Britain’s longest-lasting graphic novel character gets a reboot in a big-budget production
POLICEMAN. Judge. Jury. Executioner. The story about a single-minded lawman in a distant future known as Judge Dredd was born over three decades ago in a comic strip 2000AD by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra. Since then, it has spawned a legacy of its own with novels, magazines, board and card games, a big-budget Hollywood misfire (Judge Dredd, 1995), computers and role-play games, action figures, duvet covers, pinball machines and even dressing gowns.
As the iconic character who first found fame in the 1970s, Dredd is now given a second chance at life on the big screen with the big-budget blockbuster Dredd (in 3-D and 2-D versions). Directed by Pete Travis, it stars Karl Urban as the title character in the story penned by Alex Garland.
“I was around 10 when I found a copy of 2000AD at the local newsagent and started reading it,” said the celebrated screenwriter and novelist in a Press release, adding that he was taken by its dark, visceral, ironic violence.
“I got quite fixated about all of the stuff in there, but particularly Judge Dredd. That story you know of finding 2000AD in a shop and getting hooked on Judge Dredd is really common amongst guys my age. We’ve all carried something about that into our adult lives. I remember it was partly because Dredd has an adult aspect to it, like I was maybe slightly too young to be reading it. Like watching an 18 certificate film when you were 12, that particular thrill.”
“We put together a pretty compelling package of mainly rights, producers, script, and a director with a solid track record and all our lead people were excited and on board,” says producer Andrew Macdonald. “It was not going to be big-budget, plus we knew we had a character that couldn’t take off his helmet, which we wanted and was in our contract with the Kingsleys. So you can’t then have a huge movie star whose face you don’t see. We needed a great or good actor as opposed to a marquee name like Will Smith.”
Producer Allon Reich weighs in with his take on casting the iconic character. “Dredd is an extreme character. He is the ultimate judge and for him the law is everything. The rules are the rules and he administers justice with an extreme lack of prejudice. He is the best at what he does and the most feared. He brooks no argument and is tough as can be. He was inspired by Dirty Harry, is Britain’s longest lasting graphic novel character and remains one of the most loved. What’s more, the term Dredd-like is common currency even for people who have never even read the comic strip,” he says.
The team needed an actor who would embrace that legacy and not feel hindered by the idea of playing a monolithic icon.
Meanwhile, Star Trek and The Lord Of The Rings star Karl Urban heard that they were rebooting the comic strip for the big-screen and was curious. “I was very interested because of my history of reading the comics, so I met Alex (Garland), Andrew (Macdonald), Allon (Reich) and Pete (Travis) and listened to their take. It was clear that they wanted to make a radical departure to what had come before and wanted to make a film that was a lot more gritty, realistic and hardcore.
“A high-octane, action adventure which would be a lot more faithful to the source of the material and that immediately intrigued me,” says Urban.
He says his first introduction to Judge Dredd was through the comics. “I started reading them when I was 16 when I was working in a pizza parlour in Wellington, New Zealand. I was pretty enamoured with the character as I was already a fan of sci-fi and enjoyed the world of Mega City One and I really loved the character of Dredd. He is this hardcore, futuristic lawman, the ultimate lawman in a society where the normal process of justice has changed. There are no more juries and lawyers and protracted legal system. It has all been condensed into one man. Since that age I’ve always loved a vigilante-type character and Judge Dredd is one of the best.”
A devout fan, the actor was doubly enthused by the fact that the filmmakers never, ever, wanted to see Dredd’s face. “One of the great aspects of Dredd is that you never fully see his identity. Since he was created in 1977 he was the faceless representation of the law and an enigma and to do anything else just wouldn’t have been Dredd,” he says.
“You can’t make the mistake of playing the icon, you have to play the man and he is a man who has an insanely tough job working in this society that is fragmenting and falling apart.
“His heroism is defined by an ordinary man. To me he is closer to those heroic firefighters who went into one of the Twin Towers on 9/11 and you couldn’t be further away from stereotypical superhero because he is not a Superman or Batman. He doesn’t have an alter ego, what you see is what you get and he calls the way he sees it but the huge challenge for me as an actor was to try and inject as much dynamism as possible. It’s tough, how do you convey a subtle emotion like doubt or concern when you don’t have the use of your eyes, so it has been a very challenging process.”
