The Punisher showrunner Steve Lightfoot seems to have a thing for oddly, complicated individuals. It of course began with NBC’s Hannibal, featuring a cannibalistic serial killer that you could root for. And now, it continues with a gun-toting vigilante, Frank Castle, aka The Punisher. His character has long been the antithesis to the Captain Americas of the comic-verse. He’s not a red, white and blue kinda guy, but rather the man that favours black, skull clad fittings. With him, we don’t get a 1920s heroism and idealism, but instead, the coarseness of a war veteran’s loss over a murdered family.
For those not yet in the know: Netflix’s The Punisher, which debuted today, picks up shortly after Daredevil’s second season. Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal), is now attempting the normal life thing since everyone believes him to be dead. He goes for the blue collar job, tries to blend in while dealing with a dose of PTSD that makes the boy scout routine go stale. And throughout these moments of honest struggle and eventual violence, the show sandwiches itself during a real-life period around issues of gun-violence.
In time for the release, I wanted to speak to its creator and writer, Steve Lightfoot, about the unique challenges in the timing of a show like The Punisher, and find out how he managed to handle a difficult character like Frank Castle in the light of our current debates.
I of course recognize your name from your writing and producing role in Hannibal, which features its own complicated, serial killing character. Looking to The Punisher, what was that initial attraction around a Frank Castle?
Steve Lightfoot: You know, I felt like he was a complicated protagonist. Not the varnished hero type. Very gray, and a morally complex anti-hero, in the classic sense, the western movie sense. I’ve always been fascinated by those types. And I’ve always been drawn to writing about men and they deal with their emotions, because generally, most of us are terrible at it. So with every show, you want to find something that feels universal. Talking about Hannibal, you had these two characters that were just a couple of guys looking for a friend that understood them. Beyond that, they were really just lonely and wanted a friend. It’s that element that people could connect to, even though one of them was a serial killer while the other was an incredibly damaged guy.
Much like Frank.
Yeah. When I first saw Jon Bernthal's performance in Daredevil season 2, he had this visceral violence to him. To put it plainly, he was a scary guy, but he was also so human. It’s so rare as a writer to be able to see beforehand who’s playing the part you’re writing for, and to of course seem them deliver it. Jon didn’t seem scared to lose the audience, but he also had this essential humanity that meant that he could always win them back. It allowed me to really go to depths with this guy, to get to the heart of the performance, which involved grief. Look, I haven’t been in the military, I haven’t been a special forces soldier like Frank Castle, but we’ve all lost someone. We all know what that’s like. So I hooked into that through Jon, and in a way like so many men do, Frank supplemented all those other emotions into rage, stating that as long as he was mad, angry, and pretending, he didn’t have to deal with his feelings. I was really excited about what would happen if you picked up Frank from The Daredevil a year later when he no longer has that facade. Now he’s having to process how he really feels.
And I think one of the things was a bit impressive about Frank the character. A proper balance between what was sympathetic and bad about him. He’s not a guy to be celebrated. But we also have to like him throughout 13 episodes. As a writer, how did you find that balance with a character that frankly needs to liked despite his wrongs.
It definitely starts with character. You gotta get under the skin. Frank is a complicated guy, because like you said, on one hand, he’s incredibly loyal, he’d lay down his life for you and he doesn’t lie. He can be the best friend that you can have. And on the other, between his skills, and his essential nature, he’s also the guy that if you cross him, he might as just well kill you for it. His sense of what’s okay to do because you did him wrong is incredibly problematic. My job was to make the audience at least understand and empathize with where his logic came from. Even if they couldn’t always condone it. It was a lot of work to illustrate his head and just offer up a feel of him. On that note, the joy of the Marvel/Netflix show format, which some people dislike, is that I’m given the leeway to do the slow burn. There’s room for me to actually explore character, not just him, but all the other characters of the show. Yes, the narrative can slow down, but it also allows the audience to care on a far more deeper level, rather than wasting through a story.
Elaborate on that. Was there a difference in challenges/advantages with working with a television network vs. a Netflix format?
I mean we did Hannibal and had a great time on NBC, so my experience was a good one. But there are some simple differences, like not having to deal with ad breaks. It makes writing feel so much more organic. You’re writing a whole chapter every time without having to write some cliff hanger to drag viewers back. In addition to that, when you’re working in a Netflix format, you’re banking on people running straight through to the next episode, so you don’t have to worry about recaps, or reminding people what happened last week. You can write in a more sophisticated way simply by letting things hang in the hopes that the audience will continue the watch. Often, when you see television failures, it’s because networks don’t realize how sophisticated the audience is now, and how they’re switched onto every nuance. Sometimes we over spell things out, or we don’t give the audience the respect it deserves.
So when I got into the writer’s room, one of the things I stated is that we’d write it like a novel, a 13 chapter book, so that hopefully, someone would want to read it in one sitting, and if they didn’t, we’d make sure that at the end of every chapter, they couldn’t wait to pick up the book again. This format allows you to do that. It’s not about coming back to wonder what Frank is going to blow up next, it’s about leaving the characters in emotionally charged places, so that you had to come back to these characters, absent the promise of something blowing up.
