Steve Lightfoot, Showrunner on the Netflix Series “Marvel’s Punisher”

A Novel Approach

Nov 22, 2017 Web Exclusive
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Grim. Gruesome. Unrelenting. Those intense adjectives and more would be apt describing The Punisher, the latest Marvel Universe series streaming on Netflix. Based on the comic book characterwritten by Gerry Conway and drawn by artists John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru, in 1974 for The Amazing Spider-Man #129, and then made all the more popular by cult favorite Frank Miller's take on Daredevil in the early 1980'sthis new televised take on Frank Castle, the vigilante avenging his family by donning a white skulled shirt and an arsenal of weapons to become The Punisher, has been hotly anticipated since the character (as played by Jon Bernthal) debuted in season two of Daredevil. But unlike his peers in the Marvel Universe, this new take on Castle's story isn't only eagerly awaited by comic book fans, but also action flick buffs who had ruefully enjoyed low rent silver screen iterations of the character portrayed by Dolph Lundgren in 1989, Thomas Jane in 2004, and Ray Stevenson in 2008. But that's not all: another fanbase has been brought into the fold by none other than showrunner Steve Lightfoot, an executive producer and writer on the cult NBC hit Hannibal.

Below, the British Lightfoot tells us more about setting his version of The Punisher apart from the earlier shoot 'em up renditions, how Hannibal helped ready him for the Marvel Universe, what it was like to have the new series' rollout delayed by in lieu of a national tragedy, and more.

Kyle Mullin (Under the Radar): How did you first encounter the source material? Were you a fan of The Punisher comics as a boy, or did you have to play catch-up to prepare after being offered the series?

Steve Lightfoot: I didn't read it when I was younger. I was a Marvel fan, probably like many people until my mid teens. There was that and a comic out in the U.K. called 2000 AD that I used to read. But I'd never really come across The Punisher. The first I'd come across it was when I was a kid and saw the [1989] Dolph Lundgren movie. I'd seen all the movies, but had never read the comics when I got a call to come in and meet Marvel about the show. At that point I took a deep dive and started reading them.

Speaking of the Dolph Lundgren versionit's a cult classic, and even the 2004 Thomas Jane starring iteration has a hardcore following. Yet, those versions all got a mixed reception at best. So how do you want to take an approach that's more sophisticated, or that might have an appeal to a more discerning audience?

I didn't revisit the films when I started working on the show, I'd just seen then when they came out. I of course put more stock in what Marvel was doing with Daredevil's second season, and had already seen [star] Jon Bernthal's performance going in, and thought he'd given the character so much depth and complexity. He gave him a real feeling of humanity, which was great to know that that was available to me.

And the second thing was, I was already a huge fan of Daredevil and Jessica Jones when I got the offer for The Punisher. And I just loved how gritty and real and characterful those shows were, and that that was the approach those guys were taking. Of course when you have 13 hours of story to tell, it's not enough to just be in action all the time. And from what I remember of those [earlier Punisher] movies, they're very much action movies. They're two hours long, and mostly driven by plot and narrative. But when you get into long form television the story has to slow down, and in the end you live and die by your characters. And if the characters aren't complex or relatable enough, I don't think it sustains. So an awful lot of the work we did was just crafting a character that people would want to spend 13 hours with.

So what did you and Jon do to ensure the protagonist was compelling enough? And what has Jon been like to work with?   

It's been unique from the get go. It's very rare as a writer, when you're asked to create a show, to not only know who your lead actor is, but also get to see them play the part. And as I was saying before, I had already seen Jon play The Punisher in Daredevil, and a lot of my excitement to do the job was born of seeing what Jon had done in the part. He's such a fantastic actor. He's got this amazing ferocity. You don't doubt that character can kick your ass. But there's also a real humanity and decency that Jon projects. And he's an incredibly brave actor. He wasn't afraid to lose the audience, to go places and do things that might put them off. But I think because there's a humanity that always shines through he always has the capability to pull them back.

