"Punisher: War Zone" director Lexi Alexander, along with stars Ray Stevenson and Wayne Knight and producer Gale Ann Hurd appeared before the press Tuesday afternoon to talk about the new Punisher film. They discussed their familiarity with the character, what makes Frank Castle compelling, and the interesting cinematic choices made for the film.
Alexander was not familiar with the Marvel comic books prior to seeing an earlier draft of the script, still called "Punisher 2" at the time. "I thought, 'Well, this is very interesting, I'd like to look into the comic books,'" she recalled. Eventually, when Alexander accepted the job, she was sent two boxes filled with Punisher comics and found in the work of Garth Ennis an approach and tone that appealed to her. "I read them over the weekend and I thought, 'Why didn't I read comic books before?'" Alexander also read fan reaction to the previous film adaptations. "I think the only person who learned more about the Punisher was Ray Stevenson."
For Stevenson, the character "chose a path of no redemption." Finding the soul of The Punisher in the work of Ennis, which he called "phenomenal," Stevenson said those comics made him want to play the part. "There's something tragic and mythical [about it]," he said, adding that he liked the character's commitment, which has an honesty to it. "He's honest enough to say he's not there to protect the innocent." Stevenson said an actor likes to find "pure" characters like Frank Castle.
Stevenson was aware of the previous Punisher films, but did not watch them before filming "War Zone." Because the new film is a fresh take disconnected from 2004's "The Punisher," Stevenson felt it was important to keep the part his own. "If I was going to play a role onstage, I wouldn't necessarily go and watch another actor playing that role, directed by somebody else and acting with other cast members," he remarked.
In addition to reading everything he could get his hands on, Stevenson went through months of physical training. He said he endurance training "paid the biggest dividend." That particular component of pre-film training helped the actor get through the two-and-a-half months of night shoots.
Stevenson is also quick to credit his stunt double, Jeff Wolfe, for his performance in "War Zone." "I brought him on early in the process and said, 'We are going to be Frank Castle.'" They trained together and enjoyed a true collaboration. "Here's where you go through the window and here's where I roll out and pick up the gun," he joked.
Stevenson also had a "concise" training on the weapons The Punisher uses in the film. With the help of former U.S. Marines and Special Forces personnel, Stevenson became comfortable with the type of weaponry someone like Frank Castle might use. "He's not a superhero; he doesn't have superpowers. He has his training and his discipline," Stevenson explained, adding that Castle is popular in the Armed Forces and he wanted to be true to how each weapon is used. "We wanted to show those quick magazine changes," he offered.
Stevenson recalled a phone call from Alexander when he was offered the role. "Ray, you are Frank Castle. You are going to be Frank Castle. You are going to do this movie. If you have any doubts about this movie, I will put your doubts at rest," she said.
Indeed, Alexander feels Stevenson is a natural fit. Asking for a "guy's guy," executive producer Kevin Feige brought Stevenson to her attention by way of HBO's "Rome." A storyline about his character, Titus Pullo, rescuing a slave girl convinced the director that Stevenson was right for the job. Alexander then sent an email around to the production: "If I'm not getting him as the Punisher, I'm not doing the movie."
While Garth Ennis's work proved to be an invaluable source of inspiration "Punisher: War Zone," the popular comics writer was not involved in the film. Hurd said Ennis had "a very full slate" and could not participate in any direct way. The film is not based on any specific Ennis story, and therefore he could not receive any sort of story credit.
The color palette of Marvel's MAX Comics Punisher series was striking to Alexander. "We wanted to put the MAX comic book on screen," she said. After convincing the studio that emulating the three-color scheme would work, she realized the costumes would be too garish and had to order them all to be remade. "We have the wardrobe in eight different colors," she remembered. Combining so many colors under the lighting scheme would have produced terrible looking footage. "The wardrobe would've fucked everything up and made a circus out of it."
Jigsaw proved to be difficult character for Alexander and the production to realize. "We tried several things. We did a screen test. We sent them back to Marvel and got great feedback," she explained. While Alexander was ready to go with an initial make-up idea, Marvel said Jigsaw resembled an "alligator." They eventually settled on the version applied to actor Dominic West, best known for his starring role in HBO's "The Wire." "Dominic West is one of the greatest actors," Alexander said, explaining that his performance in the film is exactly what she wanted. "I directed him to be over-the-top. That's what I saw for [Jigsaw] and I think it's great."
For Wayne Knight, his character research led him to discover multiple versions of Microchip. "Which Microchip are we talking about?" he remarked. In the end, Knight created an amalgam character that worked best for him. "I saw him as being the supply sergeant for Frank's one-man army; somebody who keeps it moving and tries to keep Frank sane and connected somehow to the Earth." Asked if that also means comic relief, Knight replied, "I think that pretty much comes with me whether I want it to or not."
Though "Punisher: War Zone" is violent, it did not have to fight for its R rating with the Motion Picture Association of America. Alexander said the United States is more welcoming of screen violence. "It's completely opposite in Europe." There, she said, the sort of violence she likes to portray on film is much harder to get classified for general release. Alexander also mentioned that Frank Miller had to appear before the MPAA to get a PG-13 rating for the upcoming "The Spirit" adaptation.
Alexander admitted she was not the first choice to direct "War Zone," but she never felt that being a woman created a lack of confidence in her skills. "Nobody ever said, 'she's a female filmmaker.' Not the executives. Not Gale. Nobody else said that. They just said, 'she's the right filmmaker,'" Alexander revealed. Day to day, gender was never an issue. However, Alexander said she was going to pass on the project, but a friend convinced her to take it, saying, "If you pass, I'll kick your ass. You might be the only girl who's going to break through the glass ceiling."
Gale Ann Hurd, a veteran producer of action films reaching back to the "The Terminator" hopes one day it will not matter if an action movie director is a man or a woman. "We're trying to get to the point where we're gender-neutral," she said. "It's all about the filmmaker and what they bring to [a project.]" However, Hurd does credit Alexander with illustrating "you can have an extremely violent movie and you don't have to be a guy."
"Punisher: War Zone" is playing in U.S. cinemas now.