Exclusive: Lexi Alexander on Punisher: War Zone

It’s been just over three years since Lexi Alexander’s debut feature film Green Street Hooligans was released after winning many awards at various film festivals, and while that movie about British soccer gangs was shamefully ignored by the public at large, Alexander will definitely get attention with her new movie, Punisher: War Zone, revisiting the Marvel Comics vigilante for a third time. This time, the Punisher and his alter ego Frank Castle are played by Ray Stevenson from HBO’s “Rome” and he’s taking on the villain most closely associated with the comic character, Jigsaw, as played by Dominic West (HBO’s “The Wire”).

Superhero Hype! got on the phone with Lexi, talking to her towards the end of the film’s L.A. junket earlier this week.

Superhero Hype!: Last year you did a conference call towards the end of production, which was actually almost a year ago. Have you been working on the movie this entire time since then?

Lexi Alexander: I have, yeah. It took a while. It was interesting because we didn’t get all the budget approved right away for visual effects and stuff, it was kind of like a process. It seemed like we had a lot of time, then all of a sudden there was a big rush, like we have to get it done now. It had to do I think with international distribution so I went from just chilling every day two hours at the editing room to all of a sudden working every day twelve hours a day.

SHH!: When you came on as director, did they already have a script and did they already decide Jigsaw was going to be the villain? What was actually in place when you came on board as director?

Alexander: Well, they had two scripts and one better than the other, but both not very good. That was actually the reason Ray Stevenson’s agent passed, and they basically brought me on and they said, “We understand we have to rewrite the script. We want to bring these new guys on, these Marvel writers”–those were the guys from “Iron Man” –”and we want to have a new vision.” Jigsaw was in one of the scripts, not in the other. “LBJ” (Loony Bin Jim) was in one and not in the other, so I took the parts that I liked and got together with these two guys and we created a script that then changed many times during production, but really that’s what we did.

SHH!: You must’ve known about the character, but had you read any of the Garth Ennis comics before?

Alexander: That’s when I got the offer, but then when they tried to convince me that it is a good thing and I can do a reboot and a new vision of it, they sent me I think two boxes of comic books all about “The Punisher” – the old ones and the new ones and the MAX series, and when I saw the MAX series, I said, “Yeah, that’s something I would like to do and that hasn’t been done in the ‘Punisher’ genre.”

SHH!: How long did it take you to read all those comics?

Alexander: Not long, like a weekend maybe. That’s the great thing about comic books, it’s not like there are pages of dialogue, you know? (laughs)

SHH!: You basically got completely absorbed into the world of “The Punisher” in just one weekend.

Alexander: It really was. I was literally dreaming about it at one point because… I don’t know if you’ve ever opened the MAX book of “The Punisher,” but it’s pretty visual and violent.

SHH!: Yeah, well it definitely carried over to the movie. Hopefully you were able to get away from that and don’t still have dreams of that kind of violence now that you’ve finished the movie.

Alexander: During the production I had a lot of violent dreams, and then I just had violent dreams about studio executives… (laughs) just kidding.

SHH!: Marvel’s obviously more involved in the movies these days so when you were putting this together was Marvel very vocal about which parts of the comic they wanted to use?

Alexander: Well, Marvel on this one was basically involved, but not as involved as they are on like “The Hulk” or “Iron Man” because Lionsgate was in the lead definitely on this one. I had to deal with all of them really. It was a big collaboration.

SHH!: How was that coming off of “Hooligans” which was very much personal project in some ways, very independent and a labor of love? Was it very different doing this studio kind of movie and working with bigger crews?

Alexander: Yeah, it basically was a learning experience. I mean, you really have to get used to people telling you what to do and what not to do and then making sure that while they do that, you don’t lose concept of what’s important to you, what needs to go on the screen, you know? I mean, it’s a tough thing. You don’t want to be an *sshole and not collaborate, but at the same time, you’re responsible what comes onto the screen. Nobody’s going to say, “Oh, I’m sure she had eight executives who disagreed.” It’s a very thin line and I’m not sure if I learned it on this one and how to walk that thin line, but I think I’m getting better at it.

