Superhero Shorts: Punisher No Mercy
Superhero Shorts: Punisher No Mercy
Welcome to another edition of Superhero Shorts where I feature a superhero themed short film and ask a few questions from the filmmakers. This time around I’m talking with director Jason Ambrus and producer/writer/actor Shawn Baichoo and their Punisher short where he takes on a small group of mob bosses and also faces off against Elektra. As usual, you can watch it below or you can view it on their YouTube channel and you can also visit their Facebook page.
The first thing I noticed is obviously that this is not the typical look of the Punisher, he’s a little scrawny and has a shaved head, but he’s no less intimidating especially with that great voice doing the voiceover narrative. The concept behind it is pretty solid, following a single mission where he takes out a mob boss who thinks he’s above the law and has a run in with Elektra who was hired by the mob as outside help and was actually looking for her own revenge at the time and got caught up in a slight misunderstanding so to speak. The fight choreography was great, I really enjoyed the visuals on the lair and the digital effects on the guns and blood. There were only a few minor issues I had with it, like the Russian cocaine packing bikini girls felt a little out of place, and there were a few moments where I felt what I was pretty sure were foley sound effects for footsteps were a little overly done. But overall those nitpicks were minor compared to the overall feeling of the short which fit with their vision of Frank Castle. But enough from me, let’s hear from Shawn Baichoo and Jason Ambrus.
Before we get to reading what they have to say, I have a nice little treat for you, at least I’d like to think of it as a treat. I actually used Google Hangouts for the first time and have video of my talk with Shawn and Jason which you can watch right below. If you’re not interested in watching the interview, I’ve also transferred it to an MP3 which you can download or listen to from my Box account right here. And if you would prefer to simply read what they have to say then I’ve got that for you too, but if you want to hear everything they had to say be sure to check out either the video or podcast interview.
Bubbawheat: What would you say inspired the look and feel of the short?
Shawn Baichoo: The idea for me to do No Mercy came almost directly from Garth Ennis’ run on the Punisher Max series, I read the Punisher Max series several years ago. Up until then I wasn’t a huge fan of the Punisher, I just knew he was a guy in a grey spandex suit with white gloves and a skull on his chest who killed bad guys. But the Punisher Max series really let him come into his own because it was gritty, there was violence, language, sex, all the attributes of the world he needs to live in were there. So that thing literally became my bible. I just completely fell in love with the character, he really came into his own, Ennis wrote him supremely well.
Like the cover art for all the Max series, there were 60 issues were done by Tim Bradstreet who was an awesome artist and he portrays Frank in a very realistic way. In his covers Frank is powerful, but he’s a man. In the comics he’s 6’2″ I think 225, 250 lbs. somewhere around there which isn’t impossible, but not a lot of people fit that mold and when I saw the cover from Bradstreet I really thought that was something I could ballpark approach and play just based on the look. So the look, the feel, the dialogue a lot of that was taken, not lifted from the page directly but inspired heavily. The lighting of the film was inspired heavily by Tim Bradstreet’s art and the feel, the writing, the overall tone of the short was influenced by the Punisher Max series.
BW: What made you decide to include Elektra in the short?
SB: I wish I had a really deep, profound artistic reason for including her. The genesis of the project was essentially my friends and me in the combat crew had done a project previously which was a bunch of sword fighting, spear fighting, and martial arts up on a mountain and it was a fun project that turned out really well for us and kind of turned itself into a short film. So we decided “let’s do another one of those” but approach it in a more professional manner and actually have preproduction, storyboards, a location that’s locked, an actual cast, a director of photography, a director, and a script. You know, all the essential elements of a film.
