Lexi Alexander on ‘Punisher: War Zone,’ and Changing Hollywood’s Old Ways
On Friday, director Lexi Alexander began a conversation with Spinoff Online about the preconceptions many in Hollywood have when it comes to female directors and how she has responded to them, professionally and publicly. Today, we pick up where we left off, with Alexander relating her experiences directing Punisher: War Zone, the 2008 comic book adaptation that saw its budget shrink by millions between the time she was hired and the time it was marketed for release. She also weighs in on the recent controversy surrounding the casting of Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm in Fox’s Fantastic Four reboot, recalling the reactions she received from hardcore fans upon seeing Frank Castle’s signature skull recreated in a practical fashion.
The director also speaks up about the self-fulfilling issue of Hollywood executives believing a woman can’t head up a big-budget feature, and shares her thoughts on what needs to happen in order for the industry’s old way of doing business to be disrupted and rebuilt for the next generation of filmmakers and moviegoers.
Can you talk a little bit about what your experience was on Punisher given the fact that it wasn’t something that was necessarily in your wheelhouse or you felt like was in your wheelhouse? I mean, did you feel an adversity to doing that once you actually got the job?
No, I mean, I would have not said yes if I felt averse to doing it. I got the comic books first and I studied them, and what I saw in them was the humor. I think I’ve said this in several interviews, but one of the first pages I opened up, some guy’s threatening the other guy and said, “If you don’t do this, I’ll cut off your balls and put them in your coffee,” and in the next drawing you see the guy drinking coffee with his balls swimming in it. And so I laughed out loud and I said, oh, I get what it is. This is like over-the-top kind of funny violence. And so I could relate to that. It was a bit of a throwback to the ‘80s, where I grew up watching all the crazy ‘80s movies. And I came in and pitched it. I said can we do it like this, and they all said that’s exactly what we want to do. Then I went on the Internet and talked to all the fans. Like, there was all these Punisher fan clubs. I talked to them and I said, “What did you not like about the past movies – what do you want to see?” And they pretty much said the same thing. They said, “We want it to be more like the comic book” and blah, blah. So I studied it and I wasn’t even very original; I just really wanted to put the comic book on the screen, which based on the critics and the reviews is what I’ve actually achieved. Now some people wanted it to be a little bit more realistic. I would have never done that movie realistic. But where I got into trouble with the studio was not the making of it but it was the marketing of it. And also there was suddenly constantly money missing. Like, they were telling me one budget; people sometimes said it was 30 million. There was no $30 million. I didn’t even have $20 million. And I actually had to look at the line budget, and I don’t know — I mean, I don’t know what that was, because when they first offered it to I believe it was John Dahl, was it 30 million and it became 20 when I came on? It was all a bit mysterious. I think they didn’t really want to put that much into P&A and marketing and all of that stuff.
One of the reasons that it has been reported that Mary Harron was hired initially for American Psycho was to sort of quell the criticisms of the misogyny in the material and potentially get away with a few things. Do you feel like you were able to do that maybe similarly with Punisher?
I don’t think that’s why I was hired, frankly. I mean, in this case I think Green Street was the reason I got hired, which to me was a drama, but to executives it was this incredibly violent movie. That’s the difference between the USA and England and Europe, because I always think that things with guns and shooting are violent, but in the U.S., a fist hitting skin and blood coming out is actually, I think in their eyes, more violent. So I had made in their eyes this brutal film. I don’t think they were actually looking for somebody to bring a soft edge to it. Also nobody ever told me to play down the violence. Is that a reason to hire a female director? I don’t know. I mean, at this point any reason you can throw in there, we’ll take it. I don’t know if I remember – was American Psycho an actual hit — was it a box-office hit?
Not especially. It got mixed reviews, and as Mary was talking about, it took a while to sort of develop the appreciation that people have come around to show the film. But as horrible as it may sound, are there advantages in the lower expectations that people seem to put on female filmmakers?
