“I don’t think I’m in any way a sociopath,” said Ariel Vromen, the Israeli-born filmmaker behind “The Iceman,” inspired by the true story of one of America’s most notorious mob hitmen, Richard Kuklinski, who died in prison in 2006.
Yet Vromen remembers watching an HBO documentary about Kuklinski in 2007 and feeling a kind of empathy, even a connection, to the 6-foot-5, 300-pound killer who claimed to have whacked at least 100 men between the 1960s and the 1980s, all while maintaining his double life as a devoted family man in suburban New Jersey.
“The weirdest emotion I had was that I actually liked the guy,” the gregarious director said recently, shaking his head while smoking a Marlboro Light on a terrace at the Four Seasons hotel. “On the one hand, he spoke of his murders as if he were talking about eating a burger, and on the other, he had tears in his eyes when he talked about losing his family. I related in a very strange, if remote, way to the duality of his experience, even though it was so extreme.”
Vromen, 40, traces his empathy to his service in an Israeli air force rescue unit in the 1990s. He served as a paramedic also trained in anti-terror combat, as well as parachuting and scuba diving, in order to evacuate both Israeli and enemy soldiers on battlefields from Lebanon to Gaza.
“We’d be playing backgammon or watching a comedy in the unit’s lounge, and in seven minutes I would be on a chopper, and 45 minutes later I had to deal with chopped-up bodies and wounded people while under constant enemy fire,” he said. “I was so young in that situation; it’s as if I were building a kind of a split personality.”
Vromen succumbed to the pressure of one 1993 mission in Lebanon, where a bomb eviscerated Golani Brigade soldiers and gunfire was rampant. “Two of my friends were killed right in front of me,” he said. “It took me months to go back into the service, because I had a kind of [stress-related] reaction where I would be throwing up or else laughing all the time. So all this is one reason I had that odd response to the dichotomy that is Richard Kuklinski.”
To make the film, Vromen immersed himself in research on the hitman, studying biographies, police reports and court documents as well as watching interviews with Kuklinski’s wife and daughters — who insisted they knew nothing about his true profession until his arrest in 1986.
“The Iceman” begins as Kuklinski (Michael Shannon of “Boardwalk Empire” and the upcoming “The Man of Steel”) shyly romances his wife-to-be, Deborah (Winona Ryder). She’s a naïve Catholic teenager who believes his lie that he works as an editor of Disney films when he’s actually dubbing pornography.
As the couple starts their family, Kuklinski gets promoted to hitman by mobster Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta), and later teams up with the freelance killer “Mr. Freezy” (Chris Evans of “The Avengers”), so nicknamed because he uses his ice cream truck as a cover for his crimes. Mr. Freezy promptly teaches Kuklinski to use cyanide as an almost undetectable murder weapon and to store the corpses in his truck before dismembering them and scattering the body parts around the East Coast.
David Schwimmer is cast against his “Friends” type as a wannabe Jewish gangster who worries that his surname of Rosenthal is too Jewish for his Italian-American colleagues, and James Franco has a cameo as one of Kuklinski’s victims who fervently prays to God while begging for his life.
Vromen said Kuklinski grew up with a violent, alcoholic father, but the filmmaker played down that aspect of his subject’s life so as not to suggest that abuse necessarily leads to murder. He also eschewed glorifying the killing sequences in the film, preferring nondescript locations and long lenses that often capture the action “through elements in the foreground, so the audience feels more like a spectator than a participant,” he said. “I tried not to make the murders exciting, but more matter-of-fact, because Kuklinski just regarded them as a job.”
Vromen grew up as a cinephile in Tel Aviv, avidly watching movies by directors like Fellini, Bergman and Scorsese while making his own short films with his 8 mm camera. His parents’ view of his hobby was “to get rid of it,” he recalled; they preferred he become a lawyer. And so, Vromen skipped what he calls “the usual Israeli post-army crazy backpacking trip” to study law at the University of Kent in England. But he became disillusioned with the law after earning his degree at age 29 and returned to his first love, attending film classes at New York University and the Los Angeles Film School. In the 2000s, he directed his first two features, the psychological thrillers “Rx” and “Danika,” starring Marisa Tomei.
Vromen’s Israeli connections proved crucial in making “The Iceman.” For financing, he turned to producer Ehud Bleiberg (“The Band’s Visit”), who had considered hiring Vromen to direct his 2008 Holocaust-themed film, “Adam Resurrected,” until they both agreed that he was too inexperienced at the time to tackle a drama revolving around the Shoah. Israelis on “The Iceman’s” team include the editor Danny Rafic and composer Haim Mazar.
Vromen said his Israeli chutzpah came in handy when casting woes and rival projects threatened “The Iceman,” one of them from Paramount and a more recent attempt financed by Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi, of all people. “We felt we had lost the game until the Arab Spring started in Libya and they killed Gadhafi and President Obama froze his assets,” said Vromen, who spent the downtime making a documentary about emerging Israeli mentalist Lior Suchard for Israeli television.
“Then we were clear to go.”
Shannon — whose performance Time magazine noted as Oscar-worthy —praised Vromen’s tenacity in sticking with the film. “He just didn’t give up,” Shannon said. “Even when time and resources were tight, he never buckled.”
“The Iceman” hits theaters on May 3.