And as we were conceptualizing what we wanted to do we were working on fights, and one of the fights we did was with my friend Amber [Goldfarb] who plays Elektra and we came up with this huge fight that we wanted to do and we found a niche with the Punisher/Elektra dynamic. When we decided to do a Punisher film we figured Amber would be a shoo in for Elektra: she looks like her, she’s a great actor, she’d be perfect for it. So basically we designed the fight around that idea to have Punisehr fight Elektra and the story then kinda came after. We came about it in a reverse direction. But the most important thing was that the story had to make sense, that she was there for a reason and he fought her for a reason and she was trying not to kill him for a reason. Because often in fan films it’s usually good enough to have two characters just show up and fight, which is awesome and I’m a huge fan of that but we wanted to actually make a proper film with a narrative, so in order to do that we had to really make sure the script supported those two meeting. But those two meeting was at the core of the film in the first place.
BW: I did think that it made sense within the short, and I also noticed a difference between the two fighting styles where Elektra is much more flashy and the Punisher is a more direct, straightforward fighting style.
SB: I’m really flattered that you noticed that actually. That was one of the intentions of putting the fight together in the first place. We wanted to have a narrative to the fight, have a story. One of my complaints and a lot of people I work with is when we see action in film and television, that action tneds to work for the sake of action. There’s a beginning and and end, and you don’t really know what happens. There’s shaky cam and probably really good choreography at its core, but not really treated properly with the way its filmed. So we wanted to have a definite narrative with both characters, have them be different, have their own styles and have a clear narrative when we film it so when someone watches the film, they can tell someone else what happened. “Well, he shows up, she does this, she disarms him, etc” as opposed to “there was a bunch of shaky cam and someone fell down”
Initially, interestingly enough when we first started conceptualizing the film, I actually was pushing for a more martial arts oriented Frank Castle because I don’t fit the mold perfectly. I’m not huge and muscular, I have a shaved head and I don’t quite fit the image of the character 100%. I thought we’d take him in a bit of a unique direction and have him be younger and more agile and that way I could capitalize on my martial arts training, but the cowriter Dav he wasn’t too keen on the idea, the other people I bounced the idea off of thought we shoud just scale it back to more militarly hand to hand style and I agreed that martial arts in that situation wouldn’t work very well. So we gave him a basic, more military hand to hand gritty style and we made her like you said, more flashy with more kicks and spins and I think the contrast worked out really well and I’m glad that you noticed that, thank you.
BW: And can you talk a little bit about how you brought Jason into the project and what he brought to the project?
SB: To tell you how we met, a lot of this project’s crew and cast were basically taken from the last project we did. But we needed more people so I went to this Montreal based site on Facebook where a lot of independent filmmakers go and post their services as DPs, filmmakers, actors, sound artists, all that stuff. So I put up a notice there and we were looking at the time for an artistic director because I figured that I would just direct the film because I didn’t have anyone else to do it. I wasn’t keen on wearing that many hats, but I was already wearing so many hats at the time I figured what’s one more? But we put up an ad for an artistic director, Jason got in touch with me and right off the bat I was struck by how professional he seeemd, how articulate he was, and how experienced he seemed in what he was suggesting, and right away I was like “my god, whether this guy works for us or not, I’ve got to mine him for all he’s worth because he knows all this stuff that I don’t know in the field that I want to know more about.” So we arranged to meet for coffee.
Jason Ambrus: Essentially I came across Shawn’s project online and I realized that he was a local as well, I had seen him somewhere before maybe through video games or a short film, I recognized him as someone working in the scene I just couldn’t put my finger on it. Clearly the fact that it was a Punisher project immediately piqued my interest, but to be brutally honest up until that point my work had been mostly doing drama, science fiction, kind of artsy stuff, commercials and things like that, so when I saw that project at first I was like “oh no, a fan film”. I kind of had some prejudices about it because it’s a fairly new format and there’s everything from really terrible in the kitchen type of thing with your laptop to guys that either worked in the industry or should be working in the industry because they’re working on that level of professionalism. So I was sort of skeptical, but there was something drawing mne to the project so I thought “what the hell?” I needed a change of pace, I loved the Punisher, I know the material, this guy seems to know what he’s talking about and let me sit down with him and see what he has to say.
