Interview: DREDD 3D Screenwriter Alex Garland Stops By

As well as interviewing the man beneath the mask, Karl Urban, we also got our hands on Alex Garland,  screenwriter and producer and creative powerhouse behind the film. As a long time Judge Dredd fan this gig was a dream come true for him and even after this long tough process you could still feel then energy and passion he had for the project. Here’s what he had to say:

UTF: How does it feel to be at what could be the start of a big franchise?

How does it feel?… It feels nerve wracking. There’s a lot of people who’ve worked on this film for a long time and y’know it’s the 7th of September, I know it’s later in America but it feels very close so scared I guess.. I’m shitting myself.

UTF: Dredd has a long and deep history, what made you want to tell this story in particular? Was there any temptation to go deeper into the character?

I didn’t decide to do it, two producers I worked with got the license and offered me the chance, at which point I obviously graciously took up the opportunity. I went through a very long process of trying to get this script to what it is in it’s current form. And you’re right, this is a very reducted, simple version of the story. It really takes place over 1 night, it’s like a day in the life of a rookie.

What I found was that in trying to tell a bigger story like Judge Death or the origin story, the whole set up of this incredible world. It would always get slightly out of control because you’ve got so much you have to establish, we approached this as if the previous film didn’t exist, we started from scratch and after two completely separate scripts this was the third and it was the most reducted. It allowed us to zone in on Dredd the guy and in terms of not revealing much about his character that’s what you have to do in terms of Dredd. If you give too much you’re not treating the character in the right way

Karl and I used to speak about him as like a desert and on the desert there’s like one cactus so your eye is immediately drawn to the cactus. So any tiny thing Dredd does gets freighted with all this information. Hopefully there is information about his character though.

UTF: You’re no stranger to post apocalyptic and dystopian worlds, did that help you in writing this?

I think it’s just a matter of taste, I just like those stories. Even when its not post apocalyptic, like The Beach where it’s just a bunch of people hanging out in Thailand in some beautiful setting, it turns out kind of apocalyptic. I think I just like that idea of dystopias, something that should function but doesn’t.

Dredd is great like that, he’s really interesting. It’s a really great set up, he’s an antihero and a fascist. A fascist cop. A very honest one, but a still a fascist cop. I mean if you’re a left winged liberal he’s not your hero. Except he kind of is as well, as he’s a fantasy, a wish fulfillment that kills the right guys and doesn’t get it wrong and is honest. The interesting thing is John Wagner, creator/one of the co-creators of Dredd is he’s taken that inflexible nature and made it his Achilles heel sometimes. And if we were ever able to proceed with this I’d be trying to follow what John did.

UTF: If you had to distill Dredd down to it’s core elements what was important that had to make it to the screen?

Him. The guy. Andrew Macdonald and I way back when we first figured out how to make this movie, the aesthetic, the approach, we knew we would never be in the territory of a 100 million dollar movie to create this world. There would be aspects of the comics we just wouldn’t be able to pull off. We couldn’t capture everything. The thing I knew we would always be able to get right was Dredd the character. In the comic book you might have flying cars, very futuristic vehicles, we just didn’t have the effects resources in order to be able to think about this. We wanted an aesthetic that could sidestep that issue, a Dredd we could get right.

The first person after the three of us, that is to say the three producers, we tried to contact was John Wagner, the writer. Not just to name check him, I know that’s what comic adaptations do, we didn’t want to **** off the fans, it wasn’t that. I knew if John was involved creatively and employed by the film he would be making sure Dredd was right. So I would send him drafts of the script, he would change stuff, I always knew that whatever else we got wrong, we would get Dredd right. That was reassuring position.

UTF: What was  important about Dredd’s character to bring to the screen?

He’s a hard bastard. If you take the classic story structure, often exemplified in film we have a protagonist who goes on a journey. He’s not the same guy at the end that he is at the beginning. Dredd doesn’t function like that. His character changes like a glacier, you don’t see it. Maybe retrospectively you think ‘that’s a foot further down this valley than it used to be’ but that’s it. That traditional story arc doesn’t apply to Dredd. While sometimes that arc isn’t right for comics or television it nearly always is in film.

