Monday, June 29, 2009

Six things I learned from The Making of Judge Dredd

Judge Dredd was a pretty terrible film. And it was pretty terrible in a pretty unique way. Unlike many bad films I’ve seen, it’s one that’s really stayed with me since the first and only time I saw it, way back in 1995.

See, aside from that pretty cool 1991 Batman/Judge Dredd: Judgment on Gotham one-shot by Alan Grant, John Wagner and Simon Bisley, the film was my first exposure to Dredd, whom I knew to be a very popular character across the Atlantic (would he be fighting Batman if he weren’t?) and worked on and/or beloved by a lot of extremely talented comics writers and artists.

So seeing his film and realizing it was just an awful, awful film confused and irritated me—if this character was so great, if his comics were so good, how could his movie end up like this? (Perhaps I should point out at this point that I was only 18 at the time, and while I had seen Howard the Duck and Swamp Thing, I hadn’t read or even heard anything about the comics they were based on).

When I finally started really reading Dredd comics a few years ago, mostly thanks Rebellion’s trade collections, particularly the Complete Case Files series, the memory of the movie kept coming back to me. I think that’s why it stayed with me for so long; it was my first association with the character, and so all subsequent ones recall it on at least some small level.

That the movie didn’t turn out to be a great one, or at least a pretty good one, and that it didn’t spawn a franchise the way Batman did confused me even more after I experienced the material firsthand.

THe Judge Dredd comics were actually pretty great, the movie made the costume and character look right (“right-er” than Batman got Batman, really), and Sylvester Stallone was a pretty perfect actor to cast—Dredd’s entire emotional spectrum was played out in his lip curls, snarls, frowns and tooth-gritting, and Stallone had one of the strongest chins and most expressive sets of lips of any action star of the last century. He was perfect for the role!

So why didn’t it work? I don’t know.

I reviewed it for my local paper at the time, and probably still have a clipping in a box in my basement somewhere, but I imagine if I re-watched it today, I’d have pretty different things to say about it. Perhaps I could better diagnose why Judge Dredd the movie was so different from Judge Dredd the comics if I re-watched it today, but then, I’d have to re-watch it, and forcing oneself to rewatch any film in which Rob Schneider is prominently featured is a pretty difficult task to set oneself to.

Someone recently suggested that I check out the book The Making of Judge Dredd (Hyperion; 1995) by Jane Killick, David Chute and Charles M. Lippincott, and once I found a copy at a library, I did so.

It was a pretty weird reading experience (Not that I read the whole thing. I read about the history of the project and the writing of the script, and trailed off as it got into the production of the special effects and so on). For one thing, it was kind of sad and sobering, a reminder that no one ever really sets out to make a terrible movie (various genre exploitation flicks aside), and that even this had scores of creative people who devoted, in some cases, decades of their lives to making a Judge Dredd and, well, you’ve seen the results (Or maybe you haven’t. Maybe it made back the money that was spent producing it, I don’t really know—I do know that there was never a Judge Dredd II and that Sylvester Stallone’s career took a bit of a turn at that point, as he did fewer and fewer big action movies and started trying out more adventurous roles, the occasional Rocky or Rambo aside).

And I learned some things. Specifically, six things. Here then, are the Six Things I Learned From Reading the firs half of The Making of Judge Dredd

1.) Judge Dredd was in development for literally (figuratively) forever. The character was just created in 1977 (Fun fact: So was I!), and producer Charles M. Lippincott saw cinematic potential in the property by 1978, but he didn’t succeed in acquiring the rights until 1983 or so, after a year of negotiating, when the original rights holders allowed their original claim to lapse.

There were plenty of writers involved at various points, some just pitching, some working on scripts and some working on the final script. In fact, there were so many that producer Susan Nicoletti referred to them as “a parade of writers.”

Among them?