So we met, we had a 30-45 minute conversation and I let Shawn do most of the talking. He started explaining to me his vision, I was listening and he was a serious guy with mainly acting experience, motion capture experience, but it seemed like a lot of the crew that he had were mostly friends, people with talent and maybe even combat experience, but it seemed to me that he could really benefit from having an actual separate director, sombody driving this thing so he could focus on fight choreography, he could focus on inhabiting the character and so on. So I just said “You know Shawn, you should let me direct this thing”. And it was a bit bold, I think, but I really meant it. And I think Shawn maybe saw in my face that I was just being really honest and straightforward and he was like “ok”. And from there I got to meet the team.
And it was sort of clear to me at that point that this was going to work, no matter what it was going to be it was going to work. I brought on some people that I knew that I worked with before and we took this project, and I want to say that we elevated it. But together we just brought it to a level that intially I don’t think that was the goal. Initially it was kind of an action demo?
SB: No, it was always goint to be a short film, a fan film but a short film. But I think you can definitely say that you coming aboard elevated the film. Because I can tell you right now with no shame that had you not been on board, the people you put us in touch with, your expertise, your approach, even those things I never “hired you” for, because you didn’t get paid on this project. All the stuff we did above and beyond that, to me, all those things brought the film up. Not that it was crappy beforehand…
JA: It was just a differrent project.
SB: It just wasn’t fully realized before and I think you helped bring it forward to a place where the reality of the film actually matched what was in my head from the getgo and I dont think I would have gotten there without your help, actually I’m positive I wouldn’t have gotten there without your help
JA: I’m also positive.
SB: We agree!
BW: Now that Marvel has the rights back for the Punisher and Daredevil, which I imagine would include Elektra, which character do you think deserves another shot at a movie or TV series first?
SB: I think definitely Punisher would make a tremendous TV show. You could handle it like Dexter, Breaking Bad, these shows are breaking ground to allow for more graphic violence, because that’s part of his world, the violence. But I think you could definitely have a police drama on HBO or AMC even with the Punisher going on Punishing. Pretty much. I think Elektra would be a harder sell because she’s not as well known which is unfortunate. She’s often like you said with Daredevil.
JA: She’s a good supporting character when you think about it
SB: But if Elektra was firmly established in a Daredevil series, it’s inevitable that she would get her own series. You know, if she tested well with an audience and there was a demand for her and all that. And I think that’s the problem withe the Punisher’s films, I think they try to cover too much. If you want to tell Frank’s origin and who he is and have some growth and have the character elements that don’t work in movies because they take up too much time and space and don’t allow for him to do what we love him doing, you can have that in a TV show. You can have a film about the Punisher and have it still work, Do it like Dredd. I think Dredd is a good example, they don’t spend any time telling you who this guy is or what he’s feeling, not that emotions are bad.
JA: Also, he doesn’t feel.
SB: You’re not there to see Dredd fall in love, you’re there to see Dredd shoot people in the face, and that’s what he does for two hours so it’s amazing! It’s a great movie and I love that movie and I think you can do the same thing with Punisher. I think the problem with Dredd is, as great as a film as it is didn’t do that well commercially because it wasn’t well advertised, and it had a bit more of a niche market, and fans really liked it, and fans of the genre liked it. I don’t know Dredd that well, but I’m a fan of comic book movies, I loved it too. But it didn’t make a whole lot of money so people are trying to start petitions online to make a sequel whereas Man of Steel critically didn’t do that well but made a huge ton of money so they’re already talking sequels and franchises because-
JA: It’s a tentpole film.
SB: I think if Punisher wants a chance to be done properly then it should be done on television.
JA: I think all fans know deep down know, especially now that Ben Affleck has moved on to Batman, that Daredevil needs another shot and needs a good one. And at this point Batman has been canvased as far as feel and look and style so I think Daredevil absolutely absolutely needs to happen. Punisher of course needs to happen, but I think Marvel will probably be more cautious now because there’s been three kind of poopy films about it. We’ll say two just to be clear, and War Zone being the absolute worst of the lot despite genious casting of Ray Stevenson.
SB: Potentially genius casting that didn’t work out to well
JA: Yeah, it was just dead in the water, it was shot here in Montreal.
SB: Yeah, I auditioned for Ink.
