Set Visit: The Two Worlds of ‘Real Steel’

By  · Published on September 8th, 2011

I’m standing on the edge of the The Detroit River which is also the edge of the set for Real Steel – the forthcoming robot boxing movie with a heart of gold. Twenty or so feet away from the Cobo Arena, the wind is picking up, and the view looks out over the glass of the water toward Ontario. This might not seem like a dramatic moment for anyone who lives there, but there’s something poetically jarring about looking out at a different country (and looking southward to see Canada). Right across the water is another world. It’s a world separate from Detroit that hasn’t been beaten down by a lagging economy and the failure of major auto manufacturing. It’s not that Detroit isn’t as impressive, it’s that Windsor seems newer, fresher, and more alive.

A precipice with a view to another world seems like the perfect place for the Shawn Levy-directed, Hugh Jackman-starring film to shoot as it promises to tell a story both embedded in the seedy underground and the glittering, life-filled stadiums of the near future. To hear Levy talk, the movie sets out to feature a man living in one world, testing his limits to live in the other.

Sitting in the arena itself is a hollow experience. Off in the distance, but still inside, is a scene set up with cheering spectators, a boxing ring, a robot and Jackman putting his acting chops to good use. On the end where they’ve placed the journalists, we’re saved from and denied the bluster of the working set, content to sit on uncomfortable seats bolted into concrete. What we aren’t safe from is Shawn Levy.

The man behind the Night at the Museum movies speaks in Hollywood buzz words. Standing directly in front of us, he spews out the kind of kinetic phrases that must make studio executives wet themselves, appearing as though he’s given a strict regimen of Angel Dust every five minutes. He’s a blur of energy, ideas and F-bombs that’s just as likely to talk about the massive box office potential of the concept as he is to invoke classic emotional dramas like Paper Moon when describing a film where machines beat the grease out of each other.

In one world, there’s a fakeness to his delivery, like a too-polished salesman trying to hype you up. Don King with less impressive hair. In another world, he’s crafting yet another film about genuine daddy issues. Even the title gives away a sentimentality that we the audience and Hugh Jackman’s character Charlie Kenton will have to learn what “real” (undoubtedly metaphorical) steel is made of. But that’s what Levy does best. There’s a 90s charm in the movies he makes – throwbacks to a City Slickers era where men need to grow up a little in a commercially safe, satisfying way. His films are what happens when the two worlds of slightly crass commercialism and heartfelt familial situations collide.

In Real Steel, Charlie is tied to life by his last thread, desperate to re-enter a spotlight and reclaim a glory he once enjoyed. He’s a human boxer in a future where the sport gave way to MMA which gave way to more intense fighting which eventually necessitated non-human combatants to deliver the level of destruction the crowds demanded. He’s a character left in the past, clawing to join the present. He lives squarely in an environment of dumpster-diving for robot parts and underground matches where money and recognition is on the line, but right across the way, just in sight is the high-dollar, legitimate world of the World Robot Boxing League.

The high concept action is one thing, but the heart of the film is sold as a father-son tale where a kid (played by Dakota Goyo) who was abandoned falls in the lap of the “broken soul” who abandoned him. That Levy describes his main figure like that is another telling sign that the movie is planning to be a sheep in wacky conceptual clothing. Then again, when The Twilight Zone adapted the same source material for an episode, the result was a hell of a lot more heart than most might grant its underpinnings.

That’s what is so striking about the entire project, and what stands out most as I talk with Jackman and Levy, see some impressive pre-viz innovation and shake hands with the inanimate robot figure named Atom that they’ve built for filming. This is a movie set in divergent worlds. Aspirations and contradictions flow as freely as the Detroit River. The American city looms darkly against its counterpart. False buzzwords battle heart strings. Commercial appeal fights intimate emotionality. The underground that Charlie inhabits squares off against the caviar-soaked reality he sees for himself after winning. Fate and advancement get in the ring with motivation and hard work.

The bottom line? There are constantly two worlds at work on the set of Real Steel, and they couldn’t have chosen a better city to film in than Detroit.

More set visit coverage is coming soon, so stick around.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.