The Bigger Chill: Michael Shannon stars as notorious contract killer in Ariel Vromen's 'The Iceman'

The Godfather changed gangster movies forever: Out with the organized criminals as unrepentant predators in love with money, power and violence who'd sell anyone (except, occasionally, their mothers) down the river for it, in with the new breed who treated crime like a business, loved their families and were loyal to the friends who proved themselves worthy.

Ariel Vromen's The Iceman (opening May 3), based on the life and crimes of 1970s Mafia hitman Richard Kuklinski, is a throwback with a modern twist: Kuklinski is a natural-born killer, amoral and ambitious, but he's also a devoted family man—maybe not a great one, but committed—who sets his sights on surprisingly modest goals: a nondescript home in New Jersey, parochial-school education for his kids, nice clothes for his wife. You could make him up, but Vromen didn't have to: He stumbled across Kuklinski on TV.

"I saw this really chilling documentary," he recounts. “It was in three parts. The first was from the ’90s and then they went back and re-interviewed him in 2001 and 2003, They were chilling and they were shocking, but I also was also very moved and started trying to figure out why I felt that way. Then I tried to get the book [The Ice Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer, by true-crime writer Philip Carlo], but there were no copies out there. I just became more and more obsessed; I saw there was a story, and apparently many people had seen the same thing but nobody thought it could be a movie."

So far, so serendipitous. And then things got difficult. While Vromen was preparing to start writing a spec script with Morgan Land, his collaborator on an earlier feature, he ran into Michael Shannon, an actor whose work he had admired in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and Revolutionary Road, for which he'd just received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. "His face is fascinating," Vromen says, “and in person he's very humble and very shy. I told him I was to write this script and I thought he would be great in the main role. He was so nice, then said, 'Yeah, but good luck getting a movie made with me. Maybe you should find a good supporting role I could do.'

"Six months later I finished the script and he was still on my mind, so I contacted him and said I still wanted him to be the lead. He said, 'What are you doing to yourself?' I was thinking, how can we convince people to give us the money? Because it's true, nobody was financing a movie with Michael Shannon in the lead and with an unknown director. So I got Michael to agree to shoot one scene: It turned out to be a great test and convinced Millennium Films to put the money in.

"Working with him was an amazing experience, but I was always focused on trying to find the bright side of Michael Shannon. You don't need to do anything to get the dark side: Just put him in front of the camera and he can show you levels of darkness I don't think most people have even in their thoughts. But to get a smile out of him was something else, especially because he has a moustache in the movie."

The production began to come together and attracted actors like Maggie Gyllenhaal for the role of Kuklinski's wife and James Franco as his only friend, fellow hitman Robert Pronge, who worked out of an ice-cream truck. Enter the schedule-busting trifecta: The run of an off-Broadway show in which Shannon had the lead—the critically acclaimed Mistakes Were Made—was extended, plus Shannon's "hectic schedule with ‘Boardwalk Empire’" and Shannon's getting the part of General Zod in the upcoming Man of Steel. The Iceman had to be postponed for the better part of a year.

"This is when I started to lose my cast," Vromen recalls. Franco dropped out because of conflicting commitments (though he was able to fit in a small one-scene part as one of Kuklinski's victims) and Gyllenhaal became pregnant. Vromen filled the time making a documentary about Israeli mentalist Lior Suchard and recasting: A touching Winona Ryder took on Gyllenhaal's part, while an unrecognizable Chris Evans stepped in as the skinny, scruffy Pronge. "I was a little bit stressed in the beginning because I'd never seen him doing a character role. And we had to spend time in makeup to make him ugly. We gave him long hair, made sure his teeth were all yellow, and it worked: People don't recognize him at first and then when they do, their reaction is like 'Oh my God, that's Chris Evans.' He did a great job."

And then there was the location issue. "We had a very limited budget to recreate 1970s New York and New Jersey, and because of some of the restrictions of the studio we only had seven cities to choose from, and New York wasn't one. I had to shoot this movie in Shreveport, Louisiana.

“On the other hand, Shreveport didn't really change much since the late ’70s. My DP and I went with a still camera and shot all those references in New York and New Jersey, then we tried to find streets in Shreveport that had the same feel. Then in post-production we used a compositing effect to extend those streets using still pictures." Remarkably, that worked as well as dirtying up Chris Evans did: The Iceman actually looks as though it was shot around the same time as Taxi Driver.

Vromen is currently in pre-production on his next feature, Narco, again written with Land. "I just got back from scouting locations in Colombia, and it's about narco trafficking, obviously. But it's about narco trafficking using submarines, which is fascinating. We spent a lot of time with the Colombian Navy, and the special drug intelligence [agents] in Bogotá—what's amazing is that, as we speak, this is becoming the biggest threat to homeland security. And there is not much that can be done unless a massive amount of money and intelligence and a whole new division of the Navy and Coast Guard are diverted into this arena.

"But at this point the United States, Colombia and Mexico are losing this U-boat war—they started with semi-submerged submarines and then moved into smuggling the drugs in full-on submarines. And a lot of the financing for this war is coming from Venezuela, Iran, and many other countries that can use the submarines for different reasons, like arms trafficking. Once I started the research, I was like 'Okay, we've got to tell the story.' And, of course, I found great characters in that world. So, yeah, that's my next film."
Once again, you could make it up...