With DREDD 3D now in UK cinemas, downthetubes goes behind the scenes to discover the secrets behind the creation of the screen character of Judge Dredd for the well-received film...
New Zealand born, Karl Urban is a huge Judge Dredd fan and like Alex Garland has followed him since his youth.
Karl is most widely known for playing Eomer in the second and third instalments of Peter Jackson’s epic The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy in the 2009 J.J. Abrams’ smash-hit blockbuster, Star Trek. He played Russian assassin, Kirill in Paul Greengrass’ action thriller, The Bourne Supremacy alongside Matt Damon, and won acclaim for his performances in New Zealand films, The Price of Milk and Out of the Blue.
In 2010, Urban starred as William Cooper in Robert Scwhwentke’s DC Comics graphic novel adaptation, RED opposite Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman and Dame Helen Mirren; followed by Preist 3D starring Paul Bettany and Christopher Plumber in 2011.
“We put together a pretty compelling package of mainly rights, producers, script, and a director with a solid track record and all our lead people were excited and on board,” says producer Andrew Macdonald of DREDD 3D as he recalls the casting of Karl Urban as Judge Dredd. “But we wanted to make a film that would be tough and grown up, the violence we required meant it would be R-rated in America and 18 in Europe, so we knew we could only spend about 40 million.
"It was not going to be big-budget, plus we knew we had a character that couldn’t take off his helmet, which we wanted and was in our contract with [Judge Dredd] the Kingsleys. So you can’t then have a huge movie star whose face you don’t see. We needed a great or good actor - as opposed to a marquee name like Will Smith.”
Allon Reich, who co-runs DNA Films with DREDD screen writer Alex Garland, weighs in with his take on casting the iconic character.
"Dredd is an extreme character," he continues, "the ultimate Judge and for him the law is everything. The rules are the rules and he administers justice with an extreme lack of prejudice. He is the best at what he does and the most feared. He brooks no argument and is tough as can be.
"He was inspired by Dirty Harry, is Britain’s longest lasting graphic novel character and remains one of the most loved; what’s more the term ‘Dredd-like’ is common currency even for people who have never even read the comic strip.”
The team needed an actor who would embrace that legacy and not feel hindered by the idea of playing a monolithic icon. Meanwhile, Star Trek and Lord of the Rings star Karl Urban heard that they were rebooting the comic strip for the big-screen and was curious.
“I was very interested because of my history of reading the comics, so I took a meeting with Alex, Andrew, Allon and Pete and listened to their take and it was clear that they wanted to make a radical departure to what had come before and wanted to make a film that was a lot more gritty, realistic and hardcore. A high-octane, action adventure which would be a lot more faithful to the source of the material and that immediately intrigued me.”
Reich says of Urban: “He comes from a kind of interesting place in terms of Star Trek and Lord of the Rings and he brought forward a trip he was making to LA to meet us and it was nice to see the passion. He grew up with the comic and had an attitude towards it and was very excited by the screenplay."
|Greg Staples promotional art for|
the DREDD 3D motion comic
“I started reading them when I was 16 when I was working in a pizza parlour in Wellington, New Zealand. I was pretty enamoured with the character as I was already a fan of sci-fi and enjoyed the world of Mega City One and I really loved the character of Dredd. He is this hardcore, futuristic lawman, the ultimate lawman in a society where the normal process of justice has changed. There are no more juries and lawyers and protracted legal system, it has all be condensed into one man.
"Since that age I’ve always loved a vigilante-type character and Judge Dredd is one of the best.”
A devout fan, the actor was doubly enthused by the fact that the filmmakers never, ever, wanted to see Dredd’s face, “One of the great aspects of Dredd is that you never fully see his identity. Since he was created in 1977 he was the faceless representation of the law and an enigma and to do anything else just wouldn’t have been Dredd.
“You can’t make the mistake of playing the icon, you have to play the man and he is a man who has an insanely tough job working in this society that is fragmenting and falling apart,” he continues. “His heroism is defined by an ordinary man.
