If you wish to speak with director Shawn Levy about Real Steel, you first have to start with his shoes.
“Aren’t these awesome?” asked Levy, swinging his feet up on the table to show off his limited-edition Real Steel Vans, created by designer Jill Forie of Sink or Swim Custom Kicks. With a picture of Atom, the robotic protagonist, on the left foot and antagonist Zeus on the right, Levy began his exclusive interview with Spinoff Online by modeling the sneakers, chuckling at his own enthusiasm as he wiggled his feet.
“Talking about geeking out!” he laughed.
“Geeking out” is exactly what Levy did when it came to directing Real Steel, the DreamWorks sci-fi drama loosely based on the Richard Matheson short story and The Twilight Zone episode “Steel.” Speaking with the director, even briefly, it becomes obvious he didn't so much direct the film as live, eat and breathe it. Intimately involved in every detail of the process, Levy also co-wrote the script, oversaw the design of the digital robots, led the exhaustive months-long casting search, supervised construction of the practical robots, created an elaborate bible for the film's universe, and even came up with fake statistics and scores for the World Robot Boxing, the fictional sports league.
“We have a detailed history of the sport and the mythology of the sport,” he said enthusiastically. In other words, the shoes are only the tip of the Real Steel iceberg.
Although Levy seems at home in a complex science fiction universe, Real Steel is actually the first sci-fi movie he's directed. In fact, his career has been founded on such big-budget family comedies as Pink Panther and Night at the Museum. With movies like Big Fat Liar and Date Night rounding out his resume, Levy recognizes that Real Steel is a complete departure from his normal fare.
“I’m super grateful for the success I’ve had on my other movies, but I’ve been hoping to build a broader career than that," he told Spinoff. "So when this opportunity came along it was one I’ve been waiting for." Saying he hoped the movie is as broadly appealing as his previous blockbusters, Levy continued, “If you only want insanely good visual effects and action, Real Steel is going to give you that. But I personally felt like the movie could do more. The movie could also be a genuinely rousing underdog tale, almost a throwback to a Rocky or an Over the Top.”
To this end, Levy said he approached the movie as if he were directing a straightforward sports drama rather than a sci-fi adventure.
“This might sound silly, but I wanted a kind of naturalistic science fiction,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of extreme science fiction, we’ve seen the future portrayed in a number of ways in the movies, but I wanted a movie that felt as realistic as a drama or a sports movie that happens to have a science fiction premise.”
This idea of realism shines through the film’s production design, as phones, computers and even the robots themselves look as if they could be a natural outgrowth of current technology. “The way in which I designed the future, the way in which I designed the robots -- and frankly our decision to build the robots -- was all based on my desire to do a grounded, naturalistic sci-fi,” Levy said.
Naturalism aside, one of Real Steel’s biggest purely science fiction plot points is the question of whether Atom, unlike every other robot in the movie, actually has artificial intelligence.
“I’m asking you to care about Charlie Kenton, played by Hugh [Jackman], Max Kenton, played by Dakota [Goyo], and then this robot Atom,” Levy said when asked about raising the possibility of A.I. “That became the focal point of our questioning, the focal point of what I felt could be the magic of wondering -- whether Atom is or isn’t, did he or didn’t he?” Wanting to have that “magic” question of whether Atom was more than nuts and bolts underlying the movie, Levy sought to leave the question unresolved.
“I felt the bigger win was in the question mark,” he said.
Already hard at work writing a sequel with Real Steel screenwriter John Gatins, Levy said the question of Atom’s consciousness would be addressed in the follow-up. “We do have a script that we’re writing now that delves quite a bit further into a number of issues, among them Atom’s consciousness, whether it exists, and why," Levy said, adding, “We are right now digging into the detailed origin story of Atom because part of the sequel would be Hugh investigating him and actually seeking out Atom’s creator.”
The director suddenly laughed and covered his mouth. “That’s all I can say! I’m developing a movie with [Lost executive producer] Carlton Cuse, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Carlton it's that I should talk less!”
Beyond sequels, Levy said he feels the world of Real Steel is expansive enough to cross into other media, including comic books.
“I could see a Real Steel graphic novel. I could see a Real Steel television series, either animated or non, and I can certainly see more movies,” Levy said, revealing there's also a video game in the works. But according to the director, the most important thing for him right now is to focus on the film at hand and “hope people see the movie.”
“I’ve made three movies that have spawned sequels, Pink Panther and Cheaper by the Dozen and Night at the Museum, and I just have learned you make one movie," he said. "You make one movie as perfectly as you can and then you see what happens."
Turning back to the idea of naturalistic science fiction, Levy told Spinoff that, when creating the WRB, the robot-fighting organization that controls the big-money matches in Real Steel, he and screenwriter Gatins partially based the organization off the World Wrestling Federation, Ultimate Fighting Championship and other pay-per-view fight groups.
“We’re channeling some of what we’re seeing in the real world, which is the -- not the rivalry, but the chafing and the tension of the establishment, you could call it boxing, and this kind of emerging underground form, call that MMA,” Levy said. In fact, he described the film as a commentary on the state of boxing as it stands today, comparing the rise of robot boxing in the Real Steel universe as parallel to the rise of mixed martial arts fighting in America.
“Now that MMA/UFC has been monetized in a way, that is more popular than boxing, one could argue,” Levy said. “I think there’s a fan hunger for a true kind of revolutionary champion, one who actually dukes his way up from the ground level and isn’t the heir apparent or someone who is knighted before they earn it.”
This level of attention to realistic detail carried over to directing the actors as well, with Levy encouraging Jackman and Goyo to improvise with each other to better establish their father/son relationship.
“I don’t know if there’s a rule that drama is not supposed to have improv as much as comedy but I not only come from comedy, I come from movies with extremely improv-savvy actors: Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Ben Stiller, Ricky Gervais, the list goes on," Levy said. "So I brought an improvisational open environment to drama, and it worked." His experience working with young children on his previous films also came in handy for coaching 10-year-old Goyo through difficult scenes.
“Day to day I found different techniques to direct Dakota," Levy said. "Sometimes it was lots of takes, sometimes it was me throwing improv at him and having him repeat it after me, sometimes it was playing music on set. I would just find whatever way worked to get what I needed."
And while Levy’s success directing both children and big-budget movies played a role in landing the film, the director said the decision by executive producer Steven Spielberg to bring him aboard was a matter of heart.
“Steven and Stacy Snider, his partner at DreamWorks, called. They felt that they had seen a certain -- obviously a certain commercial success in my prior movies, but they said they had seen a warm hearted humanism to those comedies, and maybe that was the key to making Real Steel distinct as a robot movie,” Levy said.
Stretching his Atom/Zeus-clad feet, Levy ended the interview by circling back to the film's source material, the Richard Matheson short story and The Twilight Zone episode. He said that what drew him to adapting “Steel” for the screen was not the prospect of creating big special effects or working in a science fiction world, but rather the same thing he hopes echoes through all of his movies: heart.
“The story wasn’t just about robot boxing. The story had a truly solitary desperate protagonist. In the case of the story, he was so desperate that he gets in the ring against a robot. There was a pathos to the desperation of that protagonist that I wanted to bring to this movie and to Hugh Jackman’s character and hopefully that’s what we did,” Levy said, adding, “My central tenant on what would distinguish us would be that heart and that underdog human story.”
Real Steel opens Oct. 7 nationwide.