A Movie Is Born
In 1992, HBO aired the disturbing documentary, "The Iceman: Confessions of a Mafia Hitman." It was a series of one-on-one interviews with Richard Kuklinski, a known contract killer, who was serving a life sentence in a New Jersey prison for killing 100 men. In the documentary, Kuklinski details how he committed the murders, showing no remorse except when he talks about his family, who had no idea of his heinous acts until his arrest in 1986.
The haunting documentary mesmerized filmmaker Ariel Vromen, who had directed two movies at that point in his career, one of them being the well-received Danika, which starred Marisa Tomei and won Best Feature Film at the San Diego Film Festival in 2006. "I was amazed by the story," Vromen recalls. "The weirdest feeling that I had was that I liked the guy."
Convinced that Kuklinski's life contained the seeds of a compelling story, Vromen teamed up with writing partner Morgan Land (Rx) to pen the screenplay The Iceman. Determined to direct the project, he then reached out to veteran producer Ehud Bleiberg (The Band's Visit, Adam Resurrected), whom he had previously met with for another project. Bleiberg, who has produced more than 30 films, was moved by Vromen's passion and recognized the potential for an intriguing portrayal of a man who somehow managed to balance two wildly conflicting realities.
"Here was this guy who has some experience in his childhood that caused him, from my point of view, to do things that normal people don't do," Bleiberg explains. "He could kill people without blinking -- no feeling, no anything. That was one part of the story. The other part of the story was the family. What does the family know? A guy comes home from work after he kills someone. It's hard to believe how he could live with his family while doing these terrible things. His balance of the two worlds interested me very much."
Believing in Vromen and his story, Bleiberg was on board. However, mindful of Vromen's short track record as a director, the producer needed a way to showcase Vromen's directorial chops for potential investors. Bleiberg and Vromen settled on the novel idea of doing a screen test of one of the script's most crucial scenes. For Vromen, casting the scene was as critical as any other skill in his director's toolkit.
"I realized that in order to showcase anything at that stage, it was most important to show that I have a good eye for choosing who I want to star in this film," the director says.
For Vromen, there was only one actor who was capable of playing the role of Kuklinski -- Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, "Boardwalk Empire"). "I became obsessed about him doing that role," Vromen says, adding that he first met the Academy Award-nominated actor at an Oscar party and told him he'd started writing the script about Kuklinski. "He didn't know about the story but he was very intrigued," Vromen recalls.
A couple of years later, Vromen ran into Shannon again, this time sitting next to him at a restaurant bar. Vromen brought up the project and floated the idea of Shannon playing Kuklinski in the screen test, which was to be a one-day shoot in Los Angeles. Shannon agreed.
"Michael walked into my house the day before we shot it," Vromen says. "He thought he was doing a test against a wall and would read a couple of lines. So when someone put a moustache on him and a costume, and then the next day he saw that we had a little set organized, that was pretty impressive. I think that's what made him understand it was something that we all were serious about."
Shannon did the test scene, which has since been posted on YouTube, where it has garnered almost 200,000 views. "It was an opportunity for Ariel to get a little warm-up because he wanted to make this film for such a long time," Shannon says. "I think it was good to get that practice run and see what it was like. And it was a lot of fun."
Although the scene ran for just four minutes, Shannon's performance so impressed Vromen and Bleiberg that they knew they'd found their man. "We spent a lot of money for that day of shooting, like a regular day on the shoot for a film," Bleiberg says. "But when we saw Michael's performance, we're like, 'This is the Iceman!'" Vromen concurs: "It was almost like the role was meant for him. No one else could play that role. Luckily, Ehud supported me on that."
The test scene served the dual purpose of confirming Shannon as the right man for the part and helping Bleiberg secure the much needed financing from Millennium Films -- even though Shannon was not yet widely recognized as the star he is today.
"To my eyes, Michael Shannon was already a star, and unbelievable at that, but he wasn't known by the people who would want to put that kind of money into a movie," Bleiberg says.
To get around that issue, the filmmakers' strategy was to surround Shannon with a supporting cast of A-list actors that would be more familiar to investors. But they needn't have worried; HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" became a hit with Shannon in the riveting role of FBI Agent Nelson Van Alden. Now, other name actors wanted the opportunity to work with Shannon and agreed to review the script, knowing he was attached to star. "It was almost perfect timing," Vromen says.
For the challenging role of Kuklinski's wife, Deborah, the filmmakers cast Winona Ryder.
"Winona was fantastic," Shannon says. "It's a very difficult role she was playing. It's hard for people to believe that Richard could have kept his violent job a secret from his family. That was something that Winona had to wrestle with, but she's got a really big heart and throws herself into what she does. You just feel for her every time she is on screen; you feel what she is going through."
