The latest incarnation of The Punisher is easily the goriest and most violent yet. In fact, I think it’s the goriest movie of the year. Step aside, Saw V! We’re talking necks slit to the point of decapitation, chair legs through eye sockets, necks broken at every imaginable angle, and more impalings than I can count. Punisher: War Zone is a kind-of, kind-of-not sequel to the 2004 Thomas Jane film. This one stars Ray Stevenson as Marvel Comics’ bloodthirsty angel of death Frank Castle, and 300’s Dominic West as his crazed archenemy Jigsaw. It’s directed by Lexi Alexander, a feisty German filmmaker who proves that blood-fueled action movies are no longer a guy’s genre. Read our conversation with Stevenson, Alexander and action producer extraordinaire Gale Anne Hurd (The Terminator, The Incredible Hulk) after the jump.
Lexi, can you talk about your familiarity with The Punisher and what made you want to direct this movie?
Alexander: I was not familiar with the comic book at all when I got the script. I have to say, getting a script called Punisher 2 – which it still was by the time I got it – I wasn’t jumping out of my chair [with excitement]. When I read it, it was the Nick Santora draft – I think I got that version by accident. I thought, “Wow, this is really interesting. I’d like to look at the comic books.” By the time I got the job, Marvel sent me two boxes of comic books. I read them over a weekend and thought, “Why didn’t I read comic books before?” I studied it really hard. I also studied what the fans didn’t like about the previous versions, what they were expecting. I got in touch with a lot of fan boys. I think the only person who was more obsessive about researching The Punisher was Ray Stevenson. By the end, he was telling me, “Oh no, this was in issue 77!”
Garth Ennis’s name is all over the production notes, but it is nowhere on the film. Did he not want his name on it?
Hurd: Garth has a very full slate in the comic book world. I think the way the credits go is that it was based on characters from the Marvel comic-book world, as opposed to any particular writer.
Ray, can you talk about your preparation for this role?
Stevenson: We had an extensive pre-film period. Worked out about three or four months. Thankfully, we did a lot of endurance training. That has paid the biggest dividend. We did do very concise work with the weapons. It wasn’t about having the biggest gun, it was about having the right gun, knowing how to use it. We had some great guys from the Marines and Special Forces. The thing about Frank is that he doesn’t have super powers. He has his training and his discipline. He doesn’t have magic magazines that never run out of ammo. We really worked at that. Also, he is a very popular character with the military. Basically, Frank Castle is the weapon and the guns are just an extension of himself.
Someone asked if I had a favorite gun. I said, “Yeah, the one that was loaded and pointed at the enemy.”
Frank is a really complicated character. Was there anything that really resonated with you personally?
Stevenson: I think one of the special motivators for me was that he chose a path with no redemption for him. There is no light at the end of the tunnel he has chosen. There is something kind of mythical and tragic about that. He’s not looking for redemption, he’s not trying to say he is there to save the innocent. He’s made his choices, and there is a price to pay for that. I like that his commitment had an honesty to it. They say that when being an actor, “you hit the mark, look the other guy right in the eye, and tell the truth.” Yes it is a pretend world, but you have to step up and be honest with it.
Lexi, can you talk about the look of the film, especially the different color palettes you used?
Alexander: All credit goes to our wonderful DP Steve Gainer. When I researched what people didn’t like about the previous Punisher, a lot said they didn’t like that it was set in Florida, they didn’t like the light. I just took what the fans said, because if they liked it, it would be a success for us. I looked at the Max comic books, and was struck by the great color work. I thought it was probably because they don’t have the budget to print too many colors, so they have three in each frame. But whatever. I wanted to put the Max comic book on screen exactly. It was a risk, but I’m glad they said, “Go do it.” The other day, one of my agents came to me and said, “I was surprised. I thought this would look like shit. But it looks really good!” I fought very hard for this DP.
Three days before shooting, I kept thinking, “Something is wrong.” I realized it was the wardrobe. We can’t have the wardrobe in eight different colors! The colors had to be the same [to fit with the lighting]. I don’t know why I didn’t think about this before. The wardrobe would have fucked everything up – would have made a circus out of things. I think it has paid off.
Was there any so-called male chauvinism when you came onto this picture, being an action film and all?
Alexander: I will answer this politically correct. I wasn’t the first choice for this film. I think some of the more conservative money guys didn’t want me, they wanted the other guy. Then they ended up with me. I like that on this project, no one I worked with directly ever said, “She’s a female filmmaker.” They just said, “She’s the right filmmaker.”
When I wanted to pass on this film, my friend said, “If you pass on this I’m going to kick your ass. You might be the only girl who breaks through the action-movie glass ceiling. You have to do it.” It should be like that.
Do you think that there is something that a female prospective brings to the action movie genre?
