Karl Urban and Olivia Thirlby, stars of upcoming Sci-Fi action film "Dredd," sat down with CBR News and other members of the press at Comic-Con International in San Diego to discuss the new film, their hopes for the franchise, and what it's like to act using only your chin.
"Dredd," based on John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra's classic "2000 AD" comic "Judge Dredd," tells the story of hard-nosed future cop Judge Dredd, who has the ability to act as judge, jury and executioner in the dystopian Mega-City One. Dredd, played in the film by Karl Urban, teams up with psychic and rookie Judge Cassandra Anderson, played by Olivia Thirlby, to take on a drug-ring operating out of a 200-story slum.
Comparisons to the universally panned Sylvester Stallone "Judge Dredd" film released in 1995 are inevitable, but it never affected how "Dredd" was made. "It never was really a topic of conversation," said Urban. "It's just not relevant. What we were doing was so tonally different that it's just chalk and cheese. I went to the original Stallone one when it came out at the movies and I watched it prior to filming 'Dredd,' more just to see what works and what doesn't work. I'm of the opinion that if you can learn from your mistakes, that's one of the most important things you can do in life. If you can learn from other people's, even better!"
Urban said he began to really feel like Judge Dredd "the first time I hopped on the Lawmaster motorbike in full costume and I was gunning it through the streets of Capetown at stupid speeds. The South African cops had blocked off the roads."
Judge Dredd has traditionally been seen as a somewhat stoic and static character, but Urban says Dredd may waver just a bit in the new film. Only a little bit, though. "There's also shades of compassion and humanity when [Dredd] chooses the stun setting over the kill setting. He's doing it for a particular reason," Urban said. "When he becomes unhinged and he lets the rage and the violence within him finally come out after the massacre sequence of the film. His feelings about Judge Anderson. He's a constant throughout the film. Everybody else is changing and moving but he's just sort of driving through this. He's just solid."
Despite his rock-like facade and ability to kill foes with ease, Dredd also delivers the majority of the film's comedic relief and co-star Thirlby was more than happy to share some of her favorite one-liners from the movie.
"I really like when he's brutalizing Kay and he's talking about the lengths Ma-Ma has gone to prevent them from leaving the block and he says, 'That's got me curious.' I like his other one-liner when I get out of Kay's head and tell him the information I have and he goes, 'Interesting.' In the beginning of the film, I'm telling him why I want to be a judge and I'm really sitting high on my moral soapbox and he goes, 'Admirable,'" Thirlby laughed. "He's got these very dry one-liners that I think Karl just nails and are so the essence of Dredd. This bleak world is in such need of comic relief and I think it's so crucial and so important that Dredd supplies these one-liners."
"Dredd" is unique among action heroes in that he never shows his face, in the comics or in the new film. Urban said, "Dredd doesn't take his helmet off and, for me, it had to be that way. I met with Andrew [MacDonald, producer] and Allon [Reich, producer] and Alex [Garland, screenwriter] and Pete [Travis, director] in Los Angeles and they said, 'You are aware there's not gonna be any Hollywood BS, the helmet stays on,' and I said, 'I wouldn't be taking this meeting with you if I read the script and the helmet was coming off.'"
Keeping the infamous helmet on, though, came with its own unique challenges for Urban. Not least among them: how to portray emotions using only your mouth and chin. "It's all about that old stoney face," said Urban. "It was a huge challenge for me to find out how I could convey shades of this character without the use of my eyes. It was daunting at first because there's so much within him. He oscillates between being cold and clinical and removed to being protective and having a sardonic dry humor."
Urban went so far as to say he "not once" ever regretted the decision to hide his face for the entirety of "Dredd."
If it was hard for Urban to act with only his mouth, you'd think it would be even harder to co-star with someone whose eyes you can't see. Thirlby said this wasn't the case, however. "I think that Dredd and Anderson have a really interesting connection. Because of Anderson's heightened sensitivity to those around her she is probably the only person on the planet who has known what Dredd is feeling," said Thirlby. "That gives the two of them a special connection, I think. For Anderson, it's not disconcerting that she can't see his eyes, so for me it wasn't either."
Despite Dredd hogging the film's title for himself, Judge Anderson has almost as big a cult following. Thirlby said she read a lot of Anderson's solo comics to prepare for the role but was unable to find any definitive version of her characterization, forcing her to find other ways to connect with the character. Thirlby said, "I actually completely identify with Cassandra Anderson as a human being, on a human level. I think that she possesses this extreme sensitivity that sometimes only women can and I think that a lot of the times women's strength is their sensitivity even though it's often made out to be a weakness."
