Behind the scenes with "Punisher" writer Michael France

Tue, March 23rd, 2004 at 12:00am PST

TV/Film
Dave Richards, Staff Writer

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[The Punisher]Criminals are running in fear. On April 16th, Marvel Comics' most lethal vigilante, The Punisher, blasts his way onto movie screens everywhere. CBR News recently spoke with Michael France, the writer of "The Punisher" movie from Lion's Gate (Formerly Artisan) Films about Frank Castle's journey from the comic panel to the big screen and the other comic based projects he is working on.

In the fall of 2000, France received a phone call from Marvel Studios President and CEO Avi Arad. The writer had completed his final draft of "The Hulk" screenplay a few months earlier and Marvel Films wanted him to chronicle the cinematic adventures of another character. France and Arad discussed developing one of the characters Marvel had licensed to Artisan. France said, "I told him I was interested in the Punisher and in Morbius. I had some interesting ideas for Morbius, but after we talked for a while, it was clear we were all more interested in doing 'The Punisher'."

The Punisher movie would naturally be an origin story, but Frank Castle's story would require a little tweaking for a modern action movie, so some changes were made. "Avi and Artisan really responded to my idea of remaking Frank as an undercover FBI agent, and the different story and character doors that would open from that, so they basically bought it over the phone."

[The Punisher]France had read comics as a boy in the sixties and the seventies, remembering the Punisher as a villain that would occasionally cross paths with Spider-Man. When France began to develop his take on the character he read a wide range of Punisher comics from the past 25 years to pull from. France's favorite "Punisher" comic writer is Chuck Dixon. "Chuck's comics had the best crime story tone of them all - they were larger than life, they had huge stylized action, but they still felt realistic. I had to use a hilarious bit of his from one of the comics - the scene where Frank threatens to blowtorch some information out of a crook is straight out of an old 'War Journal.'"

France made sure his script captured both sides of the Punisher's personality. He believes that's an essential element to the character. "There are two sides to Frank Castle's personality that are constantly at play," said France. "They're contradictory sides, which make him a great character to write. One side of him is that he really loves ripping the guns out of his holsters, barging into a warehouse and killing a dozen criminals. That in itself isn't so interesting, but it gets interesting when you combine it with the second side: that part of him that hates the killing and he wants a family life. He would trade absolutely anything if he could get his family back and have a regular life with them somewhere in the suburbs - and he knows that's gone, he'll never ever get close to that again. So depending on which part of the mood swing he's on, he's either enjoying killing or he's miserably alone and grieving. Shooting on the outside and crying on the inside!"

In order for the film to succeed, Frank Castle must resonate as a real character for the audience and France kept this in mind when writing the screenplay. "The big character question in adapting the Punisher is, why does this guy become a vigilante? In comic books, becoming a vigilante is a normal response to having your family murdered in front of you. In real life, it's more likely that you'd become suicidal or clinically depressed. So I had to work on Frank's psyche and figure out what he was carrying around that would make him react this way."

[Thomas Jane is the Punisher]So, France decided to make Frank Castle an undercover FBI agent working to undermine organized crime, which opened up a number of story points for France. "So he was leading a double life - on one hand, he is a family man, he loves his wife and his kids. On the other hand, he was living a high adrenalin life as a criminal - and he was starting to enjoy that too much. He ultimately starts wondering, when am I pretending and when am I the real me - when I'm with my family or when I'm with the mob? He realizes that to save himself and be the man he wants to be, he has to quit, to be with his family, and put this 'criminal' life behind him - and of course, the mob he was infiltrating discovers his identity, attempts to kill him and winds up killing his family."

What you'll ultimately see on the screen isn't the first reworking of the Punisher's origin. An earlier version was much darker in tone. "I had another character angle that I sort of miss, but I understand why it was dropped," said France. "I had a very different back-story for Frank. I established that Frank's father, Frank Sr., was a hitman in New York in the 1960s and 1970s, known as 'the Punisher' (or 'Il Punisco'!). Frank was always ashamed of this, and he joined the FBI to prove that he was nothing like his father, and also to sort of atone for his father's sins. But as he got more and more comfortable with pretending to be a criminal, it was more and more obvious that he was exactly like his father. I even had a scene where Frank, in his undercover role as a mobster, is confronted by the head mobster, who tells him 'I know exactly who you are' - he figures out not that Frank is a fed, but that his father was a famous hitman. He's proud to be working with 'royalty', so he forces Frank to use the name 'Punisher' in his role as a mob enforcer. Frank takes it with a smile and grits his teeth, but we can see that his worst fears about who he really is are being confirmed. I loved that stuff. It's all gone. I can't blame them for taking it out, really, because it is pretty dark, and the rest of the movie is pretty dark. We've got a young mother and a towheaded eight-year-old boy killed early on, so maybe it might have been a tough sell. But now that I see Roy Scheider as Frank Sr., who's now a character on the right side of the law, I can't help thinking he would have been great in my version of the back-story. Roy Schieder as 'Il Punisco'!"

