IAR Press Conference Coverage: 'Real Steel'

Thursday, 06 October 2011 17:16 Written by  Jordan DeSaulnier
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IAR Press Conference Coverage: 'Real Steel'

The simplicity of boxing makes it a sport particularly suited to effective treatment in all manner of films.  Two opponents, trained to pinnacle of their physical potential, face-to-face an pummeling one another in a ring from which only one victor will emerge.  It's clean, universally comprehensible, and can be mined for maximum drama.  Classic films that have centered, to varying degrees, around onscreen pugilism include Raging Bull, The Champ, Rocky, and, more recently, The Fighter.

If boxing is the sport of kings, then by the transitive property, robot-boxing is the sport of robot-kings.  The new film Real Steel, which hits (seriously, no pun intended) theaters tomorrow, takes place in a near-future inspired by the Richard Matheson short story Steel.  In this stylized setting, traditional boxing has been completely usurped by a version in which the pugilists are no longer flesh-and blood humans, but are instead hulking, nine-foot tall robots designed and built specifically to pummel each other, with a human operator involved via remote. 

Hugh Jackman stars as Charlie Kenton, a former prizefighter who lost his chance at a championship title when the robots took over and now earns a meager living as a hustler of low-level match-ups.  Mortified to find he's suddenly the guardian of a son he didn't know was his, played by Dakota Goyo, Charlie and his boy revive an out-of-date training robot named Atom, and this unlikely trio of underdogs find themselves on the path to robo-boxing glory.  At a press conference in Los Angeles, IAR Managing Editor Jami Philbrick was on hand to hear what Jackman, co-star Anthony Mackie, and boxing legend/ trainer/fight choreographer Sugar Ray Leonard had to say about Real Steel.

The film is directed by Shawn Levy, who has spent years behind the camera on family-friendly hits such as Cheaper by the Dozen, The Pink Panther, Date Night, Night at the Museum, and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.  With Real Steel, by all accounts, Levy has crafted his best film, one that hits a primal emotional chord and appeals to seemingly every demographic.

It was exactly the potential for a widely-accessible crowd-pleaser that attracted Jackman to the project.  "Movies like this are very hard to find because it's one of the most difficult things to pull off," he explained.  "A movie that genuinely plays for my mother-in-law and my six year old and eleven year old kid, very difficult to pull off. I mean Pixar seems to be doing well, DreamWorks Animation seem to be doing a good job, but there's not a lot of movies that do do that. I think that's why it's difficult and rare and for me I just connected to the story. It reminded me of Rocky when I was growing up. That is, stories of sports. It makes you feel good in the end, it's fun, it's entertaining, and dare I say might even bring a tear to the eye."

While Levy has proven his ability to create family-oriented entertainment with a cross-generational appeal, for Real Steel, the director had to believably create an entire, multi-tired economy of robot-boxing.  It's not just flashy televised prizefights, but extends from the lowest illegal underground fisticuffs through various layers of legitimacy and brutality. 

Anthony Mackie plays Finn, an old friend of Charlie's who traffics in the sort of robots and fights that aren't exactly above-boards.  "He’s more of a promoter," Mackie said of his character.  "The way I look at it with Finn is he’s the one that realized that there was something more than just the arena fights, more than just the big money fights. At some point and time when robot boxing came around, you had to figure out a way for their to be an avenue for these fighters to work their way up to the main event. So, because he spent so much time in the boxing world he had the ability to carve out his own little niche."

In order to properly convey the right feel for this eclectic less-than-legal scene, Levy relied on Mackie to sketch out a unique sort of promoter, the actor explained.  "You know, for the character, he was supposed to be a businessman. And I’m like, 'Well this is underground robots, so underground is under the street, right?' So that was something we talked about and came up with. The wardrobe kind of morphed into that and everything kind of came along with it. And I gave it to Shawn and he was really open to me being as ridiculous and crazy as I wanted to be with that big speech in the middle of the ring."

While creating a credibly intricate world around the futuristic sport was certainly a challenge, the actual combat presented whole different obstacles.  The robots themselves are the result of a balancing act between practical, on-set animatronics and digital creations.  The measure of their effectiveness is inevitably how they function in the actual fights.  To create the various match-ups, the production recruited one of the greatest boxers of all time, Gold Medalist Sugar Ray Leonard. He choreographed the fights and coached the motion-capture performers whose moves became the physical templates for robot-movement.

Leonard needed to create a different pugilistic style for each different robot, working from the functional realities of its design, as he laid out during the press conference.  "Based on its design," he explained, "I can just look at you I'd say, 'You're a southpaw and you'd fight a lot like this.' I would see your style. You, I'd look at you and you're kind of small and kind of like this. Like Zeus, a big monstrous robot, I saw George Foreman, that kind of thing. With Atom I saw a little bit of me. I saw a guy who's got these round, big eyes and is quick and everything. I gave him a little bit of my style. I put a little bit of [Marvin] Hagler in here, a little bit of Roberto [Duran].

Sharp-eyec boxing enthusiasts will even be able to recognize specific moments from classic fights that Leonard incorporated into the film's fights.  "I would take a little piece of this and that," he said.  "It was really well delivered, and again, because these robots were really able to emulate that style and that movement which was a lot of fun."

