The Israeli Director Who Took Cannes by Storm

With his crime drama 'Iceman' winning critical acclaim, Ariel Vroman is set to become one of a handful of Israelis who fulfilled their dream of breaking into the American film industry.

Even after six straight years of work on his most recent project, Israeli director Ariel Vromen is not letting himself become addicted to the compliments his Hollywood film “The Iceman” is receiving. Among the many interviews he gave to the various media outlets at the Cannes Film Festival this week, Vromen announced that he is slated to direct two new American suspense thrillers soon.

Vromen joins a small group of expatriate Israeli film directors, including Oren Moverman, Noam Murro, Oren Peli and Yaron Silberman, who fulfilled their dream of breaking into the American film industry.

Vromen says that following the success of “The Iceman,” he received quite a few offers from Hollywood studios, but turned all of them down. “It’s very important for me to focus on making the right choice,” he said. “The more offers I get, the more afraid of making the wrong choice I become. While directing films for the studios is a lot of money, the last time I gave in to temptation and went for the money, I ended up getting slapped. Since then, I’ve tried to be as faithful as possible to what my gut tells me.”

Vromen ‏(who recently changed the spelling of his name to reflect its American pronunciation‏) has already directed three features, but it was “The Iceman,” which was screened at the Venice Film Festival last August, that thrust him to the forefront of the American indie film industry.

The project began in 2005 when Vromen watched an HBO documentary about Richard Kuklinski, a contract killer who worked for the Mafia from the 1960s to the 1980s. A cruel, cold-blooded man, he provided his services to the Gambino crime family in New York, and is believed to have murdered more than 125 people. He earned the nickname “The Iceman” from a method he developed to evade detection: freezing the corpses of his victims. Even as he worked as a hit man, he was a devoted family man who loved his wife and children and kept his work secret from them.

“I remember that the part in the documentary that really grabbed me was Kuklinski’s confession. He was already in jail, living in solitary confinement with his emotions. Suddenly he realized that the only thing he’d wanted, he never got, and that he’d hurt the only thing he really loved − his family,” says Vromen. “I was amazed to see how cold-bloodedly he talked about the people he murdered and the way he killed them. For me, it was like hearing an IDF soldier recall an operation where he was sent to kill several people in Gaza and describes, with equanimity, how he killed them.”

Like Madoff

During the preparations for the film, the enormous fraud perpetrated by Bernard Madoff came to light. Vromen saw a parallel between Madoff and Kuklinski. “The fraud was similar. Madoff, too, was a kind of sociopath who provided for his family while killing the dreams of all his friends and many other people. I found the split fascinating.”

Together with his screenwriting partner, Morgan Land, Vromen began to do comprehensive research on Kuklinski. When he started to think about which actor would be right to play him in the film, Vromen was very clear about whom he wanted: Michael Shannon ‏(“Boardwalk Empire,” “Revolutionary Road”‏). “But then everybody told me: ‘It’s nice you want him, but you won’t be able to get any funding; Michael Shannon alone doesn’t get funding for a film.’ If you want to fund an independent film in America, you need to get Bradley Cooper, Ryan Gosling or Tom Cruise. Even with Sean Penn they’ll tell you, ‘Forget about it − get Gary Oldman.’ The acting world has become a cutthroat stock market. Today somebody’s hot, and tomorrow they’re history.”

Vromen and the Israeli producer Ehud Bleiberg, who joined the project, realized that they would have to enlist other famous actors in order to convince potential investors to cough up. And their efforts were fruitful: James Franco, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Benicio del Toro were enthusiastic about the film, and agreed to join the adventure. But this promising team fell apart after it turned out that Shannon wouldn’t have time to shoot for another year. This didn’t fit in with the other actors’ schedules, so Vromen had to start the casting process all over again. Gyllenhaal was replaced by Winona Ryder, Franco ‏(who eventually appeared in the film in a smaller part‏) made room for Chris Evans, and del Toro was replaced by Ray Liotta.

After all that, Vromen didn’t imagine that most of the hardships still lay ahead. But it quickly became apparent that although he already owned the screen rights to a biography about Kuklinski, another biography had also been written about the hit man − and Paramount Pictures had already earmarked it and intended to produce a similar film. Luckily for Vromen, the Paramount project fell through. But that wasn’t the end of his troubles: only one day after he had finally managed to persuade the Israeli producer Avi Lerner to invest money in his movie, the headlines of the Hollywood entertainment industry press declared that “Mickey Rourke is the Iceman.”

“Mickey Rourke decided that he wanted to make this movie, with a producer who had received full funding for the movie from the son of former Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi,” Vromen recalls. “I will never forget that morning, and those headlines. So I prayed a lot, and luckily there was a revolution in Libya two months later, and [U.S. President Barack] Obama froze all of the Gadhafi families’ assets in the U.S.”

Early days in Tel Aviv

Vromen was born in Israel in 1979, to a father who owned a venture capital fund and a mother who was a fundraiser for Tel Aviv University. He grew up in Tel Aviv, and as a youth started making short films using an 8mm camera with a group of friends. Upon his release from the army, Vromen headed to England to study law. But a wild rave in Amsterdam inspired him to take up music, so while he continued his legal studies he was also traveling the world as an in-demand trance music DJ.

He moved to New York to study cinema when he was 28. At first he considered being an editor, but a short film he made in 2001 starring the then little-known actor Gerald Butler was well received and screened at many festivals, giving him a thirst for the director’s chair. Things took a pleasing turn when an assistant who had asked to join him during the shooting of the movie, saying he wanted to learn the tricks of the trade, surprised him at the end of the shoot by whipping out a check for $900,000 and handing it over.

“His father was very rich, and he just said to me, ‘Here is the funding for your first feature film,’” recalls Vromen. “This check allowed me to shoot the thriller ‘Rx’ in 2005. Immediately afterwards I got an offer to shoot another film, ‘Danika,’ starring Marisa Tomei.”

An Israeli gang

Vromen started to write the screenplay for “The Iceman,” and then immediately wrote five more screenplays, including the two thrillers that he mentioned in Cannes. One, called “Snowdrops,” is based on the story of Booker Prize nominee A.D. Miller. The second, “Narco,” is about drug smuggling using submarines that are built in the depths of the Columbian jungle. Although Vromen makes movies in America, he loves working with Israelis. Apart from the two Israeli producers who worked on “The Iceman,” there is also an Israeli editor ‏(Danny Rafic‏), director of photography and cameraman ‏(David Stragmeister‏), and musician ‏(Haim Mazar‏).

“It provides you with a different, very direct, energy at work,” Vromen says. “You don’t always need to tiptoe around Israelis.” He is interested in Israeli cinema and ensures he watches Israeli movies − and he likes what he sees.

“Thanks to what’s been happening in local cinema over the last few years, the name ‘Israel’ has become a byword for cool in Hollywood. They don’t look at you in amazement and ask ‘what’s that? Where are you from?’ After all, every year we’re nominated for an Oscar, and American television has started to base itself on Israeli formats,” he says.

Koby Kalmanovitz