The ever-so-intense Michael Shannon plays true life hitman Richard Kuklinski in The Iceman, a bloody drama about the family man who claimed to have murdered over 100 people for the mafia. In the biopic, Shannon is joined by an ensemble cast that includes Chris Evans, Winona Ryder, Ray Liotta, James Franco, David Schwimmer, Robert Davi, and Stephen Dorff. The film is co-written and directed by Ariel Vromen, who has his biggest project yet with Iceman. Vromen has directed two films previously, Danika with Marisa Tomei in 2006, and Rx with Colin Hanks, Lauren Grahan, and Eric Balfour in 2005, which he also co-wrote.
In a phoner interview, I talked with Vromen about his film, the rising star the drives it, the question of secrecy that it asks, the incredible moments of tension between Michael Shannon and Ray Liotta, and more.
The Iceman opens in Chicago on May 17.
Kuklinski has a very staggering line towards the end of the film in which he says, "I don't believe in bad luck." How much do you think luck was a factor in this production?
I can guarantee you that knowing now what happened with everything on this film, whether it's luck, karma or perseverance, it's big. From the beginning of getting the story rights, to fighting Paramount on a competitive project, then Paramount dropping their project, to the end of the Khadafi regime and their competitive film project and Obama freezing Gaddafi's assets, to getting Michael Shannon to actually have time, to other people coming on board, to Michael doing a Funny or Die video to get some type of attraction. We hoped for a 100,000 views, and in four days, we crossed 3 million. All I can continue to hope is that were gonna keep having this good vibe, and people will go watch this movie.
Having worked with Michael, and considering his upcoming role in 'Man of Steel,' do you think he will be a household name?
I think Michael is stepping in the same paths as Pacino, or De Niro, or Walken. He has that excellency, not only in his character. He's not necessarily the most simple or social person to be around with. He has very specific friends, and he's not trying to become friends with anybody, but when he is in front of a crowd or a camera, he is perfection. You can only dream to work with someone like that. And I want to do another movie with Michael, and it just comes down to waiting in line and availability.
In 'Iceman,' Shannon works opposite another intense actor, Ray Liotta. Both actors can carry a lot of weight and bring force to a scene. In their scenes together or separate, were there moments where you'd have to step back and let them figure out the energy of a scene?
We shot a lot of the Ray stuff before Michael arrived; we started a couple days with only Ray. He is a guy that is all about trust. He has a tremendous indicator for bullshit. If he feels somebody is not true, he will call it. But when he feels the trust, he will give you everything. I gave him trust very quickly on the first day. When he felt good with that, that was the beginning.
The first scene in the movie between Michael and Ray, the energy was very interesting. Michael had just stepped into the shoot. The first scene we shot, you can feel a sense that Ray is controlling Michael in a way. It almost worked nicely, when Ray is comfortable, and Michael is still trying to figure out who he was as Kuklinski.
The last scene we shot between them was in the car outside the house. Ray was eager to go back home to see his daughter, and Michael was already deep into Kuklinski's shoes. That day, if I wasn't there, and there was no gaffers or crew, I'm sure they would shoot each other. There was so much tension and anger. Ray was basically like, "I'm done." We created a very interesting schedule with this movie, somewhat because we only had thirty days to shoot it. The progression of every scene came out brilliantly. It really helped that Ray stuck his gun into Michael's face, and can really put it deep into his cheek. Michael, after every take, would storm out of the car, and start kicking things. He was so furious at Ray. But then we finished shooting the scene, and they hugged and they released all that tension they built.
But that goes to show you they are very devoted actors, and they use every trick in the book to sustain that, and believe that. It's hard. When I cast Ray, I felt that I know I am scared even today when I walk down the street and see him. Not because he is a violent guy, but he has that feel in which you don't know when he is going to snap at you. And when he does, you just want to be on his good side and not his bad side. For me it was a classic casting, because I knew he would even make Michael Shannon afraid a little bit.
When you're watching films, do you find heroes or villains more interesting to a story?
I think a good hero has got to have a good villain, for a hero to overcome any challenge in his life. In this case, our hero is the villain by himself. For him to have somebody even more darker, those characters are some kind of hurdles of his own journey. With this story, I think there were a lot of villains. And it became, "How do we create a certain path, or the progression, or some sort of redemption for this character?" A good villain is always very important. In this case, I think everyone was the villain to themselves, especially Kuklinski, who is the classic antihero.
Would you say you find yourself drawn to villains, then?
You won't find me doing any comedy soon. And I hope not to do a hitman movie soon, because I really don't want to do one. I'm reading all of these scripts that have been sent to me, and they're all about hitmen. If I am drawn to those characters, I am drawn to their duality. I am working now on a film that is about an American who is involved with trafficking through submarines for the Colombians. That duality is very interesting. He is a guy who wants to protect his family, but he also got into that work, and he can't get out. And it's all about how he is going to get out of this world. SO I like those dark stories yes.
Considering the tale of Kuklinski, how much do you think you really know somebody regardless of how much you think you "know" them? Do you think it is possible to know someone 100%?
No. No way. Even people you grew up with, that you think you know, they follow different avenues than you in your life. We are trusting people. But I think to know someone, especially in a relationship, I think everybody has their own side. As long as things work, and you don't have to go to the doctor, you're going to be okay. I think people have their own secrets, and it is impossible to really know a person.
Quick Questions with Ariel Vromen
What did you have for breakfast this morning? I didn't. I woke up, and at 9:45 I realized I had five minutes and was lucky enough to get a coffee.
Favorite fruit? Pineapple.
Favorite pop song growing up? "Beat It" by Michael Jackson.
Age of first kiss? On a train from Paris to Switzerland, and I met a French girl named Dauphine and she kissed me for the first time, and I spent the rest of the journey in the bathroom throwing up. I couldn't believe it. She put her tongue in my mouth and it was very odd. I was throwing up for four hours on the train. I was 12. Getting a French kiss from a French girl on a French train, it's like too much French at once.