When Shawn came into the room he just crackled with energy. He was like a kid at Christmas.He was so excited about this film Real Steel that is made you excited to see it just by hearing him talk about it. Plus his little girls have a small part in the very beginning of the movie so when you see Real Steel make sure you watch out for them. They are darling! Below is some snippets from our interview with Shaw Levy. Hope you enjoy and learn as much as I did:
Q: We just learned that your daughters are in the movie.
SL: Three of my four. I have four daughters. Yeah, I have [STAMMERS] Well, it’s funny because this… Just this morning we were on a family camping trip, uh, and, which is super fun. Literally, it’s like press ‘til 6:00 yesterday, but it’s my nine year old’s school camping trip, so two hour drives so that we can spend one night in a tent back here this morning. Uh, in fact, that, I think they’re coming by soon. But, uh, yes, and my four year old said Coco’s gonna be jealous because she’s the only girl not in the movie. So, so, so she has made me promise if we, if we make a sequel ever, that Coco gets the biggest part because she’s the baby.
SL: It’s, uh, twelve, nine, four, and nine months.
Q: How was it to direct them? Were they doing what Dad was saying?
SL: Can I tell you something? They are, they are unbelievable little actors, and they actually listen to me. Which, and I’m told, I mean, sometimes we have play dates with boys. That’s a whole other thing. Like, boys are crazy, um, as many of you know. But yeah, no. My girls, uh, are good listeners. My little one though, the one who ends up saying boo yah, you know, Charlie is like my spitfire. Her name’s Charlie. And, uh, and at one point she, Hugh was starting improvising because I like improve, and, uh, in the middle of the take she goes, Daddy, why is he saying those words? [LAUGHTER] And she kept saying, those aren’t his words. Those aren’t, ‘cause she knew his lines ‘cause I had taught her. Um, and I’m like, no, he’s allowed to say different words. Why is he saying not his words? [LAUGHTER] So, um…
SL: So, as you will not be surprised to hear, that guy has a magnetism to him. My [STAMMERS] She was three. She became convinced that Hugh Jackman was her boyfriend. [LAUGHTER] And it was mortifying because if that’s a school day for preschool, she told the guys, I have a boyfriend. I got a boyfriend this summer. His name is Hugh Jackman. [LAUGHTER] And all the parents… All the parents are like, [STAMMERS] and I’m like [MAKES NOISE] [LAUGHTER]
Q: Was it hard [UNINTELLIGIBLE]
SL: No, but do you know what? He called her on her fourth birthday. That is the guy he is. He will do stuff like that.
SL: Yeah. No, I, I was interviewed yesterday by a female journalist who was semi-jokingly, but semi-seriously kind of saying, why was the scene without the shirt so brief? [LAUGHTER] And, uh, and why did you shoot it here? Like, [UNINTELLIGIBLE] Um, and, uh, so, but I did wind up that I did put him in micro-Ts for much of the movie. Like, I, I literally put him in one size smaller than he should be. [LAUGHTER] The shoulders are ridiculous.
Q: We appreciate that.
SL: He makes the rest of us men feel terrible. [LAUGHTER]
Q: Most of your movies are comedies, so what drew you to doing an action movie?
SL: Well, it’s interesting because I don’t even really think of the movie as an action movie. I kind of think of it as a father-son movie more than anything else. I mean, obviously there’s boxing robots, but I really… [STAMMERS] Where I really started to get a sense of what I like doing was on both ‘Cheaper by the Dozen’, and ‘Night at the Museum’, we ended up having this experience where, where a family can go to a movie actually together, because as we all know as parents, like, things that are called family films are so often just kind of condescendingly made for the lowest common denominator, and we sit there either asleep, which I’ve done sometimes, or resentful, or what not.
And so I, it’s interesting, I view ‘Real Steel’ as a departure in that it’s a drama and an action drama. But I view it very consistent with ‘Night at the Museum’ in that it’s a movie, at least, in the way I’ve seen people react to it like it’s still a kind of a fun time for a broad, broad swath of, of family. That’s at least my goal.
Q: During the first part of this movie, music is clearly an important part.
SL: Are you referring to the opening drive with the Alexi Murdoch song?
SL: I’m so happy that you’re commenting on that because I heard, and, and I, I give my, my metro-sexual self away when I tell this story, but I was in a yoga class, [LAUGHTER] and, and this is, like, two years ago, and, you know, it’s like, [SOUNDS LIKE] chivasanas, and you’re lying on your back, and you’re kind of falling asleep, right? And they’re playing, they play this song that I’ve never heard before.
