Alex Garland talks Slo-Mo and Mega City One
DREDD 3D takes us to the wild streets of Mega City One, the lone oasis of quasi-civilization on Cursed Earth. Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is the most feared of elite Street Judges, with the power to enforce the law, sentence offenders and execute them on the spot – if necessary. The endlessly inventive mind of writer Alex Garland and the frenetic vision of director Peter Travis bring DREDD to life as a futuristic neo-noir action film that returns the celebrated character to the dark, visceral incarnation from John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s revered comic strip.
The Fan Carpet’s Oliver Hayes took part in a special round table and talks to screenwriter Alex Garland for the forthcoming release of Dredd 3D on September 7.
In relation to early drafts of the script and how you began looking at characters like Judge Death, maybe looking at the Total War story arcs and pro democracy, and they were sort of unworkable to get it into an origin story or a first movie. Would you be interested in adding the character in a later Dredd and do you think they’re now more possible seeing as we’ve had a first film and an introduction to the character?
We’ve had a first film that hasn’t yet been released, it’s certainly not more possible now. It may be in four weeks time, it’s a very big ‘if’. It’s an 18 rated film and in order to generate the kind of money it would need to make I think to justify a sequel, it’s a tall order. That said, yeah if I was able to work on a sequel, there are particular storylines which you’ve name checked already.
Second film, broadly would involve characters like Chopper, storylines like Origins, Curse of Earth and it would be about Dredd’s history and the history of the city which are bound up in each other.
And it would involve the kind of weird deal between the fact he’s a fascist and the terrorists are pro democrats and he’s an anti hero, it’s a complex situation! So I’d love to try to do that, but I want to be clear it’s a fantasy but I’d love to do that. And after that, if I got any further and they generated enough money, it would be the craziest stuff which for me is Judge Cal, Chief Judge Cal based on Caligula, and the Dark Judges.
Basically the Chief Judge has gone insane and the city has been invaded by these completely malevolent riffs or version of the judge system, so in the alternate universe where that happens that’s what would happen.
Can you tell us a little bit about the process of reinventing Dredd for a 21st century audience?
Yeah, I can say that my intention from the absolute get go was not to reinvent Dredd, but to do Dredd in a way that did justice to the character in the comic books. You could call it a reinvention if you were taking as a starting point the original movie but my approach to this was, I knew we would never have the budget level and also it doesn’t really suit our aesthetic in terms of me and Andrew Macdonald, it’s not really our scene to try and do something that’s too far from reality in some level I guess. We knew flying cars and very elaborate CG robots and stuff were like that were not going to be in our scope for the first movie, that aside the main thing I did, the first thing I did after sitting down and Andrew was to contact John Wagner, who was the writer who co created Dredd and to bring him in, not as a way of name checking the creator and treating him properly, it really truly wasn’t that, but I wanted him to be actually working on the film, 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 always send him the drafts he would change lines id accept the changes happily, Karl did the same he tweaked the lines too. So that’s a long winded answer, we weren’t trying to reinvent him we were trying to be respectful, appropriately respectful.
I get the impression this has been a very passionate collaborative project, is this the most involved you’ve ever been on a production?
No, no definitely not. I was very involved in this but I’m involved in all the films that I work on
Has it inspired you to do any more, maybe to go into directing or anything?
Anderson gets a lot of the psychological meat to deal with. In a way it’s kind of her film and Karl’s talking about us seeing Dredd through her eyes, I wondered if you were aware of this at the time?
Definitely aware, standards set after the film, not with a sitcom, not with a comic, often not with a standard TV series as opposed to the sort of brilliant recent American reinvention of television is that in a film a character goes on a big journey, he changes a lot. Dredd couldn’t do that, he’s not about change that’s not what he is. He changes in a way, and the way is like a glacier. thats how I would visualise it, I use to see him as a glacier and a desert. Glacier because he moves very, very slowly and a desert because if there’s one thing in a desert you look at it, it’s a big flat thing but if there’s a cactus you look at it, so if he tilts his head you put all this extra meaning in it. I always knew at the heart of this film would be like a rock, that hardly moved in an internal way. He does actually move a bit but the traditional story arc stuff that were you talking about, that Andersons journey. That was intentional, so somebody is travelling at least at that accelerated pace.
What was your favourite scene that you’d written and were finally able to see in the finished product?
Slo-Mo, all that Slo-Mo stuff, that was the hardest thing to get right. It began very early on, while we were shooting Never Let Me Go, Jon Thum who was the VFX supervisor was constructing very worked up very high end pre vis sequences of Slo-Mo to try and find out if some of the basic ideas of Slo-mo, one of which is that you’re not really going as it were raging bull slow fast slow fast slow fast, but you can have a really extended slow sequence, how far can you do that before it snaps, how trippy can you get, how far can you pull the viewer out into some really weird hallucinogenic space before they lose track of the story or the action, that kind of thing. We started trying to figure that out a long time even before pre production and we finished working that stuff out, and I mean literally in the final minutes of the grade at the very end of post production , tweaking the colours, trying very different approaches to the colour scheme, the levels of saturation, the framing , the camera moves, I mean it went on and on. It’s my favourite, on a kind of personal leve, it’s my favourite stuff in the film. There’s little beats with Dredd that I enjoy, as a ten year old growing up with Dredd , but yeah some of the Slo-Mo stuff I like.
What was it about Karl when you met him?
