Interesting Timing: Arthur Wyatt On ‘Dredd: Urban Warfare’ [Interview]
2012's Dredd was easily one of the best comic book movies of all time, and it's a testament to just how good it was that it left fans wanting more --- not just from Judge Dredd in general, but from that particular version of the character, portrayed by actor Karl Urban. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like we're going to be getting another big-screen take soon, but the good news is that there are some pretty awesome stories set in the movie's universe.
This week sees the release of Dredd: Urban Warfare, the cleverly named collection of three movie-verse stories that originally ran in the pages of Judge Dredd Megazine. To mark the occasion, we spoke to writer Arthur Wyatt about his work with Henry Flint and Paul Davidson, how they nudged the movie's take a little closer to sci-fi, and the interesting timing of a story about crooked police provoking riots.
ComicsAlliance: The last time we talked, we had a conversation about the unfortunate timing of Uprise when it first ran.
Arthur Wyatt: Yeah, that was an interesting chat. The opening chapter, and pretty much the whole of Uprise, comes from an incident where an encounter between Judges and citizens escalates into a series of gigantic riots, so you have these vaguely fascist armored cops clashing on the streets with citizens, and petrol bombs and tear gas canisters thrown, and this started running in the UK in August, and in the US in September, which... yeah. It ended up being interesting timing.
CA: Right, it was going on right when Ferguson was starting.
AW: Right when that was happening on the news.
CA: I'd look at the news and it would be about the protests in Ferguson, then I'd go on Twitter and everyone's talking about it, and then I try to escape by reading some fun Judge Dredd stories, and there it is, with a story you'd written well before that started.
AW: The first image I saw from Ferguson, I think it was on the local Fox affiliate, was basically these cops in full riot gear with the grenade launchers that they use for launching tear gas, which looks like this huge gun that they're waving around, and it's just like, yeah, there's your horrible dystopia right there onscreen.
CA: The interesting thing about it is that your story is set in the universe of the Dredd movie, and while there's always a satirical element of Judge Dredd in the comics, it's not quite as prominent in the movie. I've written before about his costume and how it's just so far over the top...
AW: It softens it a little, whereas movie Dredd is very much set on the bleeding edge of now, just like how the early 2000 AD strips were very much about what was going on there. Dredd was informed by a lot of the riots and concerns about crime and policing that were going on then, and the movie does the same thing. It uses gear that looks like the riot gear that you see now. It was filmed in South Africa, so the streets you see in the opening portions are sort of real streets dressed up a little, and it opens with a drone flying over a city and reporting back on various crimes going on throughout the city. It's very much doing that same "bleeding edge of now" thing that Judge Dredd was doing in the '70s, but now it's bang up to date.
CA: There's a reveal fairly early on in the story, too, that it's all being orchestrated by a crooked judge and corporate interests.
AW: Yeah, that's that sort of "bleeding edge" thing again. I was actually reading about the Google Bus protests. Google has a lot of employees that work in San Francisco and they have a very fancy bus that pulls up in San Francisco, employees get on, and it drives them to wherever their campus is and they hop off. This has angered a lot of people in the San Francisco area, because to a certain degree, they feel that it's people taking from their economy without giving back, and there are gentrification concerns, concerns that these busses are wearing down the roads. There have been protests blocking them, and the whole thing about the construction convoys going out to the Oemling building and getting blocked by protests came out of that.
CA: You've written a lot of Dredd stories for 2000 AD, like The Streets of Dan Francisco...
AW: A fun one, that.
CA: ... and now you've sort of become the go-to guy for doing the stories that expand the movie universe, too. Urban Warfare has Uprise and Underbelly, the first sequel story that you did.
AW: Matt Smith's story, Top of the World, Ma-Ma, that actually came out a little before the movie and ran in Judge Dredd Megazine as a promotion in the issue that had this big set of articles and the photo cover for the movie. That was a prequel that came out contemporary with the movie, and mine was a little afterwards, so I got the benefit of having seen the movie and really dug it without knowing I was going to be doing anything with that universe, just thinking on it and what it had done for a while. Then, when I got an email from Matt asking me if I'd be interested in doing something set in that universe, I was able to put some of those things I was thinking about into play.
CA: You came in with Underbelly, which is a sequel story, and you've got this movie that was very well received by Dredd fans and has people signing petitions saying they wanted to see more of it. Suddenly, you're the guy doing more of it, who's responsible for trying to hit that particular audience. At the same time, it's a different experience from the core universe. It doesn't really have the same comedy.
AW: It has some humor. The humor has to revolve around people getting shot in the face for the most part, but there's a certain black humor to that.
CA: There's a lot in it that's funny, but he's still in tactical gear. It doesn't have quite the same silliness that you get from Judge Dredd that you get even in the heart of the darkest stories. Was it an adjustment for you?
