Shawn Levy has made a number of commercial successful films, all leading to this point in his career. He’s taken the seemingly ridiculous idea of robots fighting each other, and turned it into a rousing, Rocky-fied night at the movies, and uses Hugh Jackman‘s star power at its highest wattage. Levy sees this movie as a turning point in his career, and he talks about the advice given to him by Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis in our interview. Check it out…

Hugh Jackman said to ask what was Steven Spielberg’s most important interaction with the film.

There were many, but the two possible ones. In the first meeting Steven Started talking about Jurassic Park, and said “everyone does everything CG now cause you can, back on Jurassic Park, we didn’t have the luxury of this so we built real dinosaurs, animatronic real dinosaurs. I suggest you build real robots. And it’s a throwback idea, an unconventional idea in 2011, but we did. Atom is real, Noisy Boy is real. Ambush is real. And what you get from real robots is so much – you get a visual reality for the movie and you get unbelievably more authentic performances – especially from that boy. The reason why the scenes between Dakota (Goyo) and Atom are so magical is because Dakota loved that robot – that was real. He was shadowing him. He can’t believe a robot is following him like that.

It had a little bit of an Iron Giant feel.

If it does it’s because of the humanity. We’ve seen boys and robots, but only in animation movie have we robot movies with big-heartedness – Iron Giant’s one, Wall-E is the other. But in live action it’s rare. I’m not conscious of any design inspirations, but the soulfulness of Brad Bird’s movie was definitely something we were going for.

Talking to others, Rocky has come up, Paper Moon has come up, were there any reference points for you?

Those, The Champ, Raging Bull as far as just looking at the shot selection. How Scorsese covered it.

When you cut the robot POV was that an homage to Raging Bull?

Yes. There was also a shot I did where we did a steadi-cam down a hallway where it steps on to a crane. I was absolutely inspired by that. But as much as the filmmaker should revere – and does revere Raging Bull – it was the Rocky movies, because they were the ones I watched as a kid and a younger man, and even as they got pulpier and sillier, I was still with them. Whether he was fighting Apollo Creed, or Clubber Lang or Ivan Drago, those movies were rousing in a way that was pre-irony and pre-cynicism. And in 2011 I appreciate that unabashed underdog story that’s still meaningful. My brothers would re-enact those movies, try to do pull ups on ropes like Mr. T could do, I love that shit. And that’s the kind of underdog sports movie I wanted to make more than a robot movie.

Hugh Jackman told us that Spielberg said to you “You’ve made some successful movies, but this is your first film.”

I think his exact words were “you’ve made a lot of great movies, but this is your first film.” And I think that’s probably fair. I’m proud of those movies, and they were successful, and they earned me this shot.  But Real Steel is the most thoroughly designed, it’s the most beautiful, I think the aesthetics, and the faithfulness to my vision is this movie. And part of it may be me getting better – I’ve certainly tried to get better, but part of it is that every decision you make is about the laugh. Composition, pacing, camera movement, lighting, you must get laughs, that’s the job. You have to service that $20 Million dollar comedy actor, and find the way to bring the funny. In drama, action drama you’re making those decisions only according to your own gut, and your own vision. So in that regard there’s a detail and depth to the filmmaking that is a different kind of thing.

With that quote, do you feel like you’re working different muscles?

Yes, this movie is the first one to really have my aesthetics. I really feel like there was an element of this movie I didn’t micro-manage. So I did you use different muscles, but if you look at some scenes in Night at the Museum or Date Night you can tell there are moments where you can tell I want to make a warm hearted moment, but they are moments. But you can’t acquire the building blocks to build to that third act. I mean, I still love comedy, and I’m producing a big comedy now, Neighborhood Watch, so I still keep up with it.

Was the experience of making this film different than you’d thought it’d be?

