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Shawn Levy interview: 'Real Steel robot fights are f**king gnarly'

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Movie Interview: Shawn Levy

© Rex Features

Shawn Levy has tickled movie audiences' funny bones with the likes of Night at the Museum and Date Night, but now he's switching to the sporting arena... with something of a twist.

Real Steel is set in a future where human boxers have been replaced in the ring by brawling robots. Hugh Jackman stars as Charlie Kenton, a retired fighter-turned-trainer who preps a discarded machine for battle while trying to repair a damaged relationship with his son. Digital Spy sat down with Levy to discuss his new blockbuster.

Real Steel has Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis as producers. With them involved, did that make this an instant yes for you?
"When I first got the script Steven had called, I'm sitting at home reading the script and my wife says, 'What are you reading?' I said, 'Oh it's this thing Steven and Bob Zemeckis are doing. I'm just going to read it and see if I react.' She goes, 'What the f**k are you talking about?! It's Spielberg and Zemeckis, the answer's yes!'

"In truth, the answer was always going to be yes. It was a good script, but I had a very clear take on how I thought I could make it great. I knew the vision I had for the movie was specific enough that if it wasn't what Steven wanted then I wasn't the right guy. Fortunately, the tone that I envisioned was in sync with what he wanted and he said that's why he had chosen me. He really let me make the movie that I pitched in that first meeting."

Was the father and son angle really important to you?
"Father-son was really important, but also just doing a robot movie that was humanist. I've never seen that in live action, I've seen it in WALL-E and Iron Giant but robot movies tend to be of the Terminator and Transformers ilk.

"Obviously those movies are really good and have had great success but to do another one like that would be completely unoriginal. I knew that I wanted to do a movie that was more a father-son story and a sports movie than it was about robots just wailing on each other with no human stakes."

Hugh Jackman in Real Steel
Real Steel


Are you a big sports movie fan?
"Yeah, I grew up watching everything from the Rocky movies ad nauseam, both the great and the lesser ones, I love them all close to equally. I was just remembering earlier a movie called Victory with Pele and Sylvester Stallone. Chariots of Fire and Hoosiers and Rudy and The Champ. I just think that sports movies have such a built-in visceral, rooting interest, an epic win or lose redemptive quality. When they get it right, it can make for a really rousing movie experience."

Did you use motion-capture or animation for the boxing scenes?
"It was motion-capture, there was very little animation. I was clear from the get-go that I wanted to rely as little as possible on animation. We built a lot of robots for real, so every scene where Hugh or Dakota [Goya] or Evangeline [Lilly] is activating a robot, that's all real. It's why those performances, particularly that boy's, tend to be so magical. That's a real ten-year-old boy with an eight-and-a-half-foot tall robot shadowing his every move.

"The boxing, I wanted the fight to just be f**king gnarly. We had real fighters in mo-cap suits with Sugar Ray Leonard there as our boxing consultant. What that allowed for is not only a really full-on violence to the choreography but the ability for me or Ray to direct the fighters rather than relying on some animator that I might never meet."

Was it a short list for Hugh's role? There aren't many leading A-list stars who look like they could play a believable boxer.
"What's interesting about casting Hugh, maybe Will Smith is in this category, is he's a movie star who you believe in the physicality of the role. But he has such a built-in likeability that he can play a complete asshole.

"Hugh Jackman spends the first half of this movie behaving in ways that are unforgivable, and yet we never quite risk alienating the audience because Hugh brings such a sheer force of niceness! Hugh really enjoyed playing a d**k! When that character starts to find redemption in the latter half, it's tended to be a very emotional reaction from audiences."

'Real Steel' still
'Real Steel' still


Dakota Goya's character Max is very much his father's son...
"He's a tough kid. The truth is, in real life, Dakota is a well-raised, polite, sweet Canadian child. I'm Canadian and like me he's hardly from the mean streets of the American inner city! He played this attitude with such relish because he speaks to people in ways that he could never do in real life. I think he really quite enjoyed playing the brashness of that tough kid."

Was 3D ever a consideration for this movie?
"Yes. Honestly, my thinking is shifting every day on 3D. I've been working with James Cameron on Fantastic Voyage, which if we make that it's literally an underwater 3D movie. It's staggeringly complex, it's about a guy who can only save the life of his estranged wife from the inside out.

"I've had a lot of time with Jim and for a movie like that, that is literally immersive I think 3D is essential. For a movie like Real Steel, I didn't want people to think it was about the robots first. The spectacle is great but it's about those characters and that's why we chose not to go 3D."

Did you keep any of the robot props yourself or are they being stored away for the sequel?
"We have them stored away in case of promotional tours slash sequel!"

Are you involved with the script that's in the works for Real Steel 2?
"Oh yeah. I've done a lot of movies that have generated sequels and some I've not directed, like Cheaper by the Dozen and Pink Panther. Like Night at the Museum, this franchise - if indeed it becomes one - is so close to my heart that... we've been working many months on the script for the sequel.

"I don't know yet if we'll have the good fortune to make one, but it does explore some really cool s**t that we weren't able to fully exploit in the first movie. My own daughter said, 'Dad, don't make another one unless it's really good because this one is good!'"

Real Steel opens in cinemas this Friday (October 14).

Watch the Real Steel trailer below:

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