‘Real Steel’ Director And Hugh Jackman Find Humanity In Boxing Robots

As part of our Fall Movie Preview, Shawn Levy reveals how he created the sci-fi sports drama's authentic boxing matches.

Summer may be over, but the fall season still holds plenty of hot movies worth looking forward to. We’re celebrating the coming months of fantastic films all week long with MTV News’ Fall Movie Preview, starting with a sports drama mixed with a sci-fi twist: “Real Steel,” the robot boxing movie starring “Wolverine” leading man Hugh Jackman and “Lost” babe Evangeline Lilly, which opens on October 7.

Click for exclusive photos from Fall’s biggest flicks.

“Real Steel,” which takes place in a future where robots have replaced human athletes in the boxing arena, marks a serious departure for director Shawn Levy, in more ways than one. The director of the “Night at the Museum” films and “Date Night” is most commonly associated with the comedy genre. In “Real Steel,” he’s stepping into the ring with significantly more dramatic fare. MTV News chatted with the director about his experiences exploring a new genre, how the giant robots of “Real Steel” were constructed (hint: they’re more human than you realize) and much more.

MTV: This movie feels like a big departure for you in a lot of ways, Shawn. Your past work has focused mostly on comedy, but “Real Steel” takes on a decidedly different tone. Was that the appeal for you, trying on something new?

Shawn Levy: You know, comedy has been really good to me, but this was a deliberate departure. This is the kind of movie that I’ve been waiting to do. When I was editing “Date Night,” the call came in from ["Real Steel" producers] Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider, and they said, “We’ve got this underdog sports movie with boxing robots.” Already when you have [those two] on the other line, you’re inclined to nudge towards “yes.” But I’ve always loved sports movies, I’ve always loved that kind of iconic underdog story which sports movies tend to service so well. This was a deliberate step and an exciting chance to stretch some new muscles.

MTV: Well this definitely does fall into the sports drama category, but when you’re throwing giant robots into the mix, you’re getting something just a little bit different than what we’ve seen from the genre before. Was it tricky trying to service that sports drama audience while keeping the sci-fi elements in the forefront as well?

Levy: Honestly, it was an every day balancing act, from the six months of working on the script, the eight months of preparing the movie and the four months of shooting it, and another six editing it. It was every day, making sure you’re servicing just the crazy, balls-out action of robots wailing on each other — and thankfully we had [boxing legend] Sugar Ray Leonard as our consultant for the fights, which was a really great guarantor [of quality].

I’ll digress for a moment, but what’s cool about this movie is that this isn’t computer animation. This is motion capture with real fighters in a real ring, consulting in the ring with me and Sugar Ray, wailing on each other in full contact. We took that captured fight as data and we converted it into robot avatars. That was a big thing. To do the movie as mo-cap instead of animation was a big choice. Mo-cap allows the director to direct a performance; it’s not left to the imagination of an animator that sometimes you don’t even meet. It was huge. Every day we were making sure the robots were cool-looking in terms of design and full-contact fighting.

On the flip side, we could never forget that the movie is about Hugh Jackman’s character, first, last and always. The movie is really only 30 to 35 percent robot-based fighting, but it’s 100 percent anchored in Hugh Jackman playing this bot corner man and how he uses these machines to eventually get a shot at redemption.

MTV: Which is interesting, because when you see Hugh in these movies with huge action elements, he’s usually very much at the center of those scenes. But that’s not exactly the case in this film, is it?

Levy: Without giving too much away, he’s at the center in that … our hero robot, he ain’t the biggest, he ain’t the newest, he’s not state of the art. What he has is this connection that I won’t give away to Hugh’s character, such that Hugh plays a former boxer [named Charlie] whose knowledge of the human sport that used to exist is the advantage that his robot has over the others. Every robot in the movie is built with one gear: full-on ground and pound. This robot fighter is informed more by Charlie’s boxing history. So there’s a nuanced human flair, resulting in this robot and his connection to Jackman, who’s able to win fights he has no business winning.

MTV: As a director, how did you establish that connection between Hugh and his fighter? These are the two leads of the film, really, but only one of them is played by an actual person — unless you leaned on motion-capture for most of the robot’s appearances?

Levy: Well, this is where it gets really cool. In my first meeting with Steven Spielberg, he said to me, ” ‘Jurassic Park’ was a long time ago, before computers could do everything. We built real dinosaurs that moved. I know it’s an old-fashioned notion, but consider building real, fully animated animatronic robots.” So that’s one big difference on this movie: We built real robots. In the fight scenes, it’s me and Ray directing human boxers. But in every scene in the movie where Hugh is interacting with one of his robots, if that robot isn’t walking or boxing, it was a real, big, massively tall robot in the room on set and in the movie. It’s unreal.

What happens is, whether you’re 10 or 40 years old, if you’re a guy, and you’re face to face with this robot that’s literally shadowing everything you do — it’s actually robotically operated from a remote feed — it’s just unbelievably cool, and it affects the performances in a way that you just don’t get … if you’re acting opposite a tennis ball on a stick. There’s no comparison. That was really the co-star. ATOM in particular was in the room with us every day. I’d direct ATOM, his puppeteer, in much the same way that I’d direct Hugh. It was really cool to work with [something practical] in this day and age, where everything that can be computer-generated usually is computer-generated.

MTV: We’ve talked a lot about the technical side of making “Real Steel,” but let’s go back to the beginning: You wanted to carve out a different type of movie for yourself. How did you find the experience of going from the comedy world to something significantly more dramatic?

Levy: The irony is that though I’ve made thankfully a number of successful comedies, if I were to name my top 20 favorite movies, maybe you’d find one comedy on there. My career has gone one way, but my tastes have always run another. Those tend to be dramas, action, sports. So what was really amazing was to do a movie where the pacing, tone and, most importantly, the aesthetics and performances, where all those elements were not in the service of the almighty laugh. They were in service of themselves. When you do comedy, the laugh always comes first. Maybe you’ll find a scene or sequence — and I can point to this in “Date Night” — where you’ll bracket it off and slow down the movie with something a bit more poignant. But to do a whole movie that was not first and foremost in the service of laughs was very, very different, and very, very liberating.

From “Abduction” to “Muppets, “Moneyball” to “Breaking Dawn,” the MTV Movies team is delving into the hottest upcoming flicks in our 2011 Fall Movie Preview. Check back daily for exclusive clips, photos and interviews with the films’ biggest stars.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Real Steel.”

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