Yes and no, but mostly no. I have made films before where I had to take a crash course in special effects, so this is like the first Night at the Museum I didn’t know anything, so I had to go to a tutorial session every day so I could speak the language. Real Steal was more dense in its complexity, and I just made myself learn, so that was the same. I also wondered if drama was more serious business because we had scenes that were emotional, blah blah blah, I still try and run the set in an enthusiastic way, I’m open to improvisation, and I think some of the moments that are most honest in Real Steel are the results of me encouraging Hugh, or Evangeline (Lilly) or Dakota to do their own stuff.

The producers said they started darker, and Spielberg made it lighter with the father-son stuff. Where did you fit in the spectrum?

Well I definitely came abroad with a very clear agenda to make the movie heartfelt. I don’t know if that’s lightness or darkness, but I know it was critical to me, I didn’t want a movie that was only style, action and technology. That’s been done really, really well. We’ve seen dystopias, and we’ve seen visions of nihilism, we’ve seen staggeringly staged action movies with robots. But I was inspired by more traditionalism, whether it’s Paper Moon, or Rocky or The Champ, I wanted the movie as emotional as it was spectacle. Someone said it’s Sci-fi with sentiment, which I think is fair. I think in terms of warm hearted and fun. I guess that’s more light than dark. I think movies should be crowd pleasing, I like to please the crowd. That’s not for everyone, some movies are to be dissected or debated, but I like a rousing engaging time at the movies.

When did you think you might have something with this?

The first time I read it, and it’s not that the script was super awesome right away it was good. And the third act was completely different. I read it and I turned to my wife and said “I have had the best idea of my career, I know how this movie should end, we’re going to bring back shadow mode, and put Atom in Shadow Mode. None of that was in the script, and I even knew the specific scene where I would make everything slow motion. In the first meeting with Steven I said “The boy is going to shift his eyes from the robot he reveres to his father has returned to his good graces.” When I came up with that scene, I knew the movie I was meant to make.

The Shadow technology, would the WRB frown upon that?

Good question. I have to say in two years no one has asked that question, not once.

I wanted to ask about product placement, because with doing an arena film it gives you certain opportunities.

I have to say the one everyone assumes is a partner – which is Dr. Pepper – gave us nothing. Nothing. Not a deal, not even free soda. The joke of the scene is the boy is hyper-caffeinated. So it’s Mountain Dew or Dr. Pepper. So I got Dr. Pepper. But… I finished the movie and we had the two arena fights, and I said the effects are amazing, why doesn’t this look real? And I realized it’s because we did not have enough signage in the arenas. If you got to an international soccer game or you go to a boxing match, it’s wall to wall monetized sponsorship. Late in the process we had to get permission from another forty companies to put their stuff on our banners. Not because they gave us money, but because they made the venues look real.

I do like the X-Box 720.

There’s another one: Virgin Intergalactic.

We’ve heard about Steven Spielberg, what influence did (executive producer) Robert Zemeckis have?

His influence is ingrained in our approach using mo-cap. Bob was distantly involved but I remember there was a moment where I was anxious “could we make this ballsy choice to have our hero be the only one without a face?” Bob Z. came in and said “that screen, that we can’t see that face is what the audience is going to project on to.” We are going to project our feelings of what the robot’s thinking on to the absence of anything. That stayed with me. One of the craziest things from the earliest screenings we’ve had was that Atom scored as high as Dakota and Hugh. The machine, and that’s when I realized people love Atom.

How long then did it take to come up with the right scar?

Three months. And we even built five different face masks with different densities. Atom does have a face but no one’s ever seen it, because when you see it it’s very troubling. It’s like seeing Darth Vader, so we experimented with different face meshes. And Tom Meyer, our production designer, he designed the whole movie – Atom was his baby. A lot of the other robots had help from other illustrators, Atom was Tom Meyer. And this idea of a welding scar to suggest a nose and a mouth is brilliant. And it looks like a smile.

And a little bit of a fencer’s mask.