—Comics writer Jan Strnad

—The script-writing team of Tim Hunter and James Crumley (Their draft “was very well written but was incredibly complex and drew from so many threads of the Dredd legend that it would have been impossible to actually make,” according to producer Edward R. Pressman)

—Comics writer and artist Howard Chaykin (Apparently everyone loved his first pitch, done orally, which posited Judge Dredd as the Lone Ranger, but everyone hated his official treatment, which was Dredd wandering The Cursed Earth hallucinating a conversation with “an animated statue of Blind Justice”)

Terminator and Terminator 2 screenwriter William Wisher (whose script was dense and science-ficiton-y, with lots of mutants and aliens)

—Steven E. de Souza, who wrote Running Man, Commando, the first two Die Hards and seemingly about half of the action movies you saw in the ‘80s and early ‘90s (Although director Danny Cannon pretty bluntly slams de Souza’s take, which stands out as pretty weird, given the overall tone of the book which is, predictably, rather rah-rah of the entire endeavor.)

2.) A lot of writers had a hard time coming to grips with the character at all. Apparently the screenwriters who tried to “crack the Dredd puzzle during the early years of development” tended to fall into two camps.

“One group consisted of those who simply hated the bloody SOB, for political as well as visceral reasons, and wanted to build a harsh critique of Dredd’s ferocious tactics into the story,” Killick and company wrote. “Another group comprised of so-called ‘fan-boys,’ who loved Dredd a tad too much, and couldn’t bear to see a single rivet on his leather codpiece shifted a quarter inch from its position as ‘established’ in the comic book.”

Nicoletti says the same thing slightly differently, there were fans in one category, and “[t]he other category was writers who hadn’t a clue who Judge Dredd was, and went off and did the research and came back and said, ‘I hate this guy. This guy is a fascist.’ And some of them would want the job anyway and would attempt to write a story about a character they hated. ‘I’m going to stick him in the background and write a politically correct science fiction fantasy storya that’ sa cautionary tale about excessive police power.”

3.) The peculiarities of the Dredd character that were so divisive among potential screenwriters may have been the heart of what went wrong.

Here’s Cottie Chubb, a production executive, talking about the challenge of taking Dredd the comic character and turning him into a film character:

The first thing…was simply whether or not or to what extent we wanted to put the comic book character himself, intact, onto the screen. Whether you wanted to, because the character had a couple of major problems. He never took off his helmet, for one thing. He literally never showed his face. Which of course means that if you’re going to be true to the comic in this respect you won’t hire Arnold or Sly, because, trust me, you’re not going to pay the fee of a star like that and then never show his face. Even in RoboCop you saw his face, at least enough to assure people that there was a human being under the suit. With Dredd it’s never clear that there’s a man inside.

At this point, 14 years after the movie was released, it’s easy to read this as The Producers Just Not Getting It. As I mentioned before, Stallone was one of the few bankable stars who probably was recognizable in a visor and helmet at the time, and his…distinct voice would reassure anyone watching it was in fact him under that helmet.

There has been at least one rather successful based-on-a-comic-book movie that kept it’s star fully masked throughout the entirety of the film since then as well. In V For Vendetta, we never see Hugo Weaving’s face and, in fact, I guess there’s no real way to know for sure that it is Weaving in the costume.

But the tension between having a recognizable star in your superhero movie and keeping a mask on him most of the time is one the makers of superhero movies are seemingly constantly wrestling with. Note Michael Keaton ripping his rubber mask off at the end of Batman Returns, Tobey Maguire having his mask or sections of it ripped off during emotional moments in the Spider-Man movies, and Robert Downey Jr. losing his helmet in the climactic fight in Iron Man.

Perhaps the closest example to Judge Dredd deciding to show Dredd’s face is Frank Miller’s decision to show The Octopus’ face in The Spirit, since neither ever show their faces in the comics (Well, Dredd is always masked, whereas the Octopus is usually in shadows or off-panel entirely).

The Spirit obviously did rather poorly at the box office, but it’s doubtful if the decision to show the Octopus’ face had anything at all to do with that; in fact, Samuel L. Jackson as the Octopus seemed to be one of the film’s saving graces (among critics who could find saving graces).