JA: But War Zone was a farce, it had Dominic West for christ’s sake from the Wire and from Rome, I mean with the guy who’s really… yeah. Regardless, I’d like to see Punisher and Daredevil definitely.
BW: And I also wanted to bring up what happened right around the time when you were about to release No Mercy, there was another short by Mike Pecci: The Dead Can’t Be Distracted that was given a cease and desist by Marvel. So where were you in your production when that happened, and were you worried at all that it might end up happening to you as well?
JA: It was somewhere in the middle of summer and we were trying to establish the release schedule. We were in post and trying to figure out what needed to be done and what was the release date. We got picked up by the Montreal Comic Con who graciously offered to launch the film from their main event so we held back the release date until September. So yes, I did come across it, and I remember saying it to Shawn and we had discussions about it.
SB: For my part, I was terrified when I found out. Everything had been going great, everything was looking good, everyone was going above and beyond the call of duty and I was super excited about where the film was going and we were going to release it. And the slightly growing paranoid concern that I had going through the entire process “What the hell, what if Marvel gives us a cease and desist?” and then I thought “No, it doesn’t happen, I’ve seen dozens and dozens of fan films, hundreds of fan films online. None of them get slapped with cease and desists”. Kickstarter campaigns that get overly ambitions like Final Fantasy for $100,000 I’ve heard about. And also because it wasn’t a DC project, I heard about DC interfering with the World’s Finest people, they had messed with those guys and pretty much vetoed their attempts to do something. But I figured because it was Marvel, and they seemed more relaxed than DC with this stuff, but then they got bought out by Disney, which also made me more nervous and Disney doesn’t mess around with that kind of stuff and they’re so big and powerful and soi pervasive.
And then I heard about Mike Pecci’s film being made and I’m excited to see it. I was a little worried that if that film came out the same time as ours that it would just overshadow because they had more resources and a larger reach than ours and then boom, I heard from a friend online that they had been slapped with a cease and desist, and I was positive that it was the new law of the land when it comes to Marvel and Disney’s property so I was convinced that we were going to get slapped with a cease and desist and not be able to release our film. Or that we would release our film and have a few weeks run and then get hit with a cease and desist. And to complicate matters further, when we uploaded the film to a private channel on YouTube just for Jason and I to watch, copyright flags started going up. Turns out it was the music we were using and not because of the film, but that combined with what happened to Mike Pecci, I was a bit of a wreck for a while and Jason did his best to reassure me. And then someone online pointed out that Pecci’s film was actually lifting a story right out of the Greg Rucka run. The characters, the storyline, as far as I know were taken directly from the comic and people said that was probably one of the reasons why they were getting into troubles, because of intellectual property, not just the character but the story. People want to keep stories so they can option them for film or develop stuff later on.
Once I kind of stopped and realized that we had an original story, the only characters are taking from Marvel are Elektra and Punisher. A lot of people are saying “you’ll be fine, you’re just using the characters, there should be no problem because it’s a fan film and it’s clearly identified.” So as such, I think there’s 3 disclaimers on the film that we don’t own the rights, it’s just a fan film for entertainment purposes and it’s completely not for profit. I just wanted to make sure that we didn’t take any chances. And I’m pleasantly surprised to say that we didn’t so far get hit with any cease and desist and I don’t think it’s going to happen at this point. Jason brought up a good point, and it may have been inadvertent but some of the choices we made in the film tend to distance the character from the more mainstream permutations of him in the comics and the film. So I don’t think it was as competitive with already established Punisher stuff, because “our Punisher’s bald” for example, and he’s original, and there’s other things that deviate from the norm which makes it more of an indie standalone thing and I think Jason’s right that did actually help us out to an extent.
JA: I would like to say that personally I was never worried and I know that sounds incredibly arrogant and self-assured. I was never worried, was there ever a concern? Of course there was, I knew the minute we were getting into a fan film that that’s a legitimate concern. But I think for me in a kind of perverted way that it added to the excitement. I think there was a bunch of ways that this film was flirting with disaster. For instance it’s called No Mercy, which was the name of an ill-fated Punisher video game that was also hugely controversial for being extremely graphic. So there was that association there that was inviting trouble. There were a variety of other things about the film that could have very easily been slapped with a cease and desist, and I think Shawn is right that we made some stylistic choices, not that Shawn’s was like “let’s make a bald Punisher” it didn’t go down like that.
