Stepping Into the Ring on the Real Steel Set

The ring is bold, colorful and a sharp contrast to the gritty, mechanical walls of former auto plant that houses it, not to mention to the crowd itself. They’re packed around the arena in leather jackets, aggressively shouting their bets and getting ready to the cheer for their would-be robot champions. The place is Crash Palace, a fight venue in Detroit, Michigan. The year is 2020 and Midas, “The Gold-Blooded Killer” is about to take on Noisy Boy in an underground match unsanctioned by World Robot Boxing (WRB).

The match begins and, though the ring remains physically empty, the on-set video monitors display Midas and Noisy Boy as though they’re really there. They don’t have the most perfect computer renderings at the moment, but they’re incorporated live into the actual environment, meaning that the camera is free to move to any angle required without creating a nightmare for post-production.

Since the audience can’t actually see the fight, director Shawn Levy reads aloud the play by play with the full intensity of a wrestling commentator. Midas (who is clearly the Bot favored by the crowd) doesn’t take long to waste Noisy Boy, pinning him against the floor of the ring and ripping out his arms, spraying hydraulic fluid all over the cheering crowd.

Levy grins at the monitor. He’s excited as anyone about the groundbreaking technical accomplishments that have let him embrace this kind of fight scene with complete fluidity. Spotting the small crowd of visiting journalists, his smile gets even bigger.

“It’s super fun to shoot this…” he laughs, ” It ain’t no ‘Night at the Museum.'”

Levy, whose career hit a tremendous boost with the 2006 Ben Stiller film and then its 2009 sequel, was finishing work on the 2010 Steve Carell/Tina Fey comedy “Date Night” when he received a call from “Real Steel” producer Steven Spielberg.

“I called my house to tell my wife I was nervous,” recalls Levy about his first meeting with the filmmaking legend, “and my 10-year-old daughter picked up the phone, my eldest, and I go, ‘Can I talk to mommy?’ And she said, ‘What’s up daddy? She’s in the shower.’ And I was just like, ‘I’m really nervous. I’m meeting this guy who’s a big-time director.’ And she goes, ‘Dad, I’m just gonna tell you what you tell me. You know what to do, so just take a deep breath and do it.’ And what was great about that was it was not only great advice, but I knew as soon as she said it, that it would be the part of the day that I remember most.”

Based on the 1956 Richard Matheson short story “Steel” (previously adapted in a very different way for an episode of “The Twilight Zone”), Real Steel took some time before finding the right director and Levy admits that even he was surprised at first that Spielberg was interested in him.

“So I met with Steven,” Levy continues, “and said, you know, ‘Why did you call me? It’s not even a comedy.'” And he says, ‘Because I’ve seen what you’ve done. It’s always commercial. It’s always kind of big-hearted. But I’ve had this feeling that your take on this would be what it needs.’ So we shook hands in the room and I spent seven months re-writing the script with John Gatins… I had this whole different way to take the script, particularly in its back half that makes it much less just about rock ’em sock ’em type fodder and much more akin to some of the really rousing sports movies that I grew up on and loved.”

Creating a human element for the story meant literally that. Levy found his leading man in Hugh Jackman, who plays a down-on-his-luck boxing promoter named Charlie Kenton. Once up for a shot at the world title, Kenton has lost just about everything when he’s reunited with his estranged son, Max (Dakota Goyo), who shows Kenton some of the drive that he had forgotten existed. Joking that is something akin to “‘Paper Moon’ meets ‘Rocky’ meets ‘The Champ’ meets ‘Transformers,'” Levy reveals that the real key to finding humanity meant just going back to Matheson’s original tale, though he promises that the ending (which, in both the story and the “Twilight Zone” episode, saw the lead disguising himself a robot and heading into the ring) will be something completely new.

“He’s misunderstood,” Jackman says of playing Kenton, “I think he’s a little bit of a broken man. He’s disappointed himself and many people throughout his life and he’s kind of used to that. He kind of expects to disappoint people and so he’s one of those people who doesn’t put himself in a situation where people rely on him. He lacks that self-confidence or self-belief, I suppose. [Max] is a kid he pretty much abandoned at birth and having him around is just a constant reminder of probably his biggest failure in life. So it’s much easier to just keep someone at a distance than trying to keep them close and being protective.”

Because the robots don’t operate on A.I., Charlie and Max are actually responsible for controlling their robot throughout the fight. Different robots work in different ways with some responding to voice commands and others requiring a remote device. Levy admits that he’s not sure how much of the human control will remain in the film and only testing the footage is going to reveal if audiences are more or less emotionally involved seeing that link during the fights. Real world boxing fans have a special surprise to look out for though, as the the actual robot fights have been choreographed by Sugar Ray Leonard and .

“Good man,” says Jackman of the experience, “I mean, of course working with Sugar Ray was unbelievable. He was great not only from a boxing point of view, but from a mentality point of view because I play an ex-boxer who’s now controlling the boxers. So it’s his job in a way to assess the fight, not from a boxer’s point of view but from a corner manager’s point of view, assess where it’s going and control his fighter. He was really amazing in talking about that… For someone who’s been hit a lot he’s very happy. Happy and still pretty. You can’t sort of believe that the guy was such a killer. He’s very happy go lucky.”

