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A Dark and Scary Place
On 6th July 1995 I visited Broadcasting House Studio 6A to experience the recording of Judge Dredd: The Day the Law Died - the latest Dirk Maggs Audio Movie. I came away with an exclusive interview, and an inkling into just what goes into a production such as this.
My thanks go to voice artists William Dufris, Lorelei King, Gary Martin, Michael Roberts and William Roberts; Script Writer Paul Powell; and engineering staff Wilfredo Acosta, Ian Harker, Rebecca Kirby and Maureen Trotman, and the Fleetway Comics guys. In the duration of my visit Dirk and his most accommodating crew gladly permitted me to observe proceedings both inside and out of the Control Room, as they recorded two-and-a-half episodes. They all appeared to be enjoying themselves enormously, proving it is possible to maintain good humour and still knuckle-down to meet a looming deadline ...
Ty Power: Can you give us an insight into your education and early professional career?
Dirk Maggs: I joined the BBC about fifteen years ago (1980) as a studio manager and I became a producer in radio light entertainment in 1988, working mainly on comedy shows and programmes like The News Huddlines on Radio 2. One of the first things I came into light entertainment to do was a documentary about Superman (Superman On Trial), a sort of docudrama to celebrate Superman's 50th birthday. Radio 4 liked it and said, "What about Batman?" So in 1989 we did Batman - The Lazarus Syndrome. Then Radio 4 asked for a series of Supermans, which took us to 1991. Two years ago when Matthew Bannister took over Radio 1, he said he was looking for a daytime serial. He came to me for ideas so I suggested Batman. Since then we've done Batman (Knightfall), repeated the Radio 4 Superman serials in Dolby Surround, repeated The Death of Superman - Doomsday and Beyond, we did Spider-Man this year and now we're doing Judge Dredd.
TP: Was Superman - Doomsday and Beyond the first of the batch?
DM: There was kind of a break after this Radio 4 Superman. We were planning to do Star Trek but it fell through. We had arrangements to do it, hopefully with the original cast, but we had a major cast drop out at the eleventh hour so I had to find something very quickly which we could do that would fill the gap. I suggested The Death of Superman which was then still running in the comics. If we could do something which was coming out as the comics were coming out it would be a bit of a coup, so I spoke to DC Comics and at first they were a little bit reluctant because they thought we'd like to give away all their secrets, but when I guaranteed to sign their little form saying I wouldn't, they went for it. We did that for Radio 5 in 1993, and it was the first production we did in Dolby Surround.
TP: Was there an arrangement whereby they had to finish the comic series before you could air?
DM: No. We actually got the draft scripts before they'd even done the artwork so that we could make it while they were making it. In fact, we did the same with Batman - Knightfall. When I wrote the end of Knightfall, I wrote two versions, because after writing the first it turned out they changed their minds about how it was going to end.
TP: How did these comic book adaptations actually start?
DM: I approached them [the BBC] originally with the idea of the Superman Anniversary, but I always thought we were going to do a documentary about it. Then I thought, wouldn't it be good to dramatise the comic books. We started fairly low-key. As time went by I realised that what we could do is make the radio sound like the movies. Putting it into Dolby Surround was a logical extension of what we'd already started to do. It's like loading up a ton of radio effects - much more than what you get on a normal radio drama. And now we've got very sophisticated and use multi-layered sound effects. Like, for example, today we did an acting session to which we'll add live movement, clinking of glasses, doors opening and so on. Then we'll add another track with even more effects, and another with a surround track with atmosphere and additional explosions. So at the end, when it's all compressed and put through a Dolby Surround unit, it'll be very much like being at the cinema except they'll be no pictures - it'll all be in your head.
TP: You use a lot of stock effects, but I understand you created some of your own for Superman?
DM: The stock effects we use we muck around with. There are effects libraries, but generally speaking what I try to do is never use the same effect twice. I always try to come up with new ones for each production. For example, Judge Dredd's bike in this is a combination of a depth charge cartridge firing, a Harley revving, a ricochet, an explosion, Concorde taking off, a shell passing overhead and a rocket disappearing into the stratosphere - all cross-faded over each other. And we'll add, probably, the voice of the bike, so that if he says, "Engage" the bike will say, (adopts computer voice) "Engage!" We cook it up. Although it's good to access the libraries quite often, the sound tracks from Warner Brothers and Universal and old film tracks are really not good enough for hi-fi. The best thing is to use them as basics, but then lard over them another layer of stuff which is much more crisp.
TP: I particularly liked the Spider-Man web-shooter.
DM: Yes, we were pleased with that. That was an interesting one. That was a servo triggered twice, followed by a bull-whip lash digitally looped several times, with a "squidgy" noise over the top.
TP: Have you ever experienced any trouble attaining copyright permission?
