LOS ANGELES— “The Iceman” recounts the true story of hit man Richard Kuklinski and the disturbing details of his secret life as a contract killer working for the mob. He was married with two daughters who say they knew nothing about his connections with the mafia or that he was a serial murderer until his arrest in 1986.
Before his death, Kuklinski confessed to killing at least 100 men.
In a gritty and gripping retelling of his life, Israel-born director Ariel Vromen portrays the events leading up to Kuklinski’s apprehension, with an all-star cast playing richly detailed characters.
Michael Shannon gives a brilliant performance as the inexorable sociopath who successfully leads a double life as a devoted family man and cold-blooded killer. An almost unrecognizable Chris Evans takes on the role of a mass murderer, who at one point teams up with Kuklinski to kill. Winona Ryder plays the exemplary Catholic girl who marries Kuklinski not knowing who he truly was.
Vromen’s film, which opens May 3, was screened opening night at the Sonoma International Film Festival and was met with a positive response despite the gruesome subject matter.
The director sat down with ARTINFO at the event to discuss his movie.
What drew you to do this project?
I didn’t know anything about Richard Kuklinski before I saw the documentary on HBO. I was very intrigued by the character. I think the next morning after I saw it I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was captivating. I could not let it go.
What I found so intriguing but disturbing was that he was so detached from murdering people. He looked at killing people like it was just a normal job. Did he really see it that way?
That’s what was so fascinating about the character. He was an extreme sociopath. He could not fear, react, [or] feel. He does not have any conscious.
How do you think he hid this life from his family? They honestly didn’t know until he was caught?
That’s their claim and I choose to believe them. I guess it was easier to kill back then. There was no forensics or CSI. There was no DNA so I think for the world of crime it was easier to hide. I think for his family — you’re talking about the ’60s and ’70s, so the male role of the family was much more of a provider. I think there was an understanding of don’t ask don’t tell. His wife said in the first documentary that he used to leave the house in the middle of the night and he was claiming that it was part of the job. In the beginning, when he worked at the porn lab, he was under the disguise that he worked for Disney. That was a good cover because they could have had to do prints in the morning. Then later on when he worked as a currency exchange trader, he used to say he had to go into the office to talk to China or to Germany. I think he had the excuse of needing to do international business to leave the house. He never brought it back home. He kept the two worlds separate.
Do you think he was capable of loving his family?
In his own fantasy world, yeah. I don’t think he understood what love is really about because he never felt love as a child. I think if you really love someone then you cannot lie to them. So the answer is maybe. I don’t know. I never talked to the guy, but from what I’ve seen, there are emotions coming out of him when he talks about his family. I think it’s a hidden compartment in his own soul. I don’t know if it’s a true love or it’s something that’s part of his fantasy of having love, family, and security.
Did you ever talk to his wife or daughters?
His daughters, yeah. I text with his wife.
How do they feel about you making the movie?
Well, in the beginning we didn’t have contact because they didn’t want to be any part of it. Now they just saw the movie and they responded amazingly. Obviously there is a truth and other stories that I don’t know and they won’t tell. There are also things that to them look differently from what I portrayed, but they really support the film and they are all going to come to the premiere.
What are his daughters like?
His older daughter — her true name is Merrick — is a lovely girl. She’s working as a magazine editor in New York and seems like the nicest girl. She’s in her 40s now. His younger daughter is more reserved. Christin is her real life name and she lives with her mother. She was more affected by her mother’s agony and destruction. I think the older daughter was closer to Kuklinski and she had the strength to move out and move on. She has a family of her own.
There has always been a lot of violence depicted in movies. Given the subject matter of the film, you could have shown several gruesome scenes, but opted not to do so. Talk about your decision to go that route.
I didn’t want to glorify violence. I didn’t want to glorify him being a sophisticated hit man. That didn’t interest me. We’ve seen so much violence in cinema and there are so many other ways to portray violence in society. Other movies are just body counts and some people look at that and are excited to see a brain explode. I didn’t see it helping the movie and that’s why we chose not to. The movie is violent by its own accord. It’s a true story and there’s so much you want to digest. I would think at one point as an audience member you’d lose it.
What I also found interesting about the movie is that you touched upon the fact that he was abused as a child, but you didn’t go into a lot of detail about it. Why?
I can tell you many drafts of the script started with his childhood. I had 10 to 15 minutes to deal with it. He was not only abused by his parents, but he was an outsider. It’s a famous story, but this guy Johnny was harassing him and bullying him. That was his first murder. He took the closet pole and went downstairs to wait for him. He knocked him down and hit him 48 times.
How old was Richard at the time?
He was 16. I think that would have been a whole different story going from his dad beating him to his first murder. That’s a prequel for “The Iceman.” I don’t think it made it into the movie because it’s a statement that I was very afraid to take. I was afraid taking the statement of abuse leads to murder. If it was a story about an abused child that learned how to deal with his abuse and grew up to be an inspiration for an audience…. I would maybe portray it, but because this is an abuse that led into destruction, [I didn’t.] The connection between the two of them and making the focus on that abuse I found too disturbing. It was too dangerous of a statement.
The movie takes place over the span of three decades. As a filmmaker, is that challenging for you to shoot?
Yes, it was very challenging especially when you’re shooting stuff from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. The terrain is so different than where we live right now. So far I caught two places that are inaccurate in the film. I’m sure they’re going to create a website for that. There’s a scene where this guy is walking and he’s wearing a brand new watch and Oakley sunglasses. When you have 50 to 60 extras and you have to take care of every detail, it’s really challenging.
You have assembled an incredible cast, but there were a few surprises like David Schwimmer as a gangster. Talk about casting him and how that came about.
He really wanted to do this film and I was really against it. He kept on calling me and finally I told him, “If you send me a test of what you’re going to look like and what you’re going to bring to this role, I’ll look at it.” He’s a good theater actor, but in a movie like this he’s got to blow people away. He looked great and actually did a great audition. So I said, “OK, I’ll take my chances, but I’m telling you right now that I’m going to be asked about that choice for the duration of my life.” Quentin Tarantino does it in his movies. It’s cool to take risks on actors. As long as you’re not hurting the film and I don’t think he hurt the film because he had that kind of insecurity that actually David has carried with him since “Friends” that worked for the character. If you cast him as Iceman that would be a different question, but I think for this wannabe gangster Jew it worked.