July, 2012. As the film Dredd headed to Comic-Con, prior to its theatrical release a couple of months later, I spoke to screenwriter Alex Garland and Judge Dredd’s original 2000AD creator John Wagner. Originally published on the Empire website (archived here), but another casualty of the 2015 relaunch. Reproduced in full below.
It’s been 17 years since Sylvester Stallone stalked Mega City One sans helmet and upset a generation of Judge Dredd fans in the process. We’re not expecting any of that vitriol to sully Karl Urban’s new big-screen take on 2000AD‘s mighty law enforcer, especially with Dredd creator John Wagner closely involved in the project and screenwriter Alex Garland promising a version that “commits completely to the character”. With the pair sending the film to Comic-Con to meet its public (“I understand there’s going to be a screening,” says Garland), Empire chatted with them about the Stallone version, Dredd’s uniform and those similarities with The Raid.
So you’re off to Comic-Con next week?
ALEX GARLAND: The film is, but neither John nor I are going. It’s just the actors that will be out there.
JOHN WAGNER: I think the public would rather see them.
So what sort of presence will it have there?
GARLAND: As I understand it, there’s going to be a screening, and Karl (Urban) and Jock and Greg Staples, a couple of 2000AD artists – Jock actually worked quite a lot on the film – are going to be doing one panel, I think. And I think there’s another panel as well. I’m not really sure. But there is a screening and there are panels!
Is Judge Dredd as known as a comic in the US as it is in the UK? Is it irritating that half the internet coverage of the film is calling it a Stallone remake?
WAGNER: (Growls) Yes, that is irritating, because it’s not a remake: it’s a proper-make. I’d say maybe 30% of American comic fans are aware of 2000AD. That’s a guess, but it certainly hasn’t got the kind of profile it has over here. It’s growing though. They’re starting to put out a lot of compilations and 2000AD albums and Dredd face flannels. They’re starting to sell fairly well.
So will that be the mission at Comic-Con: to sell the film as a more authentic version of Dredd?
WAGNER: I would think so. Alex will know more than me.
GARLAND: I’ve never been to Comic-Con, but I’m certainly aware from this side of the Atlantic that it’s a very important part of film marketing now, even when the films are not directly linked to a comic. I imagine it must be because you have the concentration of press and interested public. And we are connected to a comic, so it must surely be a good way of raising the profile of the film.
WAGNER: I think we’re fighting the first movie to some extent. This one is so different. The link is really just the name and uniform, and that’s it. The first film really had nothing to do with Judge Dredd, whereas this one is all Dredd.
To what extent did the two of you work together on the new screenplay? Is it exaggerating to say it’s co-written?
GARLAND: That depends how you define “co-written”. I’ve written original material before, where I’ve come up with the idea and the characters myself, and that’s definitely very different to working with someone else’s characters and stories. Substantially, you’re not inventing it. On a technical level we didn’t sit down and swap pages, as it were, but what I did do was send the script to John, and John would “correct” some of the dialogue that I’d written. Then, actually, Karl Urban himself did the same. It was a reassurance, because I knew I could turn to John, and I did. The first two people who discussed this film were myself and Andrew McDonald, and then the third person was John.
So Karl was correcting John’s dialogue? That seems presumptuous!
WAGNER: (Laughs) I don’t think there was much of my dialogue, to be honest. Alex had it pretty much figured out, although he’ll deny it.
GARLAND: John’s just being generous. The thing about Karl is that he has to actually say the lines. All actors do this to an extent: you’ll write lines that they just don’t know how to fit in their mouths. Karl’s got a very clear sense of the character and how he’s going to perform it, so he was just adjusting lines to make them work for him. I think Karl and I were both highly aware of John.
What’s the fundamental difference between this film and the Stallone one?
GARLAND: If I was going to draw a distinction between the first film and the second film, it would primarily be a point of character. In the first conversation John and I had, one of the things I was trying to explain was that we wouldn’t have the budget – on the first outing anyway – to portray some of the aspects of Mega City One and all its robots and aliens on that kind of full, surreal, magical scale. But what we could do was commit ourselves completely to the character. That was our starting point.
WAGNER: I think that’s the most pleasing thing about it. That was what had bothered me so much about the first film: the story had nothing to do with Judge Dredd, and Judge Dredd wasn’t really Judge Dredd. They’ve remained really true to the character this time, which is great.
