On Friday, DreamWorks Pictures releases Real Steel, a sci-fi family drama set in a near-future where the most popular sport in America is robot boxing -- a competition in which two metal behemoths remote-controlled by human handlers fight head to head.
Just days before the opening of the film, based on Richard Matheson's 1956 short story "Steel" and the subsequent Twilight Zone episode, director Shawn Levy, boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard and star Hugh Jackman sat down with Spinoff Online and other members of the press to discuss the story and the fight training, and to answer the most important question of all: Did any of them put on those skin-tight motion-capture suits used to animate the robots?
“Nobody wants to see my skinny frame in pajamas that are skintight with data-sensing receivers all over it!” Levy said.
Kicking off the discussion, the director touched upon on the rules of robot boxing, a sport he invented for the film with screenwriter John Gatins. They were painstakingly thorough with their creation, devising rules, statistics, slogans, a history of the sport and even a website for World Robot Boxing, the film's main sports league.
“I think we even put the WRB logo on the movie poster to keep them in the reality of it,” Levy laughed. Although it might seem like overkill to some, Levy said it was essential for him as a director to establish the rules of the world and ground the film in reality. “We needed to know everything about the sports evolution and rules in order for it to feel credible on the screen, even though we don’t write a book on it,” he explained.
To that end, he also needed the robot boxing matches to look as realistic and engaging as possible. That's when executive producer Stacy Snider brought boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard on board.
“She said, ‘I have something I think you’d be interested in,’” Leonard recalled. At a parent/teacher conference at the school their children attend, Snider gave Leonard the premise script and pitched him the basic idea: a down-on-his-luck boxer named Charlie Kenton reconnects with his lost son Max and gets a second chance at the big time.
“I said, 'Wow, this is great.' She said, ‘With robots!’ I said, ‘What?’” Leonard laughed.
However, his interest was piqued, and Leonard quickly became the movie’s fight choreographer, working with Levy and a team of actors in motion-capture suits who played the film’s CG robots. Leonard also worked with Jackman, whose character Charlie is an ex-boxer who spends much of the movie training a robot named Atom.
“Hugh really wanted to look the part, and it was my objective to not really go through the punches and everything because that takes time," Leonard said. "But I wanted him to know what it feels like or look like to be a fighter or trainer."
Although physical training was instrumental in looking the part, Leonard said the most important thing he told Jackman was not how many repetitions he should do, but how embrace his inner fighter. “He had to exhibit in his face that power, that speed, that punch," Leonard said. "He had to surrender. Stop being Hugh Jackman, stop being that guy on Broadway onstage, because that would be the only way it would resonate. It would come across the screen. Once he pulled that off, I knew the rest would be easy.”
Jackman agreed, although he told reporters he had an extra mile to go, as he didn’t just have to embrace the metaphysical -- he also had to lose 30 pounds.
“I was doing a movie called Selma … and was supposed to gain weight,” he said. After he put on about 30 pounds, however, the film was canceled and Jackman was stuck with extra weight three months before Real Steel was set to begin shooting.
Calling up Levy, Jackman told the director, “I have the feeling that I should actually have a paunch!” Levy agreed, and Jackman was all set to do the movie with his extra weight; unfortunately, no one had told the costumer.
“It was like trying to fit into my son’s clothes!” Jackman laughed again, recalling his first wardrobe session. “So I called Shawn and said, 'Yeah, I’m not sure if we need to be that realistic.'” Hitting the gym, he discovered the best way to lose 30 pounds quickly was to use the rowing machine daily for seven minutes. “It’s the hardest, that’s why you see nobody on it,” Jackman said. “I warn you, it’s the worst seven minutes of your life.”
Outside of the physical difficulties of getting into shape, Jackman said he found playing Charlie, a loser who at one point is described as a "bad bet," an intriguing challenge.
“He stopped believing in himself. I’m not exactly sure when that happened, but of course I made up a whole back story of him losing his father, and Bailey’s father becoming a father figure and then he dies -- I thought of it a bit like Mike Tyson with Cus D’Amato,” Jackman said, referring to the boxing trainer who discovered the future heavyweight champion.
The actor confessed that, like Charlie, he knew what it was like to be a “bad bet.”
“When I started acting I felt like a bad bet,” he said. Although he majored in journalism, Jackman managed to sneak in one year-long acting course. “And literally, for the first four months, I felt like the dunce of the class," he said. "Every time I did something the teachers would roll their eyes."
Jackman was miserable for those first few months. However, he said, "The turning point was kind of not caring anymore what anyone thought. I went, ‘Well, I’m never going to be an actor, that’s obvious, I’m just going to enjoy this!’”
Now with a Tony Award and an Emmy Award, as well as the X-Men film franchise and several Broadway shows to his credit, Jackman said he no longer feels like that bad bet. Still, he admitted that what impressed his family and friends the most wasn’t his breadth of acting work but his training with Leonard on the set of Real Steel.
“My dad always says the same thing: ‘Oh, that’s wonderful, Hugh.’ But here he said, ‘Su-Sugar Ray Leonard?’ I could see him think, ‘Wow, I thought my son was doing OK, but this is really OK!’” Jackman laughed.
