IONCINEMA.com’s Watch What they Write is a unique monthly feature where we interview the writer – or more specifically, the voice behind the original source material. The novelist often creates a world that borrows from the cinematic and vice-versa – it’s not a coincidence that a heavy amount of projects that make it onto the silver screen are based on/adapted from literature. With this feature we hope to bridge the distance between author and his/her original material with what may one day make itself onto the screen. This month we feature: Anthony Bruno and his 1993 nonfiction book, The Iceman.
Richard Kuklinski, son of a brutal, alcoholic father who came home only infrequently and a mother who vented her resentment on her children, grew up to be an efficient mass murderer. Having killed in upwards of a hundred people, in various ways which made him untouchable by the police force. Weapons, knifes, lamp cord, and one unconventional manner from which he got his name, The Iceman. Finally, in 1988, Kuklinski, a family man with three children, was brought to justice through the efforts of Special Agent Dominick Polifrone of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, working with the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office and the New Jersey State Police. Anthony Bruno, an American prolific crime novelist (the Bad books, the Loretta Kovacks ones with espresso and fudge names, amongst others), recreates Richard Kuklinsi’s life, with the investigation in parallel. The book The Iceman has been optioned by director-producer Ariel Vromen, with the producing and financing team Millenium/Nu Image and Bleiberg Entertainment. Here’s my interview with Bruno – we discuss his encounter with Kuklinski, the book, and the film version that should start lensing in the fall this year.
Caroline Nataf: Why did you decide to write about Richard Kuklinski, a cold blood killer, according to the book’s title?
Anthony Bruno: Jim Thebaut did a documentary for HBO on the subject (The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer) and he was looking for a writer to do a book on the same subject, his agent got in touch with my agent and that’s why it happened. So, we worked at the same time, independently, he did his thing and I did mine.
Nataf: For that purpose, you went to prison to visit Kuklinski, tell me about this experience.
Bruno: I interviewed every person who would possibly talk to me, the cops, the prosecutor, the defence attorney, Kuklinski’s wife. Kuklinski himself did not want to talk to me. He was writing letters, a lot of letters, he was sending me newspapers articles, but they were very mysterious because they didn’t explain eveything.
When I finished the first draft of the book, he told me “I’ll see you now”, I had to go back and got more material from him.
Nataf: What was his reaction?
Bruno: He was very cautious, suspicious. I put a tape recorder on the table. After 2 hours I said “we’re not getting anywhere, I think I should go”. I started to pack and unplug my taperecorder. As soon as it was in my briefcase, he started to talk, I was taking notes. I think he liked the fact he could control me. The more he talked the more I scribbled. It was very productive after that. 2 hours, 3 hours maybe.
Nataf: Did you see Richard Kuklinski again afterwards?
Bruno: I saw him only once, we corresponded by letters. I have maybe 40, 50 letters he sent me. And he gave me better information in the letters than he gave me in person. He was playing games. When I was in prison to see him, I was put in the attorney’s room. So it was me and him with no barriers between us and we were locked in. And when I went, I had to sign papers with the prison saying that if he took me captive, they would do nothing to help, because I wanted to be there, there was no official business there. And he knew that. There was a very tiny window in the door, and when he entered, he immediately took the seat with the back to the door, and I was facing the door and he was watching my eyes to see if I was watching the guard behind the door. It’s a kind of game, to see who is the master…
Nataf: Were you fearful being in that room?
Bruno: It’s funny because I went back and forth. I was fearful but I was prepared for the interview. It’s very unnerving to go to a prison because no door opens before the door behind is closed. You’re going through several chambers – open/close, open/close, etc. And when he entered – and he’s a very big man –, he shook my hand and told me a joke. And it was a funny joke, I can’t remember what it was, but it was funny! And I said to myself “I’m holding the hand of a man who might have killed more than hundreds of people”. And that was very frightening… You could see how he fooled people, and lured them to situation where he would kill them, rob them. He was very personable, almost a nice guy you might say! But there were two times in the interview, first when the policeman said to me “watch out for the shark look, you’ll know it when you see it”. He has sent me newspapers articles and underlined certain things, but it would never explain them. So I took the magazine and asked for the circled words “chinese restaurant”, “room 46”, etc. And his face froze and his eyes rolled back in his head like a shark, so you’ll see only a white zone for a few seconds and it was very scary! Maybe 3 hours later in the same interview, I asked about one of his daughters, and he did it again. Immediately I dropped the subject. It’s almost supernatural how he could do that, he was not doing it on purpose, it was just his anger.