AW: It's a different palette, not just in terms of the big, satirical broad humor stuff, which is pulled down a little, but it's also less sci-fi than the regular Dredd universe. You're pulling back from having aliens and robots, the only real element of the Dredd movie that takes things away from the nuts and bolts engineering as we know it is that there are psychic powers. It's really a "day after tomorrow" future.
CA: That's something I noticed with Uprise. I mean, if there's one thing that's going to make that story easier to read, it's when robots show up.
AW: [Laughs] Robots show up. Although they're not the full-on robots with personalities that are in the mainstream Dredd universe.
CA: They do not look like robots wearing Dredd's hat.
AW: They don't drink oil from cans and have lisps.
CA: Was that something that you wanted to do, to push it a little closer to the comics? Get a little thrillpower in there?
AW: I think part of what I was doing was thinking of how things would go if there was a sequel movie or a sequel TV show, something like that. I think over time, there would be a gradual edging up of those sci-fi elements. Every time you come around again, you want to bring in something new, whether it's robots or other things. I think [producer] Alex Garland has said that if he kept on doing the movies, he'd want to bring in the Dark Judges for the third one, which almost seems like too much of a radical step for me. Of course, once you saw it on screen, it'd be different from the Dark Judges that we see in the comics, so there are probably ways to make it work.
CA: Are there things you thought about doing that you didn't do? Did you have a conversation about the Dark Judges and just go "eh, maybe we should leave that one on the table for a while."
AW: Garland has talked about doing a pair of films, and I think he's kind of backed away from these being likely to happen recently, but he talked about doing a Cursed Earth movie and a Dark Judges movie, so I did deliberately steer away from going full on into the Cursed Earth. Underbelly shows you a little more of it than you get in the first movie, but I stayed away from the Dark Judges entirely.
I think once the movie included those, it would shift the tone a little, and while that's probably okay in the movie because it's the tone of the movie shifting to match the comics, I think that the comic of the movie changing to match the tone of the comics, that gets a little weird. We already have that. I'm sure if there were more movies, the nature of the story would grow and expand, that's the nature of things.
CA: It's interesting to think about, because the way that a lot of superhero movies and comic book movies are built is by boiling things down to their essentials and trying to ground them a little, and then slowly moving towards the bigger, weirder ideas.
AW: I think there are two big superhero movie things. First is the endless, repeated origin stories, which Dredd sort of steps around by not really being a Dredd origin, although it's arguably an Anderson origin. The other thing that's big is the nature of being "grounded" or making things "real world," and you can throw big quotes around both of those, because it's sort of more grounded. A Dark Knight is sort of closer to the world we know than a Batman '66, but really not.
CA: Right. It still has magic cell phones.
AW: If you sit down and think about even the nature of how this whole costumed-vigilante game would work and relate to people, it just falls apart so fast. I think Dredd did its gritty, grounded thing, but expressed that more in terms of the setting and the style of the set, where everything has this lived-in, almost '80s action movie feel to it. All the technology is very broken in and gritty. I think that really works in its favor.
CA: It was interesting to me largely because Dredd works for me as a reader because there's so much going on. Just look at him, there's so much going on visually. The original idea was that he was a cop in a city that's the entire East Coast, although it's been steadily whittled down over the years.
AW: [Laughs] I think there's a very early one set down in Miami and that was when John Wagner just started thinking "Maybe I should prune this back a little," and the Apocalypse War was formulated.
CA: The core idea of Dredd is going over the top, so when you look at the movie version, it's interesting to see that it's boiled down and streamlined, but yeah, there are still psychic mutants, the costume is still pretty weird.
AW: Crime is still too harsh to be dealt with by normal means, so you require instant street justice from motorcycle-riding cops.
CA: For being the more "realistic" version of Dredd, it's still over the top. As someone approaching that world for a medium and an audience where Dredd is still a guy in a weird football costume who fights ghosts, what's the balance? Do you ever look at it and say "this is too far, I have to pull back?"
AW: I think really pruning it back to street level from the weirder high concept sci-fi stuff, that really helped me find the level that I thought a movie Dredd comic would work. I was, half in my mind while I was writing it, thinking "how would this work on screen rather than in a comic?" I almost thought of Underbelly as the opening two-parter from a theoretical TV series, while Uprise would be a season arc.
CA: Is that why you stayed away from Anderson so much?
AW: I think I wanted to just give space to a different cast of characters for Uprise. I think the Judges of the Spit are really the Judges I wanted to focus on there, and on top of them, the citizens of the Spit and Wallace. It has quite a cast already, so there's a slight reference to Anderson in there if you look, but other than that, it's just assumed she's off in a different sector of the city doing their own thing at the moment.
CA: One last question: Who came up with the title "Urban Warfare?"
AW: I don't know! I suspect it would be someone in the 2000 AD offices, maybe Graphic Novels editor Keith Richardson. I don't know, but I think the pun is very much intentional there.
CA: [Laughs] It took me an embarrassing amount of time to get it, and then I was so mad.
AW: It fits rather well! I hope [Karl Urban] likes it.