Robots in the ring: Shawn Levy and Anthony Mackie bet on 'Real Steel'

In the sci-fi family film Real Steel, based in part on the much grittier short story author Richard Matheson self-adapted for a 1963 episode of "The Twilight Zone," Hugh Jackman plays the down-and-out owner of a boxing robot in 2020, a world just eight years hence that looks much the same as now. As part of a winking deal to raise much-needed cash, Jackman's Charlie Kenton takes his long-estranged, ten-year-old son for the summer. Before you can say Paper Moon, the kid's suddenly "Fast Eddie" Felson, hustling backroom robot-fight promoters like that Paul Newman character hustled other pool players in The Hustler.

Using a defunct, reconditioned sparring-partner robot the kid, Max (Dakota Goyo), rescued from a junk heap, father and son slowly and reluctantly bond as their boy Atom becomes a novelty sensation that ultimately gets a shot at the champ—a so-far unbeatable ’bot named Zeus created by a reclusive Japanese genius (Karl Yune) and owned by a rich Russian (Olga Fonda, no relation to Jane and Henry). Because he's a sparring robot, Atom, unlike most fighting ’bots, has a "shadow mode" allowing it to follow and mimic a human boxer working it like a big, wireless puppet. Since human boxers, and the whole sweet-science aesthetic of human boxing, have gone into disfavor, this eventually allows ex-boxer Charlie to strike a blow, so to speak, for the human element.

DreamWorks' Real Steel, set for release on Oct. 7 from Disney/Touchstone, was directed by Shawn Levy, who with his two Night at the Museum films made blockbuster hits out of similarly effects-driven, big-canvas family pictures. Counting Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis among its executive producers, it co-stars Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker, the upcoming Man on a Ledge and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) as an underground fight promoter and friend of Charlie's; Evangeline Lilly (TV's "Lost") as his surrogate sister and love interest, which is a little odd; and Kevin Durand (also from "Lost") as another promoter, who's out for Charlie's hide for skipping out on a debt.

We spoke separately with Levy and Mackie about populist moviemaking, filming in Detroit, and the fact that real robots were used for virtually every scene not involving CGI boxing and walking.

Film Journal International: There's a source-material credit on this film I can't recall having seen before: "based in part on" the 1956 short story "Steel" by Richard Matheson. Clearly, the plot of Real Steel is much different from that of the story or the pretty faithful "Twilight Zone" episode starring Lee Marvin. "Boxing robots" doesn't sound like a particularly proprietary idea. What in Real Steel reflects the original story?

Shawn Levy: The original story had two elements that are very much at work in Real Steel—firstly, the very premise of this robot-boxing promoter, the idea of this future sport that has evolved. The other thing is this solitary protagonist who is just really desperate for a break, desperate for a paycheck, desperate for anything to change, and that's very much the spirit of Jackman's character.

FJI: The film has been in development for a few years. Dan Gilroy did a script for DreamWorks in the mid-2000s, which Les Bohem and Jeremy Leven then worked on. Director Peter Berg was briefly involved in the project before you came aboard in 2009. John Gatins had done a new draft by then. Your take on the film, you've said, was to make it humanistic and family-oriented, rather than a high-tech spectacle like, say, the Transformers films. What was the process like after you were hired to produce and direct?

Levy: The writer who'd written the draft I read was John Gatins, and I saw enough good stuff in the draft to continue with John. I have a very specific process with writers, used on both my Museum movies and Date Night. I don't give notes and writers don’t go away and come back in a few months—I do the work in the room with the writer. Sometimes things come from my improvising scenes with the writer. John and I got together several times a week for months, beefing this up. We created the character Evangeline Lilly plays—that didn't exist before.

The one big idea [Gatins and Levy developed] is, “We must pay off the shadow mode in the third act.” That wasn't there. When I read the script, the very first idea I pitched was that this robot is going to get really banged up in the championship fight and lose his operating system which is voice recognition, and we're going to have to revert to shadow mode. That one idea made the whole movie for me.

FJI: Why?

Levy: Because I knew it would be emotional. I knew that it would pay off the journey of this lonely protagonist who had given up on his son, given up on himself. And I felt like if we do it right, this one moment in round five, the final round of the final fight, would be [Jackman's] character's opportunity to reconnect to the sport he loves and the son he loves.