France also changed locations for the film. In the movie instead of stalking the New York underworld, Frank Castle hunts the criminal elements in sunny Florida. France shifted the locale for a variety of reasons. France elaborated, "I had a good reason…I had a practical reason…and I had kind of a selfish reason. In my drafts, I moved the story to Miami. It made perfect sense to me, because a lot of my original story involved mobsters who were smuggling guns and laundering money, and south Florida is fairly well known for this type of criminal activity. My new character background for Frank…meant that Florida was as good a place to start as any. The practical reason: I knew that Florida in general had not been used as well as it could be in movies, and I also advised Marvel and Artisan that it would be cheap to shoot here - that they'd get a lot more for their money than in New York or Chicago. I wanted to use both sunny locations, and dark, industrial locations for atmosphere and action, and you can find both everywhere in Florida.

[Kevin Nash is The Russian]"The selfish reason is that right when I was closing the deal to work on the script, I was in Miami Beach to help a group try to save some historical hotels, including some famous art deco hotels designed by my great grandfather, Roy France. These hotels are at huge risk of being bulldozed and replaced by a chain restaurant or who knows what. Google 'Roy France' and 'deco' and you'll get a lot of articles about the ongoing fight to either knock down or preserve his hotels in Miami. Anyway, I thought that if I put some of these hotels in the script, the city and local businesses would have some extra incentive not to knock them down. I wrote a couple of scenes in my first draft that prominently used the old hotels." When director Jonathan Hensleigh came aboard, the film's setting was shifted to Tampa, which is very close to France's home.

In comics, "The Punisher" has been depicted numerous ways from Garth Ennis' black humor filled stories to the darker, straight crime stories currently featured in "The Punisher" series under the Marvel Max line. The screenplay for the Punisher film is a crime drama that attempts to naturally work in some of the humor from the Marvel Knights "Punisher" book. "Interestingly, when I took the job, I told Artisan that I could take one of two approaches to the script," said France. "I could either do an all out black comedy - at the time they were all ga-ga over [Ennis'] 'Welcome Back Frank' - but I told them that I thought that would be a disaster for a movie. It's episodic and you have to keep ratcheting up the gory laughs to make it work. It's not character based, it's just, 'how can I find a new hilariously disgusting way to kill someone.'" Artisan agreed with France's assertion, preferring to do a straight, dark character based crime movie. "Cut to two months later, as I turn in my script: the big note from Artisan was that it wasn't funny enough. I did try to use some of the black comedy elements in my drafts. I had an over the top battle in a fish rendering plant that had hoods dying in a number of grisly, but funny ways. I also tried to use the Garth Ennis sequence of the Punisher being chased through a zoo. I knew that the odds of it being used were slim, because of the expense - trained polar bears don't come cheap - but it was my favorite sequence in 'Welcome Back Frank' and I had to try. Didn't make it to the movie - I hope it'll get used in the sequel."

Much of the supporting cast of Garth Ennis's original mini-series is in "The Punisher" film. Joan, Spacker Dave, and Mr.Bumpo are all in the film. Detective Soap, the head and sole member of the NYPD's Punisher taskforce is not in the film. "I always had a subplot involving cops who were tracking the Punisher, but in my drafts I wanted them to be real people. Soap is more of a running gag than a person. I did have some cops who basically performed the same function as Soap. They'd show up at the site of a new Punisher massacre and joke over the dead bodies, etc., but I was more interested in using police characters to try to question Frank's motives as a vigilante. In both of my drafts, I had a female cop track Frank - she wanted to arrest him, but at the same time she saw that he was getting results."

[Thomas Jane]France also tried to work in other characters from Punisher comics into his screenplay. "I did use some of the other characters in my drafts. My first one had Microchip, and both my drafts had Jigsaw. I really miss Jigsaw. I had Frank blowing him up again and again, and he looked rougher and rougher until Frank finally got to kill him at the end of the movie. Maybe whoever does the sequel will use Jigsaw - I hope so."