More from Chubb:

Now, there are Dredd aficionados who would say…you want to keep him as an exaggerated force of nature dealing with real problems in an over the top way. Shooting a person for littering, or whatever. It’s only funny because of the exaggeration. But you can’t ask the action audience in this country to go to a movie and laugh at itself for being insecure enough to want to see action movies with larger than life heroes.

This view ultimately prevailed, and probably a mistake. I think we’ve learned that the action audience in America has no problem with insane exaggeration, and has no problem laughing at itself, but perhaps that wasn’t apparent back then, before Hong Kong’s influence over Hollywood action had become quite so prevalent.

I would side with the aficionados and fan boys though. There’s little point in having Dredd struggle with internal conflicts, because Dredd doesn’t have internal conflicts, beyond perhaps “How hard should I kick this scum in the face?” or “Where should I shoot that person, in the leg, the head or the torso?”

I haven’t read every Judge Dredd story ever written of course—I’m only up to volume 11 of the Case Files—but as far as I understand it, Dredd doesn’t have much emotional range, and is more a force of nature.

It’s worth noting that no one’s had much luck making a Punisher film yet either, despite multiple tries. The Punisher is a lot like Dredd, a force-of-nature-character that works better as a two-dimensional plot engine than a fleshed-out character. The very best Punisher stories have been those by Garth Ennis—who, coincidentally, used to write Dredd comics—in which The Punisher’s whole personality can be summed up as “a guy who will kill bad guys, no matter what.”

Pressman compared the Judge Dredd property to Conan, which seemed “so logical and distinct” compared to other comic book properties that he “never doubted its viability as a movie, or that it would be worth the effort—even when it seemed that it was going to take forever.’

I can see that. Unlike Batman or Spider-Man, Dredd isn’t really a character, nor is Conan. There dudes we enjoy watching move through their respective world, but don’t necessarily care for them personally, perhaps because we’re so confident that their victory is always completely assured. (Well, I imagine everyone watching Batman and Batman Returns imagined Batman would make it out alive and defeat the bad guys, but would his love interests survive? Would he be lonely when it was over? Would he make his dead parents proud? Batman was of our world; even if Gotham City was fairly far removed from it, it was closer to us than Conan Land or Mega-City One. And we could recognize aspects of Batman’s emotional conflicts, in the comics and the movies, whereas in Conan’s comics and movies and Dredd’s comics, the conflicts were mostly physical and devoid of emotional content).

4.) Apparently 1987's RoboCop was a terrible blow to the production of Judge Dredd. It seemingly delayed the film’s forward momentum for a bit, and according to Pressman, “From then on it was essential that we say to every writer and director that we talked to that it can’t be too much like RoboCop.”

Also, once Stallone was cast, 1993’s sci-fi action movie Demolition Man, in which he played a cop fighting crime in the future, caused some anxiety, as they wouldn't want to have their Judge Dredd too closely resemble it either.

5.) Apparently, there was once some resistance to superhero movies. In 2009, on the other side of the Spider-Man franchise, and financial and critical success of Iron Man and The Dark Knight, when movies are being made of even relatively obscure comics and the entirety of Marvel’s character catalog seems to be in some point of development, that superhero movies used to be a tough sell.

Here’s Lippincott:

Dredd was actually sort of a tough sell…Most studios don’t make big SF movies, unless there’s an exceptional filmmaker like [James] Cameron or [Stephen] Spielberg attached. Contemporary action is easier for them because it is star oriented. And comic books aren’t generally popular with studios, either. Warner Brothers owns DC Comics, which publishes Batman, so that’s a special case. I can understand their anxiety. It’s hard trying to find a way to handle a comic book character. How do you take something that’s literally two-dimensional and make it three-dimensional? And Dredd presents additional problems because in a way there’s almost too much material, too many ways to go with it.

