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Interview: Shawn Levy, Director of “Real Steel”

January 21, 2012

By John C.

We were all big fans of the rousing sports movie Real Steel when it opened in theatres last October, and on Wednesday night I had the pleasure of interviewing the director of the film, Canada’s own Shawn Levy.  With the robot boxing saga set to hit Blu-ray on Tuesday, we discussed what fans can look forward to from the release and what it was like to direct the hydraulic robots alongside human stars Hugh Jackman and Dakota Goyo.  His positive energy was shining through the phoneline, and I could clearly sense his enthusiasm and passion for the project.  Enjoy!

I have great memories of attending the Toronto premiere of Real Steel last September and meeting you briefly after the screening.  Thank you.

One thing that really impressed me was just how well the film played to a packed audience.  What can fans expect from the Blu-ray release?  I think, no, I know – and it’s rare that I’m able to make a promise and be 100% confident, but let me tell you that fans will get an in-depth behind the scenes visit into every aspect of the production.  An education the likes of which I’ve never seen on DVD.  The second screen feature is so much deeper than plain commentary.  The detail and vivid tech design, essentially everything is showed off.  The most for any movie, and I’ve seen a lot of them.

I had an opportunity to meet three of the robot stars of the film at Fan Expo last August in Toronto, and spoke to Brian Namanny who did the effects.  Can you tell me what it was like to be directing the hydraulic robots alongside the human actors?  It’s interesting because at first you’re just marveling at how cool it is that this 9-foot-tall robot is moving.  By halfway through, I was directing Atom the same as Dakota [Goyo] or Hugh [Jackman].  If I wanted more mournful scenes, or more sadness or pride, I’d tell the puppeteers to convey it through hydraulics.  It’s amazing just how artful that aspect of the movie was done.

Even seeing him in person, it’s amazing just how much emotion Atom can convey.  We all agree, we all agree – we love Atom like he is one of our children.

A lot of people I know have affectionately referred to the film as “Rocky with robots.”  What do you think about that classification?  I think that’s fair.  Before people saw the movie, people were wondering, ‘is it Transformers?  Is it Transformers?’  But if I’m going to be likened to any franchise, I’ll take Rocky any day. They’re just hugely inspirational films with such heart that tell rousing underdog tales.

And what was it like working with Sugar Ray Leonard?  That was amazing – not only because his contributions were immense.  The privilege of sitting around the lunch table with Hugh and asking Sugar Ray about the fights with [Roberto] Durán, Tommy Hearns, [Marvin] Hagler, and getting the inside scoop from the man who lived it.  As a sports fan that was an amazing experience.

Dakota Goyo was just so good alongside Hugh Jackman.  What was the casting process like to find the perfect child actor?  Well, I saw hundreds of boys from all over the world – practically from every English-speaking country.  Dakota not only had the acting skills but an authentic quality that you can’t direct.  He is an actor, but also a real kid, and that’s still true even after all the exposure from the film.  He has a thing beyond acting, beyond talent, a truthfulness, and we knew that we had to find that or we couldn’t make the movie.

Another thing that I loved about the film was the soundtrack, especially the scene where Max (Dakota Goyo) dances with Atom.  What went into choosing the songs?  Well, I’m glad that you asked me that.  The soundtrack was one of my prides of the movie.

You’re welcome.  How did you choose the song for the dance?  I had a dream collaborator.  I said the dream would be Timbaland.  Whether it’s [Justin] Timberlake or Madonna, his sound is so distinct, so catchy.  I was talking with my music execs and said ‘let’s just reach out to him.’  So I sent my music execs to Florida to show him ten minutes of the film.  They ended up waiting about four hours to see him, and by the time they did, it was two in the morning.  He watched it and said, ‘come back to my house at 10 AM to show me the whole film.’  So the next morning with his kid, they screened the whole movie for him and he wrote the song from scratch.

That is just such a perfect moment.  At what point in the production did it come?  That moment was midway though the editing process.  But what helped on set was that they were dancing to a Timbaland beat.  So he had to match the rhythm of an old song of his own, but lyrically and musically it’s all a new song for Real Steel.

I’ve always liked the positive energy of your films, including both Night at the Museum movies, Date Night and Cheaper by the Dozen.  Who are the filmmakers that have inspired you as a director?  Probably the other filmmakers who have a humanistic, positive, uncynical worldview.  Ron Howard, Robert Zemeckis, Peter Weir…  They respect the real humanity of the world.  While they’ve made films in a diversity of genres, they’re always uplifting, always warmhearted, always inspirational.

Are there any upcoming projects you can tell me about, and what can fans expect from a sequel to Real SteelWell, first of all I can literally say that the Real Steel sequel is on the bubble.  The first film had a very good box office – also overseas – and we sold a lot of toys.  What we need to see now are our DVD sales, so we can see our fan based appetite for the next installment.  So, everyone buy the Blu-ray.  Hugh and I are already signed on.  But I can literally tell you, Atom had a shot in the first movie, but him and Charlie have not even begun what we will see in the sequel.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with me tonight – it’s been a real pleasure.  Take care, man.

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