Ahead of the release of Dredd 3D, What Culture got the chance to sit down and share a jug of water with star of the film Karl Urban. Sauntering in to the room while chomping on a muffin, he oozed charisma and confidence. Importantly, he spoke clearly – a relief for any voice recorder. He might have worked with J.J Abrams, Peter Jackson, Paul Greengrass, and, erm, The Rock in his career, but the New Zealand native was as down-to-earth as they come. Unfortunately we didn’t get the chance to ask him what The Rock is really like. Or whether Rob Schneider makes an appearance in Dredd.
Q. So is it true your vast knowledge and love of 2000 A.D and the Dredd source material was enough to get you the part?
I was away on holiday when I got an email from my agent telling me they were reviving Judge Dredd and whether I was interested. And as an avid reader of the comics since I was about 17, I said, yes this was definitely something I would be interested in. I was sent the script by (screenwriter, producer) Alex Garland and I thought it was not only honourable to the source material but it was also a wonderful, character-driven story. I had some idea of the creative elements involved and I felt there was a good degree of assurance that it was going to be well-executed. That’s what signaled my interest. We all hopped on planes from opposite sides of the world, they came from London, I came from New Zealand, and we met half-way in LA. We had a frank, open discussion about the script and the character and I had a sense they wanted to be assured I wouldn’t get half way through the film and start demanding scenes. But what sealed the deal was I said I wouldn’t have even bothered taking this meeting if I’d read a script and found scenes where Dredd remove his helmet. That’s not the Dredd I grew up reading and admiring. A couple of days later I got a call from London inviting me to join the party.
Q. A lot of people have their own certain idea on how Judge Dredd is supposed to be – did you feel under pressure to deliver a performance that was both unique and faithful?
It represented a huge challenge. I was focused on doing my job and delivering the most specific, interesting and multi-dimensional character that I can. Other people’s expectations of what that’s going to be are outside my area of concern. I’m just focused on what my job is. Being a fan since I was a teenager put a lot of pressure on me to get it right. All I really did was use the script – Alex had written a very specific, wonderful, action-packed character and I just used that. I also read every single Dredd comic that I could get my hands on. The cool thing about that was that I went back and rediscovered not only the stories I fell in love with growing up, but I discovered this really amazing maturity that had developed in the work. Instead of Dredd just blindly doing his job he begins to question the whole system of this totalitarian society. To me that’s really interesting.
Q. What moments of the film are you most proud of and that you’ve think you’ve really nailed it?
What was really important to me was that this was not going to be a bombasic character based on ego. We wanted the character to be like a tightly-wound spring. To me it’s far most interesting to watch a character struggling to contain his rage at the injustice than letting that rage out. That’s kinda what we were going for. But I’m just really proud of the film as a whole because it could’ve taken a detour down so many wrong roads, and just through the sheer collaborative effort of everyone involved it’s turned into an instant cult classic.
Q. Dredd could have very easily fallen prey and become a typical 15-rated summer action film, but it’s quite the violent opposite. Was that something that appealed to that made you want to do it?
I think I underestimated a lot of the graphic elements involved in the final film. When you read something on the page it’s your imagination doing the work. When I was making the film I wasn’t really aware with some of the more graphic elements. When I sat down and watched it, I recoiled. But I think it’s a really smart move on Alex’s behalf. Similar to how Kubrick focused on violence in films like A Clockwork Orange, the violence becomes a character, and it informs you as an audience member about the reality of what it’s like for these Judges operating in this world where there’s very little regard for human life. It would’ve been so easy to go down the road of a different version of the film where the violence becomes desensitized.
Q. Why do you think there’s such a demand for movies with central characters looking for justice?
What sets Dredd apart is that he’s just a man. He’s a man working within a justice system that is struggling to contain a society that’s on the brink of collapse. He doesn’t have superpowers. All he’s got is an extraordinary skill-set, a versatile gun and a real cool bike. The thing that appealed to me was that his brand of heroism was like those firefighters on 9/11. Dredd is the type of guy who goes into a building when everybody else is coming out. To me, that’s the definition of real heroism. He’s just a man doing a job. He doesn’t have a magic ring or anything!
