Real Steel - Director Shawn Levy and Hugh Jackman
Director Shawn Levy and Hugh Jackman on the set © 2011 DreamWorks II

Shawn Levy has spent a decade making successful comedies including Date Night, What Happens in Vegas and Night at the Museum. But he always longed for a more diverse career, and with his new movie Real Steel he has crossed into a whole new genre.

Set in 2020, robots have taken over the boxer world, leaving boxers like Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) out of work. With no fight prospects, Charlie becomes a small time robot fight promoter.

When it looks like things can’t get worse, Charlie’s child Max (Dakota Goyo), who he has never known, turns up and the alienated duo reluctantly team up to rebuild and train a scrap-heap robot Max calls Atom, turning it into a contender.

Can you talk about working with Hugh Jackman in this?

Real Steel - Poster
Poster © 2011 DreamWorks II

Hugh Jackman is known as the nicest guy in show biz. I can confirm that rumor. It’s insane, but it’s like no one’s ever told him he’s ridiculously good looking and a massive movie star.

I’m hoping we can keep that secret because he is way too nice for someone who is all those things. He’s the greatest and he brings an underlying kind of sympathetic, lovable trait to Charlie, who can be a really hard, tough guy.

Was having the robots on the set a challenge?

We had remarkably few mishaps, these robots and the puppeteers who operate their remote controls were incredibly reliable. We had one scary moment early on in the first week where Ambush, who’s fighting the bull in the opening of the movie.

He was standing on the lift gate and in the middle of the take his hydraulic system went haywire and his chin started lowering and it lowered all the way down so that he crushed his own collarbone.

His chin got stuck in his chest plate and it was scary because, it’s hard to believe, but when you’re in the presence of these robots and they’re moving you think of them as real. And so to see him destroy himself was a little sad.

We had a twenty-five minute break and we fixed him and from that moment on we did not have any mishaps, and I’m very thrilled with the results of going practical with the effects, which is a rarity.

Why was that important to you?

Real Steel - The mighty robot Zeus
The mighty robot Zeus is the undefeated WRB champion of robot boxing © 2011 DreamWorks II

It’s important for two reasons. The first is there is no comparison in what you get from your actors. If you’re asking them to fake it with a tennis ball, that’s tough. But if you’re asking an actor to play a scene with a real eight and a half foot tall robot, you get something different altogether.

My co-star is 10-years-old. And when you put a boy in front of a real robot, the reason those scenes have magic to them, the reason it looks like that character loves that robot is because that actor loved that robot.

So you get an acting reality and also you get a visual reality. I just think there’s a difference. I knew that I wanted the movie because the premise is so out there. I actually wanted the aesthetics and the style of the movie to be quite realistic.

Did you have the luxury of rehearsal time with the robots?

Real Steel - The mighty robot Zeus and friends
The mighty robot Zeus and a hall of robots © 2011 DreamWorks II

I didn’t. I met the robots, I saw how they could articulate. It was a very scary choice at the time to choose as we did to give our hero robot, our most human robot, no face. He’s the only one with no face and yet he’s the most humane.

And so I needed to see how he would be puppeteered in order to believe that he could be communicative. That he could be expressive even though he doesn’t have a mouth. He doesn’t talk, he has LEDs that shine through a mesh and yet as soon as you see him relate to you just with [its] neck, shoulders, chin.

It was incredibly expressive and so I did a show and tell day and it put my mind at ease.

This seems to be the age of Shawn Levy. You have a sequel to this, Frankenstein, Fantastic Voyage – how do you keep your feet on the ground?

Real Steel - Director Shawn Levy
Director Shawn Levy on the set © 2011 DreamWorks II

I’m an ambitious fellow. I can sincerely tell you this, on the one hand I am truly thrilled because I wanted this badly and I’ve waited through seven comedies for the chance to broaden, for the chance to prove myself in different ways. I’m humble and really grateful that it’s happening and yes, none of it is an accident.

I’ve been trying to get better and just keep doing the work in the hope that the right people are noticing, and now they’ve been noticing and I’m working with Jim Cameron on Fantastic Voyage and Steven Spielberg on this.

I don’t know if it’s ever going to be an age of Levy, but I will say that I really like living this creative life and for me doing one movie every year and a half [isn’t enough], I want more. I’m trying to be creative in a bunch of different outlets.

What can we expect from Fantastic Voyage?

Some of us know the original film. We can expect something that brings with it a great deal of Jim Cameron’s sensibilities because I’ve been working with him on it for the last six, seven months, both the screenplay and the visual design.

The biggest difference is it’s a love story and it’s a sci-fi action picture, but whereas the original movie could only do miasmic views out submarine windows.

In the same way that I wanted Real Steel to be practical robots that you could feel and touch, my decision on Fantastic Voyage was we’re going to go out there, we’re leaving the sub and we’re building giant underwater sets, because I want it tactile and immersive. So that’s what you can expect.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.