Women in the War Zone: The Punisher's Alexander & Hurd

The Punisher is nothing if not persistent. And the same can be said for the makers of Punisher: War Zone, who turned to the comics in an attempt to rectify the shortcomings of previous movies.

Director Lexi Alexander says she was directly inspired by the hard-core tone of the comics in making War Zone, which opens December. 5th and stars Ray Stevenson as Frank Castle, Dominic West as Jigsaw, Wayne Knight, Julie Benz and Doug Hutchison.

“I wanted to put the [Marvel] MAX comic book on screen exactly and I think we’ve succeeded,” says Alexander. Born in Germany, Alexander was a martial arts champion and stuntwoman before turning to directing. Her short film “Johnny Flynton” was nominated for an Oscar and her independent feature film “Hooligans” has a cult following.

The world of comics and the Punisher — which first made it to the screen in a 1989 direct-to-video feature starring Dolph Lundgren — was unknown to Alexander until she read the script for the film and was instantly fascinated.

“I thought, ‘Wow, that is really interesting, I’d like to look to the comic books,’” she says. “Marvel sent me two boxes of comic books and I read them over a weekend, and I was like, ‘Why didn’t I read comic books before?’ I thought it was amazing.”

Landing the gig was just the start of the journey for Alexander, who turned to the fans of the character for initial guidance. “I studied really hard what the fans didn’t like about the previous versions, what they were expecting, what they wanted to see,” she says.

Alexander had the strongest reaction to the Punisher stories written by Garth Ennis and the artwork of Tim Bradstreet, for whom the Brad Street Hotel in the film is named. One of the most common complaints about the 2004 version of “Punisher,” which starred Thomas Jane, was that it was too bright, having been shot and set in Florida. That prompted Alexander to follow as closely as possible the look of the comics right down to the colors.

“It was just striking what a great color sheen there was,” she says. “I fought very hard for this because I thought he [director of photography, Steve Gainer] could do it.”

Replicating that look on film was not without its obstacles. For example, Alexander says she came to realize just days before shooting that to get the look of the comic right would require the wardrobe to not stand out.

“We can’t have the wardrobe in eight different colors, we have to have the wardrobe all the same,” she says. “And I had to tell my poor costume designer, ‘Yeah, remember all the stuff I asked you to buy? Bring all of that back and buy everything the same color.’”

Producer Gale Anne Hurd, whose credits include such action films as “The Terminator,” “Aliens,” the 2004 “Punisher” and “The Incredible Hulk,” said having Alexander direct Punisher: War Zone is a step forward. “We’re all about the filmmaker themselves and what they bring to it,” Hurd says. “The minute you say that a female director didn’t screw it up or did screw it up, then everybody suffers."

As a rare female director in the male-dominated action genre, Alexander says she never felt that she was pegged as a woman filmmaker.

“Nobody ever said she’s a female filmmaker — not the executives, not Gale — nobody ever said that. They just said that she’s the right filmmaker,” she says.

The significance of a woman directing such an action film was not lost on Alexander. “When I wanted to pass on this film, a friend of mine said: ‘If you pass, 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.’”

War Zone takes violence to new levels for a “Punisher” film, though Alexander says she had no problems with the MPAA ratings board. “I sometimes think it’s very funny that we can get away with so much violence and with so little breasts or sex or anything,” she says. “I kind of love America for that; it’s completely the opposite in Europe.”

Coming from the world of independent film, where she made “Hooligans” for a mere $5 million — having the budget of even a small studio picture like Punisher: War Zone was a huge change.

“We’re all happy because we all heard yesterday [after the premiere] that it looked much more expensive than it really is,” says Alexander, who added said she had a hard budget of $35 million to work with. “And really this is because I think I kind of conned a lot of people for working for half of their fee or a quarter of their fee. And I don’t think any of us, really, were there for the money.”

The most difficult shot to get for the film featured a Parkour-jumping villain who gets shot and blown up mid-leap by the Punisher, Alexander says. The shot got snowed out during the production’s Montreal shoot, and a trip to Vancouver to film it there arrived along with more snow. “It was a little bit of thinking, ‘Oh my god, they’re going to cut it and not put it in,’” she says. “And I’m just so glad it worked out. It got a big laugh last night — it was everything I wished it to be, so it’s all good.”

Alexander says she’d like to keep a hand in both the independent film world and continue to make studio fare. She also says she’s been getting a lot of comic book scripts to consider.

“One of them that just was sent to me, and I’m sure it’s been sent to many other directors, is one I’d never heard about called 'Jonah Hex',” she says. And while her initial reaction was that it was too similar to “Punisher,” she warmed up to the idea. “It’s funny being a director because you start reading and on page 15 you start visualizing things.”

While making every film involves starting from scratch, Hurd says it is a bit easier to adapt comics now because you don’t have to explain why you want to make them into movies. She also says the feedback from fans is tremendously important.

“There’s great trepidation every time a comic book film is announced. What are the filmmakers going to do with it? Who are they going to cast?” Hurd says. And while you have to make the best film you can, you always have to remember that the fans are the real caretakers of these characters.”

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