Exclusive Interview: Dredd 3D’s Alex Garland

Fans of the futuristic vigilante anti-hero known as Judge Dredd, first introduced in the pages of the British weekly 2000 A.D. in 1977, have much to rejoice, because in Lionsgate’s Dredd 3D, they finally got the character right and that comes down to two things: the casting of Karl Urban in the lead role and the hiring of Alex Garland to write and oversee the project.

Garland has established himself as one of England’s top genre writers, having written the screenplays of 28 Days Later and Sunshine for director Danny Boyle, and also writing the novels The Tesseract and The Beach, the latter which Boyle adapted. Doing a superhero movie like Dredd may seem like an odd choice from some of Garland’s work like his recent adaptation of the novel Never Let Me Go, but as it turns out, he’s been a comic book fan since he was a youth.

SuperHeroHype already spoke to Karl Urban back at Comic-Con, and when the movie was picked to kick off the “Midnight Madness” track at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, we had a chance to sit down with Garland and get the perspective of someone who spent four years of his life trying to bring Great Britain’s most popular comic character to the screen.

When we met up with Garland to talk about the movie, we actually started talking about comics before we even had tape rolling as I told him about my own history with British comics and Judge Dredd going back to when I was a teenager.

Alex Garland: Yeah, that’s interesting. That’s where I come from a lot in terms of comics. My dad’s a cartoonist, so I grew up around comic books. The stuff he was really into was like Harvey Kurtzman, Bill Elder. It was the older sort of late ‘50s, early ‘60s “Mad Magazine,” not the modern incarnation of it, what it used to be, the old one, some really fantastic artists, which for me then led onto Gilbert Shelton, Robert Crumb, who are from the Harvey Kurtzman lineage in some way.

SuperHeroHype: Did those underground comix get over to the UK?

No, it didn’t, but because my dad was a massive fan. He was obsessed with Harvey Kurtzman and Will Eisner, to an extent, too but his guy was Harvey Kurtzman and Bill Elder. In fact, I finally tracked down an original Bill Elder drawing that I bought it and gave it to him. So there was like that whole comic scene that I grew up around and that was in the house, but the stuff that was like my world, I guess, was “2000 AD” and “Warrior” and stuff like that. I was never so much into I guess the American superhero comics.

SHH: Right, Marvel and DC, although they did get over there and there was even a Marvel UK.

I liked them well enough, but I wasn’t like really into them. With “2000 AD” I started reading, it started when I was about seven and I picked it up when I was 10, then I became one of those kids. There’s a comic book shop in London called Forbidden Planet and you could go there and you could start searching for the back issues in these cardboard boxes. I then became one of these guys who wants to be a completist about it.

SHH: So how did this movie come about? I know you worked with the same producers who did “28 Days Later,” so who decided to make a movie with Judge Dredd?

Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich were the two producers I worked with. They figured out that the license rights to “Dredd”… there’s 35 years of comic book history there, and he’s a character that means much more in the UK than he does here. They figured out how to get a hold of the license rights, because people weren’t interested in them, because the first movie was not perceived as making the license rights desirable. I think a lot of people as well didn’t really see it as coming from this comic. It was like what “Judge Dredd” is, is the Stallone film. They’re not aware that something comes before that, so Andrew just saw there was a kind of opportunity, and on some level, Andrew’s an entrepreneur filmmaker, so he went about getting a hold of those rights, and then he said to me – we were in post-production on “Sunshine,” and we were in prep on…

SHH: Oh, it was that long ago? Wow.

Oh, it was ages ago. We were in prep on “28 Weeks Later.” He said, “Okay, I think I can get these rights. Do you want to do it?” and I just immediately said “yes.”

SHH: When I used to read “2000 A.D.” as a kid, I just assumed that Mega-City One was supposed to be England because all the creators were British, but in fact, it’s actually supposed to be America, which I never quite got back then.

Yeah, it’s the States, East Coast America, yeah. It was always like that, and actually, I did the same thing. I mean, when I was 10, there was a lot about Judge Dredd that went straight over my head. I just didn’t pick up on it, you know? There was a lot of satire and a lot of humor that it’d be like watching “The Simpsons” and you miss the adult gags. That’s it. So, I had a similar thing, but then at a certain point you realize, “Oh God, yeah, that was in the States. The voices in my head should all have American accents.” (Laughs)

SHH: Obviously there’s so much history to the characters and so many stories, so how did you approach it when you started writing it?

Yeah, but I knew it backwards, right? So it’s not like I had to do any research. When Andrew was saying, “Hey, do you want to do a ‘Dredd’ movie?” I was immediately thinking, “Yeah, because you could do this, you could do that.” It was like a kind of bunch of falling dominoes that were always ahead of me. It never felt like a challenge in that way. Of course, then it turned out to be a massive challenge, but the first thing I actually did—and this is a lot to do with having a dad who’s a cartoonist actually–is I contacted John Wagner-, who was the writer.

SHH: I was going to ask you about that too, okay.

