But for the last few years, novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland ("28 Days Later," "Sunshine," "Never Let Me Go") has been trying to reboot the comic book character and get it right this time. Which means, among other things, that the helmet stays on, along with bringing back an edge and grittiness to the futuristic lawman ... and judge, jury and executioner.
The result, "Dredd 3D," opened the Toronto Film Festival's Midnight Madness program. Moviefone sat down with Garland to talk adaptations, doing his childhood favorite justice, and why Dredd was contractually obligated to keep the helmet on this time around.
How does the process of adapting a comic book differ from adapting a novel? [It's] very similar. I don't think there's any real intrinsic difference between comic books, movies, theater, novels. I know there are supposed to be. I'm sure there are some differences of some sort. I've worked in novels, films, and video games, and the basic problem is the same. In an adaptation, one of the issues is that I'm in love with the thing that I'm adapting before I do it, so that can cause a problem. You can be too scared of it, you know? You can be too reverential. But at the same time, you want to try and capture the thing you were obsessed by. You're fixated for a reason, what is the reason? Try and get a hold of that.
What was the reason for "Dredd"? I was 10, and started reading "2000 A.D.". In the UK, our tradition is weekly comics with a lot of characters, or anthologies. One of them in this sci-fi comic ["2000 A.D."] was "Dredd." And I was 10 years old and 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 they're quite extreme.
So was part of the appeal of this film doing "Dredd" right, the way you first envisioned it? Yeah. Like I said, I was 10. So the satire, which does exist in "Dredd," went straight over my head. I just didn't pick up on any of that stuff. I got caught up in the adrenaline of the story. Other people come to me saying, "Well, where's all the comedy, where's all the satire?" And that's because they maybe encountered "Dredd" when they were slightly older and they saw different things that I didn't see initially. The stuff that I fell in love with was different. And, like any comic, although it's had principal writers and artists who have captured it, two in particular, there have actually been many other writers and artists, many other versions of "Dredd," that have taken him down very, very different roads. So by the time I got around to writing, I knew there wasn't a single thing that was Dredd, it was a subjective thing. Except in a few key regards of his character: he doesn't speak too much, he doesn't smile, he's not going to kiss anyone, it's simple. And things like that were very locked in for me.
Since this is character who has been around for years, with all these different storylines and elements you can pull from, how do you boil it down to just one to introduce Dredd to a new generation? Trial and error, in my case. The script we shot was the third script I'd written. I don't mean the third draft, I mean the third script. And each of those scripts had maybe at least 15 drafts, I'd say. So it was an enormously long process. It began while we were in post-production on the film "Sunshine," years and years and years ago. And I made mistakes initially. I mean, that's why it just kept going.
The other thing to try and hold onto is the weird stuff, and that's what the drug [Slo-Mo, which slows down the sensation of time] is for, partly, to have something subversive and hallucinogenic within this world. Because the stories have a hard, fascist, rigid manner, and then you also want something that is bending the reality completely.
Was Ma-Ma always the villain in all three versions of your script? She was always the villain in this movie. In this script. The first time I imagined her, she was Brendan Gleeson in drag. [Laughs] That was the image I had in my head. Very different than Lena Headey. And then, Lena came in and did a reading, and it was just a phenomenal delivery. She took an approach to the character ... there are lines where you could read them as being psychotically angry and smashing stuff up, and taking someone's face and smashing it into the table, and really going to town. And she played it very calm and very controlled. And that made her scary and malevolent. And honestly, like within two minutes of her opening her mouth, I was on the edge of my seat, thinking "Oh my God, we've found her, this is perfect. Don't do anything wrong, don't make a noise."
Are any of your earlier versions of the script something you would be interested in revisiting if there ends up being sequels? Yeah. The only caveat is, because I've spoken about sequels in the press, in a completely naive, ill-advised way ... I'm just talking from the point of view of, yeah, I'd like to do it. There are all these brilliant stories. Some of the stories that I tried to tell before, I think now we could tell, now that we've established the character. But it's fantastically presumptuous, because there's a mountain left to climb before we could really have a realistic conversation about sequels.
But yeah, sitting around, lying on the sofa staring at the ceiling, I think, "Oh yeah, it would be really cool if we could do that." But then I say that in an interview, and suddenly, it sounds like a plan, a solid plan. It's dangerous. The short answer is yes.
Karl Urban has said he was a fan of the comics growing up as well. When you guys first met for this, were you on the same page as far as who the character was? Completely on the same page, yeah. In terms of that subjective approach to Dredd, you can have different takes, but Karl and I were absolutely on the same wavelength, 100 percent. I never ever had a conversation with Karl about motivation, or why is he saying this, why is he doing that? The kind of input Karl was having initially would be more to do with reducing lines, which is the opposite of what actors normally do. That cliche's true. But he would be trying to crunch it. He'd be saying, "Is there any way we could say this line quicker, in a more sort of blunt way?" And honestly, I just think we were completely in sync. He had an instinctive understanding of the character, about how to move, about how to use his physicality, with kind of just a little tilt of the head to imply something or convey something. And it was just genuinely an easy collaboration with him.
Did you ever have to have the "helmet is gonna stay on" conversation? Firstly, if you had grown up reading Dredd, you'd never really consider taking the helmet off, it just wouldn't make sense. It'd be like Batman going on TV and announcing his entire back-story to the world and Gotham City. What are you doing that for? It doesn't make any sense at all. So, that was from my point of view. Karl's point of view was exactly the same. He brought it up in a meeting and that was that. We said, "Yeah, no, we agree," and that was the end of that conversation. And even if that hadn't been the case, in the contract, from the guys who licensed the film to us, it said "Dredd cannot take off his helmet." So there was no quarreling with that point. It was a legal creative requirement.
"Dredd 3D" opens in theaters across North America on September 21.