Interview: Alex Garland

Given that he’s known predominantly as the writer of three novels (The Beach, The Tesseract, The Coma), two of director Danny Boyle’s most iconic films (28 Days Later, Sunshine), and the big screen adaptation of Never Let Me Go, and a high profile venture into video gaming (as co-writer of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West), one might on a surface glance think that a big screen adaptation of the futuristic comic book cop Judge Dredd might be beneath Alex Garland. In truth, the project has been a passion of Garland’s since he was a child.

It might also seem unenviable for anyone to follow in the footsteps of Sylvester Stallone’s woefully misguided box office failure that turned the hard nosed one man judge, jury, and executioner into a walking joke, but for Garland, writing Dredd was never about setting things right, but about putting his own spin on the character he had loved since he was a ten year old growing up in England.

We talked to Garland while he was in town for the Toronto International Film Festival about his long time love for the character, the lengthy process of trial and error he went through to get the character like, and how the film’s visual style shapes the story.

Is it any different adapting a comic book than it is adapting a novel or any other form of previously written material?

It’s very similar. Personally I don’t think there’s any real intrinsic difference between comic books, movies, theatre, novels. I know there’s sure to be some differences of some sorts. I’ve worked on novels, films, and video games, and in an adaptation, I guess one of the issues is that I have to be in love with the thing I’m adapting before I do it. So that can cause a problem. You can be too scared of it. You could be too reverential. But at the same time you want to try to capture this thing that you’re obsessed by. You’re fixated for a reason. What’s the reason? You try to get ahold of it.

What was the reason for Dredd?

I was ten and I started reading 2000 A.D. and in the UK, often instead of having monthly comics with a single character, our tradition was weekly comics with a lot of characters; they were anthologies. One of them in this sci-fi world was Dredd. When I was ten years old it just blew my mind. It was this incredible, imaginative, hallucinogenic sci-fi story. It was a real experience to encounter them and hide them from my parents. Because these are quite extreme. They’re quite full on, and on some level it wasn’t just that I grew up with Dredd, but (as a character) he ages in real time. It’s a really rewarding experience and it sometimes makes me feel uneasy with some of these other superhero comics where they’re trapped in this sort of early 30s space forever and ever. There’s something weird about that. It’s more dreamlike. It makes me feel disconnected. Dredd just gets older and older and older. He’s more melancholic and sort of jaded, and I love that.

Was part of doing this film the desire to do properly by Dredd unlike the previous feature film?

Of course, but, I mean, it’s subjective, right? It’s proper for me because like I said before, for me I started when I was ten so all of the satire that does exist in Dredd went straight over my head, and I just never picked up on any of that stuff. I got caught up in all of the adrenaline of the stories. Other people come to me and ask, “But where’s all the comedy? Where’s all the satire?” and that’s because they might have encountered Dredd when they were slightly older and they saw all sorts of things that I didn’t see initially. The stuff that I fell in love with was different.

Like any comic, although it’s had many principal writers and artists that have been attached to it – two really in particular – there are other versions and designs of Dredd that take him down vastly different roads and take those characters to different places. So I never felt there was a single thing that Dredd was. It was a subjective take.

(With) a few key regards to the character – which is basically that he’s a hard bastard that doesn’t speak too much, doesn’t smile, doesn’t kiss anyone – those were the things I was locked into.

You talk about your love for this character that’s been around for ages, but when you want to boil all these universes down to their essence, where do you start?

It was just trial and error in my case. The script that we shot was the third script I had written. I don’t mean the third draft, I mean the third script. In each of those scripts I had at least fifteen drafts, so it was an enormously long process. It began while we were in post-production on Sunshine years and years and years ago, and I made mistakes initially, which is why there were three scripts. I tried to tell these big epics and tried to do too much. I presupposed too much information. If I showed the script to a Dredd fan, they would go, “Yeah, yeah, I get it. Cool.” and if I showed it to someone just coming around to it they would say “What the fuck is going on? Who are these people? Judges? What?”

Honestly, at some point in that process it ended up that Assault on Precinct 13 was on the TV. I remember not even watching the whole thing, but just those opening few minutes of the 70s Carpenter film with the ice cream van, and I just thought it was so elegant and so reductive and hard and fearful that there’s a lesson in here. These big, baggy epics were wrong and this should be a condensed, hard movie just like the guy at the centre of it and just make the movie more like him.

The other thing that’s important to hold onto, too, is the weird stuff. That’s what the drug is there for partly; to create this hallucinogenic world. It’s a story about a hard, fascist, rigid man, and you need something that can subvert that. The drug was key to getting it right. In a way it was the last turn of the key.

