The director dishes on the sequel and being a female director... who can fight

Lexi Alexander is certainly not your typical female film director. The German-born filmmaker is a former world champion in both karate and kickboxing. Her short film Johnny Flynton was nominated for an Oscar in 2003, which paved the way for her phenomenal feature debut, Green Street Hooligans, which I love more every time I see it. Now she's at the helm of her first studio picture, directing Punisher: War Zone. I was fortunate enough to participate in a conference call with the director while she was filming the sequel in Montreal. Here's what she had to say:

Does this movie take place in the Marvel universe, or in its own world?

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Lexi Alexander: I think in the sense of the other Marvel characters, it's definitely it's own world. In terms of location, though, we call it the Marvel New York. Rather than set it in the real New York, I wanted it to have more of a surreal feeling.

What one thing do you think distinguishes your take on The Punisher, compared to the last Punisher movie, that fans of the comic book will truly appreciate?

Lexi Alexander: The last Punisher movie wasn't really relevant to us. There's a lot of comparison to it, but none of any of the people on my team looked at it and said, "How can we be different or better?" We just made our own film. The one thing I concentrated on was to really really make it as close to the Max series as possible. We really acheived it in terms of the look, as well as the tone. When I look at the dailies that I'm getting, seriously, I think I'm looking at a Max comic book right in front of me. It's the same color tones, it's the same tone.

Will this be a hard-R Punisher, and if so, what sort of guidelines does the studio establish regarding how violent the movie can be?

Lexi Alexander: It definitely will be a hard-R and, luckily, Lionsgate has been great about it. They haven't given me any guidelines in terms of violence. I think they are a really good studio to make a violent movie, and I really like violent movies. So it's definitely going to be a hard-R.

I just loved your debut film Green Street Hooligans

Lexi Alexander: Thank you.

Are the challenges of making a picture on a bigger scale like Punisher: War Zone more than that of a picture like Green Street?

Lexi Alexander: I think there's advantages and disadvantages. The advantages is that there are a lot more toys. It's a bigger crew, there's just more resources. The disadvantages is the more money you get, the more responsibility you have, the more people you have to answer to. You have all kinds of people that have a say in how this movie should be, giving me input in where I can go and where I can't go. I think I got really really lucky for this being my first studio movie and having people who really believe in me and really haven't been riding me to their thing rather than mine. I usually know from other filmmakers that their first studio film, they hardly make any decisions by themselves, so I got really lucky.

How will this Punisher film differ from the previous films?

Lexi Alexander: Again, I get this question a lot, and it really wasn't relevant. I think the feeling of it is going to be much darker and I think one thing the comic fans will realize immediately is that the world we created feels like the comic book world, in terms of the look as well. The reason I've been sick all week is because I've been shooting in minus degrees, all night, for 8 weeks. I literally haven't seen daylight. I'm like a vampire. So, you can imagine how this movie is going to look. Castle is never in the daylight. It's all dark and cold.

What is the significance of the subtitle War Zone to the story we'll be seeing?

Lexi Alexander: Well, when we were discussing titles, obviously Marvel has a huge input on that, we wanted to go with something that fans were going to recognize as a title. Then they suggested a few, War Zone seemed to be the one. In particular, it has something to do with the ending. It will make more sense once you see the film, but I think the ending really justifies the title War Zone.

In an interview, The Punisher director Jonathan Hensleigh told us that he worked to darken things between the original theatrical version and the extended cut. What is your feelling on the tone of your film, and how far are you looking to push it in terms of the comic book portrayal of the character, Marvel Max versus regular Marvel Universe, for example?

Lexi Alexander: Well, it's definitely Marvel Max. It's a vigilante story and it's pretty dark and violent in the comic books, as Punisher fans know. There's really no boundaries to his darkness. I really tried to go there and hopefully I achieved it.

Given your background, how much hand-to-hand fighting do you plan to have Frank Castle engage in? Or will most of the action be gunplay?

Lexi Alexander: I would say it's about 70 percent gunplay, and 30 percent hand-to-hand combat. I really didn't have anything to with my background, although I love hand-to-hand combat and I love putting on these fights. That's the world I come from, in terms of martial arts as well as from the stunt world. When I make a film, it's about the character. When I studied his biography, the great thing about Castle is that he's skilled in so many things. Being a Force Recon guy, he learned all kinds of martial arts skills, so you have pieces of every single martial arts there is. But he's also mainly focused on the guns, so we have some great hand-to-hand combat, but it's 70 percent gunplay, I would have to say.

Your storylines incorporates elements and characters from the "Welcome Back Frank" story. Why was the decision to bring in Jigsaw who is not a part of that storyline?

