'Real Steel' Director Shawn Levy On Why Real Robots Beat Fake Ones Any Day

10/07/2011 10:24 am ET | Updated Dec 07, 2011

Robot boxing. That's what we see in "Real Steel," a loud, violent, and -- by the end -- touching movie about a boy, his dad, and yes, their robot.

Shawn Levy's "Real Steel" stars Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton, a down-on-his-luck boxing promoter unexpectedly saddled with his 11-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo) after his ex-girlfriend dies. Together, the two embark on a classic underdog tale, with spunky sparring robot Atom by their side. Evangeline Lilly plays the owner of the local gym, and Jackman's love interest, Bailey Tallett.

Response to the movie so far has been mixed. While some critics praised it as a heartwarming family movie for all, with Lisa Schwarzbaum at Entertainment Weekly calling it a "jaunty, well-built hybrid action/family pic," others were more skeptical. Logan Hill at New York Magazine condemned "Real Steel" as a " smoke-spewing, gas-guzzling Hummer of a movie" that is "overstuffed with overblown themes that it’s as incoherent as a Super Bowl halftime show and just as hammily patriotic."

Levy has been turning out gentle-hearted action comedies for a while, though he's probably best known for his romps "Date Night" and "Night at the Museum" (he also directed episodes of "The Secret Life of Alex Mack" back in the day!).

The Huffington Post spoke with Levy about the challenges of casting, why he built real robots that move on their own instead of going digital, and how "Real Steel" is different from "Transformers."

Obviously, a lot of sci-fi movies deal in dirty, dystopian futures. But "Real Steel" doesn't look that different from our world. How did you come up with this universe?

The world had to feel accessible. Early on, we knew the technology in the movie would be futuristic -- computers, phones, robots that don't exist in the here and now. But while our phones and computers may be different, a diner still looks like a diner, a carnival still looks like a carnival -- iconic landmarks of American culture don't transform as quickly as movies sometimes portray them.

I have to admit I thought the robots would be bigger. How did you decide on their size?

If you're making a robot movie with fighting, in this day and age you know you're doing it in the aftermath of "Transformers." The whole design was in the consciousness of that and an insistence on difference. Whereas transformers are from outer space and massive and in no relation to human scale, we wanted our robots to feel relatable to human scale but also human designed, human built, human operated as a counterpoint.

Why did you decide to go with building robots for the film?
I had an early conversation with Spielberg, and we talked about this somewhat unconventional notion of building real robots. We're in a moment where anything can be done digitally, and this old-fashioned notion of building the robots for real proved to be the defining decision of the movie. The first time Hugh and Evangeline and Dakota and I walked on set, there's Atom and Noisy Boy and Ambush, these real eight-and-a-half-foot tall, remote control, moving robots. It turned Hugh and I into 10-year-old boys in front of a real 10-year-old boy. There was something magical about seeing a real robot shadow your movements.

So, is Atom conscious or not [spoiler alert!]?

That was the central question we wrestled with. I had a version of the movie where we irrefutably confirm Atom's consciousness and I have a version of the movie where we say, "No, it's a machine but the boy believes in him." If the movie is to have a certain magic, it's going to be in the question. It's going to be in the suggestion, without confirmation. To deny that Atom has consciousness is a heartbreaking position, but to confirm it skews the movie really, really young by a full and overt embrace of magic.

How did you cast Bailey?
I knew early on that I wanted Evangeline Lilly. I knew I needed someone who could play all this romantic subtext with Hugh but is the daughter of his trainer -- a woman who's spent the bulk of her life in a man's role. She needed to be very feminine and emotionally soft but also guarded and hardened. She [Lilly] was turning down parts left and right at the time, big parts in big movies. Everyone said, "She's done, she just wants to live her life, do her thing in Hawaii, that's that.' Everyone told me it was futile. She showed up in LA and I was like, 'What are you doing here?' and she said, 'This script made me cry and I wanted to put it into the world and so if you want me, I'm in.'

Where are the robots now?
They're here in LA. A few of them were at the after party behaving badly and getting drunk.

Watch a trailer for "Real Steel" below:

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