It was like “We have this story, I have the people to put it together, we have the resources, and you can come in, you can bring resources, and we can make this thing, and the fact is I want to do this because I feel that I can inhabit this character”. And at the time I didn’t know Shawn very well, I think one of the first things I said was “You don’t look a lot like the traditional Punisher, you realize that that’s going to be a sore spot for the fans?” And he said “yeah sure, but I think once you see what I’m doing with him you’ll understand” and something like one rehearsal later I was like “ok” at that point Shawn could have sprouted wings or had a club foot or whatever, I don’t care. As a filmmaker I loved to see that, I love to see “listen, I don’t look like the character but watch this” and he totally sold me more than three hollywood actors that looked the part; Thomas Jane being somewhat of an exception because he did it great; but here are all these guys that look the part and I felt that Shawn’s performance was up there if not exceeded that level.
BW: And to close us out, I ask everyone what’s your favorite superhero movie?
SB: I’d have to say without a doubt my favorite superhero movie to date is the Avengers. That movie satisfied me in so many ways that I did not expect from such a risky endeavor. And by risk I mean that instead of just sticking to some sort of standard formula or diluting things to make it more accessable that Joss Whedon did a fantastic job of taking all these characters we love and letting us see them do what they do for two hours which is all I wanted from a superhero movie. I just want to see guys off the comic book page do what they do there, on the big screen. So I’d say Avengers is definitely my favorite, very very very closely followed by Dredd as well. Because I thought Dredd was tremendous.
JA: It’s a bit difficult asking a filmmaker what his favorite film is, you know, wow. It’s a can of worms. I’ll tell you what I think a couple of films that had a huge impact on me. I think the first Iron Man film was really special. I think as much as the first X-Men film and the first Iron Man film were for me the landmark superhero films out there. Sure you can pick them apart, you can say “this was wrong, this wasn’t quite right” In the case of the Iron Man film I think it’s genious, of course casting the real life Tony Stark, minus the inventing, Robert Downey Jr. I feel bad for the next guy who’s going to have to walk around in the suit, let’s just put it that way. He’s got them by the balls and there’s a reason why they’re paying him 100 mil a picture or something like that.
I think the reason why it’s so brilliant is because Iron Man’s origin story was never any good. I should say was never really cemented. Iron Man was one of the first comics I read as a kid and it was all over the place and it had a pseudo Chinese invasion communist fear/yellow fear situation. It was rehashed, it only got interesting when they decided that Tony Stark was a drunk, Stane international, the armor wars, and all that other stuff. And the fact that this film rejeuvinated and gave him an actual storyline that people can get behind now and he’s iconic. He’s the Avenger that he’s supposed to be that was a huge success. And then secondary X-Men, I think everyone agrees that it legitimized superhero films as how it can be done. There’s a place between serious and fantasy comic book where these characters can inhabit and it can be graphic, it can be mature. I think it literally created this space inbetween those two worlds and paved the way.
SB: I’d like to add that prior to Avengers dethroning it, X2 was my favorite superhero film. I think you’re right, they’re at the genesis of superheroes coming back, their films coming back to the mainstream and Hollywood proving with select films that it’s possible to make good films out of comic books. Whereas video games are still struggling to show the world “you can make movies out of video games” We’ve yet to see a really good movie based on a video game. I can’t think of one. But yes, I think those are at the genesis of it, absolutely.
I agree, those cover a lot of my favorites as well and they are all pretty much in my top five. Thanks again for taking the time to talk with me, I look forward to seeing what you end up doing in the future. And for everyone reading, there’s plenty more in the video/audio including some discussion about the Hollywood attempts at the Punisher movies so be sure to check out the video interview or download the audio to listen to the entire conversation. Until next time, this has been Bubbawheat for Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights.