He’s Not A Superhero: Alex Garland on Dredd 3D

The screenwriter explains why they're not telling Judge Dredd's origin story and what he really thinks about all the comparisons to The Raid.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


We almost had a Dredd 3D during the Toronto interviews for Dredd 3D. On the 23rd floor of the Trump hotel, the fire alarm went off in the middle of my interview with writer/producer Alex Garland. We waited for confirmation that it was a false alarm, and it was, but imagine if we’d had to fight our way through all the other hotel guests to escape. Garland’s version of the comic book pits Dredd (Karl Urban) and rookie Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) in a 200 floor compound with Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), the drug kingpin who has her whole building gunning for the judges. The film played TIFF’s Midnight Madness and will play at Fantastic Fest this week before opening wide on September 21.


CraveOnline: Was it important to you to show some of Dredd’s actual police work, that he’s not just out there executing people every day?

Alex Garland: Well, I guess you have to do that. Otherwise he’s just like a serial killer. The main thing as a concern I guess I wanted to get across with Dredd is that he’s not a superhero. He’s a cop. It’s a sci-fi cop film set in some fascist future state. As soon as you say comic book adaptation people tend to think superhero, super powers, origin stories, a great strength or ability to fly or something like that. This is a different thing. We just wanted to give ourselves some space to tell that.


That’s a good point. Is it important that this is one of the only comic book movies that’s not an origin story? Was it important to just show Dredd at work and not explain how he became a judge?

Yeah, it’s got a “show, don’t tell” element about it. You just see him. It’s a day in the life of Dredd really. I think there should be a sense that the day that preceded this film and the day that follows it are equivalent in terms of what he has to do. By the end of the film, someone says, “What happened?” And he said, “There was a drug bust.” There’s something about it which is routine. Whatever he went through is kind of routine in some respects, but it took a while to get there. I started off, the source material has these huge epics in storylines. Some of them are kind of supernatural or very grand in their scale. I started off trying to tell one of them before I realized actually you can’t tell that kind of story without having established the world. In a way it’s the world you needed to establish more than the origins of this guy. I think people know him very quickly. Just a few broad strokes, you understand what he is and what motivates him. You don’t really need an origin story I think. You know, we could be proved wrong by the way. That could be a bad judgment on our part.


It is such a great siege premise, were you pissed when people started to compare it to The Raid?

Oh, I don't know. I remember back in the ‘80s there was a whole flood of Vietnam movies, Hamburger Hill, Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. They all seem to come quite fast on each other. To be honest, I wasn’t annoyed about that but I was annoyed about something, which is that a lot of press, including film journalists who you’d think would be able to do some very basic math and figure out that it’s literally impossible for us to have plagiarized their film, because people basically accused us of stealing their stuff. That’s what happened. I had no problem with the whole thing of The Raid because yeah, there’s a similarity in setup but their execution is so wildly different. It’s like as it were two different Vietnam movies. There’s a connection but there’s a massive difference. What I couldn’t f***ing understand is how people whose job it is to work on, interpret and criticize and analyze film production can’t figure out that we would’ve needed a time machine to be able to rip off this movie. We would have had to close down production, ditch everything we’d shot, reshoot a whole new film. I just find that f***ing mystifying.


We didn’t think you copied them. It’s more the idea that similar ideas seem to flow in the consciousness. You have 200 floors though. That’s something.

Okay, there’s the floor count, yeah. Anyway, listen. The short answer is I have no problem with the film. I think it was disappointing the way it was reported because I think it hurt us unnecessarily. I think people could have been more generous. But in the end, on some level, I look at it like a producer I suppose and I think of what those people achieved on the budget they had. The amount of inventiveness they showed and the way they executed what they had, it’s hard to feel anything but admiration.


Is the Anderson character in the comic books?

