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Saturday, Sept. 4 2004


Jonathan Hensleigh hadn't directed a movie before The Punisher, but that hardly made him a Hollywood rookie.

A veteran writer and producer, Hensleigh has a long list of credits, including such blockbusters as Die Hard, The Rock, Con Air and Armageddon. So even though Hensleigh directed for the first time on The Punisher -- the live-action adaptation of Marvel Comics' bad-ass vigilante that is being released by Lions Gate on DVD on Tuesday -- he brought 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. "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."

"He loved the Punisher and had the right sensibilities," says producer Avia Arad of Marvel Studios. "Believing in it, he wrote it and rewrote it until he felt, 'We've got something incredible here.'Welcome Back, Frank was of course the inspiration for all of us, but he gave it a special feel."

Hensleigh says he tried to deliver a movie that would satisfy Punisher fans.

"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, really like the metamorphosis of an insect from a cocoon, 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."

Perhaps the biggest deviation from the comic was setting The Punisher in Tampa, Fla., where it was also filmed.

"My villain is a money-launderer, and my research showed that the center of money-laundering -- of the nature that this guy is doing -- is in the Gulf Coast of Florida, stretching all the way down across New Orleans and Houston and Galveston," Hensleigh says. "So it made sense that way. I also needed a location that could double for Puerto Rico, because I didn't have money to do a huge company move.

"Shooting in Manhattan is unbelievably expensive. I know there's been a concern from some of the fan base on the Florida move, but believe me, that's just where the film's set. Ninety-eight percent of this film, the DNA of this film, comes directly from the comics."

With a tight budget and shooting schedule, 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 says it helped that everyone seemed to be on the same page with his vision for the film.

"I'm notoriously slow to attach. In Hollywood I'm very careful," he says. "I had a lot of meetings and a lot of conversations with the producers and the studio executives. So I came in and I discussed at length what I wanted to do with the film. And to my great surprise and delight, Marvel, and at the time Artisan - now Lio's Gate - they shared what I wanted to do.

"I said I wanted to make a hard-nosed, 1970's-style throwback, R-rated - not just R, but hard R - and I got nothing but agreement. The reason why we wanted to do that collectively, is because we knew the fanbase would reject anything watered-down. We've seen that again and again on the internet, of fans saying, 'Oh, Christ. They're going to make a PG-13 version of this. It's gonna suck.' But we didn't."

The Punisher opened second behind Kill Bill Vol. II at the box office last April. The film brought in $33.7 million domestically and both Lions Gate and Marvel have indicated they are going ahead with a sequel.

Hensleigh plans on being around for the sequel and has hinted that Jigsaw might be the villain.

"I'd like to stick with the general tone of Garth Ennis from theWelcome Back, Fran" series. I really love that," Hensleigh says. "But there's been some pieces that I'm going too cull from the entire series of comics. And probably some original bits as well. This one's going to be a little bit more of a soup. Bits and pieces taken from all the comics, but still that same tone."

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