Who has the power to bring together the forces of “Batman v Superman,” “Batman Begins,” “Man of Steel,” “Batman Forever” and “Deadpool”? Israeli director Ariel Vromen, who united the stars of some of the biggest superhero films for the explosive crime-thriller “Criminal.”
Kevin Costner plays against type as the notorious Jericho Stewart, a brain-damaged convict locked up for crimes he committed without any sense of empathy for his victims. But the merciless Jericho’s unique frontal lobe makes him the perfect blank slate for an experimental procedure to implant the memories of a recently slain CIA agent (Ryan Reynolds). With Jericho’s brain a war zone, his handler (Gary Oldman), his doctor (Tommy Lee Jones) and the widow of the guy in his head (Gal Gadot) fight to influence this bad man to go good.
SPINOFF spoke with Vromen about “Criminal’s” ’90s movie influences, assembling the stellar cast, and how this thriller compares to the record-breaking “Deadpool.” Plus, this passionate filmmaker pondered what his take on a superhero movie might look like.
SPINOFF: Part of the thrill of watching “Criminal” is Costner’s performance. Tell me how he came to the project.
Ariel Vromen: I suggested Kevin. He read the script. There was some reluctance because he wasn’t sure he could do that violent and non-compelling a character. That was a challenge. I had to convince him that he would be perfect for that.
What made you think of him for this part? Because it’s a much darker character than he’s known for playing.
I know! Everybody in the world of media wants to see something that makes them feel comfortable and safe, something they know or have heard about before. But I think there’s a magic when you take things and you bring them a little bit to the foul line. And hopefully through that you’re heading toward more originality in the storytelling. It did make it a little more challenging.
I had a big, big, big thing with that in “The Iceman” when I cast David Schwimmer to be in a mafia film. But then I’m so proud of him, because he plays one of my favorite characters in “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” Robert Karsdashian.
You were ahead of the curve! I had that experience watching, “The Iceman,” where I’m like, “Is that–?”
It’s Ross from “Friends”!
Exactly, but he’s murdering people! So is that something that drives you in casting, thinking, “Who would other people say is wrong for this part?”
I wouldn’t take it that far. But it’s a challenging process when you can say, “I’ve seen this guy doing so many times that.” Now I do need some of that in this character. … Like, what is the peak moment of what the character needs to feel? So can I get this actor to make sure I’m going to have an emotional connection in that moment, and in other parts. And it’s like, “Of course.” You know if your peak moment of the character is achievable, because he has it in him. Now the question is how do you craft him in an originality package to achieve that moment? I think that was the process with Kevin.
It sounds like reverse-engineering casting.
Exactly. Reverse-engineering, like with Michael Shannon (in “The Iceman”). Michael Shannon is super-dark. How can you make him actually be likeable?
There you go! I like what you’re saying: ahead of the curve!
Watching “Criminal,” I was reminded of the action-crime movies from the ’90s. And then I discovered “Criminal” was written by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg, who wrote “Double Jeopardy” and “The Rock.”
My cousin, David Weisberg!
Oh! Well, was it your intention to make “Criminal” feel atmospherically like those movies? Or is that something that was more a natural marriage with your style?
It’s not a marriage as much as the material in the script. It’s got that feeling, the high concept. What I tried to put into it was more depth and emotion, and ask questions about memories without being too complicated about it. What do memories make us as human beings? … Like, here’s a guy that didn’t have an emotional memory because his frontal lobe was basically deleted. It would be an interesting journey for a character like that to come back, and discover everything.
So if you have a core good story or character point, whether it’s ’90s or not ’90s, or 2016, you obviously get the feeling of the ’90s because a lot of things were shot in-camera with practical effects. Right now we suffocate in movies that are all visual effects. The reality is not even existent, from “Jungle Book” to “Batman v Superman” to almost any movie that is even a little bit in the genre space. It’s all visual effects. Even the actors don’t react to real event or a real explosion, because it’s all fake.
“Criminal” has some intense action scenes that have a profound impact because they look real and characters don’t become slick, rubbery human-like bodies all of a sudden.
Well, because they are real. [Laughs] It’s hard for the eye of the audience to know when it’s being tricked or not. But in a movie like that, with restricting budgets and time, you don’t have the luxury of shooting on green screen all the time, and saying, “Don’t worry, we’re just going to create everything in post.”
In both “The Iceman” and “Criminal,” you push the concept of anti-hero to an extreme, giving us protagonists who are willfully hard to empathize with. Why do you think that particularly storytelling challenge interests you so?
It’s funny, because in real life I’m really not that dark. I want to think that I’m a nice guy, but I do have a compassion for people that society will label in one light or another.