Yeah, It’s a titanium fencer’s mask and there’s a moment at the end of the Zeus fight where we push up on Atom and I think “that dude looks proud of himself!” Like Zemeckis said, you really project your feelings on it.

It’s the Kuleshof effect, not to be pretentious. Anthony Mackie said most directors he’s worked with are dictators, and when he talked about you he said that you’re one of the good ones. How do you feel about that?

I think that’s fair. I do believe people want a leader on set, so I’m not looking for a placid democracy, but I’m also looking for contributions from everyone. In fact – I’ve got to tell that guy the entire thing he says during that fight we made up that day while we were shooting. Everything on that loudspeaker, I’d just come up with lines and throw them at him, and he would say his own version of that. Maybe I’m a friendly dictator, I think every team needs a leader, and I try to lead with energy and enthusiasm and respect.

How many kids did you audition?

Between three and four hundred? It took months and months. At one point, after a month and a half I said “If I don’t find the kid we can’t make this movie.” Because if we did everything else great, if the kid isn’t great, it won’t work.

You talked about improv with Mackie, did you do that with Dakota’s dance?

No, the dance is completely choreographed because Dakota didn’t want to dance. He’s like a regular ten year old boy – he did not want to dance.

It’s the equivalent of cooties.

Yeah, he said “My friends are going to see this movie, do I have to do this?” But he learned the choreography, and I thought the choreography was a good balance between dance moves, but not too professional.

It’s not like he’s breakdancing, it doesn’t turn into Step Up.

It’s a credit to Anne Fletcher, who did the choreography, of doing the robot with a robot. That was a great idea. It’s so funny we have prejudiced against kid actors. You need a kid actor who’s good enough to carry a movie, but you don’t want to see them acting.

It’s TV and stage moms I think.

But when you get it right, and I think that’s The Champ, Kramer Vs. Kramer and E.T. That’s where there’s an authenticity to those boys – and I know there’s a resemblance to Ricky Schroder. But they can sneak up on you.

Are you going to start looking for darker dramatic films?

Two of the movies I might be doing next have dark themes, so yes. But not doing something I don’t think I could the me version of. I don’t think I could do something with porn violence. I don’t think I could do something with too much cynicism or nihilism. The internet has changed everything, I feel like everyone knows the six movies I’m considering. But there will probably always be an element of wish fulfillment, some element of feel-good, but I hope to keep pushing myself.

Can you talk about your Frankenstein project?

My Frankenstein is really inspired by the screenplay Max Landis wrote, it’s a radical retelling of the legend about a young twenty-something Victor Frankenstein and his friend/assistant Igor, and it’s more about their friendship and betrayals than about what we’ve seen before. It’s about a guy figuring out the science that will make him famous, it’s about these two men finding themselves. Like Real Steel is about more than punching robots, Frankenstein will be about much more than the monster. That and Fantastic Voyage are being budgeted and cast, we’ll see which one comes together.

One of the things that separates Real Steel from a lot of futuristic movies, from the clothing and products, no one’s flying around in hovercrafts, was that your decision?

Yes. I knew the movie would live or die with how the audience connected to the characters, so I needed the future to not be way out there. I needed the world to be familiar so the characters would be relatable. And let’s face it, I use a different cell phone than I did a few years ago, my lap top looks different, but a diner is still a diner. A landscape is still a landscape. And I feel there’s a false conceit in how the future is represented in movies and I wanted to have a different take.

Slight Spoiler Alert

With this movie it is feel-good, but there’s a slight edge to that. Did you give yourself wiggle room, did you shoot some scenes happier or sadder to make sure you had that balance, especially with the ending, were you fully committed to the ending?

I was fully committed, but if we put it in front audiences and they were too heartbroken by the ending… I knew I could recut a different ending. I mean Zeus hits the mat, and I could always end the movie right there. But I felt like Rocky that the victory we were craving was not in the ring. It’s between the characters. So hopefully I’ve made a feel-good ending without making a feel-good ending.

Real Steel Opens October 7. Check it out.