Nataf: In a way, it corresponds to the description you have here in the book, a hitman who is killing for money.
Bruno: Yes, he was only interested in money. He had two categories of victims: the ones he got paid for, for the mafia, and the scams where he got people involved in deals, to take their money and kill them. But he never killed because of anger. There is one counterexample: when he was a younger man, he has an argument with somebody over a pool game, and he killed that guy. It reminds me when I was sitting with his wife, and she was telling me the evil temper he had, and she pointed at her nose, and she goes to the next room and went back with the photo album, and she’s showing me several pictures of herself and she’s pointing again at her nose saying “you see that nose, it’s not the nose I was born with”. He broke it two times.
Nataf: How do you explain that people say that Richard Kuklinski was a “loving husband”?
Bruno: Theres was a very strange relationship. He was obsessed with his wife, obsessively in love with her. And this obsession came out with violence sometimes. He wanted things a certain way, he wanted her to be a certain way as well. When she disappointed him or when she angered him, he would beat her. Now, if she disappoints him, he can’t speak to her for 6 weeks, and he won’t see her even she’s coming to visit him. When people asked her “why don’t you just leave him?”, she was answering that she was too afraid he might do something to the children (for the record: he never beat them).
Nataf: When you contacted Kuklinski’s wife, was she reluctant to speak to you?
Bruno: Jim Thebaut already contacted her for the documentary, he introduced me to her, so she was ok with it. Still a little nervous, a little suspicious, but she was willing to talk to me. I talked to her a lot over the phone.
Nataf: Going back to the book, at the beginning, you display the humiliation of being poor as the main reason to Kuklinsi’s behaviour…
Bruno: Oh yes, absolutely. He was very poor and had very low self esteem, his father beat him, his mother beat him. When he told me this event with the bully (Johnny) who was beating him, after he killed him, the day after, he was very nervous, cops were going to arrest him, to put him in jail, and so for everyday that the police didn’t show up at his door made him feel more powerful. And he said “maybe I know now how to solve my problems…” Very clear step in his development, the killing, very decisive. And he continued… He did that at age thirteen, fourteen, and then again at nineteen. But he didn’t tell me a lot of things about his early life, and that’s because in the State of New Jersey, they abolished death penalty in 1976 [Richard Kuklinski is born in 1935], so he was afraid that if he told me murders before this certain date, that he would be locked for execution, because he had never been tried for these murders. So he was only telling me the ones for which he knows he won’t get the death penalty, the first one and the one at the pool bar. After these, he didn’t tell me anything else until murders were happening after 1976.
Nataf: So tell us a bit about the two mentors of Kuklinski, the two guys who brought him into the crime, Roy DeMeo and Mr Softee.
Bruno: He was disorganized as a killer. After he met DeMeo, he became organized. Softee taught the better ways to kill, but DeMeo gave him the contracts, the opportunities [he killed Softee because he knew too much about him and could expose him]. And he told me that at the top of his career as a hitman, he was earning $65 000 per murder… It was in the eighties. But it was very clever, his motto was “never make a pattern”. So he might kill four people in one week or two weeks, and then not kill again for one year, two years. In fact, the police didn’t know anything about him. He had only one arrest for a very minor offense, and then, they were facing a multiple murderer with no criminal record! He was very cautious, no close friends, just business associates. As soon as a guy was knowing too much about him, he was probably going to die. His only close friend was De Prima, he trusted him, but he told me it was a big mistake, he should not have somebody that close to him. A very interesting fact: when they searched his house after the arrest, they found a one way ticket to Switzerland. He might have escaped, gone away.
Nataf: Why did Kuklinski choose to become a hitman?
Bruno: In his mind, money was power, respect, wealth…..money was everything. He didn’t think about other reasons for which people could like you. His children would respect him because he was able to afford them certain things, cars, clothes. Same thing with his wife. His self-esteem was completely linked with the money. So if he wasn’t bringing any cash, he felt terrible, unworthy. That was his motivation. And he has the skills to kill, so he kills to make money… It was really a job. He was not a serial killer. There was no any psycho-sexual component to kill. He didn’t have to kill. He could wait years before killing again. According to his wife, they had up and down periods, sometimes he was buying her designers clothes, and weeks after, they had to ask their neighbours some cans of food – and he had to resume the cycle of killings.
