‘Judge Dredd’ creator: Three reasons I’m excited about new film

Jan. 19, 2012 | 1:00 p.m.

Karl Urban in "Dredd" (Lionsgate)

This March marks the 35th anniversary of Judge Dredd but, more importantly, this may be the year that Hollywood finally does justice to the hard-hearted lawman of Mega-City One. The character is one of the signature creations on the British comics scene (Empire Magazine ranked him the seventh greatest character in all comics, in fact, one spot ahead of the Joker and just two behind Spider-Man) and a clear influence on the dystopian mayhem of both “Robocop” and Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns.” But, today, for most Americans, the name Judge Dredd draws a blank look or, worse, a groan thanks to the shiny, torpid 1995 Sylvester Stallone film.

Judge Dredd (Rebellion Developments)

That may change in September when Lionsgate, director Pete Travis (“Vantage Point“) and star Karl Urban (Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy in the new “Star Trek” franchise) deliver a new big-screen version of the anti-hero titled simply “Dredd.” Comics fans of a certain age are enthused by the Urban casting but also remember that Lionsgate gave them an especially tone-deaf version of “Conan the Barbarian” just last summer. Dredd, created by writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra working with editor Pat Mills, traces back to the earliest days of of “2000 A.D.,” the British comics anthology. To get an early verdict on the revival prospects, we caught up with Wagner, who still works on Dredd adventures on the page but now rarely does interviews.

GB: If you reflect on your years with Dredd, how do you think your view of him or his world has changed? Does his voice sound the same in your mind?

JW: Originally he was a very two-dimensional character, a vehicle for extreme behavior in an extreme society, more of a robot than a man. Today he’s more rounded, more human, a man capable of introspection, of questioning his own beliefs. I still wouldn’t call him a totally three-dimensional character – he would lose something if he was. He needs that robotic aspect to his personality. But he’s a man who could say: “Yeah, I got that wrong. I made a mistake. I’m sorry.”

GB: Talk a bit about his creation — your influences and ambitions at the time.

JW: It was all about making “2000 A.D.” the best comic it could be. It was the story that brought it all together, that provided the missing elements. For years Pat Mills — creator and guiding hand of “2000 A.D.” – and I had been reacting against the insipid, formulaic nature of some of Britain’s boys’ comics. We’d developed stories and characters with a much harder edge and readers’ reaction to them had been almost universally positive. Dredd was that hard edge taken to the extreme – a heartless hero for Thatcher’s heartless, new Britain.

GB: It’s rare for a creator in contemporary comics to work so long with one character. On your best days, how would you describe that accomplishment? On less upbeat moments, how would you articulate the challenge of it?

JW: I’m not sure I take any great satisfaction from the fact; it happened — perhaps through laziness, perhaps because I have a natural affinity for the character. I think if I hadn’t been writing and creating other stories during that time I might see it as a bit of a cul de sac. I still enjoy writing Dredd, though with every year that passes new ideas get harder to come up with.

"Judge Dredd" (Rebellion Developments)

GB: You’ve taken the character to some strange and dark places. Is there any story, situation or arc that, in hindsight, you’d erase from the archive if you could?

JW: Quite a few. When Dredd was created no one imagined it would last so long. The normal practice in British comics at the time was to run a story for 12 to 16 episodes then give it a break, usually permanent. If the story was popular you might think of bringing it back for another series, and another, but nothing was expected to go on and on. So story lines were used that created big problems further along the road. For instance, Dredd’s handheld lie detector. It was practically foolproof, no citizen could get away with lying to him. Fine for a one-off story, but as an ongoing state of affairs it’s hell on the writer and could make for some very short stories – “Did you do it?” – “No” – “You’re lying, the sentence is death” – The End. I’ve been jumping through hoops ever since to get ’round it.

GB: How do you view the 1995 Sly Stallone film these days? And is that view any different than it was at the time of its release?

JW: My views haven’t changed, though apart from my initial viewing I haven’t seen the film since it came out. They told the wrong story — it didn’t have that much to do with Dredd the character as we know him. I don’t think Stallone was a bad Dredd, though it would have been better and lent him more cred if he hadn’t revealed his face. He was just Dredd in the wrong story. I envy their budget, though. Some of the CGI was very good, and the re-creations of the Angel Gang and the robot. The robot actually came from a Pat Mills story and didn’t belong in Dredd, but it looked good. If the plot had revolved around characters like them the film would have been more successful.

Sylvester Stallone as Judge Dredd (Hollywood Pictures)

GB: The late 1970s and early 1980s were grim times in England on social and economic fronts. Looking back it’s hard not to sense a lot of that in the comics of the time. What was it like to be in that energized scene with that kind of national backdrop?

JW: The story caught the mood of the time, the new authoritarianism, the need for a rock in a turbulent sea. But Dredd was never meant to be just another hero figure – he was as much a villain, a criticism of harsh and callous governance, and most of the readers picked up on that. Sure, the country needed a shake-up, everybody knew that, but did it have to be done in such a cold-hearted way?

GB: The new film looks like a very different beast than the 1995 one — no Rob Schneider appearance this time around. Tell us three specific things about the project that make you optimistic.

Karl Urban as Judge Dredd (Lionsgate)

JW: The plot is about Dredd and his world. It’s impossible to cover every aspect of the character and his city – perhaps that was one of the failings of the first film; they tried to do too much and ended up with not a lot. “Dredd” homes in on the essential job of judging – instant justice in a violent future city. I like the actors, they’re well cast and they handled their parts well. Olivia Thirlby is perfect as Anderson, the young psi judge. She gives the character a touching vulnerability. Karl Urban will not remove his helmet and will not kiss his costar.