He got Dredd in a very kind of deep way, we never had the kind of discussion that you can have with actors not as a bad thing, I’ve had long conversations with actors about motivation, characters , how a character got to a certain point which would just be part of an actor’s process, there’s nothing judgemental about it at all. but Karl arrived fully formed. Like me he’d read it when he was younger, he knew Dredd he understood it backwards, all sorts of things that we had as in private rules that we were going to observe. He sat down and basically said, well I hope you’re going to do this and I hope you’re going to do that, and he didn’t step back he stepped forward and he was kind of saying these are the kind of tones id be interested in doing the character and because we agreed it was a fantastic relief. Karl kind of arrived fully formed, we didn’t give him notes.
Karl described working with you as the most rewarding collaborative film experience, and you obviously have an affinity for him. I wonder if any future film projects for your involvement with hinge on Karl as also being Dredd?
It’s hard to say about future projects that don’t exist. If its a story about three Amazon women on an island, probably not! But if it was Dredd, I personally 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 format, I’m sure he’s spoken about this much more eloquently than I will, if you don’t have a whole section of your face, you have to create a whole different language of communication and the way that you tilt your head, and in the way that you look at something. One of my favourite shots in the film is a pull focus from Anderson in the foreground whose feeling worried. Anderson’s just met this lady Cathy in a flat and she’s just realised she shot her husband and she’s in the lift and she’s clearly in a state of turmoil about this. 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, a kind of totality of Dredd-ness
There are a lot of expectations around comic book films, for example John Carter had a huge fan base waiting for it , and the same with Dredd, with this in mind what was the essence of it for you, that was the most important for you to bring to the screen?
Well I f**king hope so! It’s the only chance of getting any box office success, but thanks! It’s a kind of hardness you know. I wanted the film to be just very, kind of hard. Soft in its drugs, weird maybe at times but have a kind of relentless hardness. For me that’s part of the character that I didn’t create, I’m just trying to continue it. It would be easy to try and humanise Dredd, he’s already a human, he’s not a super hero he’s just a man, he can’t do anything that a normal man can’t do, but people could try to humanise him. People try to do that in films, they want to contact him more, but John Wagner the creator said to me once the harder you make him the more people will like him and I chose that as a maxim, I would always remember that.
I wonder if you could clarify some of the stories surrounding what was described as an ‘unorthodox relationship’ between you and Pete Travis, in that Karl would often come to you on set for direction and in Post you took the reins?
I think all I’d say is that, at the heart of those stories was always a line that Pete and I had fallen out or there was a disagreement, there really wasn’t. That’s just spin, Pete and I never fell out, I last met him for Coffee four days ago in Soho. We had a very clear, honest working relationship the whole way through it and I like the guy a lot. The problem with I have with this question, I’ve got various problems with this question but with the issue is that I think what it does is polarises the question between me and Pete and that itself is a deception because what it does is take the attention away from people like, and I want to be very clear about this Jon Thum, the VFX supervisor, Anthony Dod Mantle whose an award winning genius cinematographer, and when we’re talking about Slo-Mo a lot of what we’re talking about is actually Anthony Dod Mantle. Now if this becomes a kind of pissing contest between me and Pete, all that does is distract attention away from Anthony, John, Mark the editor, the actual editor, all this stuff about post production, Paul Lennard Morgan who wrote the score, I think this happens in film too much anyway. I think there’s a lot of bull shit said about how films are made and a lot of the bull shit 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 was also these crucial people who I’ve just been mentioning. I’m not trying to be evasive whilst clearly being evasive, I just want to rephrase the question to what the reality of making the film was. The reality is Anthony Dod Mantle and Jon Thum doing amazing work making Slo-mo, it shouldn’t be f**king Pete or it shouldn’t be me! Sorry it makes it sound like I’m dissing Pete, I’m not, I get on with him really well , I like the guy and respect him. I don’t want the film to be presented as something it’s not, it’s a collaboration.
Can I ask you about adapting from a book or a comic?
The film is very different in terms of how Mega City One looks compared to the comics which will probably be one of the most controversial points for fans
Really? I reckon it’ll be the eagle on the shoulder!
What would you say to fans who will be expecting something similar to the comics?
The approach to the city was the same as the approach to the uniform. If you do a very faithful adaptation of the uniform, you’d have someone who if someone stabbed him in the stomach would be in big trouble, and Dredd is out there on the front line so he needed protection. I guess the way I saw the city was as a city that didn’t have money falling out of itself, its got a very high unemployment. The blocks are like 50’s and 60’s they’re 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 an aesthetic. The other thing about it was just while we’re on it, one of the things we experimented with in post was what the city looked liked, not just in terms of the design of the blocks but how close they were together. One of the things we discovered is when you put the blocks very close together like 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, of these utilitarian blocks that have widely spread and end up looking like a graveyard from a big aerial wide, that’s where it comes from
And realism underlines everything?
I would say that’s kind of like DNA house style, this is one of the things that me and Andrew, it’s what we really agreed about. I think you can see that aesthetic in 28 Days or Sunshine, there’s weird stuff but there’s also real stuff.
It’s so great to have an action film that’s an 18 certificate. Are you pleased you had that control and how do you feel about films being sanitised now for audiences?
I think it’s a shame, I got very angry on the last film I made Never Let Me Go, that it was pushed into a high rating as a result of a very chased sex scene. You can show people getting beheaded in 12 certificates, I think it’s actually madness! That aside, I didn’t really think of the certification too much , it just was what it was and in term of, I should explain, the way this film was done, it’s an independent film. There’s the production company , who then did the deal with the sales agent who then sell distribution rights all over the world so the British distributor, and the American distributor are different. All the distributors know in quite a concrete way what they’re singing onto, they can look at the script and they can 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 judgement about how much they’re going to pay for it , based on the certification they know it will have. At the end of that, we didn’t have any pressure. You could have studio pressure possibly if it was a studio movie in a different way that could happen, but the way this film was set up it was never really going to be an issue.
DREDD 3D OPENS ON SEPTEMBER 7