Dredd 3D with Alex Garland – Part 1

With Dredd 3D in UK cinemas on 7 September, the film’s writer Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later) chats about post-apocalyptic worlds, the essence of Dredd, and comic-book visuals…

  • For part 2 of this interview with Alex Garland, click here.
  • For part 1 of Karl Urban‘s Dredd interview, click here.
  • For part 2 of Karl Urban‘s Dredd interview, click here.

Dredd’s got 35 years of comic-book history. What made you decide to tell this particular story?
Two producers I work with got hold of the license and offered me the job and I gratefully took up that opportunity. I went through a very long process trying to get this script to a shooting script.

This is a very simple version of a Dredd story. It really takes place over one night for the most part. It’s like a day-in-the-life rookie story.

What I found was, in trying to tell the bigger stories like Death and the origins story, it would always get slightly out of control because you had too much to establish. We approached this as if the previous film didn’t exist and we were starting from scratch.

After two completely separate scripts, this was the third of three and it was the most reductive and felt like the right one to do as it allowed us to zone in on Dredd the man.

And in terms of not revealing much about his character, that’s what you have to do with Dredd. If you give too much, you’re not treating the character in the right way.

Karl and I used to speak about him like a desert and on the desert there’s one cactus, so your eye immediately goes to the cactus. So, any tiny thing Dredd does gets freighted with all this information. Hopefully there is information about him in there but it’s just quite subtle in the way Karl puts it across.

You’re no stranger to post-apocalyptic and dystopian worlds. Did that help you in writing this?
It’s a question of taste… I just like those stories. Even when it’s not a post-apocalyptic world, like with The Beach, where it’s just a bunch of people heading out to Thailand into some beautiful setting that will turn into an apocalypse, I think I just like that thing about dystopias, places that should function but don’t.

Dredd is a great one. It’s a very interesting set-up because he’s an anti-hero, he’s a fascist cop. If you’re a left-wing liberal, he’s not your hero… except he kind of is as well because he’s a fantasy, a wish fulfilment, that kills the right guys, doesn’t get it wrong, and is honest.

The interesting thing that Dredd co-creator John Wagner has done is he’s taken that inflexible nature of Dredd 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 there.

If you had to distil the comics down to their core elements, what was important to bring to the screen for you?
Him, the guy. [Producers] Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich and I, way back when we were first figuring out how to make this movie – the aesthetics, the approach – we knew we’d never be in the territory of a $100,000,000 movie that could create a world in a certain way. We knew there’d be aspects of the comic we simply wouldn’t be able to pull off.

I grew up reading Dredd. I’m a big fan. And the thing I knew we could always get right was the character of Dredd. In the comic book you may have flying cars, very futuristic vehicles, but we just didn’t have the VFX resources and the money to be able to think about that. We always knew that. We created an aesthetic that would side-step that issue, I think, I hope.

But Dredd we could get right, so the first person the three of us producers contacted after we decided we’d try to do this was John Wagner, the writer. Not to name-check him… I know that in comic-book adaptations, that’s what we do. We don’t want to fuck off the fans. But it wasn’t that.

I knew that if John was creatively involved, properly employed by the film, he would be making sure that Dredd was right. So, I would send him drafts of the script, he would change the dialogue, he’d make it right. I always knew that whatever else we got wrong, we could get Dredd right. And that was a reassuring position.

And what about Dredd, what was important about him to bring to the screen?
He’s a hard bastard. If you take the classic story structure often exemplified in film, you have a protagonist who goes on a journey and he’s not in the same place at the end of the journey as he was at the beginning.

But Dredd doesn’t function like that. Dredd moves, his character changes, but he’s like a glacier – you don’t see it change… maybe retrospectively you think ‘hang on, that’s a foot further down the valley than it used to be’, but that’s kind of it.

So that traditional story arc doesn’t apply in Dredd. That’s something that’s true sometimes in TV and comic books, but it’s not typical of film.

So Dredd 3D is more the story of the rookie judge Anderson, played by Olivia Thirlby?
Exactly. Dredd does have a small change because he’s a fascist, he has a rigid view and expresses an opinion very clearly in the opening minutes of the film, and later he goes back on that opinion. That’s his whole character arc; he’s changed his mind about one thing.

Anderson is the rookie cop who, in the archetype beats of this kind of story, goes from being a rookie cop to hard cop through her trial of fire. I suspect for some people, Anderson is who they will emotionally attach themselves to because she’s more vulnerable and changes more. But I still think Dredd is always at the heart of this story.

It was interesting [as a writer] to have a more or less unchanging character at the heart of a story. So much of story is trying to pull you against that, that it’s quite a thing to pull off and you hopefully have quite a sense of satisfaction at the end of the film.

The look of the film is very near future, was that purely down to budget or was it stylistic?
I could post-rationalise that question. It’s not purely down to budget. Honestly, if you look at the films I’ve worked on in the past, tonally, Dredd is very like those films.

My MO, as it were, is to work within genre and then treat genre it as if it was real, so they tend not to be campy or have too many knowing nudges and winks at the audience.

If there is a wink at the audience, and there are several in the film, they’re played down so you don’t get that sense as a viewer of ‘hang on, there’s an in-joke here I’m not quite picking up on’. They should be quite invisible to people who aren’t tuned into them.

So, you play it straight and you bend it a bit with hallucination and trippy stuff, and that’s like the apocalyptic thing, it’s just what I’m into. I see Dredd as being tonally related to me, to Sunshine or 28 Days Later.

But you could also say, yes, we did have a budget issue. I’ve been working in films long enough to know what that meant, so you don’t bother writing the big crazy shot because you’ll never get to do it. Do the weird, trippy shot instead – come up with some drug that helps you out!

When you’re planning an adaptation or screenplay, how far do you think about the visuals?
I think about it the whole time. My route into writing was comic books. My dad’s a cartoonist and I used to try to emulate him and draw. I spent the whole of my teenage years drawing, ditched it in my early 20s, but I think in terms of pictures.

I try to avoid describing specific camera moves because that’s up to the Director of Photography – you get a guy like Anthony Dod Mantle because he’s a genius and he can do that, right.

What I do is try to convey the sense of what slo-mo would be like in terms of colours, particles, why it’s in the film, why it’s desirable. So, yes, I try to think visually.

  • For part 2 of this interview with Alex Garland, click here.
  • For part 1 of Karl Urban‘s Dredd interview, click here.
  • For part 2 of Karl Urban‘s Dredd interview, click here.