"To me he is closer to those heroic firefighters who went into one of the Twin Towers on 9/11 and you couldn’t be further away from stereotypical superhero because he is not a Superman or Batman. He doesn’t have an alter ego, what you see is what you get and he calls the way he sees it. But the huge challenge for me as an actor was to try and inject as much dynamism as possible.
"It’s tough," he admits. "How do you convey a subtle emotion like doubt or concern when you don’t have the use of your eyes? So it has been a very challenging process.”
Urban says that he has always been attracted to darker roles, “When I approach a character I am interested in faults and flaws and what makes them human and three-dimensional. Dredd is an interesting kettle of fish in that his emotion is completely repressed, any normal social life that he may have enjoyed has been completely burned from his psyche, and in some ways I think he is tragic because he is charged with the job of protecting these people in society but at the same time he is incapable of functioning normally in that society.”
Apart from the psychological and emotional challenges of the role, playing Dredd was, of course, an intensely strenuous assignment. “This has been a very physical role. When I came into the movie and during pre-production I spent time in the gym getting into the right mindset and physical condition and then when I arrived for the shoot I was thrown into a boot camp for about two and a half weeks. That involved weapons training, technical movement, learning how to move under fire, learning to bust ‘perps’, breach doors and arrest people. One of the insane aspects of what I do is constantly learning skills you can never learn in real life!”
Urban was grateful that in making a more realistic version, the tone of DREDD meant they used real weapons and guns, “The lawgiver is a fully functioning weapon based on a 9mm system, so it actually fires and you can change to automatic to semi-auto. It is an added bonus as an actor when you don’t have to imagine it and it is actually there.
"Lawmaster is Dredd’s motorbike and it is based on a 500cc bike with a massive frame built over the top with machine guns, an extended wheel base, the chunkiest tires that they could find and it is a beast of a machine and that was real fun to ride.”
The actor says it was one of the things that he had a strong opinion about, “I thought it was important that the audience got to see me on that bike, riding the bike, weaving in and out of traffic.
"There is no blue-screen/ green-screen trick. When you see Dredd on the bike, you are there for the ride.”
Then there was the question of dialogue and how the Judge would actually speak, Urban had to decide what voice would have leapt out of that comic-strip. “To me in all the research I had done, Dredd’s voice was described like a saw cutting through bone,” he says, “So I felt I was trying to attain a resonance that wasn’t centred in my normal register. It was a lot more harsh and raspy in many ways which can be difficult to sustain and you can’t shout with a rasp, so it has its own set of issues.”
The actor did, however, insist on cutting down the dialogue and found a perfect collaborator in scripter Garland, “If it can be said in one sentence it would be better than three. I wanted it to be very minimalistic with Dredd just saying the bare minimum. And I can’t speak highly enough of Alex and how he helped; we were blessed to have him there. He has made an incredible contribution to this entire movie and for me it was a wonderful asset to have the writer on set. If I have questions about a scene or intentions of a beat I can just ask him and Alex is not precious about it. He is quite happy to improve on the material and is a wonderful collaborator and quite often you will go to him and he will say that is great, what about this and he will take it to you the next step and really elevate the material and improve upon it.”
Keeping consistent with Garland’s vision and staying true to the origins of the Dredd phenomenon was equally important to Urban and he felt truly privileged to meet its co-creator.
“I had the great fortune of meeting John Wagner and he was really lovely and complimentary. I felt somewhat nervous about it: Dredd is his creation and when you meet the creator you hope that you live up to the expectations and I imagine the expectations are pretty high,” the actor says. “I have to say he was really wonderful and was happy with what he saw. He recognised that we are being faithful to his creation and while we are not 100 percent transferring a complete world from comics into the medium of cinema, I think he could see and recognise that the heart of what we are doing is in the right place.”
• 2000AD Online: www.2000ADonline.com
• Karl will next be seen in the upcoming Star Trek sequel, scheduled for release in 2013