Part of the reason that Leonard’s vast history with boxing was important was that every robot in the film has their own style. Many of the Bots that get shown in the ring were created in both the computer and in physical, working models, with Levy opting for the practical shot wherever possible. Three main robots were built in complete working order with one scene (that Levy compares to the Cantina in “Star Wars”) offering 19 different practical robot designs in different stages of disrepair.

The leading robot character, Atom, is one that Max discovers in Metal Alley, a junkyard, and then convinces his father to start working with as Charlie has just lost his previous fighter in the unsanctioned match.

“It’s raining,” says Levy, “It’s 3 a.m. Basically, there’s an accident and the kid almost dies and a coincidental thing happens and he discovers this robot. But to the kid who’s almost 11, he does not believe it’s a coincidence. So as the rain falls and the mud kind of splatters it reveals that it’s not just a robot arm. It’s a robot face and there’s a whole f-ing robot there. Atom is a G2 sparring Bot which means that, when the WRB first started back in 2011, their owners built sparring Bots. Basically, Bots they could spar with in order to calibrate their lead fighters… Hugh’s like, ‘It’s junk. Leave it.’ and the kid’s like, ‘No way. I’m taking him with me.’ It’s like a puppy and when a kid sees a puppy. Basically, the kid ends up dragging the robot out of there. Hugh’s like, ‘He’s f–ing dead weight. Get rid of it.’ They take it back to the robot boxing gym which Evangeline [Lily]’s character runs. They end up kind of refurbishing and learning about the Bot. The kid just believes this robot has something even though he’s not as big. His shell is not made of titanium. He’s not made of the stuff that current League Bots are made of, but they go on the run.”

Other robots include the two-headed Twin Cities, which marks Atom’s first WRB opponent, the massive “Frankenstein bot” Metro, who takes parts from his opponents after beating them and the WRB champ Zeus, built by the (fictional) world’s foremost robot designer.

As with the robots, each of the venues has a personality all its own and, standing in the former automotive plant, it’s hard to tell where the set ends and the reality begins. A second scene shot on the other side of the plant has Charlie and Max dealing with the aftermath of having just lost their previous bout. Crossing a reflecting pool, Charlie dodges a pulley filled with robot wreckage on his way to buy food at a taco truck as he argues with the kid.

Just as dingy, the setting is loaded with the trucks of other fighters either unloading their contenders or carting away the dented remains. Because of the enormous scale of the actual plant, Levy is able to accomplish some incredible long shots to really pull in the full scope of it all with his cinematographer, Mauro Fiore. Fiore won an Oscar for Avatar, but Levy says that its his work on Training Day that really landed him the job.

Driving the verisimilitude even further, the world of WRB has been fully realized with a story bible that keeps track of all the rules and the history of matches leading up the film’s 2020 setting. What’s more, matches are split into league and non-league fights with venues like the Starblaze arena representing the former and Crash Palace the perfect example of the latter.

“So league is WRB,” smile Levy, who very clearly seems to know the film’s world history by heart, “Think NASCAR and NBA. Huge money, huge corporate sponsorship. Two minute rounds and a robot can either be completely destroyed or go down for a 10-count and lose the fight. So that’s the league. But Hugh’s character doesn’t live in a world remotely connected to the league… In the WRB, it’s boxing rules. So in the WRB it’s punching. In non-league fighting, it’s anything. It’s basically MMA/UFC rules and then some. It’s elbows, knees, chokes, head butts, kidney punches, anything is legal because all fights in the Underworld are to the death.”

The opening of the film offers another solid example of the extremes of non-league matches as Jackman is shown putting his Bot up against a live bull at a county fair. While the match itself is every bit as underground as the Crash Palace fight, the venue itself couldn’t look more different.

With a world as fleshed out as Real Steel, there’s immediately a question as to whether or not the film is being eyed as a franchise. If that happens, it’s something that Levy says hasn’t been discussed quite yet.

“I’m superstitious,” he says, “I use the word franchise with a grain of salt. Three of my movies have gone on to sequels, but I would never go into a first film with that presumption. Certain people have approached me and said, ‘Do you want to talk about what the second one might be?’ and I know John Gatins has some ideas about that, but no. I’m way too superstitious.”

Jackman, likewise, has his full concentration on making the film the best it can be but, with thanks given to Levy, says that the combination of technology and story has resulted in one of the best working environments of his career.

“This experience which is light years ahead of anything I’ve had before,” says the actor, “You can ad lib and do things but… it’s really in Shawn’s hands and so it gives you the freedom as an actor to know exactly what it is so that we get the scene as it is. I know what the moves are going to be. I know when it’s a left uppercut. I know when it’s a right uppercut. I know exactly what they’re going to do. So I can do that and then, if you want to improvise around that, we can. Shawn has an amazing background with comedy and he loves to improvise and just be free, but that’s only possible if you know what your foundation is. It really is. That’s what we have here with Shawn.”

Real Steel hits conventional theaters and IMAX on October 7th.

UPDATE: has just received a package from the WRB. Check out its contents and how it relates to the ongoing viral by clicking here.