The family of notorious mass hitman Richard "The Iceman" Kuklinski never saw him again after he was incarcerated in 1986, but Ariel Vroman, co-writer, co-producer and director of the new starring drama "The Iceman," says his movie is bringing closure to the Kuklinskis.
Kuklinski is alleged to have murdered anywhere between 100 and 250 people between 1948 and 1986.
"His daughter friended me on Facebook," he told the audience at a showing of the movie Sunday afternoon at Sundance Cinemas, part of TheWrap's Independent Features Screening Series. "The whole family is coming to the premiere in New York."
The after-showing Q&A, which also included star "Boardwalk Empire's" Michael Shannon, was moderated by Sharon Waxman, the site's found and editor-in-chief. (At left, Vroman, Waxman and Shannon.)
During the production of the film that he spent decades trying to bring to the screen, Vroman said heard nothing from the surviving family members. (Kuklinski died behind bars in 2006.)
"After they did Larry King on CNN in 2007, after [Philip Carlo's biography "The Ice Man"] was published, they decided to get out of the media, so it was impossible to get any connection with them."
But that all changed after Vroman got a Facebook poke from one of the Kuklinski's daughters.
"[She's] now a magazine editor in New York; she's a really great girl. We talk on the phone every other day now. At the beginning when we spoke, she had never seen the earlier HBO documentary ["The Iceman Tapes," upon which the movie was based], she never read the book, she never wanted to do anything with the media, she never wanted to see ["The Iceman"] ever."
Then, he said, "she stared seeing the film's trailers online, and she wanted to see what kind of movie we made. I think it's pretty interesting; it's closing the circle, and in a way it's a redemption for Richard to get some kind of forgiveness from his family. It's closing the circle for them to come see this movie that tells their story."
Getting that story to the big screen was no easy feat for Vroman, who began pursuing the tale in the early 1990s, when the first of two "The Iceman Tapes" documentaries, featuring interviews with Kuklinski -- who is alleged to have murdered anywhere between 100 and 250 people between 1948 and 1986 -- aired on HBO.
"The movie became an obsession with me," Vroman recalled. "I was the guy who walked around town, and people would say, 'That's the guy who wants to make the "Iceman" movie. This guy has been talking about making this movie for years.'"
Landing the formidable Shannon was vital to bringing the project together; making it onto his calendar was something else entirely.
"Mike is probably the busiest actor in Hollywood," said Vroman. "So he's got 'Boardwalk Empire,' which is a big success, not to mention 'Kneel before Zod' [this summer's "Man of Steel," with Shannon as the villain], so we had to go through more hurdles to find a window. And when I say 'window,' I mean to the date."
Shannon finished shooting the Superman film, "went home I think for a day to see his daughter and his girlfriend, and then immediately to Shreveport. We literally had zero rehearsal."
Still, landing the intense star of "Take Shelter" and "Revolutionary Road" became enough of an obsession to Vroman to make him put off production until he could get his leading man.
"Mike was frustrated as well sometimes," according to Vroman. "There were other projects he was committed to, and he told me, 'Look, Ariel, if you've gotta move forward, you've gotta do what you've gotta do.' And I looked at him and said, 'No. I'm gonna be unemployed for a year.'"
For Shannon, the role of Kuklinski offered another opportunity to find the soul in a character whom many would categorize as monstrous.
In Sunday's Q&A, he linked Kuklinski with the lead character of "Take Shelter," for which he received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Actor. "I wouldn't say that Richard and Curtis are really similar at all," noted Shannon, "but the one thing they have in common is that they're trying to protect their families from themselves. For me, that is something that has resonance, because I have a family, and sometimes I feel like I'm not the greatest father, greatest partner or provider or whatever.
"Anyone in that position is bound to have doubt from time to time, and the world is a very frightening place, particularly right now. There's a lot of anxiety, so these stories for me are a way to gnaw on that anxiety, mull it over and try to process it and turn it into something with some artistic merit, as opposed to just sitting at home, worrying about things."
He added, with a laugh, "That sounds not nearly as fun as being in movies."
Waxman asked Shannon if playing this kind of guy meant becoming the character during the entire shoot. "No, I'm really not," replied Shannon, grinning. "I always wish I could say, 'Yeah, I do, when I get done shooting, I drive around downtown and look for people to [kill]…' But I don't. I get done for the day, I'm usually very tired -- we were all very tired, it was a very stressful shoot, we didn't have a lot of time or a huge budget, so we really had to hustle -- so by the end of the day, I was usually just tired and hungry."
Shannon broke down some of his process for capturing Kuklinski, who was both a prolific contract killer but also a devoted family man. "I start with myself. I don't think I've ever met any human being in my lifetime that's consistent throughout their life. People are complicated and people tend to have secrets and people tend to have different modes of being, depending on whether at work or at home, with their family or with friends."
The actor also noted that the rough cut of the HBO interview, which lasted some 20 hours, provided moments of insight as well. He recalled a segment in which the interviewer, frustrated at getting stonewalled by Kuklinski, asked if the man had any hobbies. The prisoner initially said no before finally saying that his favorite thing to do was to sit in his chair by the fire, with his family around him.
"He said, 'If I didn't have to leave the house, I wouldn't,' and that really resonated with me, because I realized when he said that, what he really wanted more than anything was to feel safe, like he had never felt safe his whole life. He had a disastrous childhood, was very severely abused by both his parents, and not that that exonerates his behavior, but it certainly was some indication of where it might have all started. I also think it indicates why he longed to have a family for himself, once he was older: he knew it was something valuable that he never had."
An audience member who had met the real Kuklinski praised Shannon's portrayal in the Q&A, saying the actor got the murderer's dead-eyed stare just right. "He was an animal," said Shannon, "in the sense that he was always alert, always aware of what was going on around him. And again, I think it's because he was so mercilessly abused as a child; that brings about this state of always wanting to keep tabs on everything. You don't ever want to be caught by surprise again."
Vroman shared how the film's low budget and ever-changing production schedule led to various forms of improvising, from recreating New Jersey in Shreveport, La., to having to recast Chris Evans as rival assassin "Mr. Freezy" after James Franco was forced to drop out of the role. (Franco now plays a smaller part as one of Kuklinski's victims, which Vroman says he "guilt trip"-ped the actor into playing.)
Perhaps the best surprise that came from the production's limited means was Shannon's understated laugh as Kuklinski. "I've heard in other Q&As that people love that laugh," revealed Vroman. "But it's a mistake! Because we didn't really have time to test everything, we had a bad problem with his mustache, the glue didn't work or something. So Mike couldn't laugh the whole shoot, because every time he was laughing, the mustache peeled off. Then he developed a great laugh, his laugh in the movie is like huh-huh-huh."