UTF: Would you say using that traditional story arc it was more the story of the girl then?

Dredd does have a small change, he has an original view expressed clearly in the opening minutes of the film, and then later it changes slightly. That’s his entire character arc, changing his mind about that one thing.

Anderson is a rookie cop who in the archetype beats of this kind of story goes from being a rookie cop to a hard cop through this trial of fire. So yes she does that. I suspect for some people Anderson is who they will emotionally attach themselves to because she’s more honourable, and she changes.

But I still think Dredd is always at the heart of this story. It’s Dredd. It was interesting, maybe this is technical and boring, to have an unchanging character at the heart of a story when so much of movies is trying to pull you against that. It’s quite a thing to pull off and there’s a sense of satisfaction at the end of the film.

UTF: The look of the film is very near future. Its not grand sweeping vistas, was the artwork purely down to budget or was it a stylistic choice?

I could post rationalize it. I would say its not purely down to budget. I would say if you look at the films I’ve worked on in the past, tonally Dredd is like that as a film, my MO is to work within the genre and then treat genre as if its real. It tends to not be too camp, not have too many winks to the audience. There are several in the film that are played down so you don’t get that sense as a viewer that there’s an in joke here that I’m not entirely picking up on. It should be quite invisible so if you aren’t tuned in to it you aren’t turned off.

So you play it straight then you bend it with hallucinations and trippy stuff. That’s like the apocalyptic thing, that’s what I’m in to. I see Dredd as being tonally related to Sunshine or 28 Days Later personally. But you can also say it had a budget issue, I knew what that meant. Don’t bother writing the big crazy shot because you wont be able to do it, do the weird trippy shot. Of course a slow motion drug helps you out.

UTF: Will we see you in the directors seat again soon?

I dunno, I’ve got a story that I’m about to start writing, only got out of Dredd recently and I’ve got something else I’d like to do. It wont be like Dredd.

UTF: Could you tell us a bit more about it? Genre?

Yeah it’ll be sci-fi, absolutely down the line of sci-fi. I tend towards a pattern, I will do a propulsive, crazy movie that really moves forward then something that is quieter and more introspective, Dredd is on the more crazy end of those things. The next one will be more along the lines of Sunshine, a quieter movie. I’ve kind of had enough of standing in corridors with people holding squibs and people saying ‘we’ll put some CG here now’.

UTF: Did you always have Karl in mind to play Dredd? You say you’ve been a fan for a long time so who did you imagine then?

When I was boy about 10-11 years old I would have said Clint Eastwood. Dredd is substantially based on and influenced by Dirty Harry quite clearly in a terse no bullshit mode he exists in. We met a few people and Karl was just right, right in lots and lots of ways. He looked right, I was very keen to avoid Dredd being big steroid machine, I didn’t want him to look like he spent a lot of time at the gym I wanted him to look like a fighter.

Dredd generally, particularly early drawings, he’s lean. He’s like a boxer. Karl had the perfect physique for that. He understood that character, even long before turning up for the meeting. He had his comics with him, he didn’t say anything wrong, he said everything right and we left that meeting feeling very certain with him.

UTF: You mention you find it interesting  how he’s a typically unchanging character, in terms of a sequel what story arcs would you like to see explored?

Loosely, I have to make very clear this is an 18 rated film, R rated in America, the level of money it needs to generate a sequel is insane. It’s really quite unlikely.

In my fantasy, the next story would be 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. Dredd and the city are integrally linked. It’s an interesting story how you get into this fascist state with this guy as your hero. There’s this fantastic tale with pro-democracy terrorists which takes it to a really interesting level. If the pro democracy terrorists are doing things that you shouldn’t sympathize with but they’re the democrats, they should be the good guys.

There’s a character in the comics called Chopper who’s brilliant. It would be that arc, that strange position Dredd finds himself in. The 3rd one you could go completely nuts. Maybe you bring in these guys, the dark judges. You could then move up through the ranks to this really intense place. But again, unlikely.

