After catching up with Judge Dredd himself, Karl Urban, we turned out attention to the driving force behind the film, screenwriter, producer and author, Alex Garland. More reserved than his star of the film, he was quiet, tired-looking and looked as if he could think of something better to be doing at 11:30 on a Thursday morning. However, once he got talking about Dredd– a film that’s been quite the passion project for him, he completely changed, talking enthusiastically and excitedly about his new baby.
Q. There are a lot of ideas and characters in the comic books – would you want to put those into later Dredd films?
Well, we have a film that’s yet to be released. Those ideas are certainly not more possible now. They might be, in four weeks time, but it’s a very big if. Dredd is an 18-rated film. In order to generate the kind of money that would justify a sequel is a tall order. That said, if I was able to work on a sequel, the second film would broadly involve characters like Chopper, storylines like Origins, and it would be about Dredd’s history and the history of the city. It would involve the weird deal that Dredd’s a fascist, an anti-hero, and the terrorists are pro-democrats. I’d love to try that. But if it went further than that into maybe a third film it’d feature the crazier stuff, like Chief Judge Cal and the Dark Judges. It’s basically about a Chief Judge who’s gone insane and the city gets invaded by completely malevolent riffs of the Judge system.
Q. What did you have to go through to re-invent Judge Dredd for a 21st Century audience?
I can say that my intention from the absolute get-go was not to re-invent Dredd but to do Dredd in a way that did justice to the character in the comic books. You could call it a re-invention if you take the Sylvester Stallone movie as your starting point, but my approach was I knew we would never have the budget, and it also doesn’t really suit our aesthetic. Andrew McDonald and Allon Reich, the producers I work with want to be seen to try and do something that isn’t too far away from reality on some level. We knew that flying cars and very elaborate CG robots would not really be in our scope for a first movie. That aside, the first thing I did when I sat down with Andrew and Allon was contact John Wagner, the writer who co-created Dredd, and bring him in. Not in a way of name-checking the creator and treating him properly, although I would have wanted to treat him right anyway. But I wanted him to actually work on the film – a proper, paid part of the team which he was. He would always be there from my point of view, to keep track of his character and make sure we were doing it right. I would send him the drafts he would change lines, which I’d accept happily. The short answer is, we weren’t trying to reinvent Dredd. We were trying to be appropriately respectful to it.
Q. Olivia Thirlby’s character, Judge Anderson gets the emotional and psychological meat of the film to the point where it’s almost her film. Was this something you aimed for purposefully?
Yes, definitely. In a film, a character has a big journey and changes a lot. Dredd couldn’t do that, he’s not about change, that’s not who he is. I always knew at the heart of this film there would be a rock that hardly moved in an internal way. The traditional story arc, that’s Anderson’s journey, that was intentional.
Q. What was your favourite scene that you’d written and were proud to see in the finished movie?
Slo-mo. All the slo-mo stuff was the hardest thing to get right. It began very early while we were shooting Never Let Me Go, Jon Thum the VFX Supervisor was constructing very worked-up, very high-end preview sequences of slo-mo to find out some of the basic ideas. You could have a really extended slow sequence and see how far you could go before it snaps, how trippy you can get, how far you can pull the viewer out into a weird hallucinogenic space before they lose track with the story or the action. We started trying to figure that out a long time even before pre-production. We finished working that stuff out in the final minutes of at the very end of post-production. Tweaking the colours and trying very different approaches to the colour scheme and saturation, the framing, the camera moves. It went on and on and on. On a personal level it’s my favourite stuff of the film.
Q. What was it about Karl Urban that made you think ‘he’s Judge Dredd’?
He got Dredd in a very deep way. We never had the discussion that you can have with actors about motivation, characters, how a character got to a certain point, which is just part of an actor’s process and there’s nothing judgmental about that at all. But Karl just arrived fully-formed. Like me, he’d read it when he was younger. He knew Dredd and he understood it backwards. All sorts of things that we have as private rules that we would observe, Karl sat down and basically said ‘I hope you’re going to do this, I hope you do that’. He was saying these were the tones he’d be interested in doing as the character. It was a fantastic relief. We didn’t have to give him notes, he just did it.
