The Punisher’s Ebon Moss-Bachrach and Showrunner Steve Lightfoot on Explicit Violence and Sidekicks

Actor who plays comic book fan-favorite character Micro talks likability, while executive producer Lightfoot discusses making killers relatable.

by and | November 17, 2017 | Comments

Showrunner Steve Lightfoot Reveals Influences Beyond the Comic Books, Discusses Violence in Punisher and Hannibal

Marvel's The Punisher keyart with Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle (Netflix)
(Photo by Netflix)

Ebon Moss-Bachrach | Steve Lightfoot

Debbie Day for Rotten Tomatoes: How closely does the show hew to the comic?

Steve Lightfoot: The character started in comic books in 1974, and there have been so many incarnations that — there have been comedic versions, and there have been very sort of graphic, mature comic book versions, and there was a whole arc called Franken-Castle where he became literally Frankenstein’s monster. So my touchstone was much more the work that was done in Daredevil season 2, and the version of Frank that they had set up there. And I loved what John and the guys had done with that, and I sort of picked that up. So I’ve read a lot of the comic books and there are a lot of things in the show that are inspired by or taken from different places in the canon, but we didn’t look at a particular era of the comic book and say, “That’s what we’re doing.”

Do you know if they did that for Daredevil when they were developing the character there?

Lightfoot: I don’t. In all honesty that was well before my time. I really liked what they’d done with it, and in some ways they did the origin story, so I’m sure they went back to the source material for that, but I wasn’t in — I don’t know anything about that process, really.

So when you were writing it, did you have any thoughts of trying to hit points in developing the character that you knew that were particularly important to the fan base?

Lightfoot: You want the show to have fans, and you want them to feel like you’ve done the character justice, and I think that was my constant goal, was let’s take the character and do his story justice. And I hope if we’ve done that then the fans will like the show. I think again, if you get into certain incarnations of this element or that and you allow that to dictate the work you do, the chances are you’re not gonna please anyone. And so in the end we just try to be really truthful to the character and let that dictate the show.

Marvel's The Punisher - Jon Bernthal (Nicole Rivelli /Netflix)
(Photo by Nicole Rivelli /Netflix)

Where do we find Frank Castle as we open the season? Like, relative to Daredevil for people who were fans of that series.

Lightfoot: Obviously the show has a teaser which, if you like, is the end of the story they told in Daredevil, where we see him finish off the gangs who he feels were responsible for the death of his family, and he kind of thinks his job done. And so when we find him, he’s almost like this living ghost in New York; he’s a fugitive, no one one knows he’s alive, but also emotionally he can’t move on. He’s still stuck in the past and sort of crippled by this grief, and with that just a sense of not really knowing what to do with himself. And for me, and what we talked about was what’s nagging him there and the thing that won’t let him get past it is what he was told when he was told ‘It wasn’t an accident, it was because of something you were doing.’ So I think we’re finding a guy who, he’s gotten rid of the enemy who was in front of him, but the enemy now is his own sense of guilt because he thinks maybe it was his fault. And then what we unpack in the season is that story.

Aside from the comic source material and Daredevil, do you have any other influences that come in when you’re writing a character like this? Are there films that you admire?

Lightfoot: I’m sort of a film nut, so there’s so many — I was always a big fan of Westerns, and I was big fan of sort of ’70s urban thrillers. And I felt like the show was like a real marriage of those two things, because in many ways Frank Castle, he’s a classic antihero, which is a sort of very Western archetype, but then he’s in this New York, very urban environment, and so again when we were writing the show we tried to write it in a very relevant way that was born of character. But certainly when we’ve got into talking about style and how to depict the show, ideas and themes and style for me, both Westerns and ’70s cinema. And because Frank’s a fugitive, there’s a lot of paranoia in the show, and they’re hiding out. We certainly went and looked at a lot of those ’70s conspiracy thrillers, and took a lot of inspiration from that.

MARATHON MAN, Laurence Olivier, 1976 (Courtesy Everett Collection)
(Photo by Courtesy Everett Collection/Marathon Man)

In the show, there is a very specific reference to one of my favorite films, Marathon Man.

Lightfoot: Yeah. And in some ways episode 1 is an updating of Shane. Episode 1 is, I think, a real classic sort of urban Western, with the guy who just wants to be left alone, but in the end he has stand up and act, and I felt that sort of lent itself very well.

