The cameras are rolling on the film version of my book, THE ICEMAN, and everyone is asking me how I feel about it. “Are the filmmakers being faithful to the book?” they all ask. This reminds me of a story I once heard about Ernest Hemingway and his attitude toward Hollywood. A young East Coast novelist who was being courted by a film producer asked for Papa’s advice. Hemingway supposedly told the newbie to drive up to the Nevada-California state line, heave his manuscript over the border, have the producer heave a bag of money back, then get in the car, drive East, and start working on a new book. Hemingway then amended his statement, counseling the writer to get the money first before relinquishing the book. Such is the level of distrust that existed and still exists between the literary and film worlds, which came to a shrill crescendo a few years back when Anne Rice raised holy hell after Tom Cruise was cast in the film version of her Interview with a Vampire. Tom was not how she envisioned her character.
I don’t feel that way. In fact, I feel just the opposite. I love Hollywood. So what if the film version isn’t exactly like the book? If films slavishly followed the books they were based on, they would probably be crappy movies. Books and movies are two different animals. Yes, they both tell stories, but the way they do it is completely different. Changes have to be made to the original material for a variety of reasons, and I’m cool with that.
For me there’s nothing better than walking onto a movie set and seeing my book come to life. Writing is a solitary endeavor. I work alone in my office every day. Just me and the blank page on the laptop screen. As my old friend, painter Pete Rogers, says of the creative life, “Every day you gotta pull it out of your butt.” And that pulling takes place without co-workers, consultants, supervisors, or hand-holders. That’s why my trip to THE ICEMAN movie set in Shreveport, Louisiana, last week was such a treat. The characters that ran around in my head for two years while I wrote the book are now living, breathing people with actors playing them. And it’s not just the actors that excite me. It’s the director, the cinematographer, the producers, and the numerous technical and set specialists. It’s the hair and makeup people, the wardrobe mistress, the prop master, the still photographer, and the extras. It’s the people who serve the meals and bring the snacks. Dozens and dozens of people have come together to make a movie based on a story that started in my little head. Astounding!
THE ICEMAN is my second book to be adapted for the screen. (The first was the 2004 TV movie, BAD APPLE, based on my novel of the same name.) The thrill is just as big this time around. The only difference is that THE ICEMAN is non-fiction, which means I met and interviewed most of the real people being portrayed in the film. In fact, I was the only person on the set who actually met the real Iceman–mass murderer, lethal scam artist and family man, Richard Kuklinski.
Michael Shannon has the title role, and while he doesn’t physically duplicate Kuklinski’s hulking demeanor, he captures all the terrifying intensity of the man. Watching Shannon took me back to the unforgettable day in 1992when I interviewed the Iceman in prison, just the two of us locked in a room with no barriers between us and no guards in sight. We talked for five straight hours without a break. He described murders in great detail but always with a mundane, often condescending attitude. The people he killed deserved to die, he said, for getting involved with him. He also told me jokes and lied to me, taking credit for high-profile murders he couldn’t have possibly committed. All told, it was a private glimpse into a killer’s dark soul. Believe me, Shannon’s performance will give audiences a good idea of what the real Iceman was like and, more importantly, what made him tick.
Winona Ryder plays the Iceman’s wife. From the scenes I saw, Ryder nails the everyday torments of a woman married to a man struggling to survive in two worlds–on the street where he was valued for his ice-cold killing skills and at home where he fought his worst instincts in order to be a picture-perfect husband and father.
Kuklinski’s cohort in killing, “Mr. Freezie” (Mr. Softee in the book) is played by Chris Evans. If you know Evans from his star turn as “Captain America” this past summer, this performance will be a shocker. He’s anything but a clean-shaven, all-American boy here and totally believable as a wildman who experimented with exotic forms of murder, including Kuklinski’s signature method, cyanide poisoning.
The real Iceman did contract killings for Gambino Family soldier, Roy DeMeo, who’s played by Ray Liotta. Don’t let the baby blues and the charming smile fool you. Liotta seethes with the same manic-depressive menace that made DeMeo the most feared wiseguy of his time.
One of DeMeo’s greaseball underlings is played by David Schwimmer. Fans of Friends might not recognize their beloved “Ross”–Schwimmer is that convincing.
James Franco, who was originally going to play “Mr. Freezie,” appears in a cameo that will delight and horrify his hardcore fans.
And keep an eye out for Jay Gianonne as real-life undercover ATF agent Dominick Polifrone. The young actor does a great job playing the tough-as-nails lawman who eventually got the goods on the Iceman.
It’s been 19 years since the book was first published and four years since I was approached by director/producer Ariel Vromen to make a screen version. Pardon the cliche, but it has indeed been a long journey. But from my point of view, well worth it. Unlike many writers who pout or raise a ruckus when Hollywood “ruins” their work, I welcome the transformation. The end product might not exactly be my vision, but that’s OK. The filmmakers are capturing the spirit of the book in an entertaining way, and that’s what’s important.
I want to thank everyone on the set who made this authorfeel welcome, particularly Ariel and producer Ehud Bleiberg without whom this film would never have happened. And a special shoutout to my handler on the set, Jon Vender, who took me behind the scenes and treated me right.