UTF: So you’re saying there is potential for Chopper to turn up in a sequel?

People are superstitious about talking about things like this, but I have a story in mind that starts and ends with Chopper, he’s like the catalyst and the coda. The thing that triggers it and the thing that ends it. As long as you understand the caveat that this is essentially a fantasy. Look at the box office for 18 rated sci-fi it’s like a car wreck in terms of success.

UTF: Would you like to see it on TV, as there is a lot of fantastic work going on on that medium at the moment?

Something has happened in American TV over the last 10 years that I think is absolutely electrifying. The dramas that are played out and the freedom within those dramas are confirmed in the way people respond to them. The rules that have existed in cinema for a long time, that you cannot do this are absolutely shattered, they’re putting them on there and people are responding and the quality of everything is very, very high.

When I watch Game of Thrones I think about Dredd. It’s not just Game of Thrones, it’s fantastic I can’t stop watching it but you could also say the Wire. I mean we ripped of the Wire in some respects. There’s all sorts of TV shows that show what you can do. But to be clear I’ve thought about it a lot, I have discussed it with a distributor, a financier, it’s total fantasy stuff. I think it would be fantastic though, there are these big stories in Dredd that you just cannot tell over 2 hours. You just can’t. You need 12 hours to do it. That glacier thing of a character gradually changing, imagine that played out over 24 hours! It would be fantastic, I agree 100%.

UTF: How about the R rating? You say it makes it difficult for it to become a franchise it must give you freedom though? Did you just forget about it and assume you were going for an 18?

I never ever think about certification when writing, I will think about it later before we get into fights over cuts or whatever that I usually resist very strongly. But in the case of Dredd I didn’t have to because it was so far into the realm of being an 18 that you were never gonna bring it back to a PG-13.

At times I’ve got very angry with ratings, for example when I made Never Let Me Go, which is a very quiet film it got it’s rating because there’s a sex scene in it. It’s a cliché about how you can cut people’s heads off. You can cut their ****ing heads off and it’s a 12, you show two people having sex in quite a chaste way and it’s an 18. I find that wrong on so many levels I hardly know where to begin. It’s self evident how stupid it is, so I have had issues with censors in the past but not with Dredd. It is what it is.

UTF: The Dark Knight is a good case in point for that, it was a 12A and filled with disturbing scenes

If you have .. I have to choose my words carefully here, if you the weight of a big franchise and big studio behind you, I mean Steven Spielberg set the precedent for this stuff with Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down, in terms of where the boundaries lay and you can get away with stuff that others couldn’t. It could feel corrupt, as a system.

UTF: You have a very visual style, even in your novels, does that affect the way you write scripts?

I grew up on comic books, my dad’s a cartoonist and I used to try to emulate him. I spent all of my teenage years drawing, I think in terms of pictures. I try to avoid describing individual camera movements, that’s up to the Director of Photography, but you get a guy like Anthony Dod Mantle you can do that. What I do do is try to convey the sense of what slow mo would be like in sense of particles or colors. The nature of the shot, why it’s in the frame, why it’s desirable, I try to think vis
ually.

UTF: You mentioned crazy, weird and progressive films between the quieter ones, would you ever like to adapt another comic book or superhero story such as Y: The Last Man or something?

One that I did look at was Button Man, I think Button Man is one of the most natural adaptations to film that I’ve ever seen. John Wagner and I spoke about it in a kind of, around the houses kind of thing and they are in a serious state of wanting it to be made and that’s great.

What do you guys think? Dredd sounds amazing and I’m stoked to see a sequel (if we get the chance to see it).

And don’t forget DREDD 3D hits screens on the 7th September

Author
  • sauchieboy

    I’m so glad this film was written and produced by someone with such an obvious affinity for the character as Alex Garland.
    His comments regarding how he and Urban decided to portray the character, and his determination that Dredd shouldn’t undergo the traditional emotional character arc of a film hero are like music to my ears.
    And I couldn’t agree more that the lesser strictures imposed on character and narrative by US TV shows like The Wire mean Dredd would be ideally suited to that format. Thanks for such an interesting interview.