Real Steel takes a quirky Richard Matheson story about robot boxing and turns it into a thrilling tale of robots beating each other to scrap metal. We caught up with the stars and creative team behind this film, and they explained how they went about creating a world nine years into the future.
They also told us why they mixed puppets with CGI, how to create a world nine years into the future, and what they kept from the original Twilight Zone episode.
First up, for those needing a refresher, here's the movie's official synopsis:
Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a washed-up fighter who lost his chance at a title when 2000-pound, 8-foot-tall steel robots took over the ring. Now nothing but a small-time promoter, Charlie earns just enough money piecing together low-end bots from scrap metal to get from one underground boxing venue to the next. When Charlie hits rock bottom, he reluctantly teams up with his estranged son Max (Dakota Goyo) to build and train a championship contender. As the stakes in the brutal, no-holds-barred arena are raised, Charlie and Max, against all odds, get one last shot at a comeback.
Fair warning - there are some minor, fairly general spoilers ahead, but definitely nothing major.
How to Train Your Robot Boxer
The robots in the movie are an interesting mix of CGI and actual life-size remote control models. Legacy Effects built working versions of all three of Charlie Kenton's "hero" robots - Ambush, Noisy Boy, and the movie's robot star Atom - so that the actors could actually interact with and to complement the digitally created boxing scenes.
As director Shawn Levy explains, the two approaches allowed the whole movie to feel more real:
The decision to go with real robots was a bit unusual because in 2011 when everything can be done digitally, on most movies we see everything is done digitally. And so it was like this throwback notion to build real remote-controlled robots that we just felt would give the movie the look, the feel, the performances, the reality that was key. So I'm super happy we did that... It went pretty smoothly. I also have to say that we made what at the time felt like a scary choice to make our hero robot be the only one without a face. And not just our hero robot, our most human robot have no face. That's Atom. And I was amazed at how the puppeteers in the way they moved Atom were able to humanize him. Based on the reaction we get from audiences, people love Atom the way they love Hugh or Dakota, and that's a big testament to the puppeteering and the remote control.
To help make the robot boxing look as believable as possible — which, admittedly, isn't the easiest task in the world — the filmmakers enlisted boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard, who worked with both Hugh Jackman and the various robots to help make them look like boxers. He explained to us how to become a fighter and, more importantly, how to become the trainer of a robot boxer:
My main objective was to not really make Hugh a fighter, but to make him look like a fighter. So, I conveyed to him the fact that it's not just about throwing a punch, but it's about looking and feeling the punch. When he threw the punch, as a fighter, there has to be a conviction and an intention of landing that punch. The face has to match the intention. As a trainer of a robot fighter, that relationship is very, very intimate, very real and very powerful. I told him, "You need to get to a point where you're able to let go and feel and talk through your eyes. If you can do that, the audience will feel that." And he pulled it off and was able to do that.
He also offered this rather amazing take on the different styles he gave the movie's two most important robots, the heroic Atom and the villainous Zeus:
With the robots, my job was to give them their own personal style, depending upon the design of each robot...With Atom, I saw a lot of me. He was unassuming and innocent looking and fast, so I gave him a few of my signature moves... With Zeus being big and strong, I thought of George Foreman. That was the perfect mix because George didn't really throw legal punches.
I do hope someone will ask George Foreman for a response to that. That someone will not be me, however.
Are Robots Really the Future of Boxing?
While nobody involved with Real Steel was trying to claim that it's a 100% accurate vision of the future, there was some thought that the movie's central conceit — that robot boxers will replace humans because it allows the sport to be brutally violent without risking anybody's life — might be onto something.
Costar Anthony Mackie, who plays a Don King inspired robot boxing promoter, says he sees some definite parallels between Real Steel's world of robot boxing and the current rise in popularity of mixed martial arts:
That's why I love this movie so much. If you look at what Shawn chronicled, in the scope of this film, it's along the lines of where we are with boxing. No one really cares about the boxing federation anymore, so everyone is watching MMA, and that has become a billion dollar business now. But, that's going to get to the point where it's just too much. It's like, "Just stop hitting him in the face! Once he hits the mat, don't jump eight feet in the air and land on his nose with your knee. Don't do it!" It's going to get to the point where people are like, "Okay, this dude died in the ring. We can't condone this." So, how can we get the gore we want and have people not die? Robots! It's a brilliant concept for a film, especially at the time we're at.
When asked where the future of boxing is headed, Sugar Ray Leonard simply responded, "To robots." That probably wasn't a completely serious response, but he did allude to the recent controversial Floyd Mayweather vs. Victor Ortiz fight as an example of the very real problems human boxing is facing. Are robots the answer? I don't think we can take robots off the table.