No, I think that’s actually a really bad idea because we can never win. I tried to explain this to people because now there are these funds that pop up and people come to me and they say we have these funds that are just for women – do you have any scripts that you can do for one or two million dollars? And I want to say to them, do you know how dangerous this is? Like, yeah, I make a movie, OK? And maybe it turns out to be the greatest movie ever. But nobody’s going to see it in all of America because you don’t have the money, the $30 million to spend so that people actually know it’s in the theater. To make an entire country as big as America aware of a movie costs so much money. It is not even an issue of the production budget anymore. It’s so much more about can you get that theater chain to keep it. And that’s another thing – I was talking with an executive yesterday who was explaining to me, I knew a little bit about this, but he was going more into details about the theater chains and how they work and what’s their thing. And it’s like a bit of a monopoly – they have big deals with big studios. And you could be with a smaller studio, an independent, and still you’ve paid for theatrical release but they’ll kick you out because they want Iron Man on 10 screens – and by the way, the studio who’s distributing the big tentpole film will actually tell them to kick somebody else out. And so it’s becoming this thing, “What does a million dollar, two million, even 10 million dollar movie do for me if I fail at box office?” which is what everybody looks at. And so I actually think these specialized movies could ruin women more than help, because now we have all these movies that don’t make money which just proves the point: Women can’t make money. It’s all about expectations. A lot of the guys that work for Warners and make these big films there all come from the same film school. Like Michael Bay, Zack Snyder, Tarsem Singh, they all went to Art Center in the College of Design. And there’s a certain expectation when these guys graduate. They make these fancy commercials and there’s a history of a lot of them coming out of there and becoming blockbuster action filmmakers. So the head of Warners and his team look at any young white guy coming out of that school who has shot one Nike commercial, whatever it is, and they see 300 or Armageddon. That’s what they see. And so even if that filmmaker sucks, it’s such an investment for them that they protect the filmmaker by throwing money into P&A and making sure he doesn’t have any kind of films that fail. And you know, I don’t actually mind that. Let them do what they want and it’s kind of good to support the young artists. But if you’re only doing it for a filmmaker that looks a certain way – if you’re not doing it for a young black filmmaker and you’re not doing it for a woman and you’re not doing it for an Hispanic or Asian, then it becomes a very one-sided game.
Well, there’s clearly a chicken-and-egg idea going about believing that female filmmakers can’t make money so they don’t risk money on them. But do you think it is based on just their gender, or on the idea that a female filmmaker will approach a subject or will want to focus on a subject that is not commercially appealing?
I think that’s a big excuse, and I actually know one female studio had just recently used that excuse in an interview. And I think that’s very lazy. I know I’m not the only one who makes very male-oriented movies, and I mean, God, how many male directors do you have that make films exclusively really for women. Movies like Sex in the City or The Heat, not that they’re only for women, but you know what I mean. It’s the same thing with the young-adult genre – I mean, you know that this genre has always got romance. It’s very, very female-oriented, you know. Did they ever think that the 40 white guys they hired may not be interested? No, you don’t do that as a filmmaker. They send the script to a list of filmmakers and then they see who comes back with a really inspired pitch, after which they choose the best. But I think they’ve all stopped doing that. And then I hear things like, oh, well, I don’t think women are interested in Highlander and this and that. I’m like, have you asked them? Has anybody gone out and actually asked Mary Harron and, I mean, I don’t even want to say Kathryn Bigelow because she gets probably called every time, because they know that she says no. But there’s a lot of them, and then look at the male indie directors, with them they’re willing to take chances. This is another thorn in our hide and I’m hurt for the younger filmmakers that are coming out of Sundance. You know, you have the Kon-Tiki guys and they get Pirates of the Caribbean. And then you have [Colin Trevorrow] who did [Safety Not Guaranteed] who gets Jurassic Park. And none of these guys have a track record that leads to a big, big event budget-type movie. Why not find a woman? I don’t know, what about Lake Bell? Like, what type of offers is she getting? I’ve actually heard the other day that there is a female director who has an indie movie out that everybody’s talking about, and she hasn’t gotten one single offer since then. And that’s just disturbing to me.
What has the industry’s reaction been since you decided to speak out? Have people showed signs of solidarity, or do you feel like that is closing more doors than it’s opening?