I think we as people have some sort of entitlement, narcissistic feel that we are the best, that we are above everything, and what we feel and what we’ve decided is right or wrong, both for the character you’re watching or reading about and the people we are surrounding ourselves with. And so when you have an anti-hero, I’m basically saying to you, “Well, look, here’s a different human imperfection of someone you probably wouldn’t even look toward. Or in fact! You’re going to run away from.”
This is because of everything in your memories, right? Because they told you this kind of guy is dangerous. You remember something you read or saw about these kind of people, so immediately you’re persona is shutting down from being open to a person like that.
So I say, what if I can force-feed you? What if I can make you be in a box and follow someone like that? If I can make you feel anything for somebody like that, then you just proved yourself that misconception, prejudgment of things are just the effect of our memories, the effect of what we believe is true. And it’s not necessarily the right story all the time. We are who we are.
So you’re saying your attractions to antiheroes comes from a deeply rooted sense of empathy?
Yeah. It’s like our misconception the way we treat animals. We treat animals like they don’t have emotion so that we can kill them and eat them all day long.
Are you a vegetarian?
I just turned vegan! But seriously, but if you really put it out there: The fact that we are eating our world, wasting our water. We cannot take showers, we cannot water our grass to have a nice yard. So, when you’re thinking about it, all that stuff, “He’s a good guy, he’s a good guy” — OK, let’s follow him. He’s going to be a hero and save our day. But what if we present somebody who is not a good guy? Can we still have empathy for him? Can we still have a connection? Or an empathy to see his journey and want him to succeed, want him to be better, want him to be more like us? It’s a reverse-psychology I like to play with.
There’s a moment where Costner looks into the mirror and sees himself as Ryan Reynolds. Was that a “Quantum Leap” reference?
For me it was more an homage to “Face Off.”
That makes sense. Is it true Nic Cage was considered for the role of Jericho?
Um, I don’t think so. I love Nic Cage. Maybe before I came on board.
Your cast is filled with icons of modern superhero movies like Ryan Reynolds, Gal Gadot, Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman and Kevin Costner. Is that a genre that you’d like to get into?
Why not, if there’s a good story in it? If I could reinvent some powerful story like Nolan did with Batman, I’d be happy to jump on board with something. I think in today’s world of comic book movies, every great actor in Hollywood is doing it. So, you try to get their availability between “Avengers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5” and “Suicide Squad 6, 7 and 8,” and “Captain America 4, 5 and 6.” Imagine that! Every great actor is signing onto superhero movies. So if I’m trying to gather all those guys to try to do one movie. Funny enough, they’re all coming from comic book movies. Even Michael Shannon!
I don’t think there are many great actors left who aren’t in comic book hero movies. It can be funny. I didn’t know when I cast Gal Gadot that she was going to be Wonder Woman, and it was a lot of fun that it happened. That is wonderful! But at the same time, what is a superhero?
I think Jericho in a way is a superhero. He’s a superhero who eventually needs to save us. And does it matter that he’s like Ryan Reynolds in “Deadpool”? That he’s cursing and he’s vulgar and he’s crazy? As long as the mission at the end is in the name of love and bad guys lose and good guys win, that’s the statement for every comic book movie.
In a dream scenario where you could make your own superhero movie, what would that look like?
I always believe in those grounding approaches when people have to make those mega movies. Again, I’m bringing Chris Nolan up, because I think what he did with “Batman Begins” was he brought a real epic filmmaking style into a very, very, very plastic-y, abused genre. He pushed the envelope of how his bad guys behaved and how he portrayed everything. It’s amazing if you could come to the set and have 300 extras screaming. You’d feel like David Lean [director of “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Bridge Over the River Kwai”] for a minute, making a giant movie. But at the same time, I would try to keep as much practical as I can. But obviously, use the world of CG in a way that–I don’t think people are getting excited anymore for crazy camera moments and explosions. I think people are just looking for a true connection to the characters. And the suspense and the action will come from that, instead of the opposite.
Is there any bit of trivia about the making of “Criminal” you’d like the world to know?
Where’s Deadpool and Wonder Woman being chased by Superman’s dad and Commissioner Gordon and Two-Face? [Laughs] But, yes, I’ll give you one: “Criminal” was originally written for a woman. Jericho was a female criminal that got the mind of a man. Maybe the next one we’ll plant a nurse mind into the leader of ISIS.
Why did Jericho become a male?
Because at the time they tried to cast the film — I think two years ago or four years ago when they tried to sell it to a studio — it was really tough to find one woman like that would be able to lead a movie like that, and find the seed money. You know, the story of Hollywood.
So switching it to a guy lead, the film was able to get funding?
I was not involved at that point, but yes. That was some of the development reasons for it. So, there’s your trivia.
“Criminal” opens Friday.
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