‘The Punisher’ Showrunner Steve Lightfoot on Jon Bernthal’s Performance and Getting the Villain Right

     November 17, 2017

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Be aware there are some slight spoilers discussed.

From showrunner Steve Lightfoot (Hannibal), the Marvel/Netflix series The Punisher follows Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal), who mistakenly thought he’d be able to disappear into a quiet life, now that he was finished exacting revenge on those responsible for the death of his wife and children. But when he uncovers a conspiracy that runs far deeper than New York’s criminal underworld, The Punisher must discover just how far and deep the injustices run.  

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, executive producer/writer Steve Lightfoot talked about what he wanted to carry over from Daredevil Season 2, how they built on the story from there, what Jon Bernthal brings to the character, pacing the series for 13 episodes, why total redemption for Frank Castle is tricky, the humor, why Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) was an important part of the story, how close this version of Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) might get to the Jigsaw in the comics, and the desire to continue to tell this story, in future seasons.

Collider:  When you saw Frank Castle go on his journey to becoming The Punisher in Season 2 of Daredevil, what was it that most spoke to you about him, as a character, and about Jon Bernthal’s performance as this character? 

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Image via Netflix

STEVE LIGHTFOOT:  I came in and met the guys about the show before Daredevil Season 2. I think  Daredevil and Jessica Jones had aired, and I had really liked what Netflix and Marvel were doing with those. I thought they were gritty and smart, and just a really clever take on comic books on television. And then, once we started talking, they gave me a sneak peek at Daredevil Season 2. The thing that stood out for me was Jon’s performance. I just thought he embodied the character so well. The guys had written him fantastically. There was a lot of depth. The joy of television is the amount of time you have to unpack a character, and I thought Jon gave him such ferocity and physicality, on the one hand, and he was scary. and then gave such massive humanity. We he gave that graveside monologue, he broke my heart. I knew, if we could do that, then we could have a show. Jon was someone who, in his portrayal of it, would give us the ability to empathize with a guy who’s often doing things that we really probably don’t agree with.

In what ways did you want to pick up from where Daredevil left off with Frank Castle, and how did you decide where you wanted to go from there and what you wanted to dig deeper on or steer away from?  

LIGHTFOOT:  They left me two things to pick up. One was that his commanding officer, when he finally realizes that’s who betrayed him, tells him, “Oh, your family wasn’t an accident. They died because of something you were doing in Kandahar.” And then, the other thing, right at the end, was that we saw him with this disc with “Micro” on it. So, I knew I needed to pick those two things up. The plot story built out from that. What I wanted to key into was that you have this guy who is dealing with grief, which is universal. Most of us haven’t been in the military, and we certainly haven’t done the things that Frank Castle has done, but we’ve probably all lost someone. A man with a young family, I thought about the idea of losing that in the way that he did, and I wanted to delve into his grief and, coming out of that, his sense of guilt, as he learns that, at least in part, it’s because of his own actions. That’s what I felt would allow us all to sympathize with him. Even if we can’t condone his actions, we can understand where they’re coming from, emotionally.

I noticed that, at least in the first half of the season (I’ve seen Episodes 1-6, so can only comment on those), we only see glimpses of Frank’s family being murdered. Was that an intentional and deliberate choice? 

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Image via Netflix

LIGHTFOOT:  Yeah. I felt like the least interesting flashback to get would be the event. When you’re grieving or there are things in your past, it often is the weirdest things that come to you and that you remember, and it’s probably not the obvious thing. For the most part, the family flashbacks were always meant to be a depiction of his interior emotional state, rather than just being flat storytelling. We come into the show and, in three lines, you can know what the backstory is. It was a way to show Frank’s interior emotional state, rather than just a way to say to the audience, “Look, here’s what happened.” It was only interesting to me, as far as it was Frank’s little flashes of memories, hence the recurring dream about his wife, which isn’t actually how it really happened. It builds into a depiction of Frank’s guilt for his own part in it.

While you were writing the show, did you almost go in a different direction, at any time, or was this always the arc for the story that you’d be telling this season? 

LIGHTFOOT:  It was pretty much always there. Sometimes you struggle, but it came together really quickly. The general shape of the story and the things I wanted to explore came to me pretty quickly. Marvel and Netflix really got on board with that and they were really supportive. They were great collaborators and partners. So, it became pretty tight, pretty quick, which was great because it meant that we could just dig deeper into the fine details.

Is it a contractual thing that you have to do 13 episodes, or could you do more or less, if you felt that was necessary?

LIGHTFOOT:  I don’t know. When I came in, it was to do 13 episodes. Beyond that, I don’t know how it works, really. I feel like, once you know what you’ve got, then it’s my job to pace the show correctly and make sure that the story sustains, which hopefully we’ve done.

Did you think about finding redemption for Frank Castle, or is that something you weren’t specifically thinking about? 

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Image via Netflix

LIGHTFOOT:  It’s interesting, I think redemption is tricky, if you’ve gotta make multiple seasons of the show because it’s called The Punisher. Total redemption is tricky. I hope we get to do this for awhile. What I wanted to achieve for him, in Season 1, was seeing him learn that vengeance is an empty reward. It’s not the war you’re fighting, but it’s who you’re fighting it for. Without being too spoilery, what starts as a quest for revenge becomes a quest to give his friend his family back and to give his friend what he can no longer have. I think there’s something redemptive in that and, ultimately, rewarding. It would be nice, if we got to the end of this season and he had, at least, forgiven himself for the part he played in what happened to his family. Beyond that, he’s always gonna be a pretty difficult guy.

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