Q. You obviously have a great working relationship with Karl. Would you like to work with him again?
It’s hard to say about future projects that don’t exist – if it’s a story about three Amazonian women on an island, probably not. But if it was Dredd, well I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing it. It was such an easy thing to get wrong, people probably misunderstand what he’s doing. It’s a very controlled performance. If you don’t have a whole section of your face, like he does, you have to create a different language of communication and the way you tilt your head or the way you look at something. One of my favourite shots in the film is a pull-focus from Anderson in the foreground who’s feeling worried after shooting someone’s husband and she’s freaking out in the lift and is in a state of turmoil. There’s a focus pull from her to Dredd in the background just looking at her and he doesn’t move but it’s got so much information and kind of totality of Dreddness.
Q. What essence of Dredd was most important to you to bring to the screen?
A kind of hardness. I wanted the film just to be very hard. Soft and weird in its drugs at times but have a relentless hardness. For me that’s part of the character that I didn’t create. I’m just trying to continue it. It would easy to try and humanise Dredd. He’s not a superhero, he’s a man. John Wagner (the creator) said to me ‘the harder you make him the more people will like him’ and I stuck to that and would always remember that.
Q. There were stories that described your relationship with director Pete Travis as unorthodox and that you took over in post-production, can you elaborate on this?
At the heart of those stories was a lie that Pete and I had fallen out and that there’d been a disagreement. There really wasn’t. Pete and I never fell out – I met him for coffee a few days ago! We had a very clear, honest working relationship the whole way through and I like the guy a lot. The problem I have with this question, or the issue rather, is that I think it unwittingly polarises a question between me and Pete, and that itself is a deception. What it does is take attention away from people like Jon Thum (VFX Supervisor), Anthony Dod Mantle, who’s an award-winning genius cinematographer, who when we’re talking about slo-mo, we’re talking about him. If this becomes a pissing contest between me and Pete it distracts attention away from Anthony, Jon, Mark Eckersley the editor, the actual editor, Paul Leonard Morgan who wrote the score. I think this happens in film too much anyway, I think there’s a lot of bullshit said on how films are made and a lot of bullshit tends to be about taking credit away from these really interesting people who are working in what is fundamentally a collaborative medium. It’s a bunch of people working together. I was part of a team, Pete was part of a team and there were also these crucial people I’ve just mentioned. I’m not trying to be evasive while also clearly being evasive but I just want to reframe the question to what the reality of making the film was. The reality was Anthony Dod Mantle and Jon Thum doing amazing work making slo-mo. It shouldn’t be Pete and it shouldn’t be me. I don’t want the film to be presented as something it is not. It’s collaboration.
Q. Mega-City One looks very different in the film compared to how it is in the comics. What would you say to the fans?
The approach to the city was the same as the approach to the uniform. If you did a very faithful adaptation of the uniform you’d have someone who if he got stabbed in the stomach he’d be in big trouble. Dredd is out there on the frontline so he needed protection. The way I saw the city was as a city that didn’t have money falling out of itself, there’s very high unemployment, the blocks are like 1950’s and 60’s tower blocks built in a functional utilitarian way to house as many people as possible. They don’t have architectural flourishes. They’re about housing and lack of money so that dictated in aesthetics. One of the things we experimented with in post-production was what the city looked like, not just in terms of the design of the blocks but how close they were together. One of the things we discovered was if you put the blocks close together as they are in the comic, they shrink because you’ve got no sense of scale. You need to be able to see smaller buildings to understand how massive the big ones are. You need to be able to see cars and roads to extrapolate outwards. So that look of the city, these utilitarian blocks are widely spread so it might end up looking like a graveyard from a big aerial-wide shot.
Q. It’s great to have a hard, 18-rated action film. Are you pleased with the control you had over that?
I didn’t really think about the certification too much, it just was what it was. The way Dredd is done, it’s an independent film. There’s a production company who then did a deal with a sales agency who then sell the distribution rights all over the world. The British distributor and American distributor are different for example. All the distributors know in quite a concrete way what they’re signing up to. They can look at the script and see detailed descriptions of drugs and violence and sexual imagery. They’re not in any doubt, they know what they’re buying, they make their own judgment how much they’re going to pay for it based on the certification they know it will have. By the end of that we didn’t have any pressure. You could have had studio pressure possibly if it was a studio movie in a different way, that could happen, but the way this movie was set up it was never really an issue.
How do you feel about a lot films being diluted down to 15’s and 12’s so they make more money?
I think it’s a shame, I got very angry on the last film I made, Never Let Me Go which was pushed into a higher rating as a result of a much chased sex scene and you can show people getting beheaded in 12’s. I think it’s actually madness.
Dredd 3D is released nationwide on September 7. Be sure to check back for our review later in the week.
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