Set Visit: Boxing robots, Hugh Jackman and fish tacos on the set of Real Steel!

Working at JoBlo.com has been an adventure from day one, and over the last few years I’ve had the opportunity to visit film festivals like TIFF, Sundance, and Fantasia. Yet, in the summer of 2010, there was still one thing I hadn’t experienced yet: the set visit.

Now, as a kid growing up in Montreal, I never for a second thought that one day I'd be standing on the set of a $100 Million plus potential blockbuster like REAL STEEL, starring mega-star Hugh Jackman but thanks to JoBlo.com, there I was.

Talking to a few of my fellow set visiting journalists, I learned that the REAL STEEL set visit truly was one like no other, as director Shawn Levy seemed to be giving us unprecedented access to the production, which was happening about eighteen months before the film was even due to hit theaters.

The night before our set visit, the studio set up a "meet and greet" with Levy, which turned into an hour-long impromptu interview session. During this time, Levy spoke at length about his vision for the film, what it meant to his career, and how it would be unique.

REAL STEEL is a departure for Levy. It’s his first film away from Fox, with this being a Disney/DreamWorks co-production executive produced by none other than Steven Spielberg. Levy doesn’t want this to be shoehorned into an already packed summer movie season, but rather wants his film to be seen as something a little different from the usual FX-driven blockbuster. Regarding the fact that REAL STEEL's such a change of pace, Levy has this to say:

I wanted to go more dramatic and I wanted to go less varnished. For me, I'm not a dark-hearted, brooding guy. I'm ultimately pretty uncynical, pretty committed humanist and idealistic. But, I did feel like I had a nice run with NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM, and now DATE NIGHT. I really wanted to do a drama with more action and grit.

Considering his previous films, readers may be surprised to discover that the director whose work had the most profound effect on him, is Peter Weir (WITNESS, DEAD POETS SOCIETY, and THE WAY BACK).

GALLIPOLI was the movie I remember watching, and thinking, I need to know everything about who Peter Weir was. I mean, it was so moving to me, so epic and emotional. In some ways realistic, in others idealistic. Years later I saw FEARLESS. I wrote him a letter in 1994, I was a film student, and he wrote me back, a hand-written letter which I still have. It was so generous of him to response to a film geek who was telling him how moved I was by his work.

As much as REAL STEEL is a departure for Levy, it's also a departure for Jackman, with him playing a character far removed from the usual heroic type he's known for. Levy had this to say about slightly subverting Hugh's image:

With Hugh, I was able to really develop this part to the point of prickish behavior. Angry, remote, closed, and cynical in the way that if -- and I don't want to name other actors, but many another actor -- if I cast them as Charlie Canton, I could not have written the character as mean as I have. He is mean to this kid. He does not want this kid around. He says ten times, "Get out of my life. How much? How much will it cost for you to get out of my truck? Because this thing I do? I do this alone." And he just won't leave. And at first you think it's because the kid is just completely stubborn. And there's this whole thing where Hugh sells custody of the kid. He's a real asshole. But then you realize that maybe all this kid wants -- and it's a line in the movie -- maybe all this kid ever wanted -- is for someone to fight for him. That's very near the heart of the movie.

As for the inevitable Logan/Wolverine comparison:

Logan is an angry dude. It's a very different character. I don't feel that pressure. I want to put Hugh in the middle of a brand new franchise and every single day he just takes the movie on its back and he just carries it. If you've ever met him, you know. He's ridiculously nice and humble. He's just the absolute nicest.

Based on Richard Matheson’s short story, “Steel” which was previously a TWILIGHT ZONE episode starring none other than Lee Marvin, this takes place a few years in the future, by which time bloodsports of any kind have been outlawed. This leaves former pro, Charlie Kenton (Jackman) in a bind. Instead of having humans fight it out, remote-control robots have now taken their place. Imagine a multi-million dollar Battle-Bots (or ROCK EM' SOCK EM' ROBOTS if you will), and you’ve got the idea.

However, Levy doesn't think audiences should expect wall-to-wall action, with him saying the film is split 70/30 between character and action.

