'The Punisher' Showrunner Steve Lightfoot on Letting Frank Castle Lose the Audience...and Win Them Back [Interview]

The Punisher is finally here to punish those who escaped justice. After crossing paths with Daredevil, Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) now has his own series. He's trying to keep a low profile, growing a bushy beard and working construction, but he can't seem to stay away from violence.Steve Lightfoot created Punisher series, but his career includes producing gigs on Hannibal, Narcos and The Crimson Petal and the White. Lightfoot spoke with /Film by phone this week about the latest Marvel Netflix show, which arrives on November 17, 2017.Did what you inherited from Daredevil constrain you in any way?

Obviously I inherited Jon Bernthal, which wasn't constraining at all. When I came into Marvel to talk about the show, I didn't realize he was in Daredevil, too. They gave me a sneak peak of the show and I went away and watched the whole season. In terms of what they'd done there and Jon's performance was kind of what got me excited about doing the show. I just thought he had a visceral quality and a really emotional humanity. I thought if he can pull that off when he's not the center of the show, then that's a guy you can build a show around. So I was a real fan of what they'd done. I just wanted to pick the baton up and carry on the journey they had while creating the show so that Frank was the emotional heart of it. I didn't really feel a great deal of constraint because I thought I'd been handed something great. It's rare as a writer that you've seen the actor already play the part that you're writing. That was a huge bonus.

You also inherited his military background, right?

Yes. It's central to most iterations of the character, the fact that he was a veteran which is frankly what gave him the means to deal out the revenge he does. The other two things I inherited from them were...there's a scene when he gets to Schoonover, his commanding officer, and Schoonover says, "It wasn't an accident. They died because of something you did in Kandahar." I always felt like that was something our story had to give service to. We couldn't just forget that that was said. Similar, he gets given a disc with MICRO written on it. Those are the two story things they passed onto me and I thought they were really both fun and exciting. They set the pathway we set off down.

Is this the most violent Marvel show?

I don't know. In a way, it's for others to say because I was sort of so head down. I feel like the action is very different in all the shows. I took a baseline from what the guys did on Daredevil with Frank and sort of continued in the same vein. There's no getting away from the fact that we're definitely a violent show.

It's still nothing compared to what you got away with on Hannibal on a network.

[Laughs] It's funny, that, isn't it? I think the brilliant trick we pulled off on Hannibal was we didn't show that much. A lot of the time we just showed what came after. It's interesting because I think the grammar for Hannibal was very much the horror movie. An awful lot of it was these incredibly gory tableaus, these still lives of these crimes after the fact. I think the grammar for The Punisher is much more action.

And it's still nowhere near as bloody as Punisher: War Zone.

Yeah, I guess. I've only seen it once. I think that movie's a lot of fun. I felt like it was very much in the spirit of a certain iteration from the comic books.

With Frank's character, you're not just paying lip service to the fact that he's a tortured hero. How did you come up with the construction site as a way for Jon to physically show how Frank is trying to work out all this rage and sadness?

In terms of giving story to the audience, he's not a character who's ever going to talk a lot. He's certainly not going to talk a lot until he trusts someone. So it was about finding a way to dramatize the emotional heart of him. Certainly the first episode, I really wanted people to get inside the head of the man before we started the story. I think people have to understand him to go on the journey with him. I think like a lot of men, he's probably not going to chat about his feelings that much. So therefore it was about seeing them come out in a physical way.

Were his recurring nightmares a part of that too?

It's interesting. In a way, as much as he saw terrible things in the war, the traumatic event in Frank's life didn't happen on the battlefield. It happened in a park. I think that sense of flashbacking and seeing versions of it is very common to people who've suffered events like that. They're just constantly seeing it. He cannot get this thing out of his head. The idea with the hammer was always that this is a guy who literally tries to exhaust himself every day in the hope of a good night's sleep.

How did you decide how much those flashbacks would remain part of the story?

I think everything, when you're telling a story, it's trying to find the best way to pass over emotional information to the audience. The more we got into writing the show, I wanted to see him with his family because then you got to see the guy he was before and see what the path he has gone down has cost him. He's a vigilante but it certainly isn't making him happy. I think it was important we see the cost of his actions on him.

Once you got to establish Frank's character, how did you craft the mystery to take us through each episode?

Again, I started from what is there in Kandahar. It was trying to find things that were relevant to now, could still be a version of a story. It's a version of a conspiracy story that we've seen before. I think in the end, it was about finding specificity within that because I think in the end, "someone did me wrong and I will have my revenge" is a sort of archetypal story. It was always about finding a way hopefully to make that story specific and relevant and feel like it's today, rather than being a version from the '70s or the '80s or the '90s.

With revenge stories I always think how it's fun for us to see heroes go after the bad guys, but I personally think you'd always hope someone doesn't suffer a tragedy to begin with. How do you balance enjoying The Punisher's justice and feeling the weight of his tragedy?

You try and be true to the characters. I think it's not only remembering the tragedy behind it as you enjoy Frank's mission, but it's also you have to remember as we go with him that what he's doing isn't right. If everyone did that, we'd have anarchy. We can't all just say, "This is what I think should've been done. I'm going to do it." I think it's both going with him and understanding the journey he's on, empathizing but at the same time not making him an unvarnished hero. I think a lot of what he's doing is wrong. We have to let the audience lose him at times and let him win them back. To just wholeheartedly be behind him wouldn't be right either.

Were there any specific comic books that were an influence on the series?

There were a bunch. There weren't any specific ones because we didn't do an arc from the books. Obviously, the end of episode one is "Welcome Back, Frank." Some of the action and some of the sequences were pulled from the canon and inspired by. We took certain elements from a lot of different places but there wasn't one specific book.