We were making a film that many people who weren’t us probably would have approached as this sort of disposable B-movie flick, and not to try and have anything aspirational about it. One of the things that we tried to do to get around that was to have people like (cinematographer) Anthony Dod Mantle on the crew that were basically artists. If you watch a film that he shot like Lars von Trier’s Antichrist – one of the most beautifully photographed films ever, very dark, very strange, and very beautiful – you can see that there’s a connection to that. There’s kind of a throughline.

With the 3D, Anthony was really excited to explore that and as a very serious DP he wanted to know how to exploit that. He wanted to know what he could do different and he did us a hell of a service. We would talk about the drug, and one of the things that Anthony talked a lot about was how he wanted to keep things going INTO the screen like how people would get high and then just push it right out. He was sort of trying to break the rules of 3D. Some of his tests were fantastic and he would throw things so far off that it would hurt your eyes. We had serious discussions about if we should hurt people’s eyes. (laughs) We made this so trippy that it’s kind of causing people pain. He tried all these fascinating experiments. If you wanted to make an action movie (that’s different), I think you need to hire an artist; someone like Anthony who was such a great asset to the film in every way.

Was Ma-ma (Lena Headey) always the villain in your earlier drafts?

She was always the villain in THIS movie, so yeah for this one she was.

In pass one, there were these dark judges that were supernatural riffs on Judge Dredd. They were a supernatural force that figured out that crime was only carried out by the living. Therefore, if you follow it through, you get rid of the living and you have no crime. So they try to embark on a total genocide, which Judge Dredd says no to.

Then, the second one was really about the city and the origins of the city and the judge system, and then in the third one, that was when Ma-Ma arrived. I just liked the idea that this guy was fighting a woman. He’s so male and there’s just too much testosterone, arguably, and you want to subvert that. Honestly, however it looks, the film is trying to be subconsciously subversive the whole time in one way or another, and Ma-Ma and Lena Headey was a big part of that.

The first time I imagined her it was Brendan Gleeson in drag. (laughs) That was the picture I had in my head. It was very different from Lena Headey. Then Lena came in and did a reading and it was just a phenomenally good reading. She took an approach for the character where there were lines that could be read as being psychotically angry and smashing stuff up or getting in someone’s face and smashing their head through a table and really going to town, and she made it very calm and controlled, and that made her scarier and more malevolent. Honestly, within two minutes of her opening her mouth or less, maybe even thirty seconds, I was on the edge of my seat thinking, “Oh my God. We found her. This is perfect. Don’t do anything wrong.” (laughs) It was great.

Karl Urban said he collaborated with you on the character because he was also a fan like you coming in. Were you guys always on the same page?

Immediately we were on the same page. In terms of that subjective approach to Dredd where you could have those different takes, Karl and I were absolutely on the same wavelength 100%. I never, ever had a conversation with Karl about motivation or why he’s saying or doing anything. The kind of input Karl really had initially had more to do with reducing lines, which is the opposite of what actors normally do. But he would be trying to crunch it. He was always asking if there was any way he could say this line quicker or in a more sort of blunt way. I think we were completely in sync and he had a wonderful understanding of the character and how he moved and about how to use his physicality; like something as simple of a slight nod of the head to convey something. It was a genuinely easy collaboration. It was a dream, really.

Did you ever have to have the “the mask has to stay on” conversation with anyone?

No. No we didn’t. I’d say that firstly, if you ever grew up reading Dredd that you would never, ever consider taking the helmet off. It just wouldn’t make sense. It would be like Batman going on TV and announcing his entire backstory to the world. What are you doing that for? It doesn’t make any sense at all. That was my point of view, and Karl’s point of view was exactly the same. He brought it up in the first meeting we had and that was that. We agreed and that was the end of that conversation.

Even if that hadn’t been the case, in the contract we had with the guys licensing us the character it said that Dredd can not take off his helmet. So there was no tolerance of that at any point. (laughs) It was a legal and creative requirement.

Do you think the earlier versions that you came up with are anything you would like to revisit for a possible sequel?

Yeah. I think the only caveat is that I would say is that I’ve spoken about sequels before to the press in a completely and ill advised way where I’m just shooting my mouth off and talking about a point of view where I will now just say that, yeah, I would love to do it and there’s all these brilliant stories. Some of the stories I tried to tell before I think we could tell now that we’ve established the character, but it’s FANTASTICALLY presumptuous because there’s still a mountain left to climb before you could have a realistic conversation about a sequel.

So yeah, sitting around lying on a sofa and staring at the ceiling I think “Yeah, that’s pretty cool. We could do that.” Then I say that in an interview and it suddenly sound like it’s an actual plan. It’s daydreaming.