Jonathan Hensleigh on The Punisher

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Longtime action screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh makes his directorial debut with The Punisher, from his own script. Basing the film on Garth Ennis’ “Welcome Back, Frank” series, the film follows the death of Frank Castle’s family and Castle’s residence in a run down tenement building, where he meets neighbors Joan, Dave and Bumpo.

At one point in the film, the villains pull out Dave’s body piercings to find out where Castle is hiding, but Dave resists. Hensleigh thought deeply about how far to go in such a torture scene, even within the bounds of an R-rated movie. “For me personally, [there were] endless hours staring at a wall,” Hensleigh said. “As a filmmaker one of your greatest obstacles, one of your greatest challenges is trying to grab and hold onto a consistent tone throughout. So I had to ask myself constantly, because I’m not a fan of gratuitous violence, and there isn’t a river of blood in this film. In fact, I hold the audience’s view away from a lot a great deal, and I don’t care for anatomical displays of human viscera. You don’t see human brain matter being splashed all over, you don’t see blood flying against the wall. But having said all that, that scene is troublesome. It’s troublesome to me even when I watch it, and I get no great joy out of that. It’s there for a purpose in the film. The method of my madness was that I wanted the scene to accentuate the ruthlessness and cruelty of the bad guys and make the audience hate them, and I wanted to accentuate and heighten the sympathy factor for Dave, and make the audience understand that he had sacrificed so much for this hero in his life.”

Much of the action is heightened, like The Punisher’s fight with The Russian, played by Kevin Nash. As they crash through walls and furniture, Hensleigh was hoping for a James Bond feel. “In fact I showed the Jaws fight, and there’s an earlier fight between Bond and Robert Shaw in the railway car [in ‘From Russia With Love’] that has savagery and violence, but also a wit to it. They were definitely things that I showed my department heads.”

Some of the car chases may feel reminiscent of Mad Max. “There are certain visual references in ‘The Punisher’, and you’re going to 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 a homage. My shots and my visual design is quite different.”

The casting of relatively unknown Thomas Jane as the lead hero was a surprise to many fans, but for Hensleigh it was a natural choice. “I’ve always liked him. I’m one of many people in Hollywood who was 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 had a Thomas Jane film festival, and we just thought he was the right guy.”

John Travolta as villain Howard Saint may have seemed more traditional, as Travolta excelled at villainous roles in films like Broken Arrow, Face/Off and Swordfish. It turns out Hensleigh put far less thought into that casting choice. “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 that Rebecca Romijn-Stamos was going to join the cast, and then when John came aboard it was like getting an early birthday present.”

As a first time director, Hensleigh appreciated the ease with which the veteran Travolta worked. “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. But 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.”

The punishment that Howard Saint receives from Frank Castle is a manipulation of his family and colleagues that turns Saint against those closest to him. Hensleigh draws Shakespearean parallels to this technique. “The plotline doesn’t come from anything other than the obvious one, and that’s ‘Othello’. 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.”

The Punisher opens April 16.

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