The five writers were flown to Detroit and shot our scene at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich., in summer 2010. After a long day - about 35 takes for our scene - we movie journalists were afforded a real Q-and-A session with director Shawn Levy ("Night at the Museum," "Date Night") and Jackman.
"Real Steel" is set in 2020, and 8-foot robot boxers have replaced human fighters. Zeus, the undefeated and presumably invincible robot, is owned by a Russian billionaire and his daughter, and designed by a reclusive Japanese genius who has come out of retirement to craft his masterwork.
Jackman plays a former boxer who once was on the cover of The Ring magazine, but has no place to go in a society where 'bots have replaced him at the only thing he ever was good at.
Q: Could Zeus defeat '50s icons Robbie the Robot ("Forbidden Planet") and Gort ("The Day the Earth Stood Still")?
Levy: Wow. I'm not going to forecast any victories here. That could only get me in trouble.
Q: What about Optimus Prime?
Levy: People hear robots, they hear fighting robots, the assumption is that it's "Transformers." Nothing could be further from the truth. As huge an accomplishment as "Transformers" is, this movie is really a sports movie . . . a sports drama. It's more related to "Rocky" and even road movies like "Paper Moon" or "The Champ." This is more about the people and the sports world in which they find themselves. I actually think Atom [the junkyard robot discovered by Hugh Jackman's character's son] could go the distance with Optimus Prime, but it's a very different kind of robot, a very different kind of movie.
Q: Hugh, were you into boxing growing up?
Jackman: My dad was a boxer. He was an [Australian] army champion. I never actually corroborated that [laughs], but that's what he tells me. Having said that, he spent most of my upbringing telling me and my brother not to box. But I watched whenever I could and, of course, "Rocky" was a huge part of my growing up - all the "Rocky" movies.
Q: Do you feel like you're a part of a new generation of action guys coming along, and do you maybe feel a little constricted by roles like that?
Jackman: I thought Westerns would be around forever, and that doesn't seem to be the case. But it seems to me that action movies, in some way, shape or form, will always be around. That means that none of us are indispensable. There'll always be someone else coming through. I've been very blessed to do roles in movies like that. I'm really thrilled to be in a movie that does have action, but I'm not an action hero.
Q: What is it like to work with a young boy [Dakota Goyo]? Does it present any challenges?
Jackman: I actually haven't worked with a lot of kids, but I love working with them, particularly this kid. He's a brilliant actor, very professional.
Levy: It's interesting because he's a great actor, but there's no showboat in this kid. We auditioned hundreds of kids for this part and, very often, even at 9 or 10, if they choose to be actors, they have a showboat streak. Dakota is completely not looking for the spotlight. He just really likes doing the acting thing. It makes him a very likable kid because there's nothing cloying about him. As his confidence grows every day, he'll do the script now, but he'll also improvise and riff with Hugh. You rarely see that in a kid actor. I've directed dozens of them, but Dakota is as grounded and real and normal a kid as I've ever had in a movie.
Q: With a movie like this, how do you keep the story from being overshadowed by the technology?
Levy: You start by doing a lot of work on the script. You get your priorities right in the script. You make it so the story kicks ass. The fact that it's robot boxing makes it a bad-ass movie and, hopefully, a commercial one, but we got the father-son redemption story right in the script. Honestly, it's a balancing act. I think maybe 30 percent of the movie is boxing; the other 70 percent - like, frankly, the first "Rocky" - is dialogue drama scenes.
Q: Sounds a lot like "The Champ," with Ricky Schroder and Jon Voight. Is it?
Levy: Yeah. The incredible pathos of a father who will do anything to do right by his kid, to get a shot at being exceptional. Who knows whether this [movie] will be as emotional? I still have vivid memories of being wracked with sobs at the classic final scene in that dressing room. It did it to me again, by the way, when I re-watched "The Champ" again a little while ago. There's a chance there's some pages from that movie, from "Rocky," from "Paper Moon," which is not a sports movie, but a father-kid movie.
Q: What does a great boxing champion like Sugar Ray Leonard [a technical adviser] bring to the process?
Levy: What he actually did for the film is contribute to the choreography, the robotic choreography. He coaches Hugh in how to move and throw punches like a fighter. He had a very real, creative input into the boxing matches that people are going to see in the movie. He'd show up at our boxing ring, watch a fight and say, 'OK, you know what? Don't do that there. I think you want to sidestep, slip back and come back with a hard, straight left.' Stuff like that. His input into the boxing choreography was very, very valuable.
Q: You spoke earlier of some of the new, innovative things that you're doing in terms of computer-generated images. Could you explain some of that to us nontechnical types?
Levy: I am a nontechnical type. Honestly, I know some of the big words now, but I could give a bleep about the how. At the end of the day, when I sit in a movie, I don't give a damn how they did it. I just want a cool movie that hooks me. Even though I do this for a living, when the movie's great, I just get hooked like everybody else. OK, I had these big boxing matches involving robots. Either I could do it the conventional way, which is to shoot empty rings, and some dude that I never meet draws it in a computer, or I could put real fighters in the ring in these motion-captured jumpsuits, and I can watch the fight live in front of me, and direct the fighters. The fights you see in the movie are the result of me massaging it, me coaching it, me directing it. You don't get that with a visual effect created in the computer.
Q: One more question for Hugh. After five James Bond movies, Sean Connery walked away from the 007 role because he didn't want to be forever identified with that one role. Obviously, you have done very well through the great success of the "X-Men" series. Do you ever feel that, despite that success, you're a little bit trapped, too?
Jackman: No. Look, I'm doing another one. I wouldn't do it if I felt trapped. I'm not motivated by the fame or the money. Well . . . not totally. I do a film because of the characters, whether they interest and challenge me. I'm surprised and fascinated by the [Wolverine] character. But this film somewhat feels like a turning point for me, in a really positive way. There's action in the movie, but it's not really an action movie. There's certainly a lot of drama, a lot of complexities to the characters' relationships. Is it a big Hollywood movie? Yes. But I feel like getting a real run in the paddock, so to speak.