As part of the marketing roller coaster for the release of the new movie version of Judge Dredd, GeekDad was lucky enough to attend a screening and a roundtable interview in London with writer Alex Garland and Dredd himself, Karl Urban. The film came out in the UK on Sept. 7 to rave reviews and became the first R/18-rated movie to top the box office for two years. Read on to see what Alex and Karl had to say about the process on bringing the iconic 2000AD character to the big screen.
Dredd’s got 35 years of comic-book history, what made you decide to tell this story?
I should say I didn’t decide to do it. Two producers I work with got hold of the license and offered me the job and I gratefully took up that opportunity. I went through a very long process trying to get this script to a shooting script. This is a very reductive, simple version of a Dredd story. It really takes place over one night for the most part. It’s like a day-in-the-life rookie story.
What I found was, in trying to tell the bigger stories like Judge Death and the Origins story, it would always get slightly out of control because you had too much to establish. After two completely separate scripts, this was the most reductive and felt like the right one to do as it allowed us to zone in on Dredd the man. And in terms of not revealing much about his character, that’s what you have to do with Dredd. If you give too much, you’re not treating the character in the right way. So hopefully there is information about him in there but it’s just quite subtle in the way Karl puts it across.
You’re no stranger to post-apocalyptic and dystopian worlds, did that help you in writing this?
I think it’s a question of taste… I just like those stories. I think I just like that thing about dystopias, places that should function but don’t. Dredd is great like that. He’s a very interesting set-up because he’s an anti-hero, he’s a fascist cop. If you’re a left-wing liberal, he’s not your hero… except he kind of is as well because he’s a fantasy, a wish fulfillment, that kills the right guys, doesn’t get it wrong and is honest.
If you had to distil Dredd down to its core elements, what was important to bring to the screen for you?
Him. The guy. Andrew MacDonald and Allon Reich [the producers] and I, way back when we were first figuring out how to make this movie, we knew we’d never be in the territory of a $100,000,000 movie that could create a world in a certain kind of way. And we knew there would be aspects of the comic that we simply wouldn’t be able to pull off. I grew up reading Dredd. I’m a big fan. And the thing I knew we could always get right was Dredd, the character. In the comic book you might have flying cars, very futuristic vehicles, but we just didn’t have the VFX resources and the money to be able to think about that. We always knew that. We created an aesthetic that would side-step that issue. But Dredd we could get right, and so the first person the three of us contacted after we decided we’d try to do this was John Wagner, the writer. I knew that if John was creatively involved, properly employed by the film, he would be making sure that Dredd was right. So, I would send him drafts of the script, he would change the dialogue, he’d make it right. I always knew that whatever else we got wrong, we could get Dredd right. And that was a reassuring position.
The look of the film is very ‘near future’, was that purely down to budget or was it a stylistic decision?
I could post-rationalize that question. I would say it’s not purely down to budget. Honestly, if you look at the films I’ve worked on in the past, I think that tonally, Dredd is very like those films. They tend not to be campy or have too many knowing nudges and winks at the audience. If there is a wink at the audience – and there are several in the film – they’re played down so you don’t get that sense as a viewer of, ‘hang on, there’s an in-joke here I’m not quite picking up on.’ So, you play it straight and you bend it a bit with hallucination and trippy stuff, and that’s like the apocalyptic thing, it’s just what I’m into. But you could also say, yes, we did have a budget issue, I’ve been working in films long enough to know what that meant, so you don’t bother writing the big crazy shot because you’ll never get to do it. Do the weird, trippy shot instead – come up with some drug that helps you out!
What was important about Dredd to bring to the screen?
He’s a hard bastard. If you take the classic story structure – you have a protagonist who goes on a journey and he’s not in the same place at the end of the journey as he was at the beginning – but Dredd doesn’t function like that. Dredd moves, his character changes, but he’s like a glacier, you don’t see it change, maybe retrospectively you think ‘hang on, that’s a foot further down the valley than it used to be,’ but it’s kind of it. So that traditional story arc doesn’t apply in Dredd. That’s something that’s true sometimes in TV and comic books, but it’s not typical of film.
So would you say, using that traditional hero’s journey arc, this is more the story of the rookie Judge?
Exactly. Dredd does have a small change because he’s a fascist, he has a rigid view and expresses an opinion very clearly in the opening minutes of the film and later he goes back on that opinion. That’s his whole character arc; he’s changed his mind about one thing. Anderson goes from being a rookie cop to hard cop through her trial of fire, I suspect for some people, Anderson is who they’ll emotionally attach themselves to because she’s more vulnerable and changes more. But I still think Dredd is always at the heart of this story. It was interesting to have a more or less unchanging character at the heart of a story. So much of story is trying to pull you against that, that it’s quite a thing to pull off and you hopefully have quite a sense of satisfaction at the end of the film.
Are we going to see you in the director’s seat again soon?