SHH!: That’s good to hear. I know that (Punisher cover artist) Tim Bradstreet was somehow involved with the visuals. Did he actually do paintings or storyboards or anything like that or did you just work from what he had already done on existing covers?

Alexander: No, he wasn’t that much involved. I think he did a few posters for Lionsgate – like a few concepts posters. My DP and I got on the phone with him in prep for the movie and we talked to him, and he talked us through what he does and what he thinks about Castle. Then I think my DP got more on the phone with the other colorists on the actual pages, because Bradstreet does all the covers and then there’s all the other guys who do the actual book.

SHH!: Let’s talk about Jigsaw. I actually own the comic in which he first appeared, I never remember a specific origin story for him, so was that invented for the movie?

Alexander: As far as I understand it… I mean, listen, I just had these friends over who have been “Punisher” fans for fifteen years, they would be able to tell you exactly what issue he came up first. I can’t do that, but we copied the Billy Russoti — “Billy Russo” actually, like he was called in the comic book — to the morphing into Jigsaw exactly like it was in the story, other than how it actually happened. I think he’s one of the better villains in “The Punisher” series. I think the other ones are all a little bit too cartoony.

SHH!: Well definitely he is the “Punisher” villain if you think about it. I mean he was introduced in the second Punisher appearance and he’s been plaguing him ever since.

Alexander: Correct, and I remember that he, in some of the books he had that over the top goofy eye, remember that? That was a big thing, because I said, “I don’t want to have that. It just doesn’t look good. I want it to be a little bit more evil.” That’s tough when you actually take license with something like that, but he had so many looks that it was really a challenge to find a look we all agreed on.

SHH!: What about the Punisher’s costume? That’s also a very interesting approach, going more for a military look, less spandex than we’ve seen. Can you talk about that?

Alexander: Well, it’s funny because I never in a million times thought when I took on this project that a costume could be talked about for so long. I thought, “My God.” First of all, Ray isn’t the type of actor who says “yes” to a spandex movie, and I didn’t want him in spandex. It would’ve been weird. It would’ve been some kind of Sacha Baron Cohen kind of spoof seeing Ray in spandex. So we definitely said we wanted to go more the military route. We had to deal with the skull. I didn’t want it too bright. I see now some fans are saying, “Oh, I wished it would’ve been brighter.” Personally, I thought it was silly, it almost looked a little bit pre-schoolish to me to have that skull so bright. There’s different opinions about it, but it was a long back and forth until we all agreed on the uniform.

SHH!: I guess that’s one of the other things, you’re collaborating not only with the studio and with Marvel, but also with the fans. You have to do something that also appeals to them and is also logical as a filmmaker, right?

Alexander: Right, and you know what? (Ray) also had some input in it terms of like he has to do a lot of crazy action and I didn’t want him in something that he’s going to be miserable in, you know, especially since we had such a brutal schedule.

SHH!: As far as the weapons the Punisher uses, I know that a lot of the writers on “The Punisher” comics did a ton of research into weapons and I was curious about your own research, because you had him using a lot of different kinds of weapons as well.

Alexander: Well, I immediately brought onto the project a military advisor and gun advisor. There’s a company called GUNMETAL, and they’re marines and Special Forces guys. I basically let them take the lead and they showed me weapons and they showed me choices, and they put them in front of Ray and me and then I visually said, “I want this one, this one, this one,” and then Ray said, “Well, I really think we should use this one, this one.” And that’s what we did. I think there was a real mix between guns look cinematically great and guns that work really well in terms of reloading and that look really cool, and it was good that we all collaborated on that.

SHH!: I want to talk about the violence in the movie because obviously you really went for it and you didn’t mess around. Did you have a problem with MPAA at any point as far as how violent the movie is?

Alexander: No, they were actually quite cool. I was surprised myself. I think they have more problems with sex and nudity than they have with violence. I never had to speak to them. I mean, I don’t think they would’ve given it a PG-13, but they’ve never given us any problems about an R-rating.

SHH!: How do you feel about the fact that violence is okay, as opposed to sex and nudity? I mean, obviously you’ve made action movies before on both sides of the camera, but doesn’t that seem strange to you?