Hollywood has no trouble with the making two-dimensional things three-dimensional any more—although admittedly they don’t do much beyond doing so literally, and occasionally even make two-dimensional characters one-dimensional when putting them in movies—but the “too much material” problem still exists. It’s more of a problem for a first movie though, and if they can keep from trying to cram in too much (Daredevil, Hulk), then they can wait till the second and/or third films to get to more of that material.

6.) Judge Death was MIA in part because he was difficult to play off Dredd in a movie introducing the latter (they’re basically the same character, only Death is funnier), but also due to technical concerns. The technology of 1991 ruled out the possibility of Judge Death, as he would have been a special effect, and it would have been impossible to have a real actor play him to any extent. (Now’s a different story, of course in a post Andy Serkis-as-Gollum-and-King Kong world). The book noted hopefully that as special effects got more and more sophisticated, it was looking likely that Judge Death could appear in a sequel. Of course, there never was a sequel.


Tucker Stone said...

Funny, I was looking at some of the stuff in that book not too long ago myself. Just recently started reading the Case Files as well, was curious as to what the deal was with that flick. Good article, this one.

esteban138 said...

And for all their concern over Dredd running together with Demolition Man, I think almost every guy in our age bracket has it least some confusion about certain scenes and characters. Basically any time Snipes wasn't mugging to the camera or Stallone didn't have the helmet.

(I didn't want to believe Rob Schneider was actually in both of them, but I checked and it really happened...)

Leigh Walton said...

It's so bizarre to me to think back to the comics/film relationship of the 90s. I remember WIZARD articles from '94, '95 hyping the big comic movies: THE MASK, JUDGE DREDD, and TANK GIRL. And the TMNT movie where they time travel to ancient Japan.

And the regular "Casting Call" feature, which was written with this complete sense of pie-in-the-sky: of course there will never be a DAREDEVIL movie, but isn't it fun to play What If? They also had an odd habit of casting wrestlers to play every role, but I digress.

It was a weird offshoot of team-comix boosterism, where we all gathered round to applaud the CROW movie, or to celebrate the fact that some third-rate Marvel character got a film adaptation that didn't completely throw out every element of the comics. Because that was literally the best we could hope for.

I guess SPIDER-MAN changed everything. In retrospect, the begging-for-scraps scenario seems absurd. (my favorite is the late-80s SPIDER-MAN script where "a corporate scientist intentionally subjects ID-badge photographer Peter Parker to radioactive bombardment, transforming him into a hairy, suicidal, eight-armed monster.") Zack Snyder's WATCHMEN is a total mess, but still I'm glad to now live in a world where it was possible.

Just don't ask me about TRANSFORMERS 2...

Phillip said...

Steven E. de Souza didn't write Commando all by himself, he shared a story credit with one of your faves: Jeph Loeb!

googum said...

It was on Sci-Fi recently, and I caught it again, and it's still terrible. I always thought the production looked nice: the sets, the ABC robot, the costumes. But they did miss the point of Dredd: he should seem like an exciting action hero, and the audience should be cheering him on, before slowly starting to realize Dredd's a complete fascist dick. (An emotionless and fair one, but still, total dick.)

That and Rob Schneider, and the flying Lawmaster cycles, and the burning need to give Dredd a catchphrase. Was that book intended as cautionary example, or was it supposed to be a bit of fluff hyping up the movie?

Tucker Stone said...

If you don't have a "gaze into the fist of dredd" moment where he punches through some creeps skull, you don't have a judge dredd movie. I think that's on the GRE.

Grant said...

I think the two things that killed the Dredd movie in its tracks were:

1. Robocop, like you mentioned, and;
2. It's actually really, really hard to make an entertaining high-budget populist action film out of a fascist thug. Dredd worked wonderfully as a blunt, violent, inappropriately funny caricature while Britain was working through the horrors of the Thatcher government. He doesn't work as a movie hero.

I can see a very good Dredd movie being made if they deliberately pitched it as a violent and over-the-top satire of action films, and if they kept the budget reasonably low so that they weren't relying on a mass audience to turn a profit.