Now we’ve had several versions of The Punisher, some ridiculous, some childishly violent in past films, but the timing of course, with the gun debate included, is probably the most challenging aspect for this show. Knowing what the comic book was originally about, what was the game plan to remaining sensitive to all that?
I’ve been asked about this of course because of recent events. There are two things for me. The comic book of course is more violent because its cartoonish roots. With Marvel/Netflix, they’ve aimed to ground these people in character, so they were super hero shows but they still existed in a very real world with realistic settings and situations. In terms of the nature of the violence, Daredevil season 2 set for us a good template to carry on from. That’s all a separate thing.
In terms of the bigger issues surrounding it...look, what happened in the last few weeks was just sickening and horrifying. Like everyone else, I look at it all with despair, sadness and in amazement that this keeps happening. But it’s also important to note, that in the light of that, I wrote this show a year ago. We didn’t exactly write it last week or in the scope of all this. People would ask me about it, and I’d say, well my show isn’t even out yet. A year ago, it was someone else’s show that was attached to the debate. I admit that I’m no politician, but what I did try to do with the show, since it is an ongoing issue, is try to let the characters have those debates among themselves. Some would say, Frank, what gives you the right? If everyone would be like him, we’d have anarchy. What a good drama should do is ask the questions, but it’s not my place to preach the answers. I hope the show stimulates debate at the very least. But in the end, it’s a comic book, fictional adaptation in the action thriller genre that’s been popular since cinema began.
I can’t honestly say that it was an over-glorification though. Even within the first few episodes, I rarely saw Frank handle a firearm. Just aesthetically, was that intention as it relates to how things came off, or was that just me?
Well it was intentional in two ways. I’ll be honest, when you get to the back half of the show, there’s a lot of it (laughs). It goes from being real, grounded in our relationship to Frank. The story builds, and as it builds, there’s just more people for him to aim at. With the first gun he gets, he has to steal it, and that one gun becomes another. It was more about building this character, which is why in the first episode, it’s pretty much all him. I wanted viewers to get under his skin before we started the ride.
Another thing, is that with 13 hours of this genre, naturally, gun fights can get pretty ridiculous and boring with repetition. A slow build helps with that, and you want all your action in every episode to feel different. My attitude to action scenes, or violent scenes in general is that unless something changes in them, they should move the story in every bit of a way as a really deep conversation. The best level of a fight scene is a conversation between the two people fighting. We approached it that way. Everything had to be different, and it couldn’t be a fight for fight’s sake. Can’t be a guy in front of a door, the guy in front of the door has to mean something, which can further the emotional story.
And action aside, you were also dealing with issues like PTSD, especially with characters like Lewis Walcott. These are things that require a certain sensitivity and accuracy to comment on. How did you guys manage to approach that in a respectable manner?
The first thing I wanna say, is that the phrase PTSD, I was wary of the term. We use it very little in the show, mostly because it means different things for everyone. That something that we boil many issues down into. Through talking to people, reading memoirs, we learned that if you’ve met one veteran, you’ve only met one veteran. The show speaks to varying experiences, not just one. Everyone has a different story. We had a military advisor also read every script, and former special forces people who came in and talked to the writers in the room. The veteran’s room that Curtis Hoyle runs in the show, most of the extras were actual veterans. So the scariest thing about those scenes for me, was the potential reaction we’d get from them, like, what the hell is this? But they were supportive. A few of them after the premiere actually told me that we really got it right. That meant a lot to me. I couldn’t tell a story about The Punisher without it somehow being a show about the aftermath of war. We’ve been sending men into conflicts for over 16 years now. It’s a whole generation. And a lot of them come back profoundly changed, how could you not?
Just as an outside spectator, or fan, expand on how necessary it was to have a person like Jon Bernthal take on a role that required that kind of range.
What was great getting to see him do it all before hand. I went from, hey, this’ll be a fun thing, to, I really want this job, and it was all based on watching Jon do his thing. I’ve been a big fan since The Walking Dead along with his other roles, and what’s really interesting him on screen is that he’s not scared to go to these really dark places, and lose the audience. Apart from that, there’s also a fundamental vulnerability and humanity in Jon. He’s an incredibly decent man in person, and a lot of that shines through. You can let him become really bad, because there’s something in their that people will recognize and he’ll be able to pull them back. As a writer, that’s paramount, because it allows me to push him and not worry about him not being able to do it effectively. He was just a fantastic partner and collaborator.
You being the creator, is there an underlying message that you hope people take away from The Punisher?
I hope it entertains, and I hope it provokes thought. As a storyteller, all you want people in the end is to go on the journey with you and hopefully be moved by it. Naturally, entertainment is one goal, but I also hope that audiences somehow become moved by Frank Castle and the journey he's been on. If we've done that, we've been pretty successful.
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