And I’m listening to this guitar, and these lyrics, and it’s two years ago. I’m lying there going, this is opening my movie. This song right here is opening my movie. And I went up to, like, the front desk, where they’re [STAMMERS] you know, what was that song? And they didn’t know, so then [UNINTELLIGIBLE] back in. And once I heard it was this guy Leslie Murdoch, and some people at the studio were like, do you really want to open with that, because people are expecting rock ‘em, sock ‘em boy movie, ra, ra. And I’m like, we need to send a message right away that it ain’t exactly what you’re expecting. It’s going to have more heart. It’s going to have more character, and it’s actually going to be an emotional ride as well as an action ride.
And so that’s why I went with Alexi. And I had a huge thrill. Like, five days ago in London I called him up. I’d never met the guy. And I said, would you come to London and come to the premier with me? And he came to the premier, and he’s like this. He’s what you said. He’s like this soulful folk singer from Scotland. And he watched the movie. And I was nervous. I didn’t know how he would feel about having this kind of little jewel of a song open this popcorn movie, and he was so excited. And he’s like, more people are going to see my song in this movie than on the albums I make. And, uh, I’m thrilled to be introducing his talents [STAMMERS] in a broader kind of way in the US, because I think it’s a great song, and I’m grateful for how it opens the movie.
SL: Alexi. A-L-E-E-I. Murdoch.
Q : [UNINTELLIGIBLE]
SL : Well, I, I make a play list, um, [STAMMERS] I don’t know if this is interesting to you guys, but I’ll just tell briefly. I play music on set when I’m shooting. And so every movie I make, it’s something I started doing with [STAMMERS] The more intellectual the actor, the more I find music is a great way to direct, because you bypass the, like, cerebral intellect, with music. So with Steve Martin, with Ben, with Tin and Steve on ‘Date Night’, um, and with this boy. Especially with Dakota. If you… music just kind of gives them the feeling you want without it being cluttered with words that get them in their head.
So for every sequence of the movie, I make a play list months before I make the movie. So I had fight songs, I had pre-fight songs, I had, uh, the opening, and my opening playlist was, like, Nick Drake, Josh Rayden, Alexi Murdoch, uh, Ben Harper, uh, Lil’ Jon Mer. [SP?] You know. That kind of stuff.
Q : The vibe. How much direction’s in this movie?
SL : Sometimes, well, I cast Dakota because he had something other than, more than acting talent, because I knew that, even if Hugh and I did everything right on this movie, the movie could not be great if the boy wasn’t great. And so I needed a kid who could act. I needed a kid who could be authentic. And, like, that thing that Ricky Schroeder had in ‘The Champ’, where that face just kind of shatters you. Or, or, you know, Elliot had in ‘ET’, or Justin Henry had in ‘Kraemer Versus Kraemer’.
Um, and when I met Dakota, and I saw Dakota with Hugh, it was, he was good at the lines, but it was what he did when he wasn’t talking that felt authentic. His face, that’s why I improvised that line when Hugh says, are you kidding me with those eyes? Uh, because every day I would watch this movie and go, are you kidding me with… Like, come on! And, uh, and I would say to his mom all the time, like, how do you ever say no to this boy? [LAUGHTER] Uh, and, and so, as a long winded answer, sometimes it took a lot of takes. Sometimes I go, no, again, this way.No, again, this way. Sometimes I would have him do improvised lines that I would shout out from behind the camera, and he would repeat because sometimes with kids they get in a loop of the lines they memorize, and you need to, it’s like you need the Etch-a-Sketch. You got to erase it. So I would change the lines so that he was saying something for the first time. That’s a good trick with kids often. And sometimes I would just play music, and in the most important scene in the movie, which is that slow motion scene in round five, Zeus Versus Adam, which is just still gets me, like, um, for that, like, I saw it in my head, I didn’t let anyone talk to Dakota, I did not give him direction.
The last thing I said is, I need you to cry. Did not say anything. I said I’m gonna play some music, feel what you feel. We’re gonna roll slow motion. Let’s see what happens. And you just, like, you got to remove the pressure. Um, [UNINTELLIGIBLE] And, uh, so I played this piece of music, and he started, first it was the nostril, and that’s what you see in the movie, the nostril, then the chin, and that one frickin’ tear. [LAUGHTER] And all of us on deck, all of us, even like the hardened, like, key grips, you, like, you know, they’re so, and, and they were all, [MAKES NOISE] [LAUGHTER] Everyone that day [UNINTELLIGIBLE] very moved.
