With The Iceman in cinemas from 7th June, we caught up with Israeli director Ariel Vromen on the phone to talk about his interesting account of notorious mob killer Richard Kuklinski.
Michael Shannon plays the imposing hitman, who carried on a normal family life while committing over 100 murders between 1948 and 1986. We talk about casting Shannon, along with Winona Ryder as his reportedly unaware wife, and David Schwimmer and Chris Evans as mobsters.
Why didn’t you go down the strict biopic route, by choosing to focus on his marriage?
In a way, for me that was the most interesting angle, to tackle a story like that. I felt like telling a story of straight-up murder with his procedures, I’ve seen that done. I didn’t necessarily want to focus on the body count, as much as I could have done it way more intense. I thought that the idea to combine those two worlds and show the human side of that guy, or at least when he aspired to be human as the fantasy of a sociopath - to have a family and be loved - was something that was more interesting to frame the story around. To show the duality of how he can kill, but is capable of love. That was the decision of the framework of the movie, starting with the date and ending up in separation.
How do you make such a brutal killer compelling to an audience? Is a lot to do with Michael’s casting?
In fact, I think Michael’s casting could have made it dangerous, as he brings so much darkness to the role. The empathy is coming from the place of, we as human beings, will always want to see somebody correcting themselves. We have a guy, who when he thinks is going down, wants to save the only thing he cares about, which is his family. At this point, we as an audience want him to do that. Somehow we forgive him, he’s a sick man not aware he’s sick. Most of these kills were on the basis of a soldier, he was a soldier to an organisation. Maybe there is a way to connect to that kind of mechanism. We have soldiers we send to kill, and we understand they are doing it ‘on behalf of’.
The film isn’t excessively violent or gruesome. Was that a deliberate decision you made?
Yeah, because funny enough, when I saw the outtakes of over twenty hours of interviews with [Kuklinski], in general his feeling towards killing was that it was done with no feeling or emotion whatsoever. So I felt that when you saw violence it was not the subject matter, as it didn’t really affect him as a character. He didn’t get any kind of kick out of the killing. Obviously he needed to release something, but killing for him, when he was talking about it, he was always so nonchalant and distant. That’s why I wanted to see the murders in a more distant way than being so gory and celebrating the violence. Like Quentin Tarantino, in Django [Unchained] he’s celebrating the violence, almost with a sick sense of humour, a sarcastic way. The tone of this film is not sarcastic, and I couldn’t really take it to that level. It being a true story also changed the entire mechanism.
What are the challenges in working with a story where some of the characters are still alive?
Obviously the wife had one story, then another. She now portrayed herself as a total victim of Kuklinski, after her first testimony in court and interview with HBO. My relationship was mainly with the kids, I had very little contact with her. We spoke a little on the phone and email, and she requested me on Facebook. The daughters, especially Mary Kuklinski, became really close, and she was a good source of connection. I was very pleased that when they saw the movie that side of the family enjoyed it. They had a few comments, but they felt connected.
How did you first meet Michael Shannon, and what about him was perfect for this role?
I looked for somebody who could provide me with three things: one, the menace - I don’t want to deal with an actor who doesn’t have the darkness in him and has to fake it. Second, I know that he is such a versatile chameleon, he could stretch both ways and have the range of compassion and danger. The last thing that was very important to me was to stay true to the size of the real guy - Michael is 6’4’. The menace of that character when he gets out of the car, people would be really scared of him. I couldn’t really cast Tom Cruise for that.
Did you discuss how often to use Michael’s excellent explosive qualities?
It would depend on the scene. When the script demanded it, Michael would bring it with so much power. Then again, I tried to be very careful, as I always wanted to show the fantasy world within his mind that life can be perfect, and that he has security when he comes home. A line that Kuklinski said in his interview that really struck me was, ‘If I could stay at home, I would never leave it.’ I felt I needed to show that warmth - he was a lover. Yes, he was violent towards his wife, on the witness stand there was one time he did punch her and break her nose during one of their fights. I did consider bringing that into the movie, but I showed a metaphor for that domestic violence that could occur. I thought half the audience would walk out at that point.
What are your favourite memories of working with Michael?
Listen, he’s a dream actor for every director. He comes so prepared, with no rehearsal. With 30 days to shoot we had so little time, but with Mike it was just a little adjusting; putting him in the right place, clothes, environment, and making sure the other actors were on the same level as him. After he brings what he wants, he always helps you as a director and asks what he can do differently. You need to prepared with a couple of tricks and suggestions, and just open up for him. He was a gem, and I didn’t mind that he was very methodic on set, which means he didn’t laugh. No small talk between takes! He creates a very serious atmosphere for the other actors. There’s a magic to it.
Winona Ryder brings great vulnerability to the role of Kuklinski’s wife - original actress Maggie Gyllenhaal have made it a very different character. Did Winona’s casting change the portrayal of the wife?
I call it the good mistakes of Hollywood. Somebody gets pregnant, and the best person gets the role. Winona was a challenge, because she hasn’t done anything like that. When I met her, I did see the vulnerability, and also of the person, as she’s so fragile. I thought seeing those two sides of the coin would bring me into a really interesting dynamic between Michael Shannon and her. And they really, really got connected as people on the set. He was so protective of her during the shoot. She didn’t even want to know what was the other part of the script in terms of violence. It was pretty cool seeing them together, without them talking about what the other does in the scenes.
You have familiar faces such as Ray Liotta, but some unpredictable names such as David Schwimmer and Chris Evans popping up. Can you talk about that casting?
Schwimmer was the story of an actor pestering a director, doing everything he can to convince me, and it’s coming down to me to say, fuck it, I’ll take the gamble. For me, he took make-up artists and did a really good test scene. He also said, ‘Oliver Stone took Woody out of Cheers, you can take me out of Friends.’ The character just wanted to fit it to a world he didn’t belong to, so it was a metaphor for himself. He did a great job. Chris Evans came last minute as James Franco was supposed to do his role. James’ father passed away, and his filming had to be pushed back. Chris was a friend of mine from before, and I approached him and said, ‘Do you mind taking your Captain America suit off and get down and dirty?’ I didn’t know if he could do it, but being on set with Michael Shannon, you have to up your game.
What’s next for you?
It’s starting to look like I’m going to do an adaptation of a British novel I optioned, called Snowdrops by A.D. Miller. There’s another movie called Narco which I’m trying to cast right now, and I’ve just finished the script.
Watch Filmbeat’s interview with Michael Shannon below.