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Is 'Real Steel' the 'Rocky' of Robot Movies?

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Sep 06, 2011 | 8:59am EDT

Real Steel - AtomDreamWorks Pictures Real Steel has had its share of criticism since the first trailer hit the web. One particularly amusing comment was, “why should I care about robot boxing?” – this was coming from a guy who flocked to see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. “It looks like such a cliché” – a statement which is itself a cliché these days. To me, all the advance negativity has made the film somewhat of an underdog in spite of its dream team of talent, including director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum), producers Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis and star Hugh Jackman. This is, however, quite fitting as its rousing story follows three down-and-out characters fighting for their shot at greatness. It’s like the Rocky of robot movies, and it could be the sleeper hit of the fall season.

“[This movie] is way more in the sports movie paradigm than the science fiction paradigm,” said Levy on the Detroit, Michigan set of his pricey new production, and based on what I saw at the city’s famous Cobo Center, he wasn’t kidding. When I first walked into the arena, it looked like a major heavyweight fight had just ended. The place was mostly empty, with a few dozen spectators (who were really extras) lingering in the stands, trying to get a closer look at their champion before he left the ring. The filmmaker was actually shooting what I believe may be the final scene in the picture: the camera is set up behind Jackman, Dakota Goyo (who plays his estranged son) and Atom, the nearly obsolete sparring-bot that connects the two, and it’s slowly pulled upward to capture a rapturous crowd cheering as the trio embraces their World Robot Boxing league victory and one another. All this is set to a booming orchestral score that sounded a lot like the final notes from the original Rocky, which made it difficult for the lot of journalists (myself included) on set to keep nostalgic tears from running down our cheeks, but that’s the very emotional response that Levy and Jackman are hoping Real Steel will give audiences.

“When Spielberg called me up and asked if I’d do this movie, I said ‘yes, but I don’t want to do just another robot fetish movie.’ [I want to] do a movie that has robots in it, but make it unabashedly human,” the filmmaker told us after showing the group an FX-heavy sizzle reel and footage of Sugar Ray Leonard choreographing various fights. Though he was admittedly fascinated by the technology his visual effects team used to create the bot-bouts (including software developed for Avatar), Levy was adamant about the spectacle never overpowering the soul of the film: “The father-son story is not in Richard Matheson’s short story (from which John Gatins’ script is based), but it became the heart of the movie.”

It’s the unlikely bond between not only an absentee father and the son he never knew he had that’s at the center of Real Steel, but their connection to Atom as well, and the degree that the filmmakers can make you believe in this “love triangle” of sorts is the biggest challenge the movie faces. “The movie is really less boxing than you’d imagine. There are a few key fights, but really it’s just [about] relationships,” said Jackman when asked about whether it was the futuristic setting or the family drama that drew him to the project. “We have to always remember that the sport has to be relevant to the story so the story can work without the sport.” And so, if you removed robot boxing from the film entirely you’d be left with an endearing (if formulaic) narrative and some strong, conflicted characters; two elements of production that can make any film a winner.

For his part, Jackman seemed to be thrilled with getting to play former bruiser turned robo-promotor Charlie Kenton: “The thing about Charlie, and what I’ve really enjoyed about him, is that he’s desperate. He’s down and out, but he’s also a really charming character in a way. His actions are pretty reprehensible in the first part of the movie, but you don’t hate him. He’s trying for another chance, and because you understand where he’s coming from, you’re kind of [hopefully] on his side.” If the whole cast is as enthusiastic about their roles as Jackman, and if their performances are as multi-faceted as he says his is, it may not matter what any naysayers think about robot boxing.

, and she's someone who genuinely understands and knows this stuff. In fact, the kid kind of knows as much as Charlie. Charlie is good at what he needs to be. As we said, his passion is boxing. And so he's had to learn what he needs to know. And he's not very successful at it, by the way. When you meet him, he's really not doing great.

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Do we get any shots of you from the past, in the ring?

HJ: Well, we decided that I'd be more out of shape. And so before that happened, we shot some sequences of me that are stills in the movie and you don't see any video or film flashback, but you get a sense of it from that. And there are scenes where he explains what he was like as a fighter. But then I put on a little weight so he could look like he could've fought, but is a little out of shape now. And I came to the first fitting and Shawn was like, "Okay, I think we need to back off a little bit" because I was sort of preparing for another movie too, so I was about 20 pounds heavier than I am now.

It sounds like you have a lot of creative input in the movie. Is there anything specific that you bring to it?

HJ: Yeah, Shawn and I got a script that is quite different than this. Structurally it's very similar and there was always a great concept and idea, but Shawn really took it to another level. He worked on it for seven months. And in the beginning, Shawn came to my room -- and the way he works, you just start ad-libbing -- and there are at least two or three big scenes that came out of the ad-libbing we did in my living room. I'm not saying they were my ideas, the credit goes to Shaun. Creatively, Shawn is very, very open and even Dakota, he's saying things and Shawn will listen and give it a try. And I suppose, maybe because of his comedy background, he's very loose.

Getting back to the flashbacks, I know you said there's a severed relationship with the mother character -- the ex-wife -- will we see any of that?

HJ: She's dead at the beginning of the movie. I mean, you hear a little about it but I don't want to give too much away. But you understand, you kind of get the sense of who she was. And the idea of the mother stays alive because you're invested in the son. It was a real relationship, but it wasn't like they were married for 15 years, you know what I mean, but it was obviously a genuine relationship. And the way that Charlie handles it, he regrets it. It was interesting talking with Sugar Ray because he was very open about his personal life with me. And i don't want to get into too many details without his permission, but he said he's remarried now, but when he was first fighting, he said that you're so into it as a fighter or boxer that I think you can neglect things. And because it's all encompassing -- that desire to reach the top of the mountain -- which is very lonely, you're by yourself reaching for that pinnacle, and Charlie sort of has that. It's all or nothing and he's going for it. And relationships, even the relationship he has with Evangeline's character, everything else suffers.

What's the overall tone of the movie? Is it a little more of a family film?

HJ: I will genuinely say that I would love to go see this movie. I think you guys will like this movie, my son will like this movie. When I read this script, I thought, wow this is like those great Spielberg movies. This reminds me of that. They're really genuine with complexity and characters and magic and it will have you jumping out of your seat. And Shaun is very funny, smart, he wears his heart on his sleeve. I mean, he's just all heart. You see it in his movies. They're positive. And there's a confidence and reassurance that goes with him and you see it in his movies. But I'll be surprised if this film doesn't bring a tear to your eye while make you jump out of your seat at the end.

What's it like to just see stuff like this on the set?

HJ: It's so much fun. We did one fight sequence when I was here for six days. And I said on X-Men, that would've taken a month. At least three weeks. And it would've been maybe two units. This is one unit. It's so specific and amazing because Shawn is in control of everything. He's not just handing over a canvas to a bunch of kids who are drawing the animation and then three months later, the director sees it. This way is so much better and so much more efficient and much better for storytelling.

How does it change for you? You're still acting with guys on stilts and with tennis balls.

HJ: Yeah, but I know exactly what it is. That's the difference. I know exactly what I'm seeing. Look, you see all the time in movies spots where an actor goes, "oooh," and he's just made it up. And then someone draws in a pterodactyl flying at his head and you can just feel it. And often, in close ups, I get to use the real robot, and have you seen the robot yet? You'll meet him and you'll get the feeling as soon as you're there and when they're operating it. He'll look at you and talk and he'll nod. That makes a big difference, being able to see makes a huge difference. I watch it just before we do the take.

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