GB: Describe the place where you work and a bit about your process. “Dredd” always had the Clash as a soundtrack in my mind — is there music when you work?

JW: I find music too distracting. I need silence. My office window looks out on the Shropshire Hills, the nearest house is half a mile away, I’m alone apart from the dogs. That’s how I like it.

GB: Collaboration is king in your field. Tell us a lesson you learned the hard way when it comes to collaboration.

JW: Comedy and action stories can work very well – in fact with comedy in particular you’re almost bound to get a better result if you work as a team. But anything with a deeper emotional content is more problematic, at least I’ve found that to be so. I think it’s because comedy and action are to a large extent clear cut — a joke is either funny or it’s not, one situation is usually clearly more exciting than another (if not, use them both!). But engage the emotions and things become much more subjective and that’s a lot easier to deal with on your own.

– Geoff Boucher

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Comments


13 Responses to ‘Judge Dredd’ creator: Three reasons I’m excited about new film

  1. Tim Pelan says:

    An excellent interview, some great questions that teased out some interesting answers. Particularily your question on Wagner's feelings on the Stallone film at the time, and with hindsight. I agree the use of the Angel Gang and ABC warrior were good touches, and the film looked great. I haven't been overly impressed by the "corridor" shots of new Dredd, I hope post production builds more layers to the world.

    • ManWithThePlan says:

      Fear not Tim, the upcoming new version has some 800 visual effect shots in it, and according to a crew member who worked on the film and saw some conceptual designs for the new Mega-City One, the new city looks like London's "Canary Wharf on steroids" and apparently looks "amazing", so no worries there, I have full confidence it will be a visual tour-de-force, not to mention a much better representation of the source comic-book… if John Wagner is happy with it, that's enough for me!

      The trouble with the 1995 version was that the producers brought Steven DeSouza in to do a draft of the script, and he basically mangled it – even the director of that movie, Danny Cannon, was very vocal about his loathing of DeSouza's draft at the time – and Stallone seized control of the entire film whilst they were shooting it, demanding changes to the script and even directing reshoots himself (with Cannon basically cut out of the process), and was hastily cut to pieces in order to get a PG-13 rating (which it still didn't get), it's any wonder it ended up the way it did.

      If they had stuck with Cannon's vision of the film (and kept DeSouza away from the script), hired someone like Dolph Lundgren to play Dredd instead of the egomaniacal Stallone, kept some of the early concept designs for the movie (which looked a heck of a lot more Dredd-esque than what ended up onscreen), and spent more time in getting the visual effects and final cut perfected to their fullest potential, that movie would've been a lot better, and probably would've been better received upon release…

      • INSTANT-JUSTICE says:

        This needs clarifying, there are 113 actual CG-FX shots in the film. The 800 number refers to the number of shots that will have 3D stereoscopic process.

        Shahid Malik:

        FX Supervisor on Dredd
        Prime Focus Film
        Public Company; 1001-5000 employees; PFOCUS; Entertainment industry
        February 2011 – October 2011 (9 months) London, United Kingdom

        Created and/or specified all the 113 FX shots on Judge Dredd feature film reboot. Managed a total team of 10 FX artists.

      • ManWithThePlan says:

        Where did you get that from Instant Justice dude, would love to read that myself…

      • Northern Star says:

        I don't know about Dolph Lundgren, but the only actor who should have played Dredd in the 1980's or 1990's is the great Michael Ironside, period!

    • Agent_Black says:

      The corridor shots were taken before production began I believe, the one most frequently used is a test shot from what I remember of discussion when it first hit the web. I think they've got the perfect balance though, the comic iconography mixed with a gritty realism. You can't tell a lot from a photo still for a movie. A lot of people have commented on the helmet not fitting properly but I think they got that right too, although I grew up with 2000 AD in the 80's and 90's so more recent readers may be used to another 'look' (and fanboys can be picky over the slightest thing)

  2. Aldo Ojeda says:

    But can we see Judge Death in a sequel?

  3. Dreddfred says:

    The storyline is very bland and doesn't use any of the city (other than one city block). I'll be amazed if 2000AD/Judge Dredd fans warm to this new film because it's got zero Wagner type humour or imagination. Any decent writer can write an action scene, adding humour and imagination is a harder challenge and Alex Garland's screenplay – which is online – is seriously lacking in key areas. Also includes an oral sex scene (which seems unnecessary and exploitative).

    I rated the screenplay 4 out of 10.

    • INSTANT-JUSTICE says:

      Actually as a fan I think the City-Block setting is the perfect idea for an intro to the world of Dredd. The city-block is the city in miniature and the oral sex scene you refer to Mr. Dreddfred/Scojo is not what it seems as you well know and fits perfectly with the character involved.

    • Northern Star says:

      Get lost Scott a.k.a. Scojo – you've nothing positive to say so go stick your head in a bucket and stop making the 'Dredd' filmmakers job more difficult, you insignificant little troll…

      By the way, Instant Justice, you were right about the number of visual effect shots and I was wrong, so good call dude…

  4. Jon says:

    Oh what a surprise, Scojos spreading his bile across the internet again. All because your script was rejected. Get over it and move on. Please. For everyones sake.

  5. Michael McDonnell says:

    When the 95 film was greenlit everything was going fine but when Stallone came onto it, it was a different story, the producers wouldn’t allow such a expensive star like Sylvester Stallone to have his face not shown which was problematic because Dredd is supposed to be the faceless representative of the law, the whole essence of the character just evaporated from the screen and the film suffered for it.

  6. Michael McDonnell says:

    Shame that Paul Verhoeven didn’t do Judge Dredd 20 years ago it should’ve been more of a RoboCop, Total Recall type film, a ultra violent sci fi actioner.

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