Shawn Levy was in the midst of editing “Date Night,” the Steve Carell and Tina Fey-starring comedy, when an unlikely call came his way: Steven Spielberg wanted Levy to helm “Real Steel,” a futuristic action flick about boxing robots.
No matter that Levy had made his name capturing Ashton Kutcher making sure what happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas and Ben Stiller running through a magical museum. Spielberg wanted him, Levy had always wanted to make a sports movie, and so a new phase in his career began. That fresh cinematic direction hit theaters Friday with Hugh Jackman in the starring role and the #1 spot at the weekend box office virtually assured.
Pretty nice work for a new guy. To fully understand how it all came together, let’s flash back to 2009 to learn everything there is to know about “Real Steel”:
Spielberg, a producer on the film, signed Levy up for the directing gig, but at that point in ’09, they hadn’t nailed down who would play Charlie Kenton, a down-on-his-luck ex-boxer in a future where machines now do the fighting and in which Charlie and his estranged son Max (Dakota Goyo) build a robot who just might be able to be a contender. Think “Rocky,” or maybe another Sylvester Stallone flick, “Over the Top.” Or, as many have scoffed, Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots on the big screen. But the film is actually based on a short story by Richard Matheson, whose work has given rise to “I Am Legend,” among other Hollywood fare. That was a pretty good pedigree for Jackman, who entered into talks to play Charlie that October and officially signed on the next month.
“Real Steel,” Levy said the next spring, is “a weird amalgam [of influences]. What it’s not is “Transformers” or “Terminator.” There’s definitely shades of that ‘Rocky’ paradigm. There’s shades of “Paper Moon,” in that it is a father/child road movie. And it’s really kind of a redemption movie. It’s got some humor, but it’s definitely not a comedy. It’s got a lot of action, really kind of muscular action, and a lot of … heart.”
Entering the Ring
Filming kicked off in June with co-stars Anthony Mackie (a boxing promoter) and Evangeline Lilly (um, just a friend of Charlie’s) coming along for the ride. The first look at the flick appeared just as filming began in the summer of ’10, showing off both slick futuristic robots and gritty dystopian environs.
The first trailer had an undeniable “Transformers” vibe, despite Levy’s assurances that his movie is an entirely different (robotic) beast. But the comparison is hardly a negative one, especially considering the billions that Michael Bay’s franchise has garnered. And audiences were responding well — so well that Disney reportedly kick-started work on a sequel this past April.
The Big Fight
As October approached and another trailer appeared — this one focusing less on the “Transformers” actions and more on the “Paper Moon” emotion — we debuted a picture of the “Real Steel” boxing ring as part of our Fall Movie Preview and chatted with Levy, who spoke at length about his motion-capture robots. “This is motion capture with real fighters in a real ring, consulting in the ring with me and Sugar Ray [Leonard], wailing on each other in full contact,” he told us. “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.”
So, sure, there’s a ton of brawling, but as Jackman told us at the red-carpet premiere recently, there’s also a ton of heart. “A lot people [say], “What is it, Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots?” But it’s got a lot of heart,” he said. “This movie is really about the relationships of everyone involved, and I think it’s going to surprise people. I saw it with my mother-in-law, my wife and my kids at the same screening, and they all were crying at one point, laughing, and they really got into it.”
Check out everything we’ve got on “Real Steel.”
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