DM: Yes. We've got a very good relationship with DC Comics. An excellent relationship whereby DC actually asked us to do Batman - Knightfall, which was a real honour. When it came to doing Spider-Man with Marvel, that was slightly more tricky, but they were very good to us. When they realised we wanted to do a really good job of it, they were very pleased. I think they were pleased with the result. Judge Dredd has been tricky because of the movie. As soon as you get a film involved rights become a big issue. Judge Dredd has been the hardest to clear; we've been a year trying. Between clearing it and getting it into the studio has been less than a week. We're up against it now, because we're going out in ten days and we've got quite a bit to do yet. So it's been quite a tight deadline. At one end you have the rights backing up, and at the other end the start date that Radio 1 wanted, so by the time we cleared everything we were right up against the wall. But we'll do it, we'll get there.
TP: How long does a script normally take to complete?
I written everything up to Judge Dredd. Dredd's the only one I haven't written, and Paul Powell did that. Generally speaking, one and a half hours takes a couple of weeks to write, but then you have to send it off to the comics company to get approval and do the changes. So a script can take three weeks to write for ten episodes, which is a day's worth of work; that's two week's worth of Radio 1 output in terms of daily episodes. We record in batches of ten episodes, which is half an hour of material per day. It's a long job and it's very tiring, because you have to put a lot of energy in. Every time you come on the air you have to hit the ground running. You can't have long scenes where nothing happens. Everyday it's got to be new; you might get your listeners for the first time. I found it exhausting. I think Paul (Powell) is finding it very tiring. It's very nice to be handing it over to him, although I'd like to do some more.
TP: With only two or three minutes per episode, there's a lot to cram in.
DM: Three minutes per episode. There is a lot to cram in. It's got to make sense, you've got to tell a back story, you've got to establish the characters and you've got to move forward as well. It's a hell of a lot to do in three minutes, really. It's certainly an exercise in economic writing skill.
TP: When the scripts are finished do they need to be vetted?
DM: Yes. The quality controllers of comics companies always want to see what we've done, to make sure we're not breaking any rules. As a BBC Producer it's my job to make sure they're broadcastable, so this is what I do. Dredd is pretty violent, the most violent one we've done so far. It'll be interesting to see if we get a mailbag, but generally speaking the BBC trust me ... just about!
TP: How do you go about assembling the cast?
DM: There's a very large contingent of American actors in London. What's great about it is they're not only American actors, but some of the best American actors in the world. So over the years I've worked with a number of people through word of mouth, recommendations and listening to demo tapes. When it came to Dredd and I was only allowed a cast of five because of a tight budget, I could pick five of the most versatile people I knew. The result is that hopefully you won't notice that the cast is actually fairly tight. From Batman we had up to fourteen, which was wonderful, because of course you get the vocal range.
TP: A few voice actors you've used several times.
DM: Absolutely. Lorelei (King), William Roberts. I think Lorelei is the voice that's been most with us over the years, because she's so good at voices and also great fun to have around. If there's a funny ad-lib, she'll find it. Quite often I'll cut a line that I've written in favour of an ad-lib by Lorelei, because she's so good. Some of them are hilarious. So we told her in Spider-Man if she played Flash Thompson's mother, and she came up with this whole routine about Flash being late for breakfast. He was only away for a bowl of cornflakes, but the whole routine she was doing: (adopts American accent) "Your breakfast is ready, your breakfast is ready. All this fuss for a bowl of cornflakes. I gotta go work in the bowling alley!" All this sort of stuff. It was all Lorelei, nothing to do with me at all!
TP: What sort of teething troubles do you normally find early on?
DM: The rights. Apart from that, providing I've got my hands on a story, there's no problem at all. It's really just clearing everything and making sure the actors are available, because we don't pay a lot. So if they get a better paying job I've got to try and work around them and help them out. That's the kind of problems. But once we're in the studio we're usually safe, although we are up against it a bit at the moment.
TP: What media feedback have you received?
DM: We've had some very good press. We've not done one yet where we've had anything but a very positive and favourable reaction. The papers have been on our side. I think they realise that we're trying to do something new in radio. The production values are very high; you can hear them on the tape. There ain't no rattling teacups. It's not The Archers. Not that I'm condemning The Archers. I think the level of sophistication in radio drama should be reached for all the time. I think the critics have been very good to us now. They see what we're trying to do and applaud us in doing it, which is great. We may yet blow it!
TP: Batman - Knightfall was quite a recent comic series. Was this adapted with any intention of tying in with the Dark Knight movies?
DM: No, we never worried about the movies. But it was very much to tie-in with the release of those comics, as the comics were coming out. That was a conscious decision. But frankly, I think the next Batman we will do will be classic Batman. Something like that, where we actually go back and find all the best Batman stories. I'd love to do Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller some time. But generally speaking I prefer to work with material that's been around for a while, in the sense that newly minted material is terribly sensitive and you can go through an awful lot of agony with publishers and editors about actually being allowed to do it. And it takes such a long time. You can do two series in the time it takes to clear one. Judge Dredd is a case in point. We had a gap between Spider-Man and Dredd because of the clearance times.
TP: There was actually a team-up in the comics between Judge Dredd and Batman.
DM: Yes, I plan to talk to Fleetway (Comics) and DC about that. I think that'll be the dream ticket for Christmas. Judgement on Gotham. I think that would be such fun to do, but that all depends on whether Synergy go for it. We're all cool about it. That'll be a nightmare, but I have hopes.