Judge Anderson, a powerful psychic, also has several show-stopping scenes inside the minds of her enemies. "Those are my favorite scenes, actually," said Thirlby. "Those are the times Anderson is really comfortable in her skin, when she's on her turf. It's when she's using her greatest talents, which is not being strong and mean, it's being intelligent and cunning."
"Dredd" features a wealth of gorgeous 3D shots, but shooting in 3D is a lot different than traditional filming, as Urban explained. "It's a whole different deal. Usually when you're working in film you can get upwards of 24 shots a day. You can move the cameras around a lot easier. When you're working in 3D, suddenly the amount of shots you get is significantly lower. You're getting eight to ten. But within that, because it's a digital format, you can resize the image and move in. While it has certain drawbacks it has certain positives as well.
"And obviously the quality of the image is so superior. That's one of the things that's really cool about this movie, the way it looks," Urban continued. "At times it's just pure art, it really is. What I personally found interesting was the way it oscillates from extreme violence to all of a sudden, when that slo-mo hits, it morphs into something else. There's a beauty in it. It's sickening but at the same time beautiful."
Having just shot "The Darkest Hour," another 3D action film, Thirlby was used to the process. "By the time I got to Capetown [where 'DREDD' was filmed], I had been doing 3D action films for like four months," Thirlby said of her familiarity with the intricacies of 3D filmmaking.
Urban told CBR News he was a big fan of Judge Dredd from a young age. "I read the comics when I was about 17 years old and I didn't read many comics. I think there was Frank Miller's 'The Dark Knight Returns' and 'Judge Dredd.' They were literally the only comics I did read. The really cool thing was, when I found out they were doing this adaptation, I read the script and was really pleased to see that Alex [Garland] had done a terrific job of conducting Dredd and his version was so faithful and honorable to what Wagner created back in '77.
"When I was cast as Dredd, I went back and pulled out my old comics and then I went and bought a whole load of new stuff that I hadn't read and the wonderful thing was to see the evolution in Wagner's writing," Urban continued. "There were a whole bunch of stories that he wrote and has written in the last ten years or so that I wasn't privy to -- the Dredd character gets to a place of questioning the big lie that it's his job to defend and protect."
Some of Urban's favorite Judge Dredd stories include "The Dead Man," "Necropolis" and "Origins." Urban praised "Origins," in particular, saying, "If you didn't know Judge Dredd but you were interested in finding out, go and find a copy of 'Origins' because it's just the definitive set-up story for Dredd."
Thirlby and Urban had a special relationship on set, meeting every morning before shooting. Urban said, "We had such a real, true partnership and a collaboration. Every day before we would go onset to do whatever it is we were gonna do, we would meet in her room or my room and we would discuss what we were doing that day -- she was a thousand percent committed all the way. It would have been a nightmare to approach the movie with anyone who was giving less."
Thirlby agreed, adding, "As a person to work with, I can't speak highly enough of Karl. He's a wonderful fellow, and so talented, and our process on this film was truly collaborative. We spent a lot of time together breaking down scenes and always wanted the heart of this movie to be the partnership and relationship that develops between Dredd and Anderson. It felt like we could hang our hat on the way this relationship is realized in this film. There were times that obviously Dredd does not think highly of Anderson. There are times when she's straight up failing her assessment, which she can tell because she's psychic. There are times when she does things that surprise him and she goes up in his esteem."
At the end of the day, the box-office success of "Dredd" isn't what matters most to the pair of actors. Thirlby, upon hearing John Wagner approved her performance, said," I love Anderson and if her creators are happy then I can go to bed happy. I can die happy."
Urban said box-office success isn't his bar either. "If this film is a one-off cult classic then I'm cool with that," he said. "I'm really proud of the film and we showed it the other night and the audience loved it. To me, I'm happy. I'm good. If we don't end up making more of these then I'm cool with that because it's all good on my end."
On the other hand, should "Dredd" prove a financial success, Urban says he is ready to hop on to the Lawmaster for a second time. "If we're fortunate enough, if it blows up at the box office, then absolutely I would definitely love to come back and reprise the role and make more of these," Urban said. "I just think there's so much fertile ground to explore in the character and in the world. I would love to see the continuing story and the evolution of these characters and the relationship between Anderson and Dredd. It'll be interesting to find out about the world and Dredd. It'd be really cool to see the Dark Judges. There's so much."
"Dredd" opens in theaters September 21, 2012.