Q : What music?
SL : That, this [STAMMERS] This went way obscure, so, um, this is, it’s a band called Explosions in the Sky. Uh, and it’s First Breath After Coma. And it’s just it’s only guitars. And it’s kind of ambient guitars at first. And then it gets a melody, and it gets rousing, and so that’s what I play.
Q : What was it like directing not only humans, but then the robots, too?
SL : ‘Cause you know we built the robots.
Q : Right.
SL : It, you end up viewing them as real. I mean, honestly, by the third week, I would go, Dakota, do it this way. Hugh, you’re stepping on this line, blah, blah, blah. Adam, I want you, and I knew that Adam was puppeteered, but I directed him like another character. Uh, he was puppeteered by a remote controlled, uh, puppeteering kind of [STAMMERS] machine. And, and I was, I was nervous ‘cause we made a choice at the time was scary. We made our most human robot be only robot with no face. And we did it on the hope, in the hope that that mesh of Adam’s face, with just those LED eyes, would be like a screen that we as an audience would project onto.
In the same way that the boy does. And as soon as I saw how the puppeteers could move him, like you would stand there and he’s, like, he’s way up there and he’d kind of shadow you. You could be ten, you could be 42, you could be 62, there was like a magic to that robot. And the reason that the scenes between Dakota and the robot are so wondrous is because that boy Dakota, he loved that robot. He, there’s no pretending. It’s not a tennis ball on a stick. He’s not acting When he looked at Adam, Adam and said can you understand me? And I told the puppeteer, whatever Dakota does, you do. So literally, when Dakota went like this, Adam went like this. Such that when [STAMMERS] when Dakota finally says, don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me, it’s like, Dakota loved that robot. So it was really effective to build [UNINTELLIGIBLE]
Q : And watching it just seemed real.
SL : Yeah. Yeah, and I feel…
Q : [OVERLAPPING] He has humanity.
SL : That’s correct. He has his welding scar down the middle and then across almost to his, to his, to the face frame. And it suggests a nose. But what I’m saying is, underneath his mesh, Adam has a face. And we made meshes that were more see-through. And as soon as you see him, he’s not magic. So it was really interesting to see that. And in fact at that London premier, I had to fix his face, and I wouldn’t do it ‘cause there were, like, a hundred tourists with cell phones.And I was like, no one has ever seen Adam. It’s kind of like, you don’t want to see the super hero without, you know, whatever. So I, I literally made them buy, like, black fabric at a, at a, like, tailor down the road, and I draped it over myself and Adam so that I could work on his face without anyone ever seeing him. I’m very protective of my Adam. [LAUGHTER] But it’s interesting, yeah. Go ahead.
Q : So Hugh Jackman, from the get-go [UNINTELLIGIBLE]
SL : Yeah, A, because you believe him physically as a fighter. But B, I knew that I wanted that dad to be kind of unsympathetic up front. I mean, we push his, his unsympathetic qualities. He’s a mean guy. And I, I felt that we needed to push that if we were going to earn the redemption at the end. And if you hire an actor who’s a bit of a bastard, you cannot have him play a bastard because you will lose your audience. But what you get with Hugh Jackman is such a reservoir of good will with us as an audience that you can push that stuff. But it was uncomfortable for Hugh, especially playing him. I mean, he’s played a bit of a tough guy as Wolverine, obviously, but for Hugh to play a father being mean to a kid was very uncomfortable for him. And he kept saying, I don’t know. I’m like, trust me because this guy, when this guy breaks at the end, when you finally hug that boy at the end around five, it’s, it, it will [STAMMERS] It will work because you’ve earned it. And so Hugh kind of went with me there. [STAMMERS] He’s a dad, I’m a dad, so that was an interesting journey, like, feeling really ambivalent about speaking that rudely to the son.
Q : I thought that first moment when he hugged him after he saved his life was when it first clicked.