Urban says that he has always been attracted to darker roles. “When I approach a character I am interested in faults and flaws and what makes them human and three-dimensional. Dredd is an interesting kettle of fish in that his emotion is completely repressed, any normal social life that he may have enjoyed has been completely burned from his psyche, and in some ways I think he is tragic because he is charged with the job of protecting these people in society but at the same time he is incapable of functioning normally in that society.”
Apart from the psychological and emotional challenges of the role, playing Dredd was, of course, an intensely strenuous assignment. “This has been a very physical role. When I came into the movie and during pre-production I spent time in the gym getting into the right mindset and physical condition and then when I arrived for the shoot I was thrown into a boot camp for about two and a half weeks. That involved weapons training, technical movement, learning how to move under fire, learning to bust ‘perps’, breach doors and arrest people. One of the insane aspects of what I do is constantly learning skills you can never learn in real life!”
Urban was grateful that in making a more realistic version, the tone of Dredd meant they used real weapons and guns. “The lawgiver has a fully functioning weapon based on a 9mm system, so it actually fires and you can change from automatic to semi-auto.
“It is an added bonus as an actor when you don’t have to imagine it and it is actually there. Lawmaster is Dredd’s motorbike and it is based on a 500cc bike with a massive frame built over the top with machine guns, an extended wheel base, the chunkiest tyres that they could find and it is a beast of a machine and that was real fun to ride.”
The actor says it was one of the things that he had a strong opinion about. “I thought it was important that the audience got to see me on that bike, riding the bike, weaving in and out of traffic. There is no blue-screen/ green-screen trick. When you see Dredd on the bike, you are there for the ride.”
Then there was the question of dialogue and how the Judge would actually speak.
Urban had to decide what voice would have leapt out of that comic-strip. “To me in all the research I had done, Dredd’s voice was described like a saw cutting through bone,” he says. “So I felt I was trying to attain a resonance that wasn’t centred in my normal register. It was a lot more harsh and raspy in many ways which can be difficult to sustain and you can’t shout with a rasp, so it has its own set of issues.”
Actress Olivia Thirlby put herself on tape to be considered for the role. The classically trained actress, who became an indie darling and part of Hollywood’s new wave of talent when she was discovered as the best friend in sleeper hit Juno, says it was the screenplay that got her fired up.
Thirlby sees Anderson as an underdog in the narrative. “The odds are stacked against her in every conceivable way. As with many people she has to lose herself to find herself and she has to give up before she is able to do what it is she is actually able and wants to do. She begins the film trying very hard to impress and do the right thing and follow the right procedure and during the course of the film the stakes become so high, so life and death, the plot thickens and she is forced to let go of all these things she is trying to do and completely be herself.”
Director Travis adds: “I think Olivia has a huge depth of strength that she has brought to the role. She has a way of looking that makes your heart go out to her, but at the same time she is super tough when she needs to be.”
“Dredd is black and white,” the actress says, “whereas she exists in a grey area where everything is enhanced or clouded, depending on how you look at it by the fact that she actually knows what is going on in the very interior of a person, maybe even more than they themselves do. She is unique in that she has deep understanding in the scope of human experience. She knows the greatest joy and the deepest sorrow, because she can feel it in other people.”
Anderson’s psychic abilities lead to some intense situations in the story which Thirlby admits were emotionally taxing. “They usually have to do with when you get a very specific read on someone’s pain and especially in this slum there are a lot of really bleak things that happen here and there are several times in the film where she has no choice but to take in the entirety of the pain of what people are feeling. And that is always very hard on her because her gifts are a curse. She has no choice but to feel the pain.”
British actress Lena Headey, best known for playing Cersei in hit HBO TV series Game Of Thrones and the female lead in the blockbuster visionary graphic-novel adaptation 300 was the last to be cast as Ma-Ma, the villainess behind the drug empire featured in the story.
She immersed herself in the role, even though she’s not a fan of the violent hardware she has to brandish in the role. “It isn’t a thrill for me. It looks cool but they scare me and I am rubbish at it!”
Dredd (available in 2-D and 3-D versions) opened in cinemas nationwide yesterday.