Speaking of influences and background, I was a big fan of Hannibal, so I’m wondering, can you talk a little bit about developing characters that are adaptations from other mediums, is there a parallel to be made with Hannibal Lecter?

Lightfoot: Obviously I didn’t create Hannibal — that was Bryan [Fuller], who is pretty special. And I learned a huge amount from him. Hannibal‘s slightly different because they were novels and Thomas Harris’s writing is incredibly rich and just more detailed because it’s a novel.

But I think in the end it’s about finding a new take on the character that is authentic and real, and then making the audience invest in them even if they don’t necessarily always agree with them. And I think the triumph of Hannibal was when you were in scenes and you were sort of rooting for Jack Crawford and him at the same time. And I think that’s because we worked very hard to make Hannibal relatable, and I think the way you make antiheroes or dark heroes relatable is you find something in them that’s universal that we can all feel. And Hannibal might have been a cannibalistic serial killer, but he, in the end, was also a really lonely man who just wanted a friend, and he was just looking for a guy who would finally understand him and be his friend.

And so, with Frank Castle for me, the thing I thought was universal and we could all tap into was just, beyond the thriller plot, he was a man whose family was taken from him at a young age, and I think that sort of grief is crippling and life changing, and I thought we’ve probably all grieved for someone and lost someone, and that was something we could all identify with, just the pain of that, and that idea that somehow you have to find a response to it. And that was what I kept going back to for Frank, was this guy just trying to process his grief and his own part in the death, you know, his guilt. And I thought we may not condone his actions, but if the audience can understand them, even if they know it’s not the right thing to do, then we’ve hopefully created a journey the audience will go on. And I think that was something we worked incredibly hard to do in Hannibal and certainly was something I brought to this character in trying to adapt it.

Hannibal star Mads Mikkelsen (NBC)
(Photo by NBC/Hannibal)

And as with Hannibal, The Punisher is hyper-violent. Were there any particular reactions to the violence of Hannibal that maybe informed some of the writing you did here? Did it create any cautiousness or maybe the opposite?

Lightfoot: I feel they’re very different in that, I think in Hannibal the grammar was horror and very often we only saw the end result of the violence. It wasn’t that often that we actually saw the event, and therefore, those murder scenes were incredibly on a tableau, and were quite, obviously graphic, but I think they sort of played into the grammar of the horror film, where it was sort of, you know — and Brian has an amazing aesthetic, and we tried to make it sort of horrific and beautiful at the same time. But in some ways, it was after the fact.

I thought they set the lines of this pretty well in Daredevil season 2. I think they gave me a line which we maintain. I thought that prison fight and the fight in the diner were sort of in keeping with how I felt it should be done, which is that, it was important to see the cost of the violence. I think if we saw Frank hit someone in the face or something and there wasn’t a mark on them, in some ways that’s worse than showing what that would really do, and there being a cost, because I think that in seeing a cost to the violence, you’re sort of saying, “This stuff hurts, and it’s not OK.” And what that then led to was I also thought it was important to see the cost on Frank every time he went out and acted the way he did, and I feel like every time he sort of gets into it there’s a little piece of him left behind. And that was sort of the philosophy there.

Marvel's The Punisher - Amber Rose Revah, Michael Nathanson (Nicole Rivelli/Netflix)
(Photo by Nicole Rivelli/Netflix)

If you could tell me maybe a little bit about the female characters in the show, particularly Dinah (Amber Rose Revah), and what her story line means, because she’s a new character, not from the comic.

Lightfoot: She’s not. Obviously with any show you’re trying to create this spiderweb of characters who all impact each other. My philosophy is always that there shouldn’t be sidekicks. The importance to me was to give every character their own narrative and their own story that was the most important thing to them. And Dinah to me was just an opportunity to, A, mix the paradigm up and say the tough nemesis cop that is coming after Frank, let’s just make it a woman, instead of it being a guy, let’s have him chased by a woman who is his equal. And then also, it was an opportunity to sort of say, “Look, here’s a woman of Persian descent who actually is as big a patriot as Frank is,” and to just play with paradigms and depiction there, and say let’s take a Persian woman and make her an action hero. And we had a lot of fun with that, and my writers’ room was split men and women, and so we had a lot of fun in there. And the idea was always to make Dinah the equal of any of the men in the show.

Ebon Moss-Bachrach | Steve Lightfoot

Marvel’s The Punisher is available to stream on Netflix.

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