Lexi Alexander: The first script I received from Lionsgate had Jigsaw already in it. At that point I wasn't really familiar where Jigsaw came in the series. He was there, he was the antagonist, the villain. I fell in love with this character. He's a great villain. I wanted to keep him and so I don't think we strictly went for one storyline in the comic books. I think we took parts out of the world of Frank Castle and tried to make the best story possible.

What makes Ray Stevenson and Dominic West perfect for their respective roles as Frank (Castle) and Billy (Rusotti a.k.a. Jigsaw)?

Lexi Alexander: They really really are perfect. Every day we stand behind the monitor and we just shake our heads. We look at these guys and go, "Holy shit. How lucky did we get?" Ray Stevenson is incredibly intense. Not only does he totally look like The Punisher, he's really really intense. He's kind of got his life on his face. He's not a pretty boy. You can definitely see that, you know, he's had a life. He's really really skilled. He teaches all of us now about guns and machine guns and bullets. He's very physical. On the other hand, Dominic is just a really skilled actor. I think people will see a side of him that they haven't see, because we really use all of his talent. This guy is a real British theater actor, he can have a huge range. He nails this part like there's no tomorrow. I think people will be speaking about this forever. This is really, and he says this and we all say it, this is the best he's ever done. When you have both of them at the dinner table, privately, you can actually tell the essence of each of these characters are in them. Like Ray will sit there and say nothing all evening and be really intense and listen, and Dominic will sit there and be entertaining everyone and be loud and a clown. We really have two actors who really represent the essence of these characters.

As a former fighting champion, how do you feel about handing out ass-kicking tips to your stars? What's been the most brutal scene so far and do you have a favorite kill?

Lexi Alexander: I have a lot of people hired that teach these guys fighting and do fight choreography. Once in a while, it's quite funny because I'll jump in and I see that a punch doesn't sell, or a certain elbow hit doesn't sell. The guys shake their heads because these guys tower above me. And I'm like, "Well, can you turn around and do it like this?" Ray will say, "I can't believe this little midget is showing me how to fight, but she's right." So there's a lot of humor about the fact that they think I can kick their ass. It's good for a director, so they all listen to me. In terms of the most brutal thing, I think it's been the location we were in two weeks ago. It was part of the finale and it was this really cold and toxic building and we all had to have these masks on. It didn't help a lot because we all got sick anyway. It was toxic, so we had to basically shoot the entire time with these oxygen masks on. Except the actors, they didn't get any.

Do you have a favorite kill that you can talk about without giving too much away?

Lexi Alexander: I do have a favorite kill. Without giving too much away, I can say it has to do with a head-butt.

I love that you're a female director working on a film in a franchise that seems so testosterone-driven. What sensibilities do you bring to The Punisher as a director, and have you encountered any skepticism during the process?

Lexi Alexander: Well my previous film as well as my background is so related to the subject, that I think it wasn't really far-fetched for the studio and for Marvel to come to me for this. I don't think the fact that I'm a female was ever relevant. I like it that way. Everyone kind of sees me as a director, and compares me to other directors, doesn't matter what gender. I think, personally, just because of the person I am, I really like vigilante stories. I can totally relate to it. A little bit of Green Street Hooligans was about vigilanteism, about honor and standing up for yourself. I really related to the story and I think that part is really coming through. There is a lot of action, there's a lot of violence, but the real essence of what happened to Frank Castle and how he's dealing with it, will really come through. There are a lot of quiet things in the film as well.

Is this a complete reboot of the character, or is this more like a different guy but the same Frank Castle?

Lexi Alexander: I would say it's a complete different reboot. I mean, Castle, it's one story. The mythology stays the same. I just have a very very different take on it. I was lucky enough to put it in the right environment, where I think Frank Castle belongs, which is very dark and cold.

Are you sticking to the iconic costumes of The Punisher in this film?

Lexi Alexander: Yes, I am, but there's been, over the years, many different costumes, and I think we've taken the elements we've liked best from each of those costumes. I think if you see a picture of him, you know there's similarities to some of them, but not specifically one. Basically what I've done is taken the best elements of those costumes over the years.

I'm wondering if Microchip is going to be Frank's ally or enemy in this film?

Lexi Alexander: He's his ally, definitely his ally.

Do you have anything in he future that you're looking into? Maybe a Green Street Hooligans 2?

Lexi Alexander: No, no Hooligans 2. I know you're a big fan but that's not in the future. But, you know, those are my kind of mythologies that I like, so there might be something in that area.

Punisher: War Zone is currently filming in Montreal and is slated for September 12, 2008 release.