Hurd: From my perspective, we are trying to get to the point where we are gender-neutral. It’s more about the right filmmaker, and what they bring to it. The minute you say a female director didn’t screw it up or did screw it up, then everybody suffers. Lexi has taken a huge step towards showing you can have a completely violent movie, and you don’t have to be a guy.
Lexi, how much trouble did you have with the MPAA?
Alexander: I have to be honest. I think it is funny that we can get away with so much violence and so little sex [in the United States]. Because of the films I do, I love America for that. It’s completely opposite in Europe. I didn’t have any trouble with them about the violence.
When you approached your character, did you look at the Thomas Jane version first?
Stevenson: No. I was aware of it, and the Dolph Lundgren one. I watched the Thomas Jane version afterwards. It was clear to me that we were doing a different movie. It wasn’t a follow-up movie, it was in no way connected. So there was no need for me to go in and see those. If I was playing a role on stage, I wouldn’t necessarily go and see another actor playing that role.
Growing up, did you ever see yourself playing a comic book character?
Stevenson: No, I didn’t. We used to go off to the Saturday morning picture show, my brothers and I. I was enchanted at an early age. I immersed myself in that world. I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be an actor, but it just didn’t seem possible. I finally admitted to myself that I wanted to act. It’s been an interesting journey.
Ray, this is such an unusual role for you to play. Were you surprised when it came to you?
Stevenson: I wasn’t aware of the character beforehand. I got a phone call out of the blue saying, “Do you want to do this Punisher movie?” “Is there a script?” “No, no, you can’t read the script. We’re not sure about it.” How can you commit to something like that? Then I was in England, and Lexi called me up and said, “Ray, you are Frank Castle. You are going to be Frank Castle. If you have any doubts about this movie, I will put your doubts to rest.” Who is gonna argue with that?
Alexander: There is previous story. His agent passed twice to me. He said, “No, I don’t want him to be in something like that.” To this day, I believe that if we weren’t at the same agency, this never would have happened. I threatened them I would leave if I didn’t get on the phone with him. I think I did more “car selling” on this movie than any other. I talked everybody into it.
When we sat down for the casting meeting, I said, “I want a real guy’s guy. I don’t want a Ken doll, I don’t want a pretty boy.” When they suggested Ray Stevenson, I had never seen Rome. I couldn’t afford HBO at the time. I stopped at Blockbuster on the way home, put in the first episode. I stopped in the middle, sent out an email, and said, “If you don’t get him as The Punisher, I’m not doing the film.”
Hurd: The first time I met Ray it was for The Incredible Hulk.
Stevenson: Yeah. They hadn’t cast Ed Norton yet, so I was up for the nemesis part. It was a great meeting. But then they got Ed Norton [to be the Hulk] so it was going to be Tim Roth [as the Abomination]. Unbeknownst to me, out of that meeting came this film.
When you get a project like this, how does budget come into play?
Alexander: When I did Green Street Hooligans, it had a lot of violence, a lot of fights, and everyone knew I made it for $5 million in London. It was nothing. For them to come to me, and many of the other directors who do [low-budget] movies, it’s a really good move. To me, $35 million is like ka-ching! I don’t need the $200 million Iron Man has. People said it looked more expensive than it really was, and that is what we wanted. There was no more than $35 million spent on this movie, and I have the budget to prove it! I think I conned a lot of people for working for half their fee.
Lexi, with this being your first studio film, do you see yourself doing more, or going back to independent films?
Alexander: Suddenly there are a lot of comic book scripts coming my way – just found out today. Not sure if I can talk about them. Last week, I said I would never do it again, [but] now I have a different opinion. I’d like to go back to the independent world, I think there are different problems there. I’ll just make good movies.
Was it difficult to cast and get the look for Jigsaw?
Alexander: Yeah, I think we all had trouble with that. I didn’t like him in the comic book, especially with that cartoony eye. We had an Academy Award-winning special FX makeup guy on the team. We did the screen tests, sent them to Marvel, they gave us their feedback… this is the kind of thing you really have to be collaborative on. I literally would have gone with the first look we had, but Marvel said it looked too “crocodile-ish” or something. What we ended up with, I really love. From what I have read today, some people really, really like Jigsaw. Others don’t like him at all. Dominic West is one of the greatest actors, and he went with my direction. It wasn’t him going over-the-top, I directed him to be over-the-top. He did exactly what I asked him to.
Ray, what was the hardest stunt for you to do?
Stevenson: Thankfully, I had a wonderful stunt double, so I could just watch him dangle from wires.
Alexander: May I just say, this is what I love about Ray. I grew up as a stunt woman in this business, and all those fucking actors always pretend they have done their own stunts. This guy goes out everywhere, and says “I don’t need to be in that good of shape; my stunt double does it all for me.” He praises his stunt double everywhere.
Stevenson: I was very lucky. His name is Jeff Wolf. He gets it. He’s not a fall guy, he’s an acting stunter. I told him “We are going to be Frank Castle.” I trained with him so it would be seamless.