Kid Kyoto said...

The similarities with Robocop is a good call. Robocop basically is the same character as Dredd.

But turth to be told it's been some time since I've seen JD and I don't remember it as being that bad.

Jeremy said...

The funny thing is, as awful a film as Judge Dredd was, I remember thinking at the time that it actually LOOKED great, and stayed reasonably faithful to the visual style of the characters. The Angel Gang, for instance, looked just like their comic counterparts, and I recall reading that Stallone actually fought (unsuccessfully, in the end) for the big green boots.

I also remember some magazine running photos of Stallone in his costume from Demolition Man and mistakenly IDing it as a production still from Judge Dredd.

Dredd seems like a very 80s, Cold War concept to me, so I don't really know how well doing the character as a film would work now.

Unknown said...

I'm trying to remember enough about the movie to think about why it wasn't very good. It does seem like they invalidated the basic concept by taking of Dredd's helmet and humanizing him, but if you don't do that, it's hard to make an actual movie. So instead of that "cheer him on until you realize he's a dick", you've got to see him disgraced, thrown out of town, then return to fight his evil twin and an army of clones, or something like that. I do remember noting a few weak points when watching it, even though I was young, such as the way every time somebody rode one of those flying motorcycles, it had a MALFUNCTION and either almost or did crash. And the thing with the clones seemed pointless; the bad guy hyped them up as if he was going to have an army, but other than a half-formed freak popping out of a pod, they never showed up. Eh, maybe I'm not remembering correctly, but the plot was all pretty rudimentary, imported from a "rogue cop" action movie with a couple sci-fi elements bolted on.

Hey, that's not a bad critique for a movie that I saw something like 15 years ago! Also: Rob Schneider sucks.

bad wolf said...

Yeah, all i really remember is that some plot twists seemed pretty cliche even then, and that Joan Chen shows up, but not enough to offset Rob Schneider.

Kid Kyoto said...

"Dredd seems like a very 80s, Cold War concept to me, so I don't really know how well doing the character as a film would work now."

Seems it would have worked great in the Bush era but not so well now in our Iraq pulling out, no torture Obama era.

Bush-era classics like BSG already feel dated.

Andy said...

Interesting article. I still have a soft spot for the Dredd movie. As has been said the production designs and the look and feel of the film were spot on Just the execution and choice of story didn't do it any favours. Leaving Death out was a bad move.

Unknown said...

Fascinating article. It's worth pointing out that there's a new Dredd film in the works, from the people who did Sunshine - Alex Garland on script, with original creator and series 'head writer' John Wagner consulting.

I don't know how they'll deal with the points you brought up - some of them obviously no longer apply, Robocop and Demolition Man being far in the past and comic book movies now being bigger business. Probably the equivalent problem will be those that remember the old Dredd film and avoid accordingly. Dredd himself has changed slightly over time - he's grown slightly more sympathetic since the film, and he also grew a large and organic supporting cast, which allows more three-dimensional characterisation without compromising Dredd's own personality. I'm looking forward to seeing what they do with it.

Dean H. said...

It warrants mentioning that comics are a different medium than film. Characters like Dredd and the Punisher are similar to gag strip characters in a way. They have one and only one motivation. The point of the strip is to impede them from that motivation. There are dozens of great comic boom characters who work exactly like that.

There are even more in the Lois Lane mold who are in eternal conflict between two dueling motives (beat Clark to the story vs. have sex with Superman). Both variations work just fine as long as the conflict can't be resolved in conclusive manner.

Movies are just the opposite. They need at least two motives in conflict to set an arc in which the protagonist either makes a choice, or achieves synthesis. A movie needs internally motivated conflict to drive the external action forward.

That is why single-minded comic book figures shouldn't be adapted.

Anonymous said...

It's been a while since I saw the film, but I don't seem to recall it having the same sort of black humour as the comics, which I always thought was one of the essential elements of 2000AD.