Yeah, because I’m hyper-aware that if you’re making a comic book movie, it makes a lot of sense with friends to kind of name-check the creators, and there’s a lot of name-checking that goes on. I find it all slightly irritating because it’s cynical. It’s essentially a marketing exercise. At the same time, I want to be completely respectful of those guys. I take it very seriously, because like when I was a teenager I’d get all f*cked off about the way Jack Kirby got treated, as it were. I don’t want to be the kind of c*nt that treats Jack Kirby in a bad way. I don’t want to be that guy. I want to look after or be respectful to John Wagner. The first thing I did was contact John, but not as it were to name-check, but to try and persuade him to actually work on the film as a paid-up member of the crew. So it’s not like saying, “Hey look, here’s this guy who created it, and we’ve all gotta kinda worship at his altar as a way of acquiescing to the comic book fans.” It really wasn’t that. I wanted him on the side working on the movie, protecting “Dredd,” making sure the character was right. One of the first things I said to John was, “Independent British movie, we are never going to be operating at the budget level that allows us to realize this city in the way you have portrayed it.” We sent him the films we’ve worked on. We made films like “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine.” We have a particular aesthetic, which is about working in a genre, but you kind of play it dirty and you play it straight. I said, “That’s what we’re going to do.” In fact, the first time I sat down, I said, “Probably what we’re going to do is we’re going to go to like Glasgow and we’ll go to tower blocks and we’ll shoot it in real tower blocks, and then we’ll use the VFX to make the tower blocks look bigger. But really, we’re going to be in real locations…”

SHH: But you ended up going to South Africa which is a completely different place.

No, but the principle was the same, which is shoot on real street corners if you can, so that you get the dirt, which is surprisingly hard to recreate on a sound stage.

SHH: Okay, it’s also a lot to have to create dust with VFX.

Actually, we had exactly the right VFX team in a way because their aesthetic – they’re a bunch of guys who were very keen on reality. They’re not wanting to draw attention to VFX in a funny kind of way. They want to hide it, so there’s a lot of VFX shots that will be really very invisible in the film, because some of them are clearly VFX shots. It’s perfectly straightforward. They’ve got a very good balance in their aesthetic between making stuff feel cinematic and big, but also feeling kind of real. And again, you know, the whole approach to this film, like with John Wagner, you could just spread that out to everybody, is there’s a team of people who have a shared goal, shared aesthetic.

SHH: I know that you had Jock do some concept artwork as well.

Jock did some, so actually, after John Wagner, the next person really who got involved was Jock. Jock drew a whole 110 page comic of the script, which we could distribute as we brought people into the movie. We could show them it and we could help them understand how we were going to visualize this. I mean, way before pre-production started, we had created the look of the city. We’d done pre-vis on the drug sequences. We’d designed the uniform. We designed the bike. I mean, we worked on it actually for years, putting it together but partly, that was because we had to try to make it for a small amount of money. The only way we could do that was to be very clear about what we’re trying to do, what the VFX elements are in each shot. Often in a studio picture, you’ll do a VFX shot up to three quarters completion and then ditch it because it doesn’t work in the cut. We had to be very clear, “No, we’re going to need this wide shot. We’re going to use it. It’s going to last about seven seconds.”

SHH: You’ve done other adaptations, so was this the only one where you were involved with every step of production?

Yeah, but that’s what I do. I mean, that would be the same on “Never Let Me Go” as well, or whatever, yeah.

SHH: I was also curious about some of the amazing visuals like the way it shows the effects of the Slomo drug. Was that all worked in advance and did Pete play a large part in that?

No. No, Pete was brought in… No is the answer. I mean, how it comes about is a whole bunch of things coming together. I’ve got a thing about very extreme high-speed still photography. I just find it interesting and I like images that are hypnotic in their own way. They separate you from what you’re actually seeing and you start thinking about something else. You’re watching like a shark break out of the water, but you start looking at the water droplets. Or a balloon, the sort of strange ribbons that it breaks into as it bursts, say, which is revealed in high-speed photography. It’s got a themic importance, but yes, that’s it. It’s a bit like “Sunshine,” that “Sunshine” is built around images of the sun, and this film is in some way built around these drug sequences and this hallucinogenic drug, right? But then, in terms of how those sequences were actually made, the next stage was talking to Jon Thum, who is our VFX guy. While we were shooting “Never Let Me Go,” he started working with pre-vis. In that pre-vis sequence, what we really did was we weren’t selecting shots. What we were doing was we were testing part of the theory of these slowmo sequences. Instead of doing the quick slow, quick slow sort of “Raging Bull” scene…

SHH: Oh right, where it goes in and out of speed.

In and out – was to see if you could do very extended slow sequences, and how long you can stretch it for, so we tested that with John. And then, the next key stage was to bring in Anthony Dod Mantle, who was the cinematographer. I worked with Anthony years before on “28 Days.” The thing about Anthony is again, he’s a key part of this team. We work in genre, and then we try and f*ck around or subvert genre in one way or another. Anthony’s perfect for that because in some respects, he’s an art house guy, you know? “Antichrist” is one of the most beautifully photographed films in the history of cinema. That’s Anthony. What we wanted to do was have a sensibility like Anthony’s absolutely at the heart of the movie, so me and Anthony would talk a lot about LSD or sort of where you can take a hallucination and what you can do with colors. Again, what happens if you put these images stacked up next to each other? When does it break? When does the audience get pissed off? How long will they go with you? How do you make sound work with that? So then, on set, Anthony had really quite a free hand in the construction of these scenes. We’d discuss it a lot, but then Anthony would compose that shot and put it together.

