Fantastic Fest: ‘Dredd’ Writer Alex Garland Shoots Straight, Takes No Prisoners

By  · Published on September 27th, 2012

In many ways, Alex Garland is not dissimilar from Judge Dredd. He’s tough, he’s fearless, and he doesn’t mince words. Arguably, no one was more qualified to reboot the 70s comic book antihero than Garland. Not only is he a fan of the source material, but he’s also proven time and time again to be one of the most interesting voices in cinematic sci-fi. Films like Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, and now Dredd form quite the imposing catalog. When we sat down with Garland during Fantastic Fest, like Dredd walking into Peach Trees, we got more than we bargained for.

Dug the movie a lot. Obviously, to say that it’s better than the original is kind of tepid praise considering the original’s, shall we say, overt cheesiness. Since you’re a fan of the comics, was the attraction for you getting to go back to the source material to kind of give it that new edge? Or was it the sci-fi elements that drew you to it?

Well, I grew up reading the comic. So what attracted me to it was that from age 10 I’ve been reading about Dredd. He’s an interesting character because he grows up in real time, whereas Batman is kind of stuck in the same frozen, ever- expanding time space. Dredd is getting older year by year and aging. So that’s something you kinda grow up with. But it was sort of the 10 year old me that pulled me into the movie in the first place, I guess. But that’s like what gets you to agree to and sit down and try to make it. In terms of what the process is from that point, it was nothing to do with the previous movie. I didn’t re-watch it. I didn’t really think about it very much, nor did I go back and read a bunch of the comics. I knew them anyway. I was very familiar with them. I just sat down thinking which is the right story to tell and tried a few out, made a few mistakes, rewrote, started again.

So correct me if I’m wrong, but you’ve been working on this particular script for a long time.

Long time.

And your original draft did include the dark judges. Is that correct?

Yes. Oh, so you know the comic book.

A little bit, yeah. I’m certainly no expert.

I kind of expect North America…it never really worked over here. So I kind of assume an American journalist hasn’t encountered Dredd much apart from the previous film. In the UK people say, “Oh, you’re doing an adaptation of the comic book?” Here they say, “Oh you’re remaking…”

Remaking the movie, yeah.

I started off with the dark judges and wrote a whole script with those guys, on which I did several rewrites. Didn’t work. It was the wrong story, it was too strange. It was too supernatural, and it presupposed too much information that the audience knew more than they actually did.

But you kept Anderson.

I kept Anderson because I liked that dynamic between the two of them. So then I tried another big epic story, and ditched it again. That one was about pro-democracy terrorism and the origins of the city, the origins of Dredd himself. I then thought there is a particular mode the comic exists in, or it can exist in, where it can tell big epics – Dredd’s a weekly comic – so epics that could last a year, or half a year, or three-fourths of a year, and that is also does these tiny sort of lethal bullet-like narratives that last four, five, six pages. I thought actually that is the kind of Dredd story that should be, and the filmic equivalent that would be something like Assault on Precinct 13. It’s a reductive, hard, a simple premise, and then you just play it straight; sort of mean. That was the third incarnation of the script and it ended up being the one that worked; the one that allowed us to raise the financing.

You mentioned Assault on Precinct 13. There’s a specificity to your sci-fi in this movie. It’s not clean, it’s not garish, it’s just gritty and kind of utilitarian. Was that in any way inspired by post-apocalyptic fiction or cinema? Because when you watch a post-apocalyptic film, especially from the ’80s, and you see what their version of the future is, it’s got that same kind of gritty, utilitarian nature as opposed to the current sci-fi aesthetic trope: a trendy retail store in space.

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. There’s definitely a Verhoeven influence in this. The narratives people encounter in their early and mid-teens cast a long shadow over their creative life. You see that very often. For me, that was partly 2000 A.D. and Judge Dredd. It was also Paul Verhoeven. Actually, Robocop is itself a kind of a riff on Dredd anyway, sort of the Dredd movie that didn’t get made.

Absolutely. With the look of Robocop himself, and the violence, the way the violence is used.