Alexander: For the kind of filmmaker I am, I’m really pleased that they’re so casual. I think it sucks for some other filmmakers. I think that, you know, when you have a pair of breasts up there and you get a rated R, that’s a little bit exaggerated. Then I go to Europe and of course for example, I think in Great Britain and in Germany it got an NC-18 or something, like you can’t go see it under 18 because of the violence. So on this side of the pond it’s completely different than there.

SHH!: That’s really interesting. I’m curious how this movie might play over there. I’m sure the comics can be found over there, but the Punisher has always felt like the kind of character that could only appeal to Americans.

Alexander: Being into comic books is definitely an Americana thing. I think that the mainstream ones like “Batman” and “The Hulk” and “Iron Man” have definitely crossed over, but something like “the Punisher”- we’ll see. Sony International did not want to release this theatrically, and only after they saw the director’s cut did they decide to instead of going to DVD internationally to go theatrical. So that’s a leap of faith. Obviously, they think that something is going to spike people’s interests, which I am excited to see.

SHH!: One thing that’s interesting is that it does take place in New York, but besides the opening scene, it’s very much a stylized New York. Was that influenced by how New York is depicted in the comics?

Alexander: Yeah, I mean, first of all I wasn’t shooting in New York so already, when you are in a town that is all French you are limited and you go to these places that every filmmaker goes to that has to shoot Montreal for New York, and you end up with a look that been in all these movies, so what do you do? I discussed it with Marvel and Lionsgate, and I said, “Look, can I not make this film look exactly like in the comic book? Why don’t I make a New York that is like a MAX New York, but not a real life New York?” And they said, “Cool, go for it.” But we also wanted to make sure that’s it’s also not Gotham City.

SHH!: You mentioned the director’s cut, and I was curious whether that was very different from the American cut that opens on Friday? How is it different?

Alexander: No, it took a lot of fights, but it’s not that different anymore. (laughs) It’s pretty much what’s on screen as my cut. I think there’s maybe eight minutes or so, not violent scenes or action scenes, more like quiet scenes, more stuff between Castle and the little girl and Castle and Soap that got cut out. But now, I think what you see on screen oddly enough is as close to a director’s cut as you will get.

SHH!: Obviously a lot of people ask you about being a woman director. Most of them probably haven’t seen “Hooligans,” so they don’t know that you’re capable of handling tough and violent material.

Alexander: Right, you know, thank God it hasn’t come up a lot because the truth is I know it’s a story… I can’t say it hasn’t come up — it has come up all day today — but in the actual process of hiring me and me working, there wasn’t a lot of talk about it, which was really cool. Honestly, the executives at Lionsgate came to me not because I’m a woman or anything other than “Hooligans.” That’s what they responded to, and my first film “Johnny Flynton.” I think that’s the way it should be. I don’t think gender, color, or anything matters anymore. I think you just have to see if you have the chops.

SHH!: Absolutely. Now, I wanted to ask you about the flipside of that – do you think as a woman you’re able to bring something different to this as an a violent action movie that maybe a male director might not be able to achieve? Maybe something you brought that your female sensibilities might have helped achieve?

Alexander: I don’t’ know if it’s a female thing, but I’m definitely a storyteller. That’s I think why “Johnny Flynton” may have opened a career. I told a story in thirty-eight minutes that people were kind enough to nominate me for an Oscar for, and it’s the first time out of the gate. So I can do that and I don’t lose concept of it just because I do “The Punisher.” I think those are the biggest compliments I’ve gotten that yes, there’s over the top violence, yes it’s cartoon, you know, lots of comedy moments, but essentially it’s a told story with emotions and with the point of no return and the redemption and all of it. I think sometimes maybe that male directors get caught up into the atmosphere of style and violence, and I don’t think I get caught up in that.

SHH!: Do you have any idea what you’re going to do next? After having this experience working with a studio, do you think you’ll go back and do another independent film next?

Alexander: I think I’ll do something like this again next, yeah. I’ll probably work with a different studio and just to check out the rest of the town, but I definitely think that I am happy to be in the studio world at this point.

Punisher: War Zone opens everywhere on Friday, December 5.

Source: Edward Douglas