On Oct. 7 audiences will get one of the most unusual boxing movies ever brought to the big screen: Real Steel, a sci-fi sports drama set in a world where the popularity of robot boxing has eclipsed that of human boxing. Starring Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly and Dakota Goyo, the DreamWorks Pictures film has a lot going for it, from big-name stars to elaborate special effects. But the film’s biggest selling point, insist producers Don Murphy and Susan Montford and screenwriter John Gatins, is simply that it’s cool.
“What if in the future robots boxed instead of humans? That was a cool background,” Murphy said as the three sat down with Spinoff Online and other members of the press.
Real Steel is based on the 1956 Richard Matheson short story “Steel,” which was adapted seven years later as an episode of The Twilight Zone. Murphy said they stumbled across the source material while researching a project about Charles Beaumont, a prolific science fiction author who wrote several episodes of the television series, and was one of Matheson’s good friends. Montford and Murphy enjoyed the story so much they optioned “Steel” and embarked on a seven-year process of finding a studio to back it, with DreamWorks co-founder Steven Spielberg eventually taking it on as a pet project.
While the original story was about an out-of-work human boxer struggling to make ends meet as the owner of a robot fighter, Montford said the story felt relevant to the current economic situation.
“We thought it was a fairly prescient story because a lot of people are finding that their jobs are now no longer there, and they have to find a new way of making a living, and their skills are redundant and therefore it came to us it was a good time to do it,” she said.
Dropping some of the sci-fi aspects of the original story — it’s set in a cold futuristic dystopia — Spielberg, Montford and Murphy infused the piece with a strong sense of Americana, following main character Charlie Kenton as he trucks back and forth across the country to fairs, rodeos and boxing arenas.
Filming scenes around Detroit, the production team even spent time shooting in an abandoned Ford plant, “to give it what we felt was a very grounded, plausible future realism,” Montford said.
Gatins, who wrote and directed Dreamer for DreamWorks, came aboard Real Steel at Spielberg’s suggestion. Talking about the relationship between the main characters, 11-year-old Max, played by Dakota Goyo, and his father Charlie, played by Hugh Jackman, Gatins said the father/son dynamic was the real hook for him.
“It was a rough relationship, it was Paper Moon. It was really a tough deal between this father and son,” Gatins said, adding that the original script was even darker.
“When we started we were trying to make it like Requiem for a Heavyweight,” Murphy said. “Hugh Jackman’s an alcoholic, he’s going to throw the fight.” Laughing, he added, “Steven’s all happiness and joy, so he was like, ‘No, it’s The Champ! The Champ!’ … So we ended up, naturally, with Rocky.”
Gatins, who’s more accustomed to writing sports movies and dramas about broken families, admitted he was at first daunted by the task of tackling science fiction. However, he decided to play to his strengths and concentrated on exploring those sports and family drama aspects of Real Steel.
“If I can make the relationships work, [I’ll] focus on that, because that will carry the movie,” Gatins said. “Because I’m not the sci-fi guy, I had to treat myself as the audience and say, ‘Look, you’re going to lose me — if you give me too much sci-fi stuff I’m going to be like, enough!’”
When asked whether there were any big scenes or character moments that didn’t make it into the film, Gatins grinned and turned to Montford and Murphy. “Can I talk about the butterfly?” Gatins pleaded with the two, who laughed and nodded. The butterfly?
“We built this whole hustle at the beginning of the movie that Dakota Goyo does with this butterfly pin where he’s like ‘It’s the only thing I have from my mom, blah, blah, blah.’ Later on Charlie finds a whole bag of them and you realize the kid is a real hustler,” Gatins explained. However, as the story goes on it’s revealed he actually does have a butterfly pin given to him by his mother. “He loses it because their [trailer] gets robbed at one point, which we don’t see in the movie, after they get beaten up, and he thinks he lost the butterfly pin. Charlie had actually taken it and kept it, and when he gives it to him Max is like, ‘My mom gave this to me!’ and Charlie goes, ‘Yeah, but I gave it to her. You’re the butterfly, Max. You’ve always been the butterfly.’” He said the scene was cut for time but will most likely make it onto the DVD extras.
Turning to the robotic stars of the movie, all three praised the work of their special effects team and production designer Tom Meyer. “Tom Meyer totally nails it,” Gatins said as Murphy and Montford nodded. While in the original short story the robots are actually androids, robots that look like humans, “We decided that they shouldn’t be as big as Transformers, they should be humanoid but not humans,” Murphy said.
Both digital and practical robots were built for the film, with most of the boxing sequences done with computer graphics while the close-up shots and human interactions were done with robot puppets. Gatins said that the digital robot fights were a godsend for him as a writer, allowing him to create big fight scenes without having to worry about feasibility or cost.
“Directors always say to me, ‘You see this line you wrote? Do you know how much money that costs? That one line just cost us $14 million, you want to rethink that?’” Gatins laughed. Already at work on the script for the Real Steel sequel, he told reporters the follow-up will look at how the sport changes after the first movie, and hinted at a new female character coming into the ring.
“When people are asking, ‘Where are the girls in the movie?’ it’s like, ‘Hold on!’” Gatins said. “Dakota is going to be a little older, so hold on!”
The producers and the screenwriter also said it was a challenge to create a satisfying boxing movie when the main character, Charlie, couldn’t actually get into the ring to box. “It was like, are we going to care about the robots and our hero robot specifically?” Gatins said. This was also a problem as in the original short story the human protagonist Steel actually does get in the ring, pretending to be an android.
“In the original short story the robot doesn’t get into the ring … but [Steel] has to have the fight, so he puts the robot’s suit on and pretended to get in the ring. We always felt like we were missing that ‘da-dada-da-dada-da’ moment,” said Murphy, humming “Going the Distance” from the Rocky soundtrack. This led to Gatins and director Shawn Levy creating Atom’s “shadow boxing” technique, a sophisticated mimicry that allows the robot to copy any movement Jackman’s character makes.
“John and Shawn did one draft and Susan and I met and said, ‘Oh, my God, he’s sparring with the robot!’” Murphy said. “We never had that in any previous drafts, we never had that ‘Fuck, yeah!’ moment.’”
Murphy also revealed that Gatins played Kingpin in the film, the mohawk-sporting underground boxer who gives Max his first real robot match. “The sequel is called Kingpin’s Revenge,” Murphy joked.
“And he’s married Evangeline Lilly!” Gatins laughed.
Continuing on their casting vein, Gatins said Jackman was the key to making Charlie, a supremely unlikable character on paper, sympathetic and likeable to the audience. “Hugh Jackman is such a likeable guy, he’s able to get away with being a rogue that is charming,” Gatins said. “This underlying charm to him.” The screenwriter also said he and Levy spent a lot of time figuring out how boxing would logically go from human fighting to robot fighting.
“There’s this company in London that helped created our bible, which is the visual history, so I had these crazy conference calls with these people who are so imaginative and they took things from the script and ran with it … so they created this chronology of fights and different ‘bots,” Gatins said, adding that the idea was that human fighting got so violent robot fighting became the natural outgrowth. However, the screenwriter revealed that the most difficult thing for him wasn’t creating the fictional history of the sport but coming up with the names for the robots.
“I’m not a sci-fi guy but I’m also not a comic book guy, so I kept coming up with great names and they’d go, ‘Yeah, John, they actually have that,’” Gatins laughed.
“Zeus was originally Colossus,” Murphy laughed as Gatins tried to defend his ignorance of the X-Men.
“It’s the name of a roller coaster on Coney Island!”
Real Steel opens nationwide Oct. 7.