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Director Shawn Levy.

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Real Steel Director Shawn Levy on the Societal Implications of Boxing Robots, Suddenly Being in Demand, and Fanning Out on Lost’s Evangeline Lilly

Director Shawn Levy has become a go-to guy for mainstream comedies: Cheaper by the Dozen, The Pink Panther, Night at the Museum, and Date Night . But he’s on the brink of becoming a go-to guy for sci-fi films as well, if his latest project pans out. His task? Find the laughs, the heart, and the fanboy factor in an old Richard Matheson short story called “Steel,” a rather downbeat tale about a society hooked on boxing robots and the desperate man who goes up against one (Lee Marvin played him in a classic Twilight Zone episode). Take out the suicidal man-’bot fight, add Hugh Jackman and Evangeline Lilly, and the result is Real Steel, a movie in which the ’bots not only box, they also break-dance! This being a Disney project (with Steven Spielberg among the producers), there’s also a cute kid on hand, so plenty of kid-robot interactions — did we mention the dancing? Levy, who’s planning a sequel, chatted with Vulture about the inevitable Real Steel/“Rock’em Sock’em” jokes, fanning out on Lilly, and a certain hunchback who might electrify his career.

In “Steel,” people watch robots boxing because human boxing is outlawed; it's too brutal. In your film, people watch robots boxing because human boxing is outdated; it's too boring.
You just nailed it. What’s funny is that there’s a complete misapprehension about that: Some people think the original story was this dark thing, and that Real Steel is more feel-good, affirmative, rosy even. I’ve been waiting for someone to actually read the story and go, “Wait, Matheson’s whole premise is that they had a more humane society. They outlawed boxing to spare humans the pain. That’s why they started building robots.” So if anything, this movie is saying the opposite: that we are in a society that is increasingly turning to carnage for entertainment, and when we got frustrated with the limitations, because we couldn’t kill each other, we started building the machines. Boxing is now irrefutably less popular than mixed martial arts, MMA, the UFC, because people want their violence with fewer restrictions. That’s more of an indictment of society. It’s the inverse of a feel-good premise.

On the fun side, what could be the next round of contests in this world? Jell-O wrestling 'bots? Break-dancing 'bots? Iron Chef/Iron Giant cooking 'bots?
There are some very cool possibilities for the sequel, from the cool to the absurd, and they’re all based on what’s happening in our culture right now. That’s what everyone’s scratching their heads over, wondering what will be next. And the great satisfaction is that it won’t be just some silly game.

Like Rock‘em Sock‘em?
[Laughs.] How many people said that [about this film]? Surely people can come up with a different log line for their blogs! My intention is that there was a whole father-son/underdog/redemption story. The robots are there if you want them. Yes, there are fighting robots, but we’re not doing metal-on-metal robo-porn.

There’s the sense that this one particular robot has, dare I say, a soul …
You can dare. [Laughs.] A lot of people dare. We are absolutely playing around with the humanism of Atom, whether he’s a sentient creature, or just a machine and computer code. We made a very risky choice that our hero robot would be the only robot without a face. We felt the absence of specific features is what gives him a soulful magic. When [producers] Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg came by, Zemeckis made a comment that the titanium mesh on Atom’s face would be what the audience projects on to, just like the boy does. There’s this thing about him where it seems like he’s thinking or it feels like he’s emoting, when in fact, maybe he’s not.

It’s a little like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, when Sarah Connor says the cyborg actually makes the perfect father ...
… because he would never stop. That’s really appropriate. The robot or cyborg becomes a surrogate father, because the boy never had a real one. The very first meeting I had with Steven, I said, “I want to add an idea. In the final round of the final fight, the sound recedes, and we shift the boy’s gaze from the robot to the father, the father he needed all along.” That became the spine of the movie: The father is redeemed, and the boy gets the real thing.

Did you get to bug Evangeline Lilly with any Lost questions?
You know, it took me three weeks before I was comfortable enough to reveal what a Lost geek I am. But finally, we were in the gym location, and I hesitantly asked, “Would it be terrible if I called you Freckles?” And she said, “No, that would be fine, coming from you.” Then I started going, “Remember when Jack would go away and come back?” And she would go, “Um, yeah, I was there when we filmed it.” It was like that Chris Farley skit. [Laughs.] The rabid, unabashed fan asking lame questions? That was me in the final weeks of shooting.

One of your next films is Frankenstein. Since there are a handful of Frankenstein movies in the works, what’s your take?
It is a monster movie, and a mood piece, but it’s also grounded in the characters. Mary Shelley’s novel has this marriage of the big unrealistic concept with the completely realistic and deep human issues. It’s about, what is monstrosity? Who is the real monster? And it gets there through the relationships between the characters, especially between Victor and Igor.

Igor wasn’t in the book. So which Igor would you be thinking of: The revenge-seeking one played by Bela Lugosi in Son of Frankenstein, or the hunchbacked one from the spoofs like Young Frankenstein?
It’s weird, because we assume Igor’s always been part of the story, this bumbling hunchbacked assistant, but I was rereading the book, and rewatching the 1931 movie, and I was going, “Wait a second, are you telling me he’s not in here?” Our writer, Max Landis, son of John, is a mad genius. He’s ingested all the legends and stories of Frankenstein, all the classic movies, as well as the Mel Brooks satire, and he found that there’s no one single source for the way we think of Igor. He’s an amalgam of all sorts of things. So our take is that while their relationship has a lot of humor, it’s not a parody. It’s from Igor’s perspective, and it’s a straight badass retelling of who Victor and Igor were when they were on the brink of their discoveries.

Are you still going to do the pilot for the Romancing the Stone TV series?
The good and the bad of suddenly being in demand is that I’m juggling all these balls, and I probably won’t be able to catch all of them. But I’ve been very intensely involved in working on the script and what it will be as a series. Beyond that and Frankenstein, it’s shaping up to be a very interesting twelve months ahead.

Photo: Photo by Fergus McDonald/Getty Images