A Better Punisher
By Mike Pecci
I believe that there is a way to create a better and more successful Punisher on screen. Not just for the comic book fans, but for fans of action films, fans of violence, and fans of the iconic antihero. Frank Castle is more than a man with guns - he is a dead man on a mission. He needs to finally be represented with respect. I believe I can do this. So I made a short fan film called The Dead Can’t Be Distracted.
Like so many more before me, I have been a fan of comic books since I was a child. At around 12 years old, my parents were concerned with my lack of interest in books. In an act of desperation my mother purchased a few random comics from the local drug store.
"Try these”, she said. “Maybe comics will get you to read?”
Those early issues of Amazing Spiderman (starting around issue #337) would expose me to visual storytelling, start my love affair with lighting and color, and would plant the influence I use every day as a photographer and director. Marvel comics started it all for me. It’s ironic how twenty-three years later that same company would clamp down on my creative freedom.
My goal was to create a pilot for a potential web series, a pitch film to Marvel and the fans. An attempt to show everyone that the Punisher doesn’t have to be a lumbering psycho that aimlessly empties rounds into a room full of thugs. He doesn’t need useless supporting characters that just spit out shitty pop culture references.
Where can you see it? You can’t. Some of you may have caught a glimpse in the quick teaser we released online or on the posters of the characters that had spread through the comic book websites and film blogs. The teaser alone started getting instant notice and acclaim with headlines like “Better than anything Hollywood has done.” Fans were writing to me every day asking to see it. You can only imagine how excited everyone involved with the film was as we all raced to wrap up the shorts’ post-production. Then it happened - I received a letter from Marvel!
“While we appreciate your affection for the character, we must demand that you immediately stop your unauthorized use, advertising, sale and/or distribution of any production of The Punisher or any other Marvel character-based films therefor, and any other use of the images, likenesses, artwork or other intellectual property owned by Marvel. “
They demanded I take down all materials surrounding the film and told me that I was not allowed to release it. According to Marvel it would “confuse the audience” into believing that it’s an official Marvel production. At first I was flattered that the quality of our work might even compare to the millions they spend on production and advertising, but then the reality of it all set in. Marvel legal was demanding that I don’t release the film! Since when does Marvel go after fan films? Wasn’t there a recent and heavily promoted Punisher fan film with Thomas Jane? What could I do about this? Before I try to answer that, let me start at the beginning.
A few months prior to the filming of TDCBD, I was reading the recent Greg Rucka run of the Punisher. For the first time ever, I found myself completely lost in a Punisher story and in love with the character. Rucka’s version is about a man who has been changed by trauma, both emotionally and physically. He is a younger Castle (he talks about him being a vet from the recent middle east wars instead of Vietnam) who is at war and is taking a lot of damage. The first thing I noticed was how beat up Castle was and how long it took him to heal. He loses an eye early on in the series - that’s new! The story gripped me. It’s not a story of revenge; in fact this story catches up with him well after the fact. We meet a man who has deadened himself to emotion, to relationships, a man focused on tactical strategy and efficiency. Greg then introduces Seargent Cole-Alves, a woman who has lost her family the same way Frank did. She on the other hand, is actively seeking revenge and teams up with Castle with the hope to learn how to get it. Frank, however, looks down on her and her inability to control her emotions. He really only keeps her around because he can use her military skills. The story focuses on her struggle with her emotions and how detrimental they can be when you are a Punisher.
It’s a genius way of showing us Frank’s back story and development without flashbacks and constant reminders that his family was killed. I always hate how in the other Punisher books they constantly had to remind us that Frank’s family was gone, and how he was constantly pining for them. He already got his revenge and he is over it. Castle now is at war and it’s the only reason why he is alive. Rucka doesn’t cheapen the story with some flimsy romance or physical attraction either, and the military speak between them both makes it all feel like a tactical operation. I was hooked! At that time I was in the middle of a music video production that had a scene that required us to tie up a man and torture him using electroshock treatment. The scene looked awesome and I remember looking in the monitor and saying, “I need to make a Punisher film!”
