Here's something most people won't realize about Dredd: it is not a Hollywood movie. In this age of studios digging up any once-popular film to remake, it's understandable to think that Dredd is yet another Hollywood attempt at a cash grab. It isn't. This was actually an independently produced, British film made outside the studio system and picked up for distribution in America by Lionsgate.
I had no idea that was the case until Dredd screenwriter and producer Alex Garland mentioned it in our below interview. And it explains a lot. We've all already seen the Hollywood version of this movie. It starred Sylvester Stallone, who went for most of the movie without his helmet, it had a forced romantic subplot, a cringe-inducing sidekick, and a really goofy villain. Garland's Dredd stars Karl Urban, who never takes off the helmet, it has no romantic subplot, no sidekick, and one of the craziest villains of the year. It also has an uncomfortable level of violence, a dry sense of humor, and some of the most memorable spectacle in any action movie this year.
But while the non-Hollywood nature of the film explains a lot, considering Garland's involvement, it shouldn't be surprising. After all, he wrote three of the best sci-fi movies of the last decade; 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go. Of course Dredd was going to kick ass. And it does. Oh how it does. That's why I was happy to speak with the refreshingly honest Garland about his track record, how Dredd came to be, the accusations of plagiarism from The Raid, his troubles getting movies made in Hollywood, and what sci-fi movie he's working on next.
Movies.com: Before we talk about Dredd, I've got to say that you've got one of the best track records around and that Never Let Me Go was my favorite film of 2010.
Alex Garland: It's funny that you say that. I haven't heard that much from journalists. A lot have said Sunshine, which is a film I did before Never Let Me Go. But these films bombed, man. A, They didn't get very good reviews, and B, Nobody went to see them. It's weird. A couple years later they've sort of stuck around in some way, and people are I guess just better disposed to them. It's nice to hear, because it's like they haven't vanished.
Movies.com: As for Dredd, how do you handle creating a future that's both dystopian and yet seems plausible, as though you can connect a dot from present day to this brutal vision?
Garland: A lot of that is in the source material, but it's much more extreme. There's a lot of robots around and more crazy technologies and stuff like that. But sci-fi typically involves a commentary on the present in its depiction of the future, and I'm used to that enough that it doesn't sneak up and surprise. For Dredd it was built that way from the ground up. It was in everything. The production design, the aesthetic, that was part of what it is.
This is not, as it were, a criticism of another film, but a film like Aeon Flux has completely reconfigured everything about the world we know, and it can be very distancing. Dredd was created by -- and I think it's the true perspective of a lot of people working on this film -- left-wing fascists. It's a left-wing fascist wish fulfillment of somebody who doesn't have to go through all the agonized moral debates. He just goes in and shoots the bad guy.
It's an examination of that, really, but it's also different from most dystopias on a technical level. Most dystopias are viewed through the eyes of someone who is about to take on the dystopia. Dredd is actually like The Man. He is the manifestation of the bad force behind the dystopia. He's a proper antihero. He's not Charlton Heston in Soylent Green. He's not James Caan in Rollerball. He's something else.
Movies.com: He's a cog in the machine, but he's the most functional cog in the machine. And Karl Urban just absolutely kills it as Dredd.
Garland: He does. He really, really does. And that's because he just got it from the very beginning. We met Karl and he was just sort of on it.
Movies.com: How did you come to the project in the first place? Was it something you wanted to make or was it something Lionsgate approached you with?
Garland: No, no, no. Lionsgate is the U.S. distributor. This is an independent British film. Basically every film I've ever actually made is with the same people, and a lot of the same crew. Most of the [heads of department] have carried over from one film to the next. So it's a team of people and the core of the team is Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich and me. So those two guys are the core of a tiny British company called DNA Films. We were in postproduction on Sunshine and in preproduction on 28 Weeks Later, and Andrew said, “I think we can get the rights to Dredd, because nobody wants them and nobody realizes how good a license it is. Do you want to do it?” And I immediately said yes.
Me, Andrew and Allon worked on it for a little while. I brought in the guy who created the character, John Wagner. I wanted him working on the film, so in a way he was the first paid up member of the crew. And then we did what we normally do. This is basically the way we work. It's not like the classic studio model. We take a script for a film and develop it on our own with everybody working on spec. We start putting together a kind of argument, and part of the argument is a script, and in the case of Dredd we did a lot of concept art. We got a brilliant comic book artist called Jock to draw it as a comic book, which could function in a way as storyboards. We also brought in some vfx guys who had worked with us and we pre-vised the drug slow-mo sequences to test and show that you could go from not fast-slow, fast-slow, but that you could do these extended sequences holding onto the effect while also showing the narrative of how the drug worked.
So you present this whole thing to financiers and you say, “We're not looking for notes, we're not looking for input. Do you want to make it?” And if they say no, we move on to the next. We're just looking for partners who are agreeing to make the same film you want to make, which means in postproduction I don't have anyone saying to me, “You gotta cut that f**king drug! It's too much, we're gonna lose our audiences.” They signed up, they're all onboard. It creates a different dynamic.
Movies.com: Obviously this is your preferred way of working, but you've also been attached to quite a few high-profile Hollywood films.
Garland: I have and it's a totally different thing. Totally different. I'm a writer for hire. I can't get sacked off Dredd. Literally no one can tell me what to do. I'm invested in it in a completely different way, and I'd say a more emotional way. If I'm working for a writer for hire, which I have done occasionally for Halo and Logan's Run, I'm just one in a string of writers. I do what I can, but it's never been good enough because they've never made the movie. I've never had one of those projects work out. So I've got a different kind of investment. There I'm like a technician where someone says, “We want this and this and this” and I say, “Okay, I think that'll work, let's see if I can do it.” But Dredd, 28 Days, Never Let Me Go, Sunshine... it's a totally different process. I can't convey just how different it is.