Nataf: Tell us about the undercover policeman, Dominick Polifrone, who got him arrested…
Bruno: I spoke to him a lot, he’s still a friend. I think he’s the bravest man I ever met. In some aspects, and ironically, they are very similar. Very determined men, very clear about what their goals are and how to achieve them. They could have met at the shopping center, their sons were playing at the same football league and it could have been terrible if they happened to run to each other. Dominick never said he had a family, where he lived, etc. It was a very dangerous situation. When he went home at night, he wasn’t that safe.
Nataf: How come Kuklinski never found out that Dominick was undercover cop?
Bruno: He was relying on De Prima, that was sufficient for him, but he said he should never have trusted him. But at that time, DeMeo is dead, so he doesn’t have anybody he trusts in the mafia to ask about Dominick. Of course, he had planned to kill Dominick the same week to rob him. He had the warehouse to do it.
Nataf: How did you structure the book?
Bruno: One of the first things I did when I started to compile my research, was to make a time line, with all the events that happened. Kuklinski’s entire life combined with the investigation. And so I was able to go back and forth, how Kuklinsi’s life was progressing and how the investigation was progressing at the same time.
Nataf: Which style were you looking for?
Bruno: I wanted the style to be realistic, vivid. At that time, I didn’t write any non fiction book, only fiction. It was a compelling subject. It was very different, there are real people involved, and they would call me up and say “how did you portray me in the book?!”. It took longer to write, but it was very rewarding.
Nataf: How did the deal book option come together?
Bruno: The director-producer Ariel Vromen called me one day, it was maybe four years ago, he said “I can’t believe there is another book on The Iceman” because there was another book, more recent, under option. Ariel was very determined, it took many years, many drafts we’re gone through, and actually we are on the threshold of filming it, in September 2011… I’m an executive producer, and my function is to coordinate the script, to make sure it’s factually accurate, offering Kuklinski’s voice, because Ariel did not meet The Iceman.
Nataf: Which aspects do you want to keep into the movie adaptation?
Bruno: I realized that a book and a movie are two different art forms. You have to make certain changes to a book to make a good movie. I have no problem on that. One thing I insisted on is how his violent childhood, the violences he experienced from his father led him to his actual violence in the world. We don’t want him to be a hero, we don’t want him to be an action figure, like an Iron Man or Spiderman type… We just want to say that when so much violence is held by a child, it’s a cycle, it continues. So there are echoes in the script on this relationship with his father ; it will be revealed progressively. Once adult, he tried to keep as little contact possible with his father: his children never met him, and his wife maybe once or twice.
Nataf: Are you involved in the casting process?
Bruno: I think we have a pretty good cast. Michael Shannon will play Kuklinski, I really like him, he played in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, he was nominated for an Academy Award. I think it will do a lot for his career. Benicio Del Toro, excellent, to play DeMeo. And James Franco to play Mr. Softee. I never met Mr. Softee, of course he was dead, we don’t know much about him, he was very elusive, but I think Franco will be perfect. Actor Elias Koteas will play Dominick, but the movie will be more focused on Kuklinski and his criminal life than the investigation, which will come later. The movie is really structured as a thriller.
Nataf: What are your movie habits?
Bruno: Yes, I really like seeing movies, but I don’t have any in mind… Movies influence my work. Many writers will deny it, but I do have movies in mind. When I wrote Bad Apple, I was thinking about two movies. But for The Iceman, I didn’t have any movies in mind, because I was dealing with real facts, so it’s completely different. It it were fiction and I was sure that nobody would sue me, I would have created a love affair between Dominick Prolifrone and Barbara Kuklinski! That would be a movie situation, but they never met so…
Nataf: Do you prefer writing novels or scripts?
Bruno: You have the freedom when you’re writing a novel, you can do anything. When it’s non fiction, you have to stick with the facts. I enjoy writing them both. Scripts are shorter, you have 6 weeks of work and you get feedback. For a book, it is a very long progress, you need one year and get feedback afterwards.
Nataf: Tell us a bit about your experience on the novelization of David Fincher’s Se7en…
Bruno: It was interesting. I wrote the book at the same time they were filming. So it was based on the script, only. They would never show me rushes, pictures. Just the script to go on. I knew who Brad Pitt was as well as Morgan Freeman, but none of the other actors. In the script, it didn’t describe the weather, in the film, it was raining everyday. It was really putting the meat back on the bones of the chicken! I would do it again if I get the opportunity.
Nataf: What are your upcoming projects?
Bruno: I’m working on the sequel of Bleeders, the novel I wrote about a FBI profiler…
The Iceman, The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer has been published in 1998, in paperback in 2008 by Backinprint.com. Make sure to visit Anthony Bruno’s official website.