Writer Alex Garland (Sunshine, 28 Days Later) and director Pete Travis (Endgame) have brought Dredd back to life in what appears to be a stunningly cool and violent incarnation. The film was screened and SDCC this year, and people were shocked by how much they liked it and how brutal it was.
We recently caught up with star Karl Urban (Star Trek, The Lord Of The Rings), who plays Dredd himself in the film. He spoke about the differences between this new incarnation and the 1995 Stallone vehicle as well as what it was like to not remove the helmet even once during the course of the movie’s running time.
“The future America is an irradiated waste land. On its East Coast, running from Boston to Washington DC, lies Mega City One- a vast, violent metropolis where criminals rule the chaotic streets. The only force of order lies with the urban cops called “Judges” who possess the combined powers of judge, jury and instant executioner. Known and feared throughout the city, Dredd (Karl Urban) is the ultimate Judge, challenged with ridding the city of its latest scourge — a dangerous drug epidemic that has users of “Slo-Mo” experiencing reality at a fraction of its normal speed. During a routine day on the job, Dredd is assigned to train and evaluate Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a rookie with powerful psychic abilities thanks to a genetic mutation. A heinous crime calls them to a neighborhood where fellow Judges rarely dare to venture- a 200 story vertical slum controlled by prostitute turned drug lord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) and her ruthless clan. Dredd and Anderson must confront the odds and engage in the relentless battle for their survival.”
On how the new film differs from the 1995 Stallone vehicle. “Well, here’s the thing. When I read the script, it became obvious to me that what we were endeavoring to do was completely different. Tonally, you couldn’t get more different. I think that our film is a lot more…well, I don’t really know how to describe it really. But I will say I watched the Stallone version to see what worked and what didn’t work.
The way I wanted to approach this character was not to have him be a posturing, bellowing character that was grounded in ego. That wasn’t the Dredd I knew. I thought it was far more interesting to have a character with this inner rage who was struggling to contain it rather than letting it all explode. That’s the direction I was going in. I decided that what I wanted to do was to find the humanity within Dredd because he is just a man. It’s his heroism that defines him; he’s the guy always walking into the building when everyone else is running out. He does the things most people wouldn’t dare to do in real life, and that was the challenge for me.
It was a huge challenge especially for me to convey all of this without the use of my eyes. The character oscillates from being a protector to being incredibly violent to having this wry, sardonic humor to displaying compassion at times. There are a lot of aspects to this character. The challenge for me then was to make all of that happen from behind the helmet. ”
Does he think the themes of the comic book are still relevant today? “That’s a good question. To be honest with you, I didn’t really think about how this movie was going to be perceived or really the relevance of it when making it. To me, my mission was to A – honor the work of John (Wagner) and Carlos (Ezquerra) that was created back in the 70′s as best as I could and B – service the script as best as I could and just be in the moment to make the best film we could. Everything that happens after that is really not on my radar. It’s not really up to me to pull it apart and analyze it, I just wanted it to be a good, fun piece of entertainment.”
But did he back and look at the source material to help inform his performance ? “Oh yes. That was certainly part of my whole process when I came on board this and entered this world. First of all, I spent like 13 weeks in the gym lifting heavy things and eating seven or eight times a day to train so I could be where I needed to be physically for this character. Then there was the part of the process that I enjoy the most, which is the investigative part, and that was getting my hands on every graphic novel I could.
The real wonderful thing was that I discovered a whole lot of new stories with Dredd that I wasn’t aware of initially when I used to read Dredd back when I was a teenager. Origin stories, the dead man’s walk into America, those sorts of things; and they were all really great stories to find. There’s also a wonderful maturity that happens with Wagner’s writing as the stories go on where this seed of doubt is implanted in the character, which I thought was just fascinating.
Dredd’s story starts off where he’s just this guy who is doing his job. But then, after 20 years later, he begins to question things, and I thought that was a wonderful complexity to build into this character. That’s what I wanted to try and plant the seeds for in this movie, too, that weariness.”
Was there always the mandate that Dredd’s helmet would stay on regardless in this movie? “Oh god, yes. That was hugely important. My agent initially called me up and asked me if I’d be interested in doing a Judge Dredd movie and I said, ‘Hell yeah, let me read the script.’ Then I read the script and was relieved to discover that the character did keep the helmet on. Everyone working on this knew how important it was that he kept his helmet on, and I wouldn’t have done the movie had he not kept his helmet on the entire time. Everyone was on the same page about that.”
Often times, a hero is only as good as his villain. What did Lena Headey bring to the table for the character of Ma-Ma? “Well, this is just my own personal opinion, but I think there is a scary, beautiful, violent way to Lena’s performance that is so enigmatic. Lena just draws you in whenever she’s on screen; the choices that she made were so interesting. I have to confess that there was one day where we were shooting a scene where I’m confronting her, and she just starts laughing -manically laughing- and I can feel within me the rage growing; she’s just that fucking good. She knows how to push your buttons.”