Criminal: An Interview with Director Ariel Vromen

The director of Criminal on Kevin Costner, memory transfers and more.

In Criminal, director Ariel Vromen (The Iceman) has cast Kevin Costner as Jerico, a dangerous, psychopathic death row inmate whose oddly shaped brain makes him the best candidate to transfer the memories of a dead CIA agent who has critical information about a dangerous terrorist. At first smashing his way through everyone and everything like a modern day Frankenstein’s monster, Jerico begins to recover the agent’s memories – but not in the way his handlers had hoped.

Casting Costner against type and filling the movie with Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman, Ryan Reynolds, Gal Gadot and plenty of action and mayhem, the Israeli-born Vromen has delivered his biggest film yet. Den of Geek spoke with him about working with the great Costner, the science behind the story and having an impromptu JFK reunion on his movie.

Den Of Geek: I read that the memory transfer idea was what grabbed you about all this. What was it about that concept?

Ariel Vromen:  Sometimes friends of mine would come to me and say, “Man, I’ve been depressed,” or, “I don’t feel great.” And you’re like, “What?” And they are bringing back very specific memories from the past. I do the same thing when I am thinking of getting into a new relationship. I’m like, “But I have a bad memory of that one,” or maybe I have a fear from…It’s kind of like automatic. We don’t think about it, but we are who we are because of our memories. We understand everything that is being conversed to us because of our memories. It’s a muscle memory.

Ad – content continues below

So that concept, I thought, “That’s very interesting.” We know science is kind of bringing us along already and suggesting deleting bad memories or the transfer of memories. I mean all those things are already being progressed in many years now in the science, obviously on animals, not on humans yet.

But then I thought when I read the script, “How interesting. Here’s a man who doesn’t have that hippocampus like the frontal lobe memory. So he never felt anything. This is actually the opposite of what I know about myself, about my friends, about people I know. Now what happened if he is receiving a memory?” In the script it was like, “Oh, we just want to try and do that program, because hopefully he remembers where is the corner of that street and he remembers a palm tree.” If I am going to ask you about two days ago, where were you at 3PM, it’s going to be hard for you to remember. But if I’m asking you to remember your first kiss, your first time that you remember humiliation from your childhood, whatever it is, those have very great strength and they don’t account for that when they transfer the memories into Jerico. He’s going to get emotional memories, because this is what humans really carry.

Your last few films have been more or less psychological thrillers. This one gets more into the science fiction realm. Is that a genre that you have always had an interest in?

I do. I love science fiction. Some of my favorite movies are science fiction, like Blade Runner or Aliens. But I didn’t even want to treat this as science fiction as much, because if that’s going to happen today, everything that I put on screen on that operation, I swear to god, it’s one-to-one what they are doing on rats in labs. It’s the scanning. Eventually, you are going into the hippocampus and you basically project a scanning pattern.

Now, our brain has like little paint tubes. And each tube has a little emotion. Here’s a dopamine. Here is a serotonin. Here is a testosterone. And those tubes, it’s like a printer. A printer gets a message of how to create an image. So you have all those colors, and eventually each color and each thought knows where to go, and eventually we have an image.

That’s a great analogy.

Ad – content continues below

That’s how our brain works. Because we have an image right now of how we feel. If you feel intimidated by me, there will be an enzyme that will put your guards up and say, “I don’t trust this guy.” So really, that’s how I treated it. So I said, “OK. Let’s imprint those memories and then let’s see how they will bring him to act as Jericho.”

When you come onto a film, is the research part of it fun for you? On this, did you feel like you wanted to read everything you can about these kind of experiments?

I do. In fact, I love it. I went to law school. I hated being a lawyer. It’s annoying. But what I did love about it, every time you got a mission you had to go and research all those cases. (On The Iceman) I had started watching some Scorsese films and The Godfather, maybe a few others, I didn’t know much about the world in the ‘60s and ‘70s in Dumont, New Jersey. But knowing how to research. I learned every brick. I shot the movie in Shreveport. And I had to create Shreveport to look like New Jersey. And I’m from Tel Aviv. I’m like, “What the fuck?”

So even that challenge of finding those bricks, because we had to find buildings that have bricks like New Jersey — those little details eventually, or the behavior of what people like to do, little things, I love it. So when you come into a project like (Criminal) and I’m sitting in a room with scientists from Japan and Germany, and they explain to you for hours about neurological patterns and about all of that, I love it.