SL : Well, you know what’s interesting? When I showed Steven, I brought Steven in. Steven Spielberg was the executive producer, and I showed him just the first half hour. And he loved the bull fight, he loved Crash Palace, but when that hug happened, Steven goes, that’s your movie. That’s where it’s a Shawn Levy movie. And I was like, what do you mean? He goes, well, that, you said you were going to make a robot movie with heart. This is it, right here when he pulls that kid. And what’s awesome about it, if you ever see the movie again is like, he has this moment, and then you literally see him turn it off. Like, he does this thing with his… And he’s like, [MAKES NOISE] Fine. I told you it was dangerous. And you see him harden in that way that it’s really, uh, so, so interesting.
Q : How was it working with Steven Spielberg?
SL : Awesome. Awesome. I still, when he calls me, and he’s like, hey Shawn, I still, I’m like, hi Steven Spielberg. [LAUGHTER] It never, like, forget it! Like, I, [STAMMERS] this is the dream, and he was kind of like, he was the dream mentor because he, he gave me complete creative autonomy, but he said, whenever you want a second opinion, just call me. And so, when I designed the robots, when I did the visual effects, when I did my first edit, he, he was the call. [LAUGHS] Didn’t consult him on that. [LAUGHTER] Uh, but he was my call. And no matter what he was doing, he would find a way to come see me and give me his input.
Q : And how were you brought into the project?
SL : He called me.
Q : He called you.
SL : Yeah. I mean, it was him and [STAMMERS] and his partner Stacy Schneider. They had this script. They wanted to make a different kind of robot movie. They wanted to do something that was kind of unembarrassed about being warm-hearted. And the truth is, like, that’s how I live, that’s how I work, that’s what I want to bring to my work, and, uh, and I’ve made no bones about it. And it won’t be for everyone. But nowadays, so many movies are either pure action without any emotion, or there’s kind of like that too cool for school cynicism, or that ironic distance, and that’s legitimate. I went to college with a lot of those people, but I never liked them in college, and I don’t like them much now. [LAUGHTER] Um, I think, like, if you’re not going to live your life emotionally, then you’re not really living your life. And so the stuff I put out is gonna be reflective of that.
Q : The CGI part wasn’t intimidating for you?
SL : It was at first. I didn’t [STAMMERS] I had done a lot of effects in ‘Night at the Museum’ obviously, but this was, this is stuff that… Are we wrapping up already? [UNRELATED DIALOGUE]
Okay, this, this stuff did not exist three years ago. So we could not have made this movie pre-Avatar because I didn’t want the robot fights to be animation. I wanted real fighters. And so this is motion capture, which meant every robot was cast. It’s a fighter. It’s either a boxer, or a UFC, or MMA fighter. And each fighter gets converted to a robot. And so that stuff I knew nothing about it. The first couple weeks I would sit in meetings, and I felt like I felt in, like, 10th grade physics.[LAUGHER] You know, where, like, you’re literally in a class, and you’re thinking, I am so lost, I’m going to giggle. [LAUGHTER] Like, I am, I don’t even understand the words that people are using. And afterward you start talking to your friends. You get in trouble. That was what it was like. It was like, Mm-hmm, mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Not a word. Not one word. And so I just kind of buckled down. I said, I need to learn this stuff, and so I became determined to.
Q : Good for you.
SL : Can I add one thing, just ‘cause I know, [STAMMERS] I want it, like, you know, the truth is, I will tell this anecdote, and I will always say it ‘cause I know you guys, or a lot of you are parents, like, when I took on this movie, my girls, ‘cause I have four girls, are like, why are you making a boy movie? They felt betrayed. [LAUGHTER] They felt truly betrayed. And I said, girls, trust me. Trust me. Just wait ‘til you see it. And when I finally showed them the movie… They so, they will, yeah. I certainly, the bribe of being in it helped. Um, but they so fell for Adam. And it was really interesting watching a girl react to this movie. And that’s my four year old, my nine year old, and my twelve year old. The first two fights, which is just robots that we don’t really have feelings for, they were neutral on. Boys love that stuff. But girls, my girls, at least, were like, uh-huh. Cool. Whatever. It’s as soon as it’s Adam. As soon as it’s someone they care about in the ring, I would watch them go from this to this.
And when Adam gets hit, they were wincing, but when he comes back and beats Twin Cities, and gets a shot at Zeus, they were in it, and finally said, okay, it’s not just a boy movie. And so, uh, I tell that anecdote only because I would never make a movie just for boys. [LAUGHTER] I, I, I think that would be disloyal to my children. Um, so I just think, to whatever extent that that gets out there, I’d like it to, ‘cause [LAUGHTER] [UNINTELLIGIBLE] I feel that it’s sincere. So thank you guys.