He said his father used to be a boxer himself, although for most of his life Jackman had no clue as his father hid the fact, something Jackman blamed on how much he and his brother fought as kids. “He told me, ‘I decided to never let you guys watch boxing or wrestling and never to talk about it, because if you guys found out that I was a boxer, all of a sudden it’s just a green light!’” Jackman laughed again.
That brought the actor back to training for the film, and to the first time he and co-star Dakota Goyo, who plays his son Max, walked on set and saw the robot puppets.
“There’s a picture of me and Dakota, and it was a big moment when Shawn brought us out to see ‘em," Jackman said. "Both Dakota and I look 10 years old. They are amazing! It was so great for us to know what we were working with.”
Levy agreed that having the physical robots on set was an important part of the acting process, attributing Goyo’s awe of protagonist robot Atom as part of the reason his performance feels so genuine.
”The reason that the scenes between Dakota and Atom feel magic are because that boy loved that robot,” said Levy, who discovered Goyo after a grueling audition process that took the director and his casting team around the world.
“I saw several hundred boys in every English-speaking country in the world. Literally,” Levy said. With the global casting search for Max spanning several months, Levy said at one point he debated casting an older boy. However, after speaking with executive producer Steven Spielberg they decided against it. “It’s not just about talent," Levy explained. "When you are anchoring the movie in a father/son story, even if I did everything right the movie could not be great if the boy isn’t great." Spielberg and Levy’s instincts proved correct, as once Goyo was in the room with Jackman, the two just clicked.
“First of all, he’s a great I actor. I was turning around to Shawn and going, ‘Ahhh!’” Jackman said, miming giving the director a thumbs up. “I just genuinely love this kid."
However, he and Levy weren't the only ones Goyo left spellbound.
“I remember doing the pre-lighting test," Jackman said, "and they’re just slowly pushing in on [Goyo’s] face -- and there’s no acting in a lighting test, you just sit there. And so he was kind of just drifting off and the camera was moving in on him, and the girl behind the monitor started to cry. He just has a soulfulness to him."
Turning back to the robotic stars of Real Steel, Levy said he and Leonard spent a lot of time with the motion-capture actors coordinating the fight sequences. While Levy watched the fights on his monitor, which allowed him to see crude renderings of the robots superimposed over the actors in real time, Leonard concentrated on creating individual personalities for the metal giants, incorporating signature moves from other famous boxers into his choreography.
"Zeus was, without question, George Foreman, with the grill,” Leonard laughed, referring to the film’s hulking villain. As for the other big robot fights, “I pull a little piece of [Marvin] Hagler here, a little piece of [Roberto] Duran, a little piece of Tommy Hearns."
With a grin the former boxing champ added, “Because Atom reminded me so much of myself, because he’s kind of a little, simple, quiet guy, I put that little bullet punch in there. I added my little spice to it!”
Working on set with Levy, the two would shoot for 30 seconds at a time with the motion-capture actors going full speed at each other before stopping and tweaking their performances.
”It is tempting to watch the fighters fight for real in front of you. But in my camera those fighter were already robots, in real time, simultaneously converted to their avatars," Levy explained. "And so what looks great in the ring wouldn’t always look good as robots." Dictating changes here and there to make the fighters more robotic, Levy often stepped into the ring with the actors and Leonard to better get a feel for the action.
"I wanted to be able to literally direct the fights punch by punch,” Levy said.
However, the director said the biggest coup wasn't the startling technology that permitted him to see the animated robots in real time, or working with Jackman and Leonard, but rather convincing Evangeline Lilly to star in the film.
“She quit acting after Lost,” the director said, “She turned down leads in big movies that are coming out in the next three months, like four of them.” A huge fan of her performance as Kate Austen on the ABC drama, Levy was determined to get her in his movie, and sent her the script fully expecting her to turn him down. When he met with Lilly face to face in Los Angeles, the reclusive actress surprised Levy with her response.
“I said, ‘I heard you quit,’ and she said, ‘This script made me cry. I want to put stuff like this in the world. I’m in,’” Levy recalled.
With a grin he added, “It was only in week four that I allowed myself to call her 'Freckles'!”
Jackman also praised Lilly’s acting style, which involves a lot of improvisation and instict rather than a strict adherence to the script. “There is not one take where she does what you expect,” he said.
Citing their first scene together, in which Lilly’s character Bailey tries to get rent money out of Charlie, Jackman continued, “When she goes, ‘You owe me six thousand rent,’ I just ad-libbed. I said, ‘Actually its three.’ Whomp! She slaps me!” Jackman laughed. “And then she grabs my head, and I’m like, 'Whoa! She is right on it.'”
Ultimately, all three men said what drew them to the film wasn't the robot fights but the story’s heart, and the painful father/son relationship between Charlie and Max.
“If it’s going to be more than expected, it’s because of its heart," Levy said. "It’s because of that underdog story and emotional reaction."
Bringing the interview to a close, all three men agreed that their favorite robot isn't big, strong Zeus or powerful Midas or any number of the other tough robots. It's Atom, the robotic underdog of Real Steel.
“To me, Atom feels like a gangly teenager in a world of men!” Levy laughed.
"I love the underdog!” Jackman said.
Real Steel opens Friday nationwide.