Leonard's responsibilities also extended to training Jackman, who is known for his extraordinary physical commitment to his often demanding roles.  The actor was impressed by his coach, saying, "Oh yeah, he comes from a boxing world. No one pulls punches to them the whole way. They told me exactly the way it is and that's the way he is too. He's very sweet and ridiculously handsome. I can't believe that guy was ever hit. Like he's 54? I was like, 'What is wrong with you man?' It's unbelievable and he's got it together. I had been doing some training when I saw him and he was like, 'oh you've got a lot more work to do.'"

"I needed to look like a professional boxer," Jackman continued.  "It was vital not from just I want a boxer to say 'Hey it looks like he knows what he’s doing.' As I said that’s when it comes alive, that moment, you need to see him, you have to believe that moment, as he boxes, it’s like his whole being comes alive, fully. And he also talked to me about the corner man about how he kept doing this to me and he’d be behind the monitor and I’d be by the ring, cameras on me and we’re doing scenes, and he kept… your strength in your eyes, your emotion through your eyes to that robot to the human boxer is everything. It’s going to allow the audience to believe in the robots, it’s going to show your strength is how strong your robot is."

For his part, Leonard said that part of what makes a boxer is a preternatural physical gift that cannot be acquired through training, but is simply something one is lucky enough to have been born with.  Speed, for example.  "Hugh doesn't have speed," Leonard said of the Australian actor.  "Hugh has intention. He's a perfectionist. I mean, look at his body, he has that athlete body. So, that was the easy part. I kept harping on, and I'm sure he got tired of me saying this, I'd say, 'Hugh, you have to look it, feel it.' What that would require was for him to let go of everything, totally surrender which is hard for a lot of A-plus actors or whatever, to let go and stop being Hugh Jackman and be a fighter, feel a fighter. Once he did that it hit. I've been interviewed by some boxing writers and when they say, 'You know what, the robots look damn good,' I knew that we'd done a good job."

All the training and boxing expertise go a long way to creating a coherent robot-boxing world, but ultimately, it's the underdog story that typifies this subgenre and makes a film like Real Steel emotionally effective.  Jackman singles out last year's The Fighter as an example of just why we as an audience respond so readily to tales of boxers.  "There is something there… as Sugar Ray says 'No champ ever came from Beverly Hills' right so we instinctively know that boxing stories are going to be about people who’ve done it tough and we all at some point in our life no matter where we come from we fell like we’ve done it tough and we relate to that feeling of rising above the circumstances that we’ve been born into."

Mackie's theory as to the popularity of boxing films throughout the ages is altogether more personal and centered on the psychology of violence, however.  Boxing movies endure, he said, "Because I bet you can name four times this week that you wanted to punch somebody in the face. Right, right? I bet you can name four times today, you know what I mean? The thing about it is, boxing is a way to, a reason why you have kickboxing and all these boxing classes at gyms. It’s a reason why you have people that have all these Thai Boa and what’s the new one? Zamba? Whatever. Because people watch boxing and it’s a way to release your aggression. It gives guys a reason to drink beer and yell, it gives women a reason to say, 'Rip his fucking head off!' And not be judged for it, because that’s what you want. You want to see somebody win."

For Sugar Ray Leonard, the success of boxing movies comes from the way they approximate our engagement with the sport itself.  "Once they capture that expression, that face, that feel of what boxing truly is it resonates," he explained. You feel that emotion. That's what I worked on with Hugh [Jackman], not necessarily his delivery of punches, although I did make sure he executed the punches the right way, but I said, 'You know, Hugh, you've got to feel the punch. You've got to really show a conviction, an acceptance of that punch, the commitment of that punch.' Then I also took it further and I said, 'Now, you as a trainer, that relationship between the trainer and the fighter is so unique, is so special that it's intimate.'

"In other words, you don't always have to talk too much," he said.  "You can just look in your fighter's eyes and he feels it like I did with Angelo Dundee, like [Muhammad] Ali did with Angelo Dundee. Angelo would say something, it's like a sound-bit, like, 'You're blowing it, son,' and that's all he has to say and I get it because he looks at me without showing desperation but there's concern. It's what you feel, and because with boxing, when people see that guy who's just gotten up from a knock down come back and become victorious, it's that look of not giving up. People are like, 'Oh, my God, did you see that?' You get excited. You get happy for that guy. That's what happens in boxing."

Real Steel arrives in theaters tomorrow, October 7th, but DreamWorks has been enthusiastic about the film's commercial potential for quite some time, and its success in test screenings prompted talk of a potential sequel, for which both Shawn Levy and Hugh Jackman have said they would love to return. 

Mackie, too, would love to come back another round (again, no pun intended), but he's not certain he'll be asked to come back.  "I don’t know," he said. "I have no idea what it’s going to be. I remember reading something in Variety as soon as we wrapped production saying the sequel to Real Steel has been put in fast forward. I was like, wait, I’m still at craft services. (Laughs) That’s all I know. We haven’t talked about it, I haven’t heard anything. I would like to be in it if you want to write [Levy] a letter."

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