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Monday, November 10, 2003


By Rob Allstetter/The Comics Continuum

TAMPA, FLA. -- Jonathan Hensleigh is not your ordinary first-time director. A veteran writer and producer, Hensleigh's credits include such blockbusters as Die Hard, The Rock, Con Air and Armageddon.

So even though Hensleigh's giving direction for the first time on Artisan Entertainment's The Punisher, the live-action adaptation of Marvel Comics' bad-ass vigilante, he brings a wealth of experience as the film's director and writer. "He's been around the block a few times," says Thomas Jane, who stars in the title role, during The Continuum's recent visit to the set. "He's seen a lot of big movies. He's seen every aspect. It was just a matter of time before they actually gave him a camera."

"I was waiting for the right opportunity," Hensleigh says about directing. "I had been on the set for so many days for so many action pictures, and I had performed such a variety of roles." Hensleigh's eating lunch with a group of genre reporters during the last week of production of The Punisher. Minutes before, he provided a glimpse of a scene in which Jane's Punisher invades the penthouse of Howard Saint, the film's villain played by John Travolta, and releases Saint's money into the streets.

The action's mean and nasty, The Punisher inflicting the abrupt brand of violence fans are used to from the comic books.

"I read every single Punisher comic I could get. There might have been a couple that slipped through, but I went all the way back," Hensleigh says. "I had to cull certain aspects from some of the comics, but then had to whole scale all the rest of it with the plot. I took the character Frank Castle, the Punisher, and all that from the comic series, but I invented a great deal.

"This is the origin story, and I didn't want the origin story to be the first act. I wanted the origin story to take the entire film. So I was interested mostly in the underlying event, which is the murder of Frank Castlešs family. And then, secondarily, that moment or series of visuals where Frank Castle actually becomes, really like the metamorphosis of an inject from a cocoon, where he springs forth as The Punisher.

"And I started to build the movie backwards from that. The underlying event and where he really becomes the guy, with the wardrobe and the hair and the guns and the whole bit."

The film's production went smoothly. Behind the camera this day, Hensleigh seems assured and focused, working closely on a scene with Jane as The Punisher departs from Saint's building.

"I'm a little biased, but he's amazing," says Gale Anne Hurd, The Punisher's producer, who is also Hensleigh's wife.

Hensleigh says he "meticulously planned" the production.

"We had so much of a tennis match on the script from month to month to month beforehand that I canšt say I had freedom but I didn't have lack of freedom," Hensleigh says. "Everything was sort of bargained out between myself and the studio.

"And once Thomas got involved, Thomas wanted changes, which we made. So we knew exactly what movie we were making on the first day of principal photography. We did not alter the script at all.

"I insisted upon that actually, that we have the script locked, that we go into production with a locked script. And we did that and we executed the script as planned."

Hensleigh's script was set in Tampa, and he first arrived in Florida in January for pre-production. And even though the city turned out to be a welcome and ready host for the film, it did provide

"It surprised me how quickly a black thunder cloud can turn to rain in South Florida," Hensleigh says, laughing. "Literally, in any other part of the world, what would be about a 20-minute or 30-minute approach, here would be about two minutes."

But even that didn't derail Hensleigh, who only lost one day to weather and wrapped on schedule. Now begins post-production for the April 16 release, with the marketing for the film starting in earnest with a trailer attached to The Matrix Revolutions.

"I think we're in good shape," says Marvel Studio's Ari Arad, co-producer, who lived in Tampa during shooting. "The formation of The Punisher is a pretty epic story, and (Hensleigh) has captured the important elements."

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