In the film, Frank Castle battles The Russian (played by wrestler Kevin Nash), a villain from the Marvel Knights series and a new adversary, mob boss Howard Saint (played by John Travolta). France explained why these two villains were chosen. "When I was working on my scripts, it was during the time that the original 'Welcome Back, Frank' books were coming out on a monthly basis. There was a huge fan reaction to the Russian - he's funny, but he's indestructible - so it would have been hard not to use him. As for the main villain, in my drafts I had a mobster named 'Bruno Costa' -- the same name as the mobster who was responsible for the deaths of Frank's family in the comics. Other than the name, I built him up from scratch as a Florida mob kingpin who was also a local celebrity who ran restaurants, and used his legitimate side to mask his mob activities. A lot of those details went into Howard Saint, but that character - and the characters in his orbit, like Livia and the Toro brothers - really are Jonathan's contribution. Jonathan also came up with the angle of having Saint angry over the accidental murder of his son, which I thought was a pretty good change. It makes Saint a stronger character that he has such an emotional motive for going after Frank initially."

The Punisher is a dark, violent character, waging a one-man crusade against crime with no happy ending in sight. As a write, this posed a number of challenges for France. "Writing 'Punisher' was a pretty miserable experience. When I write, I have to really immerse myself in the material and think a lot as my lead character would think. Obviously, Frank Castle's head is not a pleasant place to visit. I wound up having to create a new way to kill Frank's family. The picnic thing didn't make sense with my storyline, and since I have a family myself, it was not fun having to think of multiple ways for criminals to ambush and kill Frank's family. I think the script ends with a bit of redemption, with Frank bonding with the apartment gang as kind of a surrogate family, but yeah, it's tough writing him. Actually, from a practical standpoint in constructing the screenplay, one of the biggest problems was making sure that Frank remains distinguishable - if only slightly - from the villains. So I had to come up with all kinds of horrible scenes of the villains doing very disgusting things, just so you get the sense that anything Frank does to stop them is justified."

Working on "The Punisher" was an unusual experience for France because he never met in person with anyone. All of his conversations regarding the film were conducted over the phone. He never got a chance to visit the film set or speak in person with director Jonathan Hensleigh. "I had absolute zero contact with Hensleigh on this picture. I had met him a couple of times years ago, because he hired me to work on 'Hulk' back when he was involved with that and was trying to make that his first film as a director. When he came onto 'Punisher,' he drew a lot of material from my drafts in putting the final script together, but we didn't have any contact. Even though the picture shot basically in my backyard - the beach location for the family massacre is a ten-minute bike ride from the office where I wrote the script - we didn't have any contact when the film was shot either. A lot of the early publicity generated by Marvel and Artisan tried to scrub my name off the movie and promote Jonathan as the sole writer, so I didn't feel like I would be that welcome on the set. That sounds like I'm whining, but the fact is, my work was done in mid 2001, and I didn't want to visit the set if it was going to cause any problems."

The Punisher-mobile? The car Frank Castle drives in "Punisher."
France has not seen the finished film. Like other comic fans the early promotional photo of Thomas Jane made France skeptical of the studio's choice for Frank Castle, but the film trailers won him over. "I saw that awful promotional shot from about a year ago, and had the same reaction as many other people - he was badly lit, the skull shirt looked like it was from a comic shop and the wrong size to boot, and I thought, hrmm, is this really the guy? But when you see the trailers and the shots from the finished film, you can see that he does a great job. There are a lot of aspects to Frank Castle - a grieving family man and a stone killer - that are very difficult to get across, and from what I've seen, Thomas Jane has completely nailed it. I can't wait to see the whole film."

There is more comic based work ahead for France. A few years ago he wrote a draft for a "Fantastic Four" film. France eagerly awaits the finished film to see if any ideas from his draft will make to the screen. Also, France is collaborating with fellow "Hulk" writer John Turman on a take of a classic DC Comics character. He was unable to reveal which character since he and Turman are currently in discussions with Warner Bros, but he hopes to soon have some good news to report.

France is exploring the possibility of joining fellow screenwriters Dan Harris and Michael Doughery (who wrote "X-Men 2") in writing comics. He said, "I've been talking to Marvel about possibly doing some. I have a particular set of characters in mind that I'd like to bring back….we'll see if it happens. I am getting more and more interested in doing some new characters, maybe as a miniseries. I love the medium and I would love to take a shot at telling some stories in it."

 
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