So once I had Jon as a touchstone, it was just a matter of casting the show and matching the believability and depth that he brought to that. And I was in a great position because everyone we cast came in and read for us, and we got to cast those who were best in the parts. Having done that, they all elevated it even more when we got to shooting the show. I'm very pleased with it.

Of all those cast members, fans will likely be especially keen to see Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page, the New York Bulletin reporter and Matt Murdock's former assistant from the Daredevil series. What did you enjoy most about working with her?

The relationship the guys on Daredevil's second season had built with Frank and Karen was really strong. And I think she's such a fantastic actress, I think she lights up the screen. So when we started breaking stories and developing the shows, it felt like we had to bring her into the show and keep her part of Frank's journey. I knew they were shooting Defenders as well, but we worked hard to make sure that relationship stayed on track.

And while there's a strong following for both Deborah and Jon after their work on Daredevil, that really pales in comparison to your fan base after the years you spent on acclaimed TV series Hannibal. Did that experience help you with The Punisher? Both series feature nuanced depictions of very violent men, after all.

Well, Hannibal was a fantastic experience for me. I had great fun on that show. And we made a good show, even though it never had a huge audience, it at least had a very loyal following. So when you realize you've made something that has touched people that deeply, it's very humbling and a little scary, in that you want to deliver for those guys.

So you take something from every show you've worked on. I think the thing we learned on Hannibal was that we worked very hard to make those characters very real and complex, and everything come from character first and last. And then you can get the audience to empathize with someone they normally wouldn't. I think when you can get the audience rooting for [antagonist and protagonist] Hannibal Lector and Jack Crawford at the same time, you know you've pulled something off, and the characters you've crafted may be murderous vigilantes who the audience might not agree with, at least they're empathizing. I think that was something I took from that show, and saw it as the key to the success of The Punisher-that the audience wouldn't always agree with Frank, but they're willing to go on the journey with him and see where it takes him.

Who are some of your biggest influences in that regard? What shows and characters compelled you in that way, even when you didn't agree with them?

I'm all over the map, from French art films to Disney movies. I grew up in the '80s, so there were two major touchstones: '80s action movies, and I watched a lot of Westerns with my father. So when you think about our version of The Punisher, there's something very '70s Western about Frank Castle. He's an antihero in the Clint Eastwood mold. The films of those two decades, different as they are, pulled me in either direction. Westerns and '70s urban thrillers were also huge influences stylistically.

Being on a big platform like Netflix, did you have the resources to truly draw on those influences compared to any other project you've worked on? And did you have more creative freedom than on a network show? What have been the major benefits of being on Netflix?

Well, we had a lot of creative freedom on Hannibal in network, so I don't think it's as simple as network vs. streaming. In the end it's all about the people you work with, and how those partnerships work. The guys at NBC were very generous with creative freedom. And similarly Netflix, they were great creative partners, both Netflix and Marvel when I was pitching the vision for the show. They had input there, and they were very good collaborators. But they bought into what I wanted to do very early, and once they did they really supported it, and it's as good a creative experience as I've ever had.

The distinction with Netflix that's exciting, though, is there are no ad breaks, which as a writer you always prefer. That way you can craft the episode to be consumed unbroken. And the idea that the audience might binge watch the show slightly changes how you write the show. There's no need to recap what happened the week before, because you hope they're going to watch it straight away. So in the writers room we approached it like a novel, and I told everyone that we'd be writing 13 chapters. If someone wants to read it the whole way through in one sitting, great. But if not let's leave them at the end of each chapter in a great place to want to watch again as soon as possible. So I enjoyed the streaming model from that point of view.

Lastly, I wanted to ask you about the roll out of the show and how it was delayed because of the Las Vegas shooting. How was that a challenge, and how did you and the team cope with that?

Netflix and Marvel could speak to the rollout better than I. There had never been a date announced, so I wasn't sure when people would be able to view it anyway. But I think the decision they made was the right one, just given how close we were to those events. If we'd even upset one person involved in the tragedy, then that wouldn't have been a good thing. So they absolutely made the right, and the most considerate call there.   

www.netflix.com

 

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