Marvel’s The Punisher might be ultra-violent, but it’s ultra-violent for a reason. So says the show’s stunt coordinator Thom Williams, who’s nominated for an Emmy for coordinating some of the most brutal action scenes on television. Williams argues that every violent sequence on the show is story-driven. “It’s not just going out and finding random people and beating the crap out of them, or blowing things up,” he says. “It’s not action for the sake of action.”
The first kill in Episode 1 forces Frank Castle back into his prior life as the Punisher, ultimately leading up to his choice in Episode 11 to embrace that path. Here, Williams shares with SYFY WIRE what it takes to scrape Ben Barnes’ face with glass, to kickstart Jon Bernthal for a dream sequence, and to try not to tell actors that their characters are about to die.
Have you seen any of the rankings of the most badass fight scenes on the show?
I may have perused several of those on YouTube and Twitter, yes. [Laughs] I think there was a lot of ones that I agreed with, that were spot on — about loving Episode 13, with the final fight, and loving Episode 11, where he says, “Screw it,” and puts the vest back on. A lot of people love the hammer fight that was in Episode 1 and started everything off. Each one for me holds a different reason why I liked it. One of my favorites was in Episode 5, the war games in the forest. I just loved being out there. It was raw and it was fun, and it was a throwback to Rambo. That was one of my favorite scenes to shoot.
What about the torture sequence in Episode 12?
That was pretty awesome. I’m not even going to say that I’m responsible for how awesome that was. They simply killed it there. All three actors really took it up a level, and made that so much more than it was on paper. It was absolutely beautiful. Jon and Paul [Schultz] and Ben [Barnes] were all playing so well off of each other, and their energy was going exactly where it needed to. We obviously had little choreographed bits where you’re going to punch him here, you’re going to head-butt, you’re going to tackle him, all that stuff. But when it comes to a scene like that, I try to stay as little involved as possible, if that makes any sense. So a lot of that is just me being there to support them. I don’t want to overdo the choreography, because it was more about their emotions in there. So we laid the groundwork for where the hits were going to be, and then just let the actors do their magic.
What’s an example of where you do have to step in and choreograph it?
Okay, that would be the Wolf fight in Episode 2, where he ambushes Carson Wolf in his apartment and they fight in the kitchen. That took a lot of work, primarily because C. Thomas Howell was coming in as a guest star and we had limited time with him, so we had to have everything really choreographed ahead of time. We got him for maybe a day? And then a little warm-up choreo like on the day, when we were on set. Something like that was very choreographed, and we had to stick to it. There wasn’t much leeway, because there was so much to do in so little time.
You mentioned on Twitter that Episode 11 has one of your favorite scenes that you’ve ever had the pleasure of coordinating.
Episode 11 was where the Punisher really got to cut loose. Like, before, it was Frank’s journey, he was indecisive; does he want to do this? And then he kind of starts ramping things up. And by the time we get to Episode 11, it’s full-on Punisher — he’s got the vest on, he’s killing everyone, and it was just extremely satisfying. It was such a fantastic, we’re-finally-here moment.
That was actually a pretty crazy point in our production because it was getting towards the end, and everyone was firing on all cylinders. In the Marvel/Netflix process, we do pre-visualization for all the action. We’re shooting previz for episode 11 while we’re still filming Episode 10. So I remember a lot of sleepless nights as I’m running all day and all night long between our previz set and our practical set for Episode 10, bouncing back and forth. But I was so excited about what we’re getting to do in 11 that it didn’t really matter to me. At that point in shooting 10, we weren’t using Micro’s lair, so I could sit in there with [showrunner] Steve Lightfoot, with the director, with Jon [Bernthal] a couple times, and the stunt team, and just really kind of feel it out, see where we wanted the Punisher to go physically. And once we got the route he was going to take, we’re like, “Okay, we’ll hide this gun over here, we’ll put this there.”
The brainstorming of it was probably more involved than in any other episode. It was really a lot of discussions about what weapon he was going to use, how he was going to use it, how many people we were going to have down there. It almost felt like a mini-finale. It was just so involved and big. And then once we got it all planned out, we started the previz of it, and a lot of times that was on set, so I have my guys in Micro’s lair sending me videos, and I would send notes back, and they’d send me more videos. I was immensely satisfied with the direction it was going.