Q. As we all know, Judge Dredd is the judge, jury and executioner. That’s quite the frightening idea!
It is completely frightening. Even the concept of living in a totalitarian society where people’s rights are completely quashed just makes me feel so blessed that I don’t live there. I feel, in the terms of Dredd though that he’s a necessary means to an end in that world. That world is post-apocalyptic, it is a society that is struggling and in a state of chaos. These Judges are a direct result of that. They get shot everyday when riding their bike down the street.
Q. There’s a huge amount of action and fight scenes. Were you given much free reign by the director?
We kinda handed that over to the stunt department – it’s always best to hand those things over to experts because things can go wrong. In one particular sequence our stunt doubles had to jump out of this building onto a skate park and it was deemed too dangerous for Olivia (Thirlby, his co-star) and I to do. I looked at it and thought ‘c’mon, I could do that’ but no. And on the very first take one of the stunt doubles landed incorrectly and he compound fractured his leg – his bone came through the skin, completely dislocating his hip! So it’s just best to hand those over to professionals. I learnt it’s a huge responsibility to be the lead in a film and you have to know when to make that call and let someone else do the stunt. If something happened to me, there are 300 people whose livelihoods are depending on me being up to work every day.
Q. What kind of training did you have to do in preparation for the film?
I went through an extensive military boot camp. I mean, I’ve done a lot of that for other movies but I always like to approach it as if I’m doing it for the first time. When you’re dealing with weapons and weapon safety it’s best to just start from scratch. The physical aspect, I worked out extensively for about 13 weeks to get in the condition I needed to be in. Then there’s riding the bike as well which took a lot of time and energy.
Q. Was it difficult to have much on-screen chemistry with Olivia Thirlby considering she couldn’t make eye contact and could only see the lower half of your face?
It wasn’t difficult at all really; Olivia is an extraordinary actress and does an amazing job on this film. We formed a real partnership and we both realised we needed each other because this is a character-driven film and the partnership is at the core. Dredd doesn’t think much of her character at the beginning but that changes during the film and you enjoy spending time with these characters. Everyday Olivia and I would get together before we started shooting and discuss the day’s work to make sure we’re on exactly the same page to really define the bits that we wanted. We just formed a real solid partnership and I think the movie really benefits from it.
Q. How did you go about getting into the mindset of Judge Dredd?
I read as much Dredd as I could get my hands on. I worked out so that physical transformation was huge. Then when I got to Cape Town I donned the uniform and for two weeks before the cameras even began rolling I was wearing the uniform in the midst of a hot South African summer – that can put you in a mood! The voice too, that was described in the comics as ‘like a saw cutting through bone’. So what you see in the film is my interpretation of what that is. I was also aware that Dredd uses his voice as a weapon so it had to have a resonance and authority to it. But at the same point I didn’t want it to go to an extreme where it was artificially enhanced. The voice you hear in the movie is the voice that was heard on set.
Q. Honestly, what did you think to the Sylvester Stallone film and Did you take anything from it in preparation?
I remember seeing that when it came out in 1995, but I think like the two films are completely different entities. Tonally you couldn’t get more different. Sylvester’s film was a product of superhero films of the 1990’s and ours is a completely different take on it. It’s much more graphic, much more realistic and I think in many ways it’s much more authentic to the original character.
Q. There’s definitely enough source material to warrant more films – would you be interested in doing a sequel?
We spent so much time and energy focusing on this film and now we’re at the point of releasing it, a sequel was never really mentioned. But I’d love to come back and make more of these. I had such a great time working with Alex and the whole team. If we get to make more than one then that’d be fantastic but if this is a one-off call, I’m still very proud and happy with that.
Q. Finally, we have to ask; can you tell us anything at all about Star Trek 2 or even the new Riddick film?
Well, I shot a day on Riddick, my character Vaako comes in and essentially helps transition out of the Chronicles story and into Riddick’s new story. I was good fun working with Vin (Diesel) again, he’s a great guy. And Star Trek 2? Well, I can’t tell you anything about it…except it’s going to be AWESOME!!
You can see Karl Urban bringing his own brand brutal, rough justice to Mega City One when Dredd 3D is released nationwide on September 7th.
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