John, does Alex understand Dredd in the same way that you do? Fans often have quite a different relationship with characters than their creators do…
WAGNER: Well I was pretty impressed with Alex’s take on Dredd, He understood him and I didn’t really have to explain much about it. There were a few little details to be ironed out, but he was pretty much on the button.
Alex, why did you choose to tell this particular story? It doesn’t appear to be based on any particular story from the comics: were there any touchstones?
GARLAND: It was quite a protracted process really. The first crack I had at the script was about Judge Death. That didn’t work out, essentially because it’s very hard to tell that story, which is a sort of riff on the whole Judge system, without having previously set that system up. It presupposed too much knowledge on the part of the viewer, and it’s also deeply surreal and extreme in a lot of ways. So that first script just taught us that we needed to be more grounded and focused. There were others we considered, like Origins and the Pro-Democracy Terrorists [America], but instead of going for one of those really big, well-known stories, what I ended up doing was basing it on the kind of stories that John would do not as the big, long epics, but more like the day-in-the-life, shorter strips, which are basically about Dredd just as a cop in this dystopian city. It took a fair bit of getting to that point. I started writing Dredd when we were in post-production on Sunshine and pre-production on 28 Weeks Later. I finished the first draft on the set of 28 Weeks Later. So it’s been a long haul.
Is there a bit of Block Mania in there?
GARLAND: Yeah, sort of. The blocks always fascinated me. There was something about these buildings that are kind of like micro city states that’s just very appealing. You could live and die in those buildings, and they just feel true to us somehow. I remember one of the things John saying early on was that the future in Dredd had to relate to the way we live now. The other thing he said was, “The harder you make Dredd, the more you’ll like him!” Both of those things turned out to be pretty good touchstones for the plot.
With this film being very contained, is there a plan to tell bigger stories in future films, if this one’s a success?
WAGNER: Well getting back to Judge Death for a moment, although he’s not appearing in the first film, if you mention the possibility that he might appear in a sequel, the fans go absolutely ape. The thought of seeing him and his cronies on the street… I’d like that.
GARLAND: I’d like to do that too.
Would that very surreal, supernatural, off-the-wall side of Dredd fit with the world you’ve created though?
GARLAND: I think there would be a way to do it. I think you could do a second film which is all about the city and the law and where it comes from, and Judge Fargo and the pro-democracy terrorists, and Dredd’s struggle with the state that he’s part of. And then in a third story you could bring in this crazy existential force that attacks the city in the form of the Dark Judges… It wasn’t right for the first film, but it might be right for the third, and it all depends on the journey you take in the second narrative. I think that could be interesting, but I have to say, we’ve really got our work cut out to get into a position where that’s a realistic possibility. At the end of the day we’re a medium-budget British independent film. And I don’t want to be presumptuous: I may not be required on future films, and future films may not be required to exist!
What’s Dredd’s journey in the first film? Does he have any sort of character arc? Does he change at all between the beginning and the end?
WAGNER: My take is that I don’t really believe in characters like Dredd changing. If he changes, it’s only a very moderate change, because he’s always the same man. But there is a story in that…
GARLAND: I think one of the most interesting things about Dredd is that he ages in real time over the course of the comics. That doesn’t lead to that sort of classic film story arc of some great epiphany, or moment of redemption and resolution and all that sort of stuff. But what John does is have Dredd evolve, in the way that a glacier moves: you look a year later and something actually has shifted! I tried to be true to that. I didn’t think Dredd could have a great epiphany, but there is definitely a change in him over the course of the movie. He makes a very clear statement at the beginning of the film which he then contradicts at the end. That’s about as far as the shift goes.
WAGNER: That’s a lot for Dredd.
John, with the character ageing, there’s obviously an inevitability somewhere in his future… Do you know how Dredd ends?
WAGNER: I don’t, but it’s a very interesting thought, isn’t it? There could be many ways to end it, but the probability is that I won’t still be around when it happens!
GARLAND: I feel very strongly that John has to end it. Somehow, John, you’ve got to end it. This is an incredibly morbid conversation, but I don’t think Dredd should survive after John.
WAGNER: I would love to write it, but I can’t see it happening. I’ll leave the script in my will.