SHH: It’s interesting that you wouldn’t be able to see how it works until later since VFX is involved in that.

Not only that but almost all the slowmo shots are composites. There’s lots of elements, more elements than you would imagine just by glancing at them. They’re shots sort of created in layers. Anthony developed a way of sort of thinking about that stuff really through “Antichrist,” so he took that expertise into it. I know this is a super long-winded answer. (Laughs) I’m sorry. It then came back again to Jon Thum and his team. So then, we were back working with Jon trying to add these sort of strange particle qualities and some of the things within a shot are POV FX elements that needed to be added. A kid’s cheek needed to explode outwards or a woman’s face needed to crush open, or whatever it happened to be. To turn those things away from being straight gore and into abstract, beautiful imagery in its own right. At the very, very end of this sequence, it was just sitting in a room with Anthony and a glade where the shot is basically constructed. The layers were all in place. The VFX were all in place, and it’s about selecting how far can you saturate those colors. 3D works in strange ways. How does a vignette help you focus and zone in in that sort of drug way in one particular part of the frame? Do you want to open out the frame so you’re looking everywhere? Do you want to zone in on one particular bit? The camera moves. There’s some locked off shots, and then we had to create camera moves to keep a sense of fluidity and what are those camera moves? So, really slowmo as one component part was by a huge margin, the biggest technical challenge. It started four years ago and ended about three months ago, so it was a head f*ck.

SHH: To me, those are some of the most interesting parts of “Dredd” because they seem so out of place with what you might expect in an action movie. You have certain expectations of what an action movie will look like and this looks like it’s own thing.

Yeah, I guess. I don’t know. I mean, I’ll take your word for it, but–this is just from a personal point of view-I like doing genre and playing it straight, but then I also like putting strange, trippy, hallucinogenic imagery within it. I just like it. I used to do that in books, and now I’m still trying to do it in films. I mean, in “Sunshine,” the whole movie is structured around how you respond to an image of the sun. That’s what the film is, really. It’s what do you feel when you look at the sun, that’s it.

SHH: As a writer, you’re creating imagery with your words so it’s interesting to hear that you’re so involved with the visuals so far into production.

You know, people say that. I don’t know why it’s strange because you’re one of a team of people who’s making a film. Why wouldn’t you be involved? I know, I’m aware of some of the conventions that are supposed to exist in film. I think they’re bullsh*t. I think they’re total f*cking bullsh*t and I’m not interested in them at all and I won’t have them. If people won’t work that way with me, I won’t work with them. It’s simple.

SHH: But when you think of the visuals, you imagine they come from the director and DoP and production designer…

Well, you say that, you say that, but I don’t think people do think that. I think people think director. The amount of time I see Anthony’s work attributed to a director is f*cking unbelievable. If you were a DP, you wouldn’t be feeling, “Oh, people are always sort of reasonably credit me with my work.” The number of times I’ve read about how the director framed a shot, and I’m thinking, “What do these people think a DP actually does?” Right? What’s their job on a set, to kind of sit around and the director says, “Okay, I want the key light over there?” I mean, come on. There are some directors who do that. I know there are some, but I mean, Jesus, whatever.

SHH: What else are you working on after this? Obviously, you’ve spent a lot of years on this. You’ve been involved in other sci-fi projects like a remake of “Logan’s Run”…

You see, not really, okay, because those are totally different kinds of jobs. I work in the British independent film industry. I’ve made a bunch of films now. All of the films that I’ve made have made it into the cinema have all been like that. Every now and then, somebody offers me a gig, which is like, “Halo” or “Logan’s Run.” I’m a writer for hire. It’s a completely different… every part of the setup is different. I’m working in a different way for different people and if none of those films ever get made, every now and then I say in an interview, “Why do people pay me to do this every now and then? Surely, they should stop. Clearly, I never deliver, right?” It’s not through intention. I try and do the right thing. If someone pays me, I will try and do the job well, but none of them ever get made into a film. They just might as well be burning their money. I don’t understand it.

SHH: So it’s more important for you to be involved with a project from beginning to end?

Yeah, yeah.

SHH: Do you have anything like that you’re working on now or are you writing more books now?

No, I’ve got another. I’ve got a kind of idea that I’d like to try and make. I alternate movies, typically. Actually, when I worked in books, it was the same. Some are kind of very propulsive, very linear stories, and so things like “28 Days Later” or “Dredd” would fit into that category. Then some are kind of slow and more reflective, and that would be like “Sunshine,” “Never Let Me Go.” The next one I do, I’d like it to be quieter, smaller, more reflective. “Dredd” is not quite small and reflective. It’s trippy.

Dredd 3D opens in theaters everywhere on Friday, September 21.