Anthony Mackie: I think if you're a parent [as Mackie is], there's nothing about that story that is corny. If you're a parent, you have to find something that both you're interested in and your kid is interested in. The movie Shawn made relates generation to generation. I'd met with Shawn [during the casting process] and when he told me the story I said, “Hell, yeah!”

Levy: I'm a Canadian, but I have always, even as a young kid in Montreal, loved this American shit, this theme of redemption you get in movies. In Europe, I would occasionally sit across from a cynical, semi-intellectual film journalist who would admit that a film got him choked up. Here in the States, we like our movies cathartic, we like our movies redemptive. And whether Real Steel will succeed or fail, I wanted to make a movie that's really a feel-good experience for the audience. We live in cynical times, where irony and ironic detachment is a kind of badge of honor. I do not subscribe to that.

FJI: Aside from the robots and related technology, the near-future looks a lot like today: same vehicles, same cowboy hats at the state or county fair, same sour economy…

Mackie: [Levy] just described it as, not post-apocalyptic, but everyone's down on their luck [despite the presence of affluent people and packed sports arenas]. When he described it that way and then set it and shot it in Detroit, that gave it an old-world feel even though it takes place in the future.

Levy: It's [set in the year] 2020, and frankly the whole reason it's 2020 [and not further in the future] is because I knew this movie was going to be an underdog story and I didn't want the distant futurism of extreme sci-fi. I wanted the world to feel really familiar, so that the characters would feel really relatable. The cell-phone we used five or ten years ago looks different from today, but a diner still looks like a diner.

Mackie: I've worked in Detroit a bunch. My first movie was in Detroit, 8 Mile, and every time I shoot there it makes me appreciate the opportunity I have to be in films. Everyone there was so thrilled and so excited about being a part of the movie. In Detroit, bad as it is, people are proud as hell about being from Detroit. The greatest disadvantage the Michigan government gave the state was taking away the film [tax] credit [sometime after Real Steel and a burst of other projects shot in the state]. It was bringing so much life and so much business to Detroit and all of Michigan.

Levy: I scouted a lot of different states for this movie. The first time I walked into this Highland Ford factory, a hundred-year-old Model T factory, I knew as soon as I walked in that this was [going to be the set for] the Crash Palace, the opening underground fight club, because it had such a grungy beauty to it. [Built in 1909, it was the third Ford automotive factory, and the second to produce the legendary Model T.] An abandoned zoo became another fight venue. Detroit has this combination of old and very new, future and past, and the aesthetics of the movie are about this combination of future and past.

Mackie: Every single set was larger than life. We shot that [early scene with the robot boxer named] Noisy Boy in the warehouse where they created and produced the Model T, and being around that kind of history, once you realize there's no asbestos around you, it's great!

FJI: Real robots, built by Legacy Effects, the successor to Stan Winston Studios, were used for a lot of scenes, which cut down on the use of the motion-capture CGI. Anti-intuitively, building real, eight-foot props with hydraulics and radio-controlled motors and armature helped keep the budget down. The budget was reported in 2009 to be $80 million. Where did it wind up?

Levy: I'm not allowed to say—it's a little north of $80 million. We were able to do two things that contained the cost: We built real robots, so we didn't rely on visual effects as much as most movies. And we did this new technology [that was previously used on] Avatar, which was motion capture with "simulcam," so you're not only capturing the fighting of live human fighters, but you're able to take that and see it converted to [CGI] robots on a screen instantaneously. Simulcam puts the robots in the ring in real time, so you are operating your shots to the fight, whereas even three, four years ago, you used to operate to empty frames, just guessing at what stuff was going to look like.

FJI: As some wags have noted, the movie recalls a certain classic 1964 toy from the toy company Marx. Mattel, which now holds the rights, is not involved in the film, and there's no connection between the toy and the movie. Still, in a world where Transformers is a huge movie franchise and the board game Battleship is coming out as a movie next year, did it ever feel like you were shooting Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots: The Movie?

Mackie: That's what I thought it would feel like to me. A lot of movies take these titles from our childhood but don't put heart in the movie. It's like, “Yeah, we'll make robots beat each other up!” but that's all it is. Let's put it this way: This has the heart of Rocky but the effects and appeal of Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots.

Levy: There was never any conversation or thought that I was privy to about approaching [Mattel].