INT: Jonathan Hensleigh
Making his directorial debut with THE PUNISHER is prolific action/adventure screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh. After writing (or rewriting) a string of blockbusters, including THE ROCK, CON AIR and ARMAGEDDON, Hensleigh finally decided to step into the director's chair and check out the view from behind the camera. He couldn't have picked a better film with which to make his feature film debut. After the whole Dolph Lundgren straight-to-video debacle, expectations are running pretty low; unless he makes the film with sock puppets, claymation characters or Dolph Lundgren, odds are he'll improve on the original.
Then there are the expectations of the ardent fans of the comic, most of whom are split between two sentiments: some are too scarred by the 1989 version to risk another heart-wrenching disappointment; others are eager to see the dark vigilante get the proper on-screen treatment he deserves.
Armed with a $40 million budget, a marquee name (John Travolta) and those aforementioned low expectations, Hensleigh hopes his film will satisfy even the most hardcore Punisher fans. I got a chance to talk with him about the film a few weeks ago. Wearing a mustache, a large earring in his left ear and a white, long-sleeved shirt with the top two buttons undone, he kinda resembled a pirate. But that's just my opinion. Here's what he had to say about...THE PUNISHER...
What was it that attracted you to The Punisher comic?
It's been going on for 30 years, so I'd like to respond that - that the picture that I signed on to adapt was Garth Ennis' Welcome Back Frank series, so that's what the movie's based on. So the reason that I like that particular vein, is because I like the outcast, broken nature of Frank Castle and I like the fact that Garth took that character and put him into this dank, tenement apartment, surrounded by these three other broken outcast individuals. I just thought that that separated it from the normal, run-of-the-mill graphic novel. I just thought it was utterly unique, I'd never seen anything like it, and it had a sweetness to it that I really responded to.
Why Thomas Jane?
I think Thomas Jane is one of the...I've always liked him. I'm one of many people in Hollywood who has been expecting Thomas Jane to break out in the last several years, and he just didn't have the right role, the right vehicle. He was available, and I brought his name up - I'd just seen 61*, directed by Billy Crystal, where Thomas played Mickey Mantle, and I was extremely impressed with that performance, he just inhabited that tragic character. We all looked at his - we had a Thomas Jane film festival, and we just thought he was the right guy.
In the comics, do they kill all of his extended family?
No, the comic book had been out for about a decade when Marvel realized that they'd never done a series that explained the origin of the character, so in 1994 and '95, stretching over that year, they did a four part series called "The Punisher: Year One" and that's when they had Frank Castle's family having a picnic in Central Park, and they're a witness to a mafia execution and then they're marked for murder. So it was just his wife and his child. I asked Marvel and the studio whether or not we could up the ante and increase the stakes by making the underlining event which gives rise to Castle's vengeance much more heinous, much more egregious, much more unconscionable and they agreed, so we went in that direction.
Parts of the film seem heavily influenced by Mad Max. Is this coincidental?
No, it was consciously in my head. There are certain visual references in The Punisher, and you see them - I don't try to con anybody about that. There are certain visual references that I've used that are quite obvious, and I'm an enormous fan of George Miller, I liked the first two Mad Max pictures very much, and yeah that's an obvious reference, it's an homage. My shots and my visual design is quite different.
The fight with the Russian reminded me a lot of the James Bond - Jaws fights.
Definitely a reference there and in fact I showed the Jaws fight, and there's an earlier fight between Bond and Robert Shaw in the railway car that has savagery and violence, but also a wit to it, and yes they were definitely things that I showed my department heads.
How does the process of adapting a comic book compare to writing an original script?
It's easier, because you've got a lot more to draw on. You don't have to invent everything out of whole cloth, there's so much inspiration to be found in the underlying material, so I liked it very much.
Do you think there is a link between a film like this and Elizabethan tragedies?
Well, the plotline doesn't come from anything other than the obvious one, and that's Othello. There might be one, I don't know if there's a triangle like this where an instigator - the irony, of course, was that while I was inspired by Othello, that basic plotline, in Othello the bad guy Iago is the instigator of it, and I made the protagonist in The Punisher the instigator of the jealousy which leads to murder.
Can you talk a little about the casting of Travolta as Howard Saint?
It was very simple and very quick. We were notified of John Travolta's availability and when a star of that caliber is made available then people get in queue. All the scripts are submitted. And he read this script and responded very favorably and we were off and running. It really was as simple as that. We had already cast Thomas, we were pretty certain Rebecca Romijn-Stamos was going to join the cast, and then when John came aboard it was like getting an early birthday present.
His preparation was immense. He's a film icon. He's been doing this for many years, but he's not jaded, he loves cinema and he's not going through the motions. He loved the part, and he loved the script and the movie, and he brought his whole game and there were a number of times in the morning where he came in and offered a whole world of experience. I received many gifts from John during the shooting. We changed dialogue on the fly sometimes when lines weren't working, but what I loved was his calmness and collectedness, and he made everything very easy for me.
How heavily choreographed was the fight scene with Kevin Nash?
The fight scene was planned over a nine-month period. It started with my script and then a storyboard, with storyboard sessions over several months. Then Michael Hanan, the production designer, we constructed the set so as to accommodate the fight rather than the other way, which is the way it's normally done, but it was nine months of pre-production.
Why did you choose Kevin Nash to play the Russian?
Because he's 6'11" and 310 pounds, and also light on his feet, he's truly a superb, extraordinary athlete. A lot of people don't know Kevin Nash started for the University of Tennessee at center. He was a basketball player, then a professional wrestler, so he has very quick feet and excellent hand-eye reflexes - what makes that fight is that the two combatants are the real actors 90 percent of the time.
What was the most challenging thing for you being a first time director?
The challenge wasn't about being a first time director, it was handling the scale of this production in a 52-day schedule, on the budget that I had. And the gauntlet that was thrown was that, the mandate if you will was that we were going to try to make a big, big scale action picture for a lot less money than most of the budgets that these things are shot on. That was it. It was just driving myself and driving the crew to get the shots and in a much shorter schedule than most pictures use.
Was it always going to be an R-rated film?
The R rating was determined in our first meetings. We decided on that, we learned from the internet that the hardcore fan base wanted an R rating, that that was unequivocal, not arguable. So we decided to make an R rated movie and let the chips fall, and we kept the cost of the negative down. The Punisher comic carries a parental warning; the comic itself, so what I'm saying here is there are no surprises here. This is not going to be one of those pictures where a parent can say, "Oh Gosh, I was surprised by this." This is what it is.
The first act of the movie has a certain gritty veracity to it, when Frank Castle's family is killed. But the more the movie progresses it seems to be more exaggerated.
As a film fan, I don't like pictures that fail to escalate properly, so I tried to carefully plot the picture out so that the graph of the picture was ever escalating and so that it would end with a bang if you will, that it would reach a crescendo.
Was there a fear that it would cross over to pure kitsch at a certain point?
Yeah, again, look, there's a certain style that everybody's writing in filmmaking and that's just what I do. I don't care what adjectives are used, you can call it cheesy or it's a little bit kitschy or whatever, but I try to leaven the seriousness of stuff at times. I think it's just sort of a nod to myself; it's certainly a nod to the audience that proceedings aren't to be taken so seriously. That's all it is.
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