What’s it like when you’re prepping an actor for a fight when his character is doing to die?
With Sam — I love Michael [Nathanson], he was great — I knew he was going to die before he did. That was one of the hardest things, not spoiling anything for the cast if you knew that an actor was going to be going bye-bye soon. So with Michael, I remember him coming into the dojo and going, “Got anything coming up we can rehearse for me?” I said, “Not… yet.” I knew his death was coming -- we had been rehearsing it with the stunt guys. But I was like, “He doesn’t know yet, so we can’t rehearse this fight with him.” But he found out, and I think the suddenness helped him -- it made it a really intense, emotional death to do.
What do you do to get ready for a scene?
[Laughs] I remember, for Episode 6, we had the Thanksgiving dinner party, where all the soldiers come in and kill Frank’s family. It’s like a nightmare he’s having. I was helping tie Jon to the chair, the one he has to struggle in but not get out of. And Jon is really good about getting into character, and I’m sitting there next to him, cinching his wrists down, and he wants me to cinch them down really tight, so he could really feel it and get into it. So as I cinched it down, I whispered in his ear, “There’s nothing you can do.” And he looked at me, and just got this horrified look on his face, but he knew exactly what I was doing and just rolled with it. He ended up hugging me and thanking me later: “That was a nice little kick-start.”
Then, if we’re doing a big sequence, we’ll start out kind of slow, maybe quarter-speed, and just walk through everything, doing the punches, kicks, shooting, whatever we’re going to do. And then you just start ramping up the speed, and then once you get to the speed I want, I’ll say, “All right, here’s where we’re going to keep it. Now let’s just bring the intensity up.” And we’ll start rehearsing it for camera, and we do it. You can’t just jump into something cold.
Does anyone ever get hurt doing these stunts?
There’s always risk. That’s why we train for years and years to perfect our craft. There’s always danger, and my job is to make it as safe as possible. I’m constantly thinking about everything that can go wrong. I do that in my personal life, too, and it drives my wife nuts! Anyway, the scene where Frank was fighting the main bad guy, Lewis Wilson, that was a really rough fight.
The bad guy’s double, Johnny Yang, took some really hard hits in that, but he knows how to land. And Jon is a fantastic fighter. So I was like, “Look, this is going to be really rough on my stunt guy, but I want you to go all out. I want you to give 100 percent, and just really slam the crap out of him.” He kind of looked at me sideways, and then he got it. I didn’t have to say anything else. He goes, “Ah! You don’t want to do it more than once.” And I said, “Exactly.”
Was there any trepidation during the finale epic showdown that Ben Barnes might get injured, because of the way you needed to shoot Frank pulling his face down the broken mirror?
We tested the mirror with my guys, and we ended up changing it a little on the day. A couple of the mirrors we used weren’t quite what we wanted them to be, so we ended up lining tape on the back of them so they wouldn’t fall apart. And then I lined the back of them with high-density foam, so when Ben’s stunt double was going headfirst into it, there was at least a little cushion in there. It’s real glass, so we had to have something to protect Ben’s face. When we were doing the cheese-grater — that’s what we called it! — there was a hard half-shell that the special effects team had molded to his face. You never saw it, but that’s what was against glass.
And Ben was told to yell if he was in trouble?
Oh, yeah. We always told him that, especially when it was the two actors working together. We’re always very clear to make sure they knew that if they felt like it was getting out of control, that they had the full ability to yell “Stop!” But it never got to that point. We were always nice and safe. And the guys did a great job really taking care of each other. That’s one of the things I like to stress the most — it’s a partnership. So if you’re doing a one-on-one fight, one of the biggest parts of your job is taking care of the other guy. It has to look fantastic, but you have to work together to make it look great and keep it safe.
But if the actor is yelling “Stop!” and the character might be yelling “Stop!” how do you tell the difference? “Stop!” might not be the best safe word!
[Laughs] Yeah. Well, we would give them different things to say. [Laughs] Ben did have a code word, I don’t remember what it was! He had a word that he was going to yell out repeatedly if something was going wrong. Same with Jon. I wish I could remember it!