You know, I didn’t know this blog would go viral. I mean, I thought the same five people who frequent my website would read it. But something must have hit a nerve, and it was retweeted and shared by so many prominent people in this industry that honestly, if there is somebody who says, well, now I’m definitely not working with her, I don’t want to work with that person. Could it be that that’s happening? I’m sure. But again, I don’t think I’m in that world any more anyway. I think there’s been even more indie companies who sent me scripts in reaction to the blog, which, while it’s very kind on the one hand, it bothers me a little bit on the other because, come on – what kind of person would go out there and write such a thing to get more work? And plus you’re sending me these scripts that are either partially or not financed. And I wonder, are you doing it because “I love this woman’s work,” or are you doing it because I have some value in some foreign territories and you could get the ball rolling on your stagnate project? I mean, this has happened before I wrote this blog, that people would put me on something and thinking that if they can write “Oscar-nominated director,” which, you know, I was only nominated for a short, so I don’t ever put it in any correspondence myself, but other people like to do that. And so it gets them some attention. I’ve been attached to movies that come close to closing the financing, and as they sign the financial papers the producers exchange me for who they really wanted. Other times I just tell them, look, I’m not someone who can help finance your $20 million movie. Nobody will give you that amount of money because I’m attached. I’m not an element that is worth that amount of money. And they don’t believe me. But then they find out that I am right. And that’s not exclusive to me. I know some prominent male directors who are in the same boat who’ve done great movies and are still not a $20 million element to attach to a project. So that’s not specific to me; it’s just the beast of film financing.
What is your focus now? What kind of opportunities are you exploring? There is this migration to television by so many people who formerly worked exclusively in film; are you finding that there are better creative opportunities? Or in general what is your approach now?
In terms of features, I had a meeting with someone at the Blumhouse company recently, and I actually really, really like those guys. But I don’t think I have anything in that particular genre that they’re looking for. And I had a great meeting with executives at Paramount. And look, if they ever do a young-adult movie that I’ve read a million times like I have with many of them, and they call me up and say, “e want you to do this,” it could happen. But do I actively go out and try to get these things? No. I mean, I have kind of said goodbye to the feature world and I’m completely focused on TV because I’ve noticed that TV doesn’t discriminate in that way. I mean, there’s still some sexism, but in a sense that when they greenlight your show, they have to promote it. They have advertisers so they’ll give it the same effort they give a guy’s show because it’s TV. They can’t afford to say, well, we’re only spending two dollars on advertising for this particular show because it was made by a woman. And look at how many women have now moved to TV – Callie Khouri, and Catherine Hardwicke has a show now. There’s one more, another one just recently, a prominent female director. So I think everybody’s thing is that if we’re playing the game, at least let us play in a kind of environment where it’s somewhat fair for us. I don’t know if the feature world is really worth it, when you’re not welcome and supported by those at the top.
I really appreciate getting the opportunity to speak to you. Is there anything else that you particularly wanted to address, whether it was with the piece that I wrote, or just the industry in general? I find it a very fascinating and rewarding to hear things with the kind of clarity that you provide. Because again, the way that I initially asked that question was not certainly intended to be reductive of that blog post. Especially since the idea that there is so much adversity for females and non-whites to make movies made is something that doesn’t get enough attention, as far as I’m concerned.
I’ve actually been really stunned at how many [people have written about it]. I don’t know if you read it, but there was a response by the Daily Grindhouse from a young man who wrote a response post to my blog, and I think it was the most beautiful thing that was written ever. And he really kind of explains why he personally as a young Caucasian man doesn’t only want to see one point of view in the theater. And so I think you guys are going to be the element that changes it, because you can also move people to do things. Like the one thing that nobody has realized other than an anonymous hacker group is that there’s power in social media in fighting for one cause. And the film community doesn’t quite understand that the power’s actually in the hands of the fans and the audience, whose leaders are bloggers and writers. So I’m a complete supporter. My equality rants have been out there so much that people must be getting sick of it, and frankly so am I, but if a writer wants to do another story about it, then go for it, because the cause is a good one.
Suffice to say that I’m completely supportive of the fight that you’re making. Particularly now when people are responding to stories like Michael B. Jordan being cast in Fantastic Four and they’re so opposed to it.
That’s so gross I can’t even [respond]. But those are not really fans, are they?
Well, it’s hard for me even to identify normal people who would be that way. I mean, recently I was talking to somebody about the fact that they’re remaking The Raid, for example, and I just sort of commented that it’s disappointing that a movie that is two years old, and awesome as it is, is getting remade because it wasn’t in English. And I was like, “But I’m not going to burn my apartment building down or anything.”