Ryder says she has always been a fan of mob films like The Godfather, but The Iceman offers a different take on the genre. "It goes right into the very core of questions about right and wrong and humanity. Can someone that's capable of so much death and destruction and brutality also be capable of the tremendous love for his family? That alone is a very intense question. For Kuklinski, it was just business. For us, it is monstrous. Michael has played unhinged characters before, but this is a very interesting portrait painted across his face. It's unique and very complicated, and there is heart in there and also terror."
Ryder says she was blown away by the experience of working with Shannon.
"Michael Shannon is one of the best actors that I've ever worked with and I've worked with some pretty great actors," she says. "Every once in a while, someone comes along and you feel like they're almost yanking you by your throat into the actual moment of the scene and it just wakes you up. It's exhilarating and it's intoxicating and it's very inspiring to watch someone sort of walk into the fire, and in this case into the very core primal place of our humanity."
Ryder says Shannon's performance in a sense made her fall in love with acting again.
"His skills and his talent are stunning," the actress says. "I don't remember a moment in any scene where he wasn't just completely present and, when someone is like that, it forces you to be as well and it's an amazing feeling. You sort of look for that for the rest of your life."
Ryder says she first became aware of the magnitude of Shannon's talent through his role in the 1999 drama Jesus' Son and was excited when she met with Vromen and he told her that Shannon was on board to play Kuklinski.
"I really liked Vromen's take on the film in the sense that he really wanted to go into the duality of the character obviously, but also he wanted to make a comment on the way people live in denial, which has more to do with my character. We all have lived in denial in one way or another. This just takes it to a very different level."
That aspect of the Deborah Pellicotti character made it very challenging for Ryder to prepare for the role because so much information about Kuklinski was available for people to read online and in books.
"I had to shut myself off from all of that," Ryder recalls. "I sort of had to unlearn anything that I knew about him, I had to do the opposite of what I usually do, which is research. I had to take out all of the pages in the script that I wasn't in or that my character wouldn't know. I had a Sharpie and I would just cross out anything that my character was either in denial of or unaware of."
In a curious way, this approach helped Ryder get into her character's skin. "In a way, it was almost a good thing because I think Deborah was doing that -- she was unlearning, she wasn't asking any questions, she was pretending like she didn't know things to a certain extent. So there's a parallel there in the way I approached it and the way she was living her life."
For the role of Mr. Freezy, Chris Evans, who played Captain America in this summer's blockbuster, The Avengers, came in for two weeks. Evans lists Shannon among his favorite actors working today.
"It's amazing when you get the chance to work with someone who is so fantastic, who you respect so much," Evans says of Shannon. "It's a little intimidating because Michael's so good. His commitment to authenticity and to the truth is real. He has such artistic integrity and sets the bar high, which is fantastic. He's not going to do it if it's not right. It's a great experience as an actor to learn from someone like that, to watch their process and understand where they refuse to compromise."
For his part, Shannon says he and Evans shared a good camaraderie on set. "He was very creative and full of energy and very serious about what he was doing," Shannon recalls. "He really contributed a lot to the picture -- even to enabling it to happen in the first place."
Other actors who joined the cast include Ray Liotta (Goodfellas), David Schwimmer ("Friends"), John Ventimiglia ("The Sopranos"), Jay Giannone (Safe) and Robert Davi ("Profiler"). In addition, Stephen Dorff (Public Enemies) and James Franco (127 Hours) each worked one day, making cameo appearances in key roles opposite Shannon.
For Vromen, being able to direct this movie was a dream come true. "It's so difficult to do an independent movie, so to speak, but here we've done it," he says.
The result, Bleiberg says, is no regular mob movie. "Richard Kuklinski was not part of The Family; he was an outside contractor. He was contradictory. He was a family man with his family, but on the other side he was different. He killed people so that no one knew they had been killed. He operated for two decades without anyone knowing who he was."
As for the impact of the movie, Bleiberg predicts that the unsettling dichotomy embodied in Kuklinski will work overtime on audiences' minds and emotions after they see the film: "They will wake up in the middle of the night and think, 'How did Richard Kuklinski go for two decades killing people and no one knew what he did?'"
Evans concurs. "I love true stories, first and foremost," the actor says. "But I think any time that you have a story about someone who's done things that are so foreign to the majority of us, it's just mind-blowing to watch them -- to see one human's capacity to commit evil. For me, that's the stuff I go to the movies to see; that's the compelling drama."
As for his experience playing such a twisted title role, Shannon waxes philosophical: "I guess any time I take a job, I'm not afraid to dig into something, no matter how ugly it may be. To me, that's where the stories are -- that ugly, dark, confused place. Those, unfortunately, for better or for worse, tend to be the most interesting stories. People are fascinated by them."
The actor says the film is like a portrait. "Any time that you look at a portrait, it's just a deeper understanding of whatever it is that you're looking at," he says. "The value of making this movie is to give you some idea of what Richard Kuklinski's life might have been like. Here's a fellow that people are intrigued by and want to know more about. Hopefully, we're giving them that insight."
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