’re working on the next one – the script. But first we need good fortune this fall, but Hugh and I are very eager to make another one. We love these characters, we love this world, and we’ve got some crazy, cool ideas for where to take the robots in the next iteration, if we’re so lucky as to get the chance.

Shawn Levy, thank you very much.