Real Steel Director Shawn Levy Enters the Ring
Shawn Levy, director of Real Steel, now out on home video, is one of the most commercially successful film directors of the past decade. To date, his films have grossed over $1.6 billion worldwide. His youthfully enthusiastic approach to filmmaking is evident in the storylines and characters he creates and reflects his joyful intensity for each project at hand.
In 2010, Levy released Date Night, a film he directed and produced. Levy’s production shingle 21 Laps also produced the hit comedy What Happens in Vegas, which went on to earn over $200 million worldwide.
Levy both produced and directed the blockbuster Night at the Museum franchise. To date, the global success of this franchise has netted more than $1 billion in worldwide box office.
Previously, Levy directed the 2006 comedy The Pink Panther. Levy also directed the smash hit Cheaper By the Dozen, which went on to gross more than $200 million worldwide.
In addition to his directing slate, Levy is producing the feature-film comedy Neighborhood Watch,” and his production company 21 Laps/Adelstein is producing the ABC sitcom Last Days of Man.
Levy graduated at the age of 20 from the Drama Department of Yale University. He later studied film in the Masters Film Production Program at USC, where he produced and directed the short film Broken Record. This film won the Gold Plaque at the Chicago Film Festival and was selected to screen at the Directors Guild of America.
A: The key was to not to create the same futurism that we’ve seen in other movies. If I had just wanted to make a robot-boxing spectacle, I would have gone deeper into the future. I wanted a future that felt within a relatable radius. I love Blade Runner or Minority Report as much as the next guy, but Real Steel was going to live or die on audiences connecting with the characters. For an audience to connect with the characters, they need to connect with the world. If the world feels vaguely familiar, I believe the characters will feel relatable.
Our catch phrase was “retro forward.” In other words, your cell phone looks different than it did five years ago, right? My laptop does. But a diner still looks like a diner and a landscape is still a landscape. The world isn’t changing in its core visuals. I wanted a timeless, iconic America rather than a temporarily specific America. We’ve seen that before.
Q: What was the biggest challenge about working with robots in the film?
A: Honestly, it all went pretty smoothly. Obviously, the decision to build real robots was a bit unusual. In 2011, when everything can be done digitally, it was a throwback notion to build real remote-control robots. But we felt that building them would give the movie a certain look and feel and give the performances a reality, so it was key. I’m very happy we did.
We had amazing remote control puppeteers. We only had a real problem once and that was when we were in the middle of a take with Ambush. He was standing on a lift gate with Hugh at the County Fair and his hydraulics went haywire. His chin crushed into his collarbone and the whole bottom half of his face got stuck in his chest plate. That was very scary because it meant twenty-five minutes of standing around and waiting to see if Ambush could be saved. Fortunately, the folks at Legacy Effects were able to save him and we carried on.
I also have to say that at the time we started shooting it felt like a scary choice to make our hero robot, Atom, the only robot without a face. Not only was he our hero, he was our most human robot. We made the decision because I knew that what mattered more than Atom’s personality was his magic. Sometimes magic is created by ambiguity.
A lot of people have asked me if he’s alive. They swear they see him move and they think he’s a sentient being. Some people don’t think he is, but I felt like the questioning, the ambiguity, and the uncertainty would give Atom his soulful quality. In fact, when I was reviewing the robot designs with [executive producer] Robert Zemeckis, he said, “The mesh on Atom’s face is going to become the screen that people project their feelings onto.” The absence of features means that people, both in the movie and in the audience, are going to project their opinions and their feelings onto him. Sometimes he looks like he’s smiling, sometimes he looks like he’s proud and sometimes he looks sad and lonely. I find people’s reactions to Atom a really interesting litmus test of people’s reactions to him. The range of things that people read into a titanium mesh is fascinating.
I was also amazed at how well the puppeteers moved Atom and were able to humanize him. Based on the reaction we get from audiences, people love him as much as they love Hugh or Dakota.
Q: Can you talk about the motion capture and Simul-Cam B process?
A: Motion capture is when an actor does something physical in a data-sensing jumpsuit and the computer stores that movement and converts it into a fictional character. For instance, in Avatar, Sam Worthington became a Navi by wearing a motion capture suit and doing all of the movements in real life that his Navi character did on the planet Pandora in the film. In our movie, every robot was a boxer or a Mixed Martial Artists fighter and we converted them instantly into their robot selves. Avatar took their captured performances and put them on Pandora, which was a created digital universe. We took ours to Detroit and put them in real fight venues and then added a Simul-Cam B.