GARLAND: Yeah, lock it in a safe!
OK, let’s not dwell on this… What about the look of Dredd in the film? Is there a definitive artist’s version of him?
WAGNER: I don’t think you can pin it down to one artist, because there have been so many great ones. I did like the film’s take on the uniform. I thought that battle-hardened look really suited it, and it especially suits the story.
There was someone – I don’t remember who – who always drew him as incredibly skinny, and I always liked that idea. It was as if all his power came from his uniform.
GARLAND: You’re probably thinking of Mike McMahon. Certainly when we were designing Dredd and discussing him with people like Jock and trying to get the uniform right, we talked about how he’s more like a boxer, rather than someone who spends hours sort of steroiding himself up. That leanness and speed I thought was very important.
It’s a very toned-down uniform from the comics, and even from the previous film; there’s no eagle on his shoulder, for example.
GARLAND: Yeah, the basic worry there – and this was something I felt I had to make sure John was all right with – was that the eagle has sharp claws that stick outwards, which makes it kind of hard to do a roll, or smash into a wall, or even hold someone. It was just about functionality, which also has to do with the approach we were taking to the film. Again, another thing John and I talked about in our first conversation was that we always wanted to give a sense of reality. We wanted to shoot in a real tower block and then embellish it with CGI later. We wanted to a believable extension of our own world, as opposed to a more Fifth Element flight of fantasy. In terms of the look and aesthetic of the film, one of the most important people would have to be the DoP Anthony Dod Mantle. I also really want to namecheck Jon Thum, who ran the VFX with Michael Elson. What those guys did was fundamental.
John, were you OK with all that? Did you have issues with anything?
WAGNER: I had some reservations about it, but by the time it was all wrapped up I was pretty convinced that it all worked fine. I like the look of it now. It was a slight worry at the beginning, but I think it works really well. Practically, as Alex explained, the uniform Dredd wears in the comics just wouldn’t work in actual fact. Even the bike… They found in the first film that the bikes wouldn’t actually steer because the tyres are so wide. So you expect adaptation. You don’t expect everything to be exactly as it is in the comic, and I think they’ve done a pretty nice job.
GARLAND: Can I namecheck something else though? There’s another Judge Dredd film being made at the moment called Judge Minty. It’s a fan film, but it’s highly impressive, and in that film, which you can see clips of and a kind of trailer they’ve cut on YouTube, they’ve taken a very faithful approach to Dredd’s uniform, and the bike, and Mega City One. It’s much more CG-heavy than our film, but it does show that there’s another way of doing it that works. I think it was just because we wanted a big emphasis on realism that we had to make those changes. You could follow the Minty approach to its natural conclusion, and I think it would be completely consistent and would also work. It’s a bit like all the different artists that have drawn Dredd over the years, whether it be Mike McMahon or Carlos Ezquerra or Jock or whoever. They all bring something different in terms of the aesthetic; there’s room for lots of variety.
The Raid has arrived in the last couple of months and Dredd is suddenly attracting a lot of comparisons to that, even though you were obviously already in production two years ago. Is that a problem for you?
GARLAND: I guess it’s just unfortunate timing, and we’ll see if it ends up mattering. At least what we’ve done though won’t take away from the incredible achievements of that film. One thing that one can be aware of, having worked on a film with a very similar narrative, is that they’ve done something pretty extraordinary considering their resources. They’ve done something pretty extraordinary anyway! So all power to them.
And finally, you named your block in Dredd Peach Tree Block. Is it true that that’s the name of the restaurant that the two of you met in?
GARLAND: Yes, that’s right, that’s where we had our first meeting.
WAGNER: It’s in Shrewsbury. It’s The Peach Tree. I keep meaning to go in and get myself a free meal.
GARLAND: Obviously, the block names are always references to something or other, and usually they’ve got a satirical edge to them or a wink or something. On some level I was trying to do that, although retrospectively I think Peach Tree in some ways doesn’t sound like a Mega City One block name. But it felt appropriate! I wanted to mark that meeting in some way.
Do you remember what you had?
GARLAND: I do! I believe I had a club sandwich and fries.
Empire exclusive! Alex Garland eats club sandwich and chips!
WAGNER: (laughs) I think I might have had pasta.