"I was ten and started reading '2000 A.D.,'" Alex Garland said at said a press conference at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. "It blew my mind."
The enthusiasm felt by the "Dredd 3D" screenwriter was palpable, as Garland and Australian actor Karl Urban talked to reporters about their upcoming sci-fi/action film and the history that precedes it. The long-running and hugely influential comic anthology's most infamous character is, of course, Judge Dredd. He's a future cop working in a dystopian megacity, doling out violent justice with the powers of judge, jury, and execution.
Created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra in 1977, the Dredd stories helped to revitalize the British comic book industry and instilled in kids like Garland Urban a love of science fiction -- a genre that both men have anchored their careers on.
"Dredd 3D" kicked off TIFF 2012's Midnight Madness programme last week, thrilling late-night fest audiences with one very bad day in the line of duty for the titular Judge. The film sees Dredd and rookie Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) sent to a gargantuan housing block called "Peach Trees" to investigate a somewhat routine homicide. Once there, the pair discovers that the murders are tied to big-time drug queen Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), who controls the upper levels of the mega-building. Cut off from backup by Ma-Ma, Dredd and Anderson are forced to face off against 200 storeys worth of thugs, drug dealers, and criminals.Urban as Judge Dredd. (Lionsgate)
For all the film's shortcomings -- from the slightly repetitive action to the overuse of 3D slow-motion -- "Dredd 3D" is very much Urban's movie and a far cry from the more cartoonish 1995 version starring Sylvester Stallone. Part Dirty Harry, part Batman, the ever-helmeted Dredd growls his way through the film, arresting perps and dispensing justice from the barrel of his very large gun. True to the character, Urban never once reveals his face during the film. It's hard not to like Urban in this sort of role, because it's very clear that the actor is a fan.
"I read Dredd as a teenager — the Quality Comics series that was being published in the 90s," recalled Urban. "One of the best things about this was going back and re-reading those stories that I really loved back then and also discovering a whole lot of new stories -- seeing the evolution and maturity in Wagner's writing, and more importantly, the depth that came through in the character."
Screenwriter Garland also admitted that he came to appreciate the more subtle aspects of early Dredd comics by working on the project.
"When I was ten a lot of the satire that exists in Dredd went straight over my head," explained the "28 Days Later" scribe. "I just didn't pick up on any of that stuff -- I got caught up in the adrenaline of the stories."
When Garland was a teenager, the brutality of the Judge Dredd comics was a natural selling point. "It was really an experience to encounter them — and hide them from my parents — because they're really extreme." At the same time, Garland was quick to point out, there was so much more to Dredd than just the hyper-violence. "They're these incredible, imaginative, hallucinogenic sci-fi stories."
"In a story like 'Origins,' you've got this character that was originally established as being so black and white -- a totalitarian, fascist cop -- suddenly developing this conscience,' said Urban of the popular 2006 comic book storyline that helped define the version of the character seen on film. "He's actually questioning the whole system that he is charged to uphold." Urban said that Dredd's arc in the film begins to show the "first cracks" of that particular character development.Olivia Thirlby in "Dredd 3D." (Lionsgate)
Key to keeping Dredd faithful to the source material were Garland's collaboration with original writer John Wagner and Urban. When asked if he and Urban, both fans of the comic, were on the same page going into the film, Garland was unambigous.
"Me and Karl were absolutely on the same wavelength, 100 per cent," Garland said, nodding to drive his point home. "I never once had a conversation with Karl about motivation — 'Why is he saying this? Why is he doing that?' The kind of input Karl was having initially had more to do with reducing lines," said Garland, who added that Urban went against the acting cliché of actors wanting more lines in that instance. "He'd be trying to crunch it — Is there any way we can say this line quicker or in a more blunt way?"
When asked if he felt any pressure from fans, Urban said he felt obliged to do it right. "I would define myself as a fan," said Urban with a sigh. "So I put enough pressure on myself to get it right without having to take into account how everyone else in the world is feeling."
Urban gave full credit to Garland for how the character turned out in the film, calling the big screen Judge Dredd a "testament" to the writer's hard work. "By the time we came on board it was there. Our job was just to step in a say the lines."
"Dredd 3D" will lay down the law in theatres on Sept. 21.