They did that, I think, in a completely self conscious way, because they knew about Dredd. Actually, there is one of those hidden references to Robocop in this Dredd as a kind of acknowledgement of that lineage. But yeah, that said, some of this is just about…it’s not anything to do with referencing other movies. It’s just taste. I’ve worked on a bunch of different stories. The thing that people often reference these days is they’ll say superhero, and they’ll say superhero because it’s a comic, and then they’ll say Christopher Nolan because Christopher Nolan did a kind of more “realistic” take on Batman. I just don’t really see it that way, because Dredd actually isn’t a superhero.

I agree.

It’s just some guy…he’s a good cop. He doesn’t have any powers. He can’t do anything other people can’t do. The other thing is taste, right? 28 Days Later is a zombie flick. They’re not technically zombies, but whatever, it’s a zombie flick. That just plays it straight. It puts real people in a real world where a kind of zombies exist. Then it just says, well, what happens next? Sunshine did kind of the same thing. The people on the spaceship, as it were, flawed as you and I. So I try to, within sci-fi, have these grounded elements. But I also try to put in something completely weird, left field, and hallucinogenic. Sunshine, that was all about sun. It was all about the effect that staring at the sun has on your brain.

And in this it’s the drug, the Slo-Mo.

It’s the drug. Yeah, it is the drug at the heart of the film.

So you mentioned Dredd not really being a hero. When you are writing a movie like this to be sold to a mass audience, how do you take a character that lives in a fascist dystopian society, who’s not really that likeable, and communicate him to the audience in a way that makes them root for him?

Honestly, the answer to that question has actually been proven many times. You look at someone like Mad Max, or you look at Dirty Harry, or you look at kinds of characters that would exist in Westerns of a certain sort, like Shane almost. I guess Shane is more obvious…No, Shane is an antihero as well actually, now that I stop to think. He’s a gunslinger who tries to…you know, that classic…let’s just say Shane.

Ok. I’m sorry to say I’ve not seen Shane yet. One of my remaining western blind spots.

It’s a really good movie. It has effectively been remade several times, like High Noon.

OK. Yeah, I love High Noon.

So actually, from a filmmaking point of view, it’s not hard to do that thing. You put some tough bloke who doesn’t say much except for the words he really needs to say, but eventually he uses action to solve the problems, a lot of people are going to come with you. You’re not struggling there. There’s other struggles. It’s more complicated putting a psychedelic drug at the heart of the narrative than how you get people to root for an antihero.

Didn’t think of it that way, but that’s a good point. Looking forward, you’re working on the Logan’s Run remake?

No. I’m not on that.

Oh, no?

I mean just on the sort of real world of what actually happens as opposed to how things are reported. I try to be very straightforward in interviews. I try to close reality gaps, but I understand it’s an impossible task. But just to say I get asked about these projects every now and then periodically – Logan’s Run, Halo, 28 Months Later – that kind of film. These are typically things either that don’t exist or I was contracted to do, as one of a long series of writers who was contracted to do it, and I get sacked and someone else writes it. And that’s what Logan’s Run is.

I’m sorry to hear that, it seems like the kind of project that would work well for you. You’ve been such a tremendous presence in sci-fi right now.

Well, thank you. But it’s a different job. Really what I do, as it were in the real world, is I don’t make any Hollywood studio movies. I’ve written a few scripts for those guys. They’ve never got made. My writing doesn’t fit that world well. Clearly, I’m self-evidently not very good at it. What I do, and actually turn into films, is low budget British independent filmmaking. That where I work. I’ve made a few films in that world. The process is entirely different. Nobody’s hiring you. The projects are essentially self-generated. At the core, in as much as the starting point the film – obviously lots of other people come on – but it’s me and two producers who I work with: Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich. That’s what we do. We make low budget British movies. The world you’re talking about there, which I know is the world people are primarily interested in, I have no insight in it. I don’t really exist in it. All I can really do is bullshit about it.

And why do that?

And why do that? Exactly.

Well, I appreciate your candor. I really do. It’s nice to hear such honesty, especially from someone you’re a fan of. I can’t tell you how much I loved Sunshine.

You know, it’s great when I hear people say that. Nobody went to see that film. So it’s nice when people say they liked it. Because, at the time, it was a disaster. It made it very hard to raise money for the next film, because we lost a ton. I appreciate it.

Dredd 3D is in theaters now. For more, check out our full slate of Fantastic Fest 2012 coverage.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.