What that means is that if I were doing a shot in an empty ring, I would look through my camera and see the robots fighting in it. If I decided that I didn’t like the shot and wanted to put one of the robots in a different corner, I could put my camera in a different place and the computer Simul-Cam B recalibrated the perspective that I was seeing the shot from. The shot actually matched that corner. It’s crazy. The reason that the fights in Real Steel feel so visceral is that I wasn’t in a situation where I was guessing or assuming what an animator would draw into the scene later. I was able to look at and shoot the fight from an infinite number of angles.
Do you remember the feeling you had, sitting in chemistry or physics class in high school, of being so lost that it made you giggle? We’ve all had that feeling and that’s normally when you talk to your friend who sits next to you or you doodle or think, “I’m dead.” That’s what it was like for the first few weeks on Real Steel. I would sit at the head of the table in these motion capture, Simul-Cam B meetings and say, “Mmhmm, Mmhmm,” and I was totally faking it.
Eventually, after a couple of weeks of being completely lost, I went to my team, which, thank God, is the same group of people who work with James Cameron. I said to Josh McLaglen, who is my executive producer and my assistant director, “Brother, I need a crash course. I’m going to open my mind and we’re not giving up until I understand it.” He taught me every day, just him and me, and I had no shame about saying, “No, no, go back. What is that word you just used? I don’t even know what that word means.”
It was great, because once we’re over twenty-five, how many of us learn something brand- new? On the one hand, it was no fun at first because I felt like a dummy and we build our lives so that we feel pretty good about ourselves. On the other hand, I put myself in a position where I felt lost and then gained some mastery, so that was great.
Q: What decisions did you make to help Hugh play the retired boxer, Charlie Kenton?
A: In the early meetings with any actor, no matter how big a star they are, they always want to know how they’re going to look in the film. For instance, on Night at the Museum, the question Ben Stiller asked me was “Am going to be wearing a hat? Does a night guard wear a hat?” Actors just always get fixated on that stuff as they’re developing a character. When Hugh and I first met, I had two ideas for his role as Charlie. I said, “First of all, let’s get rid of your hair. I want a Tom Cruise in Minority Report buzz cut.” I’m very happy with how his hair looks in the movie, actually.
The second thing I said was, “Let’s buff things up a bit, man. You’re an ex-fighter, so let’s put a few pounds on you and go big up top, with big shoulders, a big chest and maybe even a little paunch.” He thought that would be great, that getting him that look would subvert expectation. Then, as we were halfway into pre-production and he was starting to work towards the paunch, I said, “You know what? Skip that. I think people want their Hugh Jackman looking good.” So we scrapped the paunch.
A: I auditioned a lot of women. Everyone told me to forget Evangeline because she had quit acting when she finished “Lost.” I have friends who offered her big roles in big movies, movies that are coming out in the next four months. She turned them all down because she just wanted to live in Hawaii. I sent her the script anyway and she showed up in L.A. a few days later. I said to her, “Everyone said you’re done acting” and she said, “This script made me cry and it’s going to make other people cry. I want to put stuff like this in the world. I want to be a part of it.”
Evangeline brought everything I hoped she would. She’s magnificent to look at, she’s soulful, and she’s sexy with Hugh. I needed someone who you believed had grown up in a man’s world. Bailey needed to have a strength and a toughness that was not at the expense of her being womanly. I also wanted the relationship between Charlie and Bailey to have a lot of subtext. We don’t say very much about what went on between them and I like the elegance of not quite pinning it down. I wanted romance, not sex, and she brought all that.
Q: What attributes were you looking for when you cast Dakota Goyo in the part of Max?
A: I was looking for something other than acting talent. I needed that, of course, but I also needed a kid who could be interesting to watch when he wasn’t acting. In some ways, with Dakota, it was less about how he said the lines and more about what he exuded between the lines. In a movie like Real Steel, you need someone like Ricky Schroder in The Champ or Justin Henry in Kramer vs. Kramer. Steven Spielberg calls it authenticity and it’s something that makes you feel like you’re watching a real human being and a real kid. You root for that kid. If you feel that you’re watching a kid act, not only are not you rooting for him, you don’t even like him. He’s annoying.
I’d been looking all over the world for six weeks for an actor to play Max and I could not find him. I thought, “Maybe I shouldn’t make this movie, because even if we do everything right and the kid isn’t one-in-a-million excellent, the movie won’t be excellent.” And then we found Dakota.
Q: What was it like working with Dakota?