I don’t know. I’ve got a story I’m just about to try to start writing. It won’t be like Dredd. It’s absolute down-the-line sci-fi. I do a pattern, which is I do a propulsive, slightly crazy movie or story that really moves forwards, and then one which is a bit quieter, more introspective. I would categorize Dredd in the more crazy end of those things, and so the next one would be more like Sunshine or Never Let Me Go, which are quieter, more reflective. I’ve kind of had enough of standing in corridors with squibs and then it all having to be reset and saying “maybe it has to be a CG bullet hit now.”
Did you always have Karl in mind to play Dredd?
When I was a boy of 10 or 11, I would have said Clint Eastwood. Dredd was substantially influenced by Dirty Harry, quite clearly in that terse, no bulls–t mode he exists in. We met a few people for Dredd and Karl was just right in lots of ways. He looked right – I was very keen to avoid Dredd being a big steroid machine. Dredd generally, especially in the early drawings, is lean. He looks like a boxer, he’s a fighter, and Karl had the perfect physique for that. But also, he understood the character long before ever meeting us or reading the script. When he turned up to the meeting he had his comics with him and he got it all.
You’ve mentioned that Dredd is a very unchanging character, but if you get to make any sequels where would you like to see his character go?
I want to be clear: this is an 18-rated film and an R-rated film in America… the level of money it has to generate to justify a sequel is really quite unlikely. You just look historically at box office figures, it’s an extremely tall order. But, in the fantasy, the next story would be about going into Dredd’s past, which in the terms laid out by the comic, which is exactly what I’d adhere to, is also related to the origins of the City. The City and Dredd are completely bound up in each other. It’s an interesting story about how you get into this fascist state with this guy as your hero. There are these pro-democracy terrorists in the comic, which takes this anti-hero thing to a brilliant level. They’re like Hamas, blowing up pizza restaurants and doing things that you shouldn’t sympathize with, but they’re the democrats, so they are kind of the good guys; it creates an interesting tension.
There are some brilliant subversive figures in the comic like Chopper. So, it would be that world that Dredd finds himself in for a sequel. And in the third one, I think you’d go really off the wall. If we ever got that far you can go nuts and then you bring in the Dark Judges and maybe this other guy called Cal, who’s like Caligula, a Roman Emperor, psycho, schizophrenic, and you could then move up through the ranks to this really intense ending. But it’s such a fantasy, I really ought to underscore that. People are kind of superstitious about talking about things in advance, I’m not. I’ve got a story in mind that starts and ends with Chopper – he’s a catalyst and a coda – but the caveat is that this is basically a fantasy by some middle-aged Dredd fan who happened to be part of a team who made a movie. Seriously, look at the box office for 18/R-rated sci-fi, it’s like a car wreck… who knows?
Could you see it done on TV because there’s lots of big-budget high-quality TV at the moment?
Something is happening, particularly in American TV over the last 10 years, that I think is absolutely electrifying. The dramas that are played out, the freedom within those dramas, and the way people watch them. All sorts of rules that have existed in cinema for a long time, they’re absolutely shattering that. They’re putting it on there, the people are responding, and the quality of everything is very high. When I watch Game of Thrones, I think about Dredd. It’s not just Game of Thrones, there’s all sorts of TV shows that show what you can do. But this, incidentally, just to be clear: I’ve thought about this a lot but I haven’t discussed it with a distributor or financier, it’s total fantasy stuff. But do I think it would work? I think it would be amazing, incredible. There are these big stories in Dredd that you cannot tell over two hours, you need 12 hours to do it properly. That glacier thing of a character slowly changing, imagine that played out over 24 hours, it’d be fantastic!
Did the 18 certificate/R rating bring you a certain amount of freedom as a writer? Was it planned that way from the start?
I never, ever think about the certification ever. I will think about it later if we have a fight over cuts – I’ll resist them very strongly. In the case of Dredd, I didn’t have to because it was so far into the realm of an 18/R that you were never going to bring it back to a PG13, it would have been impossible. The drugs and the violence preclude it. That made it simple. At times I get very angry about ratings. We got a rating for Never Let Me Go, which is a very adult, quiet film, basically because there’s a sex scene and it’s a cliché and a truism about how you can behead people – you can cut their heads off – and it’s a 12, but you show two people having sex in quite a chaste way and it’s an R. And I find that wrong on so many levels, I hardly know where to begin. I have had issues with censors in the past, but not with Dredd, it is what it is.
When you’re planning an adaptation or screenplay, do you think about the visuals?
I think about it the whole time. My route into writing was comic books. My dad’s a cartoonist and I used to try to emulate him and draw. I spent the whole of my teenage years drawing. I ditched it in my early 20s, but I think in terms of pictures. I try to avoid describing specific camera moves because that’s up to the DP – you get a guy like Anthony Dod Mantle because he’s a genius and he can do that right. What I do is try to convey the sense of what, say, slo-mo would be like in terms of colors, particles, why it’s in the film, why it’s desirable. So, yes, I try to think visually.
If were to adapt another comic book or superhero film, what would it be?
The character I did think about a lot was Button Man. I think it’s one of the most natural adaptations to film I’ve ever seen in a comic. John Wagner wrote Button Man as well and we spoke about it in a kind of round the houses way, but it’s set up somewhere else and they’re in a serious state of wanting to get that made so that’s cool. That’s great, actually I’d want to see it.