Well, I felt like that about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I couldn’t see why you would ever have to remake this. And in terms of inspired casting, comic book fans can be very protective and particular about their movie. My God,the grief they gave me because the damn skull wasn’t properly printed on the jacket! I just thought it was kind of silly to run around the middle of New York with this big white skull on your chest, especially when flying away to avoid capture is not a superpower you own. But they take this shit very seriously. I have a couple of Facebook friends who write these comic book blogs, and there’s oftentimes discussions about black comic book heroes – of which there apparently are many very cool ones, and they never get made. So I mean, I’m sure Michael would have rather been actually his own comic book hero than being one of the Fantastic Four. So that’s another issue.
It’s the same sort of thing when DC says people aren’t ready for a Wonder Woman movie, and Marvel says, “Here’s our animated raccoon.” But when you see the success of even these movies like About Last Night, which is a remake of an adaptation of a David Mamet play with an all-black cast, and it does really significant box office, it’s clear that there is an audience for these kinds of movies that have different kinds of casts. It’s not only black people who are going to see About Last Night or Ride Along or something like that. And yet in my experience, I feel like any time something succeeds that violates whatever the perception is of the way the industry works, people on the inside assume that it’s a one-time occurrence and that it could never happen again. I mean, there is good original moviemaking happening, but usually when it happens, like with Inception, everybody goes oh well, we can’t replicate that because that was just a one-time thing.
Right. Even though in the ‘80s, movies like The Goonies and then there was Lost Boys, I mean, God, the ‘80s, Ghostbusters, we haven’t had originality like that in years. But I said this the other day at the college I was speaking [at]. I’m waiting for two things: One, a younger-generation computer, Internet, social media genius to come up with a way to have the studios market better so that they won’t have to spend $100 million into letting people who would buy a ticket know that it’s out there. I sometimes feel bad for the studios, because marketing has become such a difficult task. It used to be an entire family would look in the newspaper for a movie they could see in the theater. Now we have different apps and we have nobody who reads the paper anymore and you’re watching one TV channel and I’m watching the other. We don’t know where people get their information about the movies, so that’s why they have to have so much money to make sure there’s collective awareness of a new movie being released. Some kid will come up with something that will allow everybody a very easy way to find exactly the kind of movie they’re looking for, and maybe even demand it. So that’s one. And the other thing I keep thinking about is [crowd-sourcing casting via blogs] – “let’s do our dream cast for Fantastic Four.” I’m thinking none of these kids know how much power they have because they’re all saying shit on different sides, and they’re not really united. But if they would be on one site, almost like fantasy football, where you do fantasy movie-making, it will get enough of a mass where you can actually say this is the director we want and this is the cast we want. And you’d actually see holy shit, 60,000, 100,000 people that voted, and that’s all the people who would actually buy a ticket. I mean the studio can’t not listen. And that’s going to change diversity so quickly because what I’ve noticed is nobody in the real world the level of resistance against diversity talent as the people in charge have.
When you look at the fan reaction to Heath Ledger when he was first cast as the Joker, or obviously we haven’t seen the sequel to the Superman movie, but they cast Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor and everybody is convinced this could be the worst thing ever. But every single one of those people who complain still goes and buys a ticket and sees the movie. And I can’t think of any sort of glaring exception where someone attempted that kind of surprise casting that didn’t work. I mean, Punisher: War Zone is a good example of something where people might have said, “How can a woman make a movie like this?” And then I think by most accounts, that movie is considered superior to its predecessor, if not a definitive portrait of Punisher on film.
You know, I actually didn’t have [people saying that too much]. There wasn’t that much hatred in America. I really think the general public is less discriminating, not to say there can’t be a petty asshole sometimes. But I always say somebody needs to come up with a proper site, because then you actually moderate people and you can differentiate between the self-important person who doesn’t know shit about a specific genre and a guy who has real movie knowledge and can give you a good opinion on why a certain filmmaker or a certain actor would be good. And then you make this guy a real audience spokesperson. And you generate a machine that is taken seriously. It’s going to happen. It has to happen, because I don’t believe that Hollywood will change from within. I believe you guys will change it. It’s just not organized yet. But I think nobody does it because we look at movies as trivial, the movie business, it’s trivial. It’s rich people playing in a sandbox. And that’s why nobody wants to help even on the most obvious discrimination cases in Hollywood. But I don’t think it’s that trivial. Movies and TV are America’s No. 1 export. So if our No. 1 export is all male, all white, then there’s only one point of view. And I just think it’s really important that as Americans – I’m a new American but I am an American – that we don’t portray ourselves to the world so one-sided and exclusive. How can you go into any other country and preach democracy, if your No. 1 business can’t even practice it?