Yeah, she was. She was always there. She was brought into the comic at a certain point. She was kind of based on Debbie Harry. She looked like Blondie but the character was essentially the same. It was a female Psi-cop who was a mutant. Part of the premise of Dredd is that there’s this absolutely colossal city called Mega-City One and outside it is this irradiated desert which in that kind of old school sci-fi way, the radiation gives people these fantastic almost immediate mutations. It gives them stuff like multiple limbs or psychic powers, which she kind of comes out of that.


Was it also in the comics that she doesn’t wear the helmet because it blocks her powers?

No. I needed a reason. You have this strange thing where you’ve got this one cop who never takes his helmet off and then you’ve got another cop who’s a girl who won’t put her helmet on. I needed a reason. I had a reason for Dredd which is that you only see him in a context where he should be wearing his helmet. It’s not like you’re seeing him in the shower and you’re thinking, “Why are you wearing a helmet?” Actually, the very beginning of the film I played a kind of joke which is people got so annoyed that Dredd took off his helmet in the first film, I thought the first time you see Dredd he’s going to have the helmet off just to wind people up and then immediately he’d have it on and you’d move on. But, that line of Anderson’s, I thought I’ve got to have a reason why she doesn’t have a helmet. That was as good as I could come up with.


Was it a mandate from somewhere that we want to see pretty Olivia Thirlby?

No, no, there was no mandate like that. One of the things about this film is that the way it was made precludes that kind of mandate. This is a British independent which is made for much less money than you would make it for if you’re working in the studio system. It would actually be against your interest to make it for this little money. You would be deliberately looking to spend more for all sorts of different reasons. There’s a group of guys who I always work with. There’s producers but there’s also key crew as well. Essentially what we do is we put together a film and we say, “Here is our very clear intention. It’s very clearly laid out in the script. We have concept material. We have views of the city that we can show you. This is what the guy’s uniform will look like.” We give them a whole package and we say, “This is what the film is. Would you like to finance it or not?” So we’re not really looking for input in the film. We’re looking for people who are going to support the film we want to make.


Is Ma-Ma from the comic books?

No. It’s influenced by the world of the comic. She’s great, and she’s Lena Headey.


Were you writing a hard R?

You mean did I think of it as an R? At a point, no. I don't think in those terms when I sit down to write but I knew at a certain point it would be impossible for us to avoid because of the combination of drugs and violence. It just puts you in a territory, that’s where you are. You would have to re-conceptualize the film to make it into a PG-13. It would effectively be a different movie. We were presented with a list of cuts, just as a natural course. They say, “Here’s your certificate. If you wanted to get it into this certificate, here’s the list of cuts you need.” It was 27 cuts and they weren’t cuts within a scene, they were whole scenes getting cut. You couldn’t possibly accommodate them. It would be impossible but I never had a single conversation in the edit with the distributor or the sales agent, with anybody about them saying, “Look, guys. Will you cut this?” It just never happened. They knew what they were getting into.


Are either of your scripts for Logan’s Run or Halo still being used?

I doubt it. I don't know but I very much doubt it.


Are you working on anything with 28 Months Later?

I’m happy for that to get made but it’s got nothing to do with me. By the way, there is no 28 Months Later.


I know. It’s just out there so we double check every time. How do you look back on Never Let Me Go, how that was produced, released and received?

Well, I like the film. In terms of how it was received, I feel like I’ve had one film that accidentally did well which was 28 Days [Later] but I don't think I make stuff which is really mainstream in truth. It might coincidentally do okay but what happens to me, the much more typical experience is people come up to me later, usually after the film has really bombed at the box office, and they say, “Oh, I really liked Never Let Me Go.” That’s genuinely rewarding. In a funny kind of way, you care about the film more that it collapsed but people still like it.


Well, it had a conservative release pattern so that was reasonable.

No, it was platformed. If people had gone to see it, they would have just opened it up. In fact, that’s what happened with 28 Days. You start small and then if people go to see it, you just keep opening it up and let people come along. People didn’t want to see it. People didn’t want to see Sunshine either. Then as time goes by, people either slightly re-appraise it or maybe just every now and then you bump into the few people that did like it, and then that’s nice. That’s really nice.