Movies.com: At what point did you guys first see a trailer for The Raid and go, “Well, f**k”?
Garland: We were in post. It's a complicated thing, this. You haven't phrased the question like this, but I have seen in press and reviews people saying we stole it. But you wouldn't even need to interview anyone to know that it had to be coincidence, because nobody in film could react that fast, as it were. Films take too much development, too much restructuring. And though we did do some extensive reshoots on the film, we were halfway through cutting the film before The Raid was even something we were aware of. I think they filmed when we were in post. I remember seeing the trailer and going through this sort of distanced thing where I was just watching the trailer going, “F**k, that looks amazing” then the more personal reaction sunk in and I go, “F**k, this is really bad news.” It was a bit of a double effect.
It's weird, but I really think they can coexist. So I don't feel worried about it, but I don't like being accused of ripping off other people's stuff. It's not a nice feeling. But in this case, it's not that big a deal. People will ultimately... look, the two films are very different. There's no mistaking them.
Movies.com: Dredd has these perfectly delivered moments of levity that both relieve tension and let us inside Dredd's head. How strictly scripted were those moments?
Garland: It's not improv. I don't really believe in ad-lib. I know there's way of making films where you can plan for a lot of it, but it's just not my process. The comic book has humor in it, sometimes quite overt, sometimes bone dry. I always felt, and it wasn't just me, everyone agreed, humor is a key part to Dredd's character. He makes jokes. They're very dry and subtle, but they are jokes. There's a very complicated part of it though, and this is something Karl and I talked about a lot. Who are the jokes for? He doesn't care if anyone laughs or not. Is it for him? But he never smiles. So what's it about?
For me it's about contacting him as a human being, to show he's not just a robot and he can see the ridiculousness in a situation, and he's not so stuck up. It humanizes him. A lot of the film is a very linear movie, clearly. It's very blunt, but it's also playing a balancing act, and one of those things is the humor, one is violence, and one is drugs. And it's about positioning his ethics. Who is this guy? He seems good, but he's also torturing criminals for information. What do you feel about this drug? Do you want it? You probably do.
A bunch of guys are sitting around in their apartment getting stoned. Fair enough, because their life is sh*t and this drug gives them this beautiful trip. And then some guy comes in and shoots them. And that guy is the hero? It's playing games like that the whole time.
Movies.com: You mentioned you never had to take any studio notes, but were there any elements you originally wanted to include but couldn't?
Garland: There were things when we were in post where, for example, I had to make a choice between doing some CG work on the vehicles we'd shot – we didn't have the money to create these vehicles in real life, but we were thinking of making them more futuristic in postproduction – or spend that money on the drugs. And for me, at the heart of this film, absolutely crucial, was the drug imagery. It's thematically important, it's artistically important, so I came down on the side of drugs, which I was always going to. But it did mean I had to give up the work on the vehicles, and I miss that.
I think also there are some times where the film could have used, almost like coming up from air away from the claustrophobia, these big city shots. But those are some of our most expensive shots, and we had to choose them very carefully and use them very carefully and we were limited. As it is, our vfx crew went way above the call of duty. For the budget, they went so far over and above. Miles over. It became a labor of love, I think, in a lot of ways. We were making this for at least half the budget of what we should have, so in the end we were essentially functioning as a very low-budget movie. On a day-to-day level, like if you'd come into the room we were cutting, it was not glamor, I'll tell you that.
Movies.com: In America Stallone's Judge Dredd has such a stigma attached to it. Was there any temptation to get in any jabs at the original?
Garland: No. I would never do that. I would never do that for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that I've worked on enough films to know how much of a struggle they are. And I know people who worked on the first film, and I know how they feel about it, and I just wouldn't want to take a pop at it. It's also just not how I feel about it. I think it's not the film I recognize as the character, I guess self-evidently since our film is so different. And it made it possible for us to get the license, because if it had been a smash hit, we couldn't have made our film, so I can't have any bad feelings for it.
Movies.com: What are you working on next. Are you sticking with sci-fi?
Garland: I am. But I often say things in interviews that then turn into sticks and I get hit with them later. Or it can seem cynical. So with those caveats, yeah, I'm working on something. I've got an idea for a very low budget going back to, not micro-budget, but a Never Let Me Go level budget, sci-fi movie that's a hard film. It's going to be a difficult film. I sort of alternate between these adrenaline-ized movies and these reflective movies. So Never Let Me Go, Sunshine, reflective; then psycho with Dredd, 28 Days, as it were. And this is more in the Sunshine mode than the Never Let Me Go mode. It's that kind of movie.
What I sometimes feel about Sunshine, which is a film I'm very proud of in a lot of ways, is that we made it for too much money. We made it for like $45-50 million after reshoots and we should have made it for like $10 or $12 somehow. We should have found some way to do it.
Movies.com: You don't often hear a producer say they should have done something for less money.
Garland: But it's true, because then we wouldn't have been perceived as being a f**k up, which we were because we lost a lot of money. And it makes it harder to finance a film, to persuade someone to take the bet. So I've got this idea. I'm going to really, really try to make it work because I really, really believe in it. But it's such a long shot that I think it'll be hard. But I'm going to give it a crack. If Dredd does well, it'll be possible.
Check out our interview with star Karl Urban at Fandango.
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