But I recognize that a lot of people don't know what the movie is. People say, "What's your movie? It's PAPER MOON meets ROCKY meets THE CHAMP meets TRANSFORMERS?" You'll see tomorrow the refusal of the movie to be just one thing. It is that much harder to encapsulate in a cozy little sentence. To me, it's thrilling, but I recognize that there's the need to get the word out there. That's why you guys are here. We need people to know what this thing is. You need to see some of these images. You need to see some of these performances.

After a few more fish tacos, and gin & tonics (for me anyway), we went back to our hotel to rest up for the following day's set visit, which was shaping up to be epic.

Once we got to the set the following morning, everything was in full swing. Truly REAL STEEL looked like a massive production, and to a novice journalist from Montreal, the scope was overwhelming. The location we visited was housed in an enormous, abandoned Ford-factory a few miles outside of Detroit. Immediately after we arrived on set, Levy gave us a peek at the film's opening. These sequences set up Kenton’s nomadic life. While Robot Boxing is huge, there’s also a fringe part of the sport, which has gone underground. The scene being filmed today features Charlie, and his son Max (Dakota Goyo) fighting one of their robots in a giant, underground, Thunderdome-style arena, called the Crash Palace, which is managed and emceed by Anthony Mackie’s character- who seems like the Don King of the underworld. Jackman’s robot, Noisy-Boy gets pitted against the underground champ Midas, and from what I saw, things don’t go to well for Noisy-Boy.

For a closer look at the starring robots, check out these billboards of the four main fighting bots:

First up is the most important robot- Atom, who's the "hero" of the film, that Jackman, and Goyo train, ROCKY-style, to become the reigning champ of the WORLD ROBOT BOXING LEAGUE (imagine WWE for robots).

Next up is Noisy-Boy, who's tragic demise in the ring, I happened to witness on the visit.

Then we have Midas- who seems to be the Clubber Lang of REAL STEEL, and handed poor Noisy-Boy's ass (or rather arm) to him. These robots don't mess around!

Finally, there's Ambush, who may or may not be the Apollo Creed of the film, but we'll have to wait until closer to the opening to confirm that. One of the coolest things about REAL STEEL is that some of the robot effects are being done practically, with animatronics, so we got a chance to see some incredibly intricate, towering robots built to scale. However, the fights are going to be all-CGI, but thanks to the VFX team, which is the same group that worked on AVATAR, the fights in REAL STEEL are going to be unique due to the amazing pre-vis work that allows Levy to choreograph the fights, and change shots at his whim. The pre-vis is all being generated in real time, which will allow Levy to cut together the fight whichever way he chooses, with the finished product being fully CGI-d. For a film like REAL STEEL, this new technique is a revelation, as usually the director hasn’t get a lot of breathing room once the huge scale FX sequences are storyboarded and pre-visualized. It’s amazing that AVATAR, having only come out four months before this started filming, has changed the FX industry so quickly that this new technique will likely become standard before long.

Now for the 3D question…

According to Levy, REAL STEEL is NOT being shot with 3D in mind, although he doesn’t seem completely adverse to doing a post-conversion if the technology is there ( note- several months after the set visit, the decision was made NOT to post-convert the movie ). Instead, REAL STEEL will be released on IMAX. To me that's a good thing, as Levy seemed to think that 3D would not enhance the movie, and might take away from the considerable non-action aspects of the film:

if it was just a robot boxing movie, it would be 3D. But it's so much of a character drama, which sounds like lip service, but you'll get it when you see it. There's so much more character dialogue than fighting in this- like 70/30. We thought at least, a month ago when we had this conversation that it would be a disservice to the 70% to let the 30% drive the decision.

Levy was pretty tight-lipped on the prospect of a sequel, but the studio seems bullish, with them having announced a few months ago that a treatment was already under way. Here's what Levy said when asked if he thought about turning REAL STEEL into a franchise:

I'm superstitious. I use the word franchise with a grain of salt. Three of my movies have gone on to sequels, but I would never go into a first film with that presumption. Certain people have approached me and said, "Do you want to talk about what the second one might be?" and I know John Gaten, the writer I'm working with has some ideas about that, but no. I'm way too superstitious.

Coming up tomorrow, a chat with none other than star Hugh Jackman!

Source: JoBlo.com



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