When “Real Steel” trailers first surfaced earlier in the year, it was difficult to know what to make of the robot boxing film. With Michael Bay’s triple feature letdown of the “The Transformers” trilogy and the unavoidable similarities between “Real Steel” and the kitschy Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots of yesteryear, how could this be anything more than another piece of disposable pop entertainment?
The premise is certainly ambitious. Set in the near future where 2,000-pound robots do battle in the ring while controlled with iPad-like devices by human handlers, the story centers on a father-son team (Hugh Jackman and Dakota Goyo) training an unusual robot to win a boxing championship after Jackman’s fall from glory as an actual human boxer. However, buzz started early on the picture with test audiences apparently raving about the movie, and DreamWorks took the rare step of getting a sequel in development way back this spring, months before the first film’s theatrical bow. “Yes, well, the studio’s faith is very strong,” director Shawn Levy recently told us. “Even ‘Night at the Museum’ didn’t test like this. People were cheering in a movie theater. The last time I remember that happening was in ‘Rocky III’ with Clubber Lang or even against Drago in ‘Rocky IV.’ So we got that kind of visceral reaction from audiences, and the studio not only took the bullish move of developing a sequel and asking me to sign on, but then also didn’t deny it when it leaked in the press. That was a show of confidence that hopefully we will reward.”
That spirited reaction is something that Levy and star Hugh Jackman hope will be replicated in theaters when “Real Steel” opens this weekend. Here’s more from our conversation with Levy and Jackman in which they share their insights on the making of the movie, training with boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard, and the feel good family vibe of the film that we called a “crowd pleaser.”
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1. Hall of Famer Sugar Ray Leonard Got Hugh Jackman Into Punching Shape
You might think a guy like Hugh Jackman, no stranger to action and best known for his grizzly portrayal of the well-muscled Wolverine, might not have to work too hard to look the part of a boxer. But Jackman says when on-set boxing advisor Sugar Ray Leonard sat down with him, he didn’t go easy. “I had been doing some training when I saw him and he was like, ‘Oh you’ve got a lot more work to do.’ He was honest with me about that. I needed to look like a professional boxer,” Jackman said.
It’s precisely that intense training that helps sell key moments. For example, during a pivotal scene later in the movie, Jackman’s character Charlie Kenton must control the robot Atom manually with his own physical motions. “When it comes alive, that moment, you need to see him and you have to believe that moment,” says Jackman. “As he boxes, it’s like his whole being comes alive. It’s going to allow the audience to believe in the robots.”
And yes, for those wondering, Jackman does offer a brief shirtless glimpse at his boxing-toned physique. “I’ve already been impugned by certain women and gay men for not extending those moments,” director Shawn Levy said. “[The DVD] will be nothing but outtakes of Hugh taking his shirt off [Laughs]”
2. Hugh Jackman Thought The Initial Unlikeability Of His Character Would Lead To Reshoots
When we first meet Kenton, he’s a down on his luck ex-boxer toiling through the shady world of underground robot boxing and trying to stay afloat. When the son he abandoned comes back into his life after the passing of his biological mother, Kenton is indifferent. The part is a surprising one for Jackman, who has a reputation as a pretty likable guy, both on and off screen. “I fully expected us to be reshooting the movie after the studio saw it,” Jackman says of his character’s initially caustic approach to his son. “I mean, I agreed with the script, I loved it, but you never know until you see it fully together if you’ve gone too far.
“It is a total redemption,” Jackman says of his character. “Ricky [Kevin Durand] is a stand over guy who breaks your knees if you owe him money. Charlie’s lost belief in himself. He thinks the world has passed him over. He doesn’t feel anything anymore because it’s easier to live that way. When life is disappointing to you and you get hurt so much you just end up switching off. I think that’s something we can all relate to on some level.”
As Kenton, Jackman squares off with his on-screen son Max. The actor admits the moments were uncomfortable and required some additional prodding from Levy. “Shawn kept pushing me to go further,” says Jackman. “And Dakota Goyo’s a very polite, well-brought-up kid as well. So Dakota was kind of getting prodded as well. Truth be told I kind of enjoyed it. I really like him a lot. I genuinely love Dakota — he’s a great kid, a great actor. I have an eleven-year-old, literally there’s times you want to say things and you’re like [grumble] and you just shove it back down inside. I’ve walked out of rooms so frustrated for fear of what I’m gonna say. And for three months it all just came out.”
3. Shawn Levy Wanted Real Robots On Set & Wasn’t Just Content To Add Them In Digitally In Post Production
The robots of “Real Steel” look better than “The Transformers.” A combination of digital and practical effects, as well as radio control work, make these robots look pretty bad-ass. More importantly, you can actually see what the robots are doing during the action scenes. Even with half the budget, Levy and co. were clearly able to afford the tripods Michael Bay couldn’t. “Atom is real,” says Levy of the hero robot. “We built him. He’s an eight-and-a-half foot tall, radio-controlled, real robot. So those scenes between Dakota and Atom where it looks like that boy loves that robot is because that boy actor loved that robot. I would tell Dakota, ‘Move however you want’ and then I would tell the puppeteers, ‘Whatever that kid does, you shadow him like a mirror.’ That fascination and love of that machine was genuine.”
Another director might have been tempted to go the quicker route and finish much of the robot moments digitally in post. But Levy says he was adamant about having the robots on set. “I have to say, I am really partial to doing things practically,” says Levy. “We had to always have them on moving dollies. They’re over 1,000 pounds. The remote-controlled robot had hydraulic veins. It’s super cool. Everything that the movie has, we have because it’s real.”
4. Hugh Jackman Says The Character-Driven Nature Of The Story Will Make The Movie Appeal To Both Kids & Adults Alike
It’s easy to dismiss a movie about boxing robots as being strictly for little boys and overgrown manchildren. But if Jackman and director Shawn Levy have done their job, “Real Steel” is a fun movie that offers something for everyone. “We all love action, but just on its own, I’m not going to see that movie,” says Jackman. “I think my son probably would. He’s 11. But this is a movie that’s intended to play for all audiences. My son, my wife and my mother-in-law saw it and they all loved it. My mother-in-law isn’t going to see a robot boxing film if it’s just that, so I think it’s vital. And it’s got robots, so how do you feel for robots? How do you get emotionally invested in that? I think you do that through the people involved around it.”
5. The Rare Blend Of Action, Sports & Heart Made “Real Steel” A No Brainer For Hugh Jackman
Jackman admits he gets offered a lot of roles that seem to be missing something in terms of emotional substance, particularly in the action genre, but he found it in this film. “Movies like this are very hard to find because it’s one of the most difficult things to pull off. Pixar seems to be doing it well, DreamWorks Animation seem to be doing a good job, but there’s not a lot of movies that do that. It’s rare. To me, I just connected to the story. It reminded me of ‘Rocky‘ when I was growing up. Those sports stories that make you feel good at the end. It’s fun, it’s entertaining and, dare I say, it might even bring a tear to the eye.”
“Real Steel” opens in theaters nationwide this Friday, October 7th.