STEP 01: FINANCING
So I can’t show you the film, but I can tell you how I made it. I am so grateful for the experiences it gave me and I hope you might be able to learn something from them. Fan films are not about profit. I firmly believe that you shouldn’t make a dime off of someone else’s intellectual property. For us it was never about making money, it was about proving that Frank could be cool again. The first hurdle for me was funding. No one in his or her right mind would want to fund something without a return, so I turned to my business partner (Ian McFarland) and pitched the idea of self-financing and producing it through our company McFarland & Pecci. It would only take a small amount of loot to pull it off and working with our best shooting team, some good casting, and calling in a lot of favors. We decided to put aside enough money for two days of shooting (giving it a short running time) and I would come up with creative ways to make the most out of the small budget we had using camera and lighting tricks. I also knew that we needed the perfect actors.
STEP 02: CASTING
With any production, no matter how large or small, its success depends heavily on pre-production, the creative vision, and the actors. Our film needed talent. Good talent. Not just actors I could afford, but also professionals that can work in my style of filming. I knew early on that TDCBD wouldn’t have much dialog, so I needed faces on screen that would captivate the audience.
My first choice was Evalena Marie. This gorgeous and talented independent actress caught my attention with her film ‘Serena and the Ratts.’ She had a shaved head, a mean snarl, and was the perfect punk rock action star. I reached out to her a year earlier and begged her to shoot a scene for my Grindhouse DVD. We spent an afternoon in a dark basement with a chainsaw and yoga pants creating one of the most dynamic clips I had ever filmed. This dorky and skinny girl could step in front of a camera and transform into a strong female presence equal to Ripley or Sarah Conner. I was in love and there was no other choice for Cole.
So who would we cast as Frank? I wanted to stay true to Marco Checchetto’s illustrations and cast a younger Castle. I loved the beard, the scarring, and physical abuse that the character continuously suffered in the book. I didn’t want a Friday the 13th type Punisher that could walk through walls and hold up 6-foot men with one hand. I wanted our Punisher to be limber, sleek and smart. We needed a man that could take a hit, but would need a few days to recover from it.
Enter Nick Apostolides. I had seen him brilliantly lead a cast of astronauts in a student sci-fi film and was blown away. He has the ability to catch our attention with just a glance, he can steal a scene from the best of them - but more importantly, he can captivate us without saying a word. Nick loses himself in his roles to become a character and his commitment to his craft rivals that of Frank Castle himself. Getting him to agree to come on board made me realize that we had to shoot this!!!
STEP 03: PRE-PRODUCTIONI have spent years developing as both a director and a photographer. I grew up loving neo-noir, grindhouse, and 80s & 90s action and horror films.
Comic books have been the biggest influence on everything I create. I love how the medium is dependent on the picture, framing, and composition to tell a story. I was born to shoot a comic book film. One thing I gripe about all the time is that a lot of the big budget films these days tend to lean towards reality when it comes to the look. The footage is clean, the light is white, and the framing is more functional than anything else. A lot of the big comic book films feel more like and expensive TV show than a film.
Imagine if Ridely Scott, David Fincher, or one of the hundreds of great visual directors made one?
Of course there are beautiful exceptions to the rule, films like SIN CITY, ROAD TO PERDITION, CONSTANTINE, and BLADE 2 push the limits of cinematography (even the crappy WARZONE film did some cool color stuff).
Generally, I feel like Marvel tends to play it safe and these giant budget productions strangle the art out of stories created in an artist’s medium. Since we were making a fan film, I wanted to show the fans that comic book movies don’t have to look safe. They can be dangerous! Vivid colors, heavy grain, experimental lighting, and intentional framing could still be done right. Even on our budget.
I also wanted our
film to feel timeless, make it feel like the films I grew up loving in the late
eighties. I wanted it to “smell” like a
John Carpenter classic with a sharp modern edge. It just so happens that around this time, I
was obsessing over the resurgence of eighties synth pop and couldn’t stop
listening to Australia’s electronic band POWERGLOVE.
I later found out that POWERGLOVE had done soundtrack work for Hobo with a Shotgun and were in production for the score of the recent video game FarCry 3: Blood Dragon. These guys had somehow captured the sound from my youth and put it to this dark driving beat. They had to be in my movie somewhere!