TP: The Amazing Spider-Man was taken from the stories surrounding the birth of the character. Was this any intention to lighten the tone after Batman?
DM: Maybe in a way. But I think it's the nature of the character. Stan Lee's early stuff was funny, so we could do that. But it wasn't a deliberate lightening of mood. It was fun to do because it was a reversal. Superman is a strangely unappealing character, for some reason. Out of all the things we've done, Superman has the lowest audience figures. Batman was good, Spidey was good. Dredd will be good. It's just one of those weird things; you're in a situation where you cannot predict people's reaction. Superman was a strangely low-key reaction compared to the others. Although, in fact he's one of my favourite characters. I think he's always undersold. I'd still love to find the definitive Superman story. At the moment I don't think Superman is served well in the comics, but that's something to argue with DC really.
TP: I think with the other characters it's that they're human and more vulnerable.
DM: Yes, but I think that's what they miss in Superman: that actually he is too. But nobody's found a way to tackle that. DC asked me if I would like to write a Superman graphic novel, and I said yes, I'd love to. I'm talking to them about doing a Superman a little bit like Dark Knight Returns. A new take on the whole thing. But we'll see. That's early days; only the last few weeks of talking to DC.
TP: With Spider-Man there's also the option of later popular stories, such as Venom, Carnage and the Spider Slayers.
DM: We may well revisit Spider-Man, if they'll let us. At this point in time there's so many ideas for doing other things. I liked Spider-Man. I thought it worked well. I liked the humour, and we moved it along well. It'll be a way off though. I think it likely they'll repeat the first series before we do a second. But who knows?
TP: The Voice of Aunt May was ... unique.
DM: Ah, yes (laughs). Buffy (Davis). Unfortunately she's not on this show. But yes, very, very good.
TP: The Judge Dredd project has come at a very opportune time, with the movie and the comic book re-releases.
DM: The movie has been discussed for a couple of years now, and I think Radio 1 would like to be seen to be doing something absolutely as the movie comes out - and rightly so. I think one should try to stay up with what's going on. Dredd is big and we can complement the movie.
TP: You're targeting the right age group with Radio 1. I don't think many young people listen to Radio 4.
DM: No, although I maintain that Radio 4 should do more to get young people to listen. I'd like to think if we did Dark Knight Returns, we could get a proper place off for it, do it in an hour and a half, and run it as a sequential audio movie. I don't see why you can't do that.
TP: With the right publicity ...
DM: Absolutely. That would have to be done. But the point is this material is worthy of treatment of more than three minute bursts. That's pretty important.
TP: Very basically, can you give us a plot overview of Judge Dredd.
DM: We're doing two stories from the original books. The first is Judge Caligula, which concerns a judge who becomes chief, who is a megalomaniac upstart and decides to sentence the whole of Mega-City One to death. Dredd, who has been unjustly framed comes back effectively from the dead to avenge the people he's killed and bring Mega-City One to its senses. The second is The Apocalypse War. This deals with one of the major events in the 2000 AD comics history, which shapes the destinies of all the judges and the justice system. It acts as a sort of prequel to the movie in a way. But it's taken from the early Grant Wagner stuff, and in that respect it's nice to be able to go back to the source. That's the beauty of it. It's nice to have the Fleetway guys around today, because that way I feel if we're not doing anything which crosses over their view of it, then we're doing it right. Any movie can't be as right as we can be, because we go to source. Movies can't do that.
TP: I understand it runs for some months?
DM: Yes. From Monday 17th July  up to (Friday) 3rd November (4:20 pm on Mark Goodier's Drive Time Show).
TP: When will the completed versions be available in the shops?
DM: Should be around September for the Judge Caligula story, and probably October or November for The Apocalypse War. So there's two double CDs or cassettes by Polygram; they have the rights this time.
TP: What about the future? What plans?
DM: Twentieth Century Fox are interested in seeing if we'd like to do anything based on Aliens, which we're interested in. There's talk of doing Tank Girl, but that's in the offing. I personally would like to move into something like a Michael Crichton novel. I'd love to do Jurassic Park, the way the novel was rather than the movie. Or one of his other books. We're talking about offering Radio 1 The Watchman, Dave Gibbons, but we'd need to find a different slot for that. So there are lots of titles we're playing with, but obviously we're looking to acquire rights. It would be nice to take the audio movie technique on to stuff that isn't just comic books. But in the end comics are wonderful, so there's bound to be another Batman series, or even Judgement on Gotham, if we can get Batman and Judge Dredd together. That would be great fun. So there are a number of things. One particular thing I'm doing for radio drama for Radio 4 for Christmas is Peter Pan. But I'll be using the techniques I've developed for the superhero thing, so it should sound pretty zippy.
TP: On the subject of comic books, in terms of popularity the X-Men maybe...
DM: Maybe. Although I don't know them. So I kind of hesitate to go into an area I don't know. But they enjoy huge popularity, so who knows. Maybe, it depends. With all the TV animations it's tricky.
Dirk Maggs, thank you very much.
*See below for cast and crew photographs (copyright Ty Power)
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