Building the World of 2020
One of the particular challenges Real Steel faces is depicting the world of just nine years into the future, which means creating a world that is somehow both recognizable and at least a little futuristic. We asked Shawn Levy about his approach to creating a fully-realized world in which the robot boxing could exist. Here's his explanation:
I think the key was to not do the same futurism we see in the movies. It's twofold. I wanted a future that felt within a relatable radius. I didn't want a future - look, I love a Blade Runner or a Minority Report as much as the next guy, but Real Steel was always going to live or die on audiences connecting with the characters. To connect with the characters, you need to connect with the world. If the world feels vaguely familiar, I believe the characters will feel relatable. So that was everything. If I just wanted to make a robot boxing spectacle, I would have gone deeper into the distance. But I wanted to keep the world closer to home, so we had a chance of keying into the world and keying into the characters.
So what I did to capture that, the catchphrase was "retro forward." By that I mean, contrary to how many movies do it, your cell phone looks different from how it did five years ago. My laptop does too. But a diner's still a fucking diner. And a landscape is still a landscape. And the world isn't changing, actually, in its core visuals to the extends that movies often embrace the conceit that it is. It's changing in the technology way faster than in the landscape. So that's what I went with, and the result I wanted was almost a timeless, iconic America rather than a temporally specific America. Because I felt like I hadn't seen that before.
Searching for the Lee Marvin Moment
Real Steel is based on Richard Matheson's 1956 short story "Steel," which Matheson himself previously adapted for a 1964 episode of The Twilight Zone, with legendary tough guy actor Lee Marvin in the Hugh Jackman role.
Real Steel is very explicitly only a loose adaptation of Matheson's works, but we were curious whether the filmmakers had looked to incorporate anything from the original "Steel," particularly the most iconic part of the story in which Lee Marvin actually climbs inside his broken down robot and boxes in its place. Producer Don Murphy explained to us how he and fellow producer Susan Montford had been desperate to find a suitable replacement for that moment:
For five years, every time we got a draft, we'd look at each other and bum out because we were still looking for that moment. From the beginning of this movie, we were going to see that the robots would not be human-looking, they would be humanoid but seven, eight feet tall. So the idea that anyone would do that [wouldn't work], but we wanted the equivalent moment. We were frustrated by this for years until [writer] John [Gatins] and Shawn put their very first draft together. I remember Susan and I both met about halfway through, we're on page 52 or whatever, and we're going, "He's going to win the fucking fight!" And that's it, that is the Lee Marvin moment, where he gets into the ring, more or less, and he fights the fight. When his kid says, "I only ever wanted someone to fight for me, dad, that's all I ever wanted", we found that moment, and that's what had been missing for years and years.
We also asked Hugh Jackman about this - he explained he had seen the Twilight Zone episode before signing onto the project, but he'd only relatively recently had a chance to read the short story - and he explained that there were certain elements of Lee Marvin's performance as down-and-out boxer Steel Kelly that inspired his work as Charlie Kenton:
Lee Marvin gave that totally believable sense of desperation. You totally understand why he got into the ring. Even though he knew it would probably kill him, he was that desperate. And I think for our movie, we needed to show why this guy would sell [custody of] his kid [to his sister-in-law]. It's not just like, "Oh, it would be nice to have 50 grand", he's desperate, he owes money all over the place, he's got nothing left. That's one of the things I tried to get into the movie, that desperation.
What Happens Next?
The movie hasn't even opened yet, but there's already been plenty of chatter about a potential sequel, with Shawn Levy already offering some fairly detailed plans on where he'd like to go with a second entry.
For his part, Hugh Jackman didn't want to think too much about a sequel - he likened it to asking a team about to play in the Super Bowl whether they thought they were going to win the Super Bowl next year - but he shared some of the ideas and questions he'd like to explore in a sequel:
The first thing that really intrigues me about a sequel is that Dakota is now 12, and he'll probably be 13 [before we did a sequel]. That's a whole different human being from a 10 or 11-year-old. How great would that be? Rather than hiding from the fact that he's getting older and going through adolescence, what will that add to the mix? You have success. You have a very fragile bonding, if you think about it. They're coming together, but it's still fragile. It's the same thing with [on-screen girlfriend] Evangeline Lilly. It's not like they're at the altar getting married, at the end. There's a lot sort that's unresolved. Let's see what happens with the pressures of success. Who knows where it'll go? I hope we do another one.
Real Steel opens tomorrow.