I wanted to talk about working with Kevin because this is a very different role for him. He does not play a monster usually. So what were your discussions with him like about the role? Did you have to kind of persuade him to think about it?

It was. It was a process. I think my opening line to Kevin was, “Listen. I love the challenge.” When I came to Michael Shannon to place the Iceman, I knew that Michael has an amazing, giving darkness. So when I am thinking about a movie where the main challenge about this movie is to make him dark, then that is persona, so I know that I have a given in the casting. Now, what is my challenge with Michael Shannon? Make him human. Make him feel. Make him vulnerable. That was a challenge.

Ad – content continues below

So I said, “Now let’s reverse it, Kevin. What’s the challenge for me and you? My challenge with you is to make you monstrous, to make you violent — I want to see a face that don’t give a fuck. When is the last time I saw Kevin Costner not give a fuck, when you were rooting for your baseball team, when you are in a western? No, because those are all Americana. And everybody knows they are safe with you in those roles. How can we take you and break that?” He looked at me and he said, “You think you can do that?” I was like, “That’s what I’m here for.”

You had Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, and Gary Oldman in this movie – the three stars of JFK. Did anyone stop and realize that or say anything about that at all?

There were a lot of jokes going on between them. One thing they kept on saying is that definitely I’m not as, I guess, eccentric — that would be a good word — as Oliver Stone with the way I handled them. But I always choose respect. I give space to the artist’s intention and needs. So I know my vision. I know what I want. But I always make sure that I have enough room to let them bring me their expertise. JFK, by the way, is one of my favorite movies. I love that film. It was really such a great court drama. And it was a great story. And I loved the ending where you don’t know what to believe anymore.

I think Gary is super attracted to political stuff. I think Tommy is interested in the medical world a lot. And that attracted him to even learn a little bit about it. And Costner, man…I know the media was searching for a comeback for Costner for the last three years since Man of Steel or Three Days to Kill, movies that I personally was less connected to. I thought this is actually a movie that can have a great grounding for saying like, “Well, Kevin Costner can definitely be badass and take us somewhere that has maybe more range than a normal Jason Statham film or something.”

Is it interesting to work with someone like him who has all that directorial experience as well?


Ad – content continues below

And do you look to him for insight at any time? Or does he offer it?

All of the above. Sometimes he offers. Sometimes I’m looking. Sometimes it’s naturally come together. I’m engaging creativity. I don’t come to the set and say, “Guys, everybody shut up.” And, by the way, I don’t have the time that certain directors that are making masterpieces might have. Like Kubrick when he made The Shining, he had a year to shoot the film. When Alejandro made The Revenant, he had 9 ½ months to shoot the movie. When you have the leverage of time…I often say it’s not fair for filmmakers, because if you can shoot a movie for 9 ½ months, of course it can be a masterpiece! Because it’s everything you wanted and not one frame less. When you shoot a movie like this for nine weeks exactly, 45 days, you need to do it best with all those energies around you on the day and still somehow manage to get something coherent in tone. That’s the hardest thing in movies — keeping the tone right.

This is the biggest movie you’ve made to date for sure. So not only are you dealing with the usual time and budget…                   

And I did all the second unit myself.

And you’re playing in a bigger sandbox with a bigger scope and all that. So how was that personally for you as a challenge to meet?

It was great but it was very tiring. Because at the end of the day, sometimes I had to work seven days a week. I had to do two shifts because I had to do the second unit. Again, it’s a budgetary thing — how much you can do certain things. It’s a learning process and it’s fun. Can you imagine coming to your job and they’re like, “Oh, here’s your helicopters. Here’s your drones.” You are like, “OK. Great.”

Ad – content continues below

What’s next for you?

There are two projects that I am running in between. One is a narco trafficking submarine movie, sort of in the Sicario world, about trust and showing other sides of the threat that we have right now. All those homemade jungle submarines are floating in the ocean and we really don’t have the budgets to stop them and they can bring anything they want.

The other one is a reimagining of the Don Siegel/Clint Eastwoo movie, Escape from Alcatraz. But now when we have all this new information that the guy actually made it to Brazil, so you know how they escaped, and we have a lot of information about the jail itself, that it was like bringing down a jail that was run by Whitey Bulger within Alcatraz. I thought the script was so amazing and I said, “I’ve got to do it.” So I don’t know which one is going to go first, but those are the two that I’m really dancing with.

Criminal is out in theaters this Friday (April 15).