Lexi Alexander started her Hollywood journey with stuntwork, which she parlayed from her status as a former World Karate and Kickboxing Champion. She always aimed to direct, however, and early short films demonstrated a talent for the medium that was more than fanciful. She made her first feature film in 2004--the Elijah Wood drama Green Street Hooligans, centered on the world of British football fans. From there, she was tapped by Marvel Productions to rescue their moribund Punisher film series from oblivion. The results, Punisher: War Zone, can be seen in theaters this Friday. Before the film, Lexi sat down to talk about bringing Frank Castle to life
Question: What's your background with the Punisher? Were you familiar with the comics? What made you want to do the movie?
Lexi Alexander: I wasn't familiar with the comic book at all when I got the script. And I have to say that getting the script--which was then called Punisher II--didn't exactly have me jumping out of my chair. I was told that the executive producer was a really big fan, so out of courtesy I read it. And I thought it was really interesting, and decided I might like to have a look at the comic books. By the time we actually had a meeting and they gave me the job, Marvel had sent me two big boxes full of comics. I read them all in a single weekend and thought, "Why didn't I read comic books before?" I studied them very hard, and I also listened to what the fans didn't like about previous versions, what they were expecting, and what they wanted to see. I got in touch with a lot of fanboys, and I think the only person who became more obsessive than me about the Punisher was Ray Stevenson. In the end, he was telling me things like, "Oh this is in issue #77," or "Why don't we use this line on page four in the MAX series #8.5?"
Q: How did the look of the film come together? It's very striking.
LA: Thank you. All credit goes to our wonderful DP, Steve Gainer. When I researched what people didn't like about the previous films, there was a lot of talk about it being set in Florida--which the filmmaker at the time had to do because of production and finances. They didn't like the light, either. I just took what the fans said basically, because if they like it, then it will be a success for us. I looked at the MAX comic books and was struck by how great it looked. Afterwards, I thought about it and thought that they don't have the budget to print in too many colors--just three or four in each frame. We wanted to put the MAX books onscreen exactly, so we chose to focus on colors like that. It was a risk because it's not always what people expect. They talked about how it might end up looking like Dick Tracy and one of my agents actually came up and said, "I thought this would look like shit." But Gale [Anne Hurd] and Marvel were full-score behind it, and I think we've succeeded in giving it the right mixture of four-color look and realism.
There was something that came along at the last minute--and Gale will probably remember this--but three days before production, we realized that the wardrobe was all wrong. We had the outfits in eight different colors and it wouldn't have worked. It would have looked like a circus. The wardrobe had to be more monotone, or else it would have fucked everything up. I had to tell my poor costume designer to take everything back and buy new costumes. The studio signed off on it, and I think and hope that the look of the film worked because of it.
Q: One hopes that we've all moved beyond this, but were there any concerns about putting a woman in charge of a movie like this? Conversely, was there anything you brought to the film as a woman that a male director might have missed?
LA: I think some of the more conservative elements on the money side of things would have rather gone with someone else, someone with more experience. But once I signed, it was fine. Nobody ever said, "She's a female filmmaker." Not the executives, not Gale, nobody said that. The people I actually had to deal with day-to-day were extremely supportive. When I thought about whether or not I should make this film, a friend of mine said, "If you turn this down, I’ll kick your ass. You might be the only girl who's going to break through the glass ceiling. You have to do it."
Q: Did you have any problem with the ratings board? Sly Stallone got away with a lot for the last Rambo movie; did that help?
LA: *tongue in cheek* Yeah, I talk to Sly every day. I say, "Thanks!"
It's an interesting thing. I have a lot of filmmaker friends who have to deal with that. My friend Frank Miller had to go and speak in front of the control people to make his film [The Spirit] PG-13. It's funny that we can get away with so much violence and yet so little sex or nudity. In Europe, it's the exact opposite; I kind of like America that way because of the films I do. But I didn't have a lot of trouble with them.
Q: So where's the sex?
LA: *tongue in cheek* It's in the sequel.
Q: What did you see in Ray Stevenson that convinced you he was right for the part?
LA: Ray's fantastic. If we weren't at the same agency together, it never would have happened. His agent passed twice on it because the script was still being worked on, and Ray was about to have a baby. But that was my hook. I said, "Listen, you're going to have a baby and he's going to want an action figure of you."
There really wasn't a question of who was going to play the part. We needed a real guy's guy, not a pretty boy. Then they said Ray Stevenson. I didn't have HBO at the time, so I hadn't seen Rome. I rented the first season that night, popped in the pilot episode, and had a look. Midway through, I called everyone and said, "If we don't get Ray Stevenson, I'm not doing this film." He flew in from England to have one meeting, and I wouldn't let him leave. He still had, like, eight meetings to decide if he got the part, and my mind was made up. I said, "You're not going back, I'm putting you in training." I think his wife called up at some point and asked if she could have her husband back.
Q: Was it tough to work out the look and the casting choice for Jigsaw?
LA: Yes. I didn't like the way he looked in the comic book, especially his eye. If you're familiar with the comics, he has a very big cartoony eye. So we said, "Not that." We had an Academy Award winning make-up artist on the job, and we did a few tests to send back to Marvel. They had great feedback and helped us shape the look. I really loved the way it finally turned out.
As for Dominic West, he's really one of the best actors I've ever worked with. I'm so lucky with my cast; these are all proper actors, classically trained actors. From what I've read so far, some people really love our version of Jigsaw, and others don't like him at all. But Dominic did a really great job, and he really went with my direction. So if you think he's too over the top, he didn't go over the top: I directed him to go over the top.
Q: When you get a project like this, do you plan what to do and then figure out the budget, or do you get the budget first and then plan the big action pieces around it?
LA: Studios are smart that way. They go after directors who have done these small independent films so we won't complain about the budget. I made a little movie called Green Street Hooligans for about five million dollars. It was nothing. So when I got a budget of thirty-five million dollars for this one, it was like "ka-CHING!" In the end, of course, you always need more. For whatever reason, a bottle of water will cost twenty cents on an independent film and eight dollars on a studio film. That's how it works. The goal was to make this film look much more expensive than it was. I think and I hope we achieved that. We had thirty-five million dollars and that was it. I convinced a lot of people to work for half of their fee or a quarter of their fee. It sounds funny, but it became a labor of love in a lot of ways. The people felt it was more than just a potboiler.
Q: Do you see yourself making another studio film or would you like to go back to the indie world?
LA: Both. I'd like to go back to the independent world, although there's different problems there. Punisher was a great learning experience, and maybe I'll have a better set of diplomatic skills on my next picture. And there's suddenly a lot of comic book scripts coming my way. I'm not sure I can talk about them…
Q: Sure you can!
LA: Well, one of them that got sent to me--and I'm sure it's been sent to many, many other directors--is something called Jonah Hex. It's funny. When I was done with Punisher, I thought, "Well that's my comic book movie, I'll go do something else now." But I picked up the script and by page fifteen I was visualizing things. They try to put you in a drawer--and I'm thinking, "God, I'm going to be doing the same thing for the next fifteen years"--but then you end up kind of jumping in there yourself with your own ideas.
'Punisher War Zone' is in theaters NOW!