A: Even when I was a kid, I got along well with kids. To this day, if I go to a birthday party with one of my kids, I swear to you, I am so much happier hanging out with my kids and their friends than I am talking to the grownups. It’s become a thing in our family. My kids always end up saying, “Don’t you have to go talk to the grownups now?” and I say, “No way. I’ll pretend you need my help or something.” I don’t know if it’s that my own childhood felt brief, that I grew up too fast, or that I was pushing myself too much at a young age, but I do feel like I’m clinging to a certain child-like quality in myself. I think it’s probably the result of a complicated childhood and the fact that I grew up fast by virtue of certain circumstances.
The other thing is that with kids, you have to change your modality day to day. There were some days with Dakota when I just stayed out of the way and he was awesome. There were other days we had to do ten takes to get something that was useable. And there other days when I could tell that he had said his lines too many times, so I would throw some improvisation at him just to make him say new words and hear them. Eventually, kids stop hearing the words.
Some of the lines in the movie were actually a result of that happening, like this one scene between Charlie and Dakota. Dakota says, “Charlie, we can go around and around on this all night long, but it’s not gonna happen.” That was me ad-libbing behind the camera. I said it, Dakota said it, I said it, Dakota said it, and then it was in the movie.
Ultimately, the craziest kind of technique I used, but the one that bore the most fruit, was for the climatic scene in the movie when Dakota and Evangeline are watching Hugh’s redemption moment. I didn’t let anyone talk to Dakota and I didn’t talk to Dakota. I didn’t tell him what to do. I said, “I’m going play some music. Just go with the music. Whatever you feel is fine.” The last thing you want to say is, “Now cry.” If you tell an actor to cry, you’re dead, especially with a kid. It’s just too much and they tighten up. But Dakota was great. I played a piece of music, he went with it and he brought that performance. It was so beautiful.
Q: Do you work with actors on the parts of their character that we don’t see, or do you leave that to them?
A: It depends on the actor. Some actors don’t bother doing any work on their character and some actors do, but they don’t want to tell me. What people don’t get about directing is that every actor is different and that’s why the job is so interesting. Directing Steve Martin was a trip, but that’s Steve. It was 180 from directing Ben Stiller, Tina Fey or Hugh Jackman.
Some actors want to spend weeks talking about character background that no one will ever know but will inform their performance. In that case, you do it even if you don’t want to. Other actors show up and fake it. That’s legit, too, if it works. With Hugh, it was somewhere in between. We talked about what his character Charlie Kenton was like when he was a fighter and I talked a lot about the kind of credo this guy would have.
I ended up putting his credo in the script—two or three key lines that I wrote because they were what I kept telling Hugh: “Win or lose, the fight ain’t over until someone’s on the mat. We may get our asses kicked, but we’re going down swinging.” Maybe it’s because I’m Canadian but I always embrace the underdog. Real Steel is also about having a good work ethic—that very specific, American work ethic. The rest of the world often lives very differently. They embrace different core principles but that work ethic is at the core of Charlie Kenton. He was a slugger and sometimes to his own detriment he just kept coming at his opponent in the ring. He just kept pushing his luck. Hugh and I talked about that aspect of his character a lot.
Q: Give us a little insight into your philosophy of directing.
A: My job is to get my actors to where they need to go and figure out a way to get them there. I may get to use one of the techniques I’ve used on other movies, or I may have to come up with something on the fly. Whatever it takes, the job of the director is to be the leader and get your actors where they need to go.
Also, my philosophy is that I’m not going to get what I need by saying, “Now it’s time to cry.” I’ve heard of directors who do that, but it wouldn’t work for me. I try to create a partnership with the actors. The more I become bonded with the actors and get to know them, the more I know what modalities are going to work in our process together. For instance, when I work with a really intellectual actor, I use music a lot because it short-circuits their intellect and bypasses their rational dissection of the scene.
My other philosophy is that I’m trying to put work out into the world that creates the feeling I want to get when I go to the movies. I’m never going to make a movie that’s nihilistic, gratuitous, cynical or undermined by it’s own ironic cleverness. That’s just not how I live my life and it’s not how I want to do my work. It’s not what I want my work to say.
Q: Your sets have a reputation for being fun. How do you make that happen?
A: Nobody wants to go to work and be miserable. I don’t want to and I don’t want the people who work for me to, either. When you’re directing, you’ve got a hundred and twenty people giving their talents to you knowing that there’s only one person who’s going to get all the glory. Two, if you count the movie star. I have craftsmen and artists giving their art and their talents in the service of my story and my vision and they deserve to be treated really respectfully. I believe in that.