David Weisberg on creating a clever ‘CRIMINAL’ mind-bender

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Director Ariel Vromen’s CRIMINAL spins a fascinating sci-fi action yarn about memory transference – in this case transferring the memories of a CIA operative’s (Ryan Reynolds) into that of a dangerously unhinged prisoner (Kevin Costner). Screenwriters David Weisberg and Douglas Cook (who unfortunately passed away last year) take audience on a thought-provoking journey with this popcorn pic.

CRIMINAL’s clever concept is based in something of a current reality.

“This came out of Raymond Kurzweil and he wants to live forever. He ultimately wants to download himself in a computer. There’s a whole bunch of work he did on that. We said, ‘What other possible medium do you have?’ The medium becomes a human brain. If you can map the synaptic connection and reproduce… because we’re not doing brain transfer in this movie. We’re saying, ‘There’s a pattern in your brain. Can we mimic that pattern in the frontal lobe in your brain and get a result?’ The Japanese say yes. Ariel [Vromen] did a lot of work with them. A lot of this is, yes, movie bullshit, but all of this is based on what people are actually trying to do. It’s plausible fiction.”

There’s a surprising personal connection to the logistics of how Jerico’s brain was able to be transplanted with someone else’s memories.

“When Doug and I first started talking about this, I pointed out that my father, when he was 18, had gone to Innsbruck and fell down the hill. He suffered frontal lobe injury. He had to drop out of Harvard – his life really came apart – because there’s all kinds of symptomologies that we get to in the movie. Jerico Stewart, from childhood, has a frontal lobe insult. That’s what makes a part of his brain blank. When it happens in children, they have all sorts of pathological symptomology – they don’t understand the difference between right and wrong.”

Kevin Costner gives a refreshingly different performance in the thriller, embodying a character that isn’t a necessarily a good guy.

“The last guy I had in mind was Kevin Costner. You don’t think about Kevin in this kind of role. Immediately we understood this guy is a genius. When you saw his physicality and saw what he was doing and his notes on the script came in, you knew it was going to be amazing. I never would have expected it.”

And when he came aboard, Costner never tried to alter the character to make him appear more likeable.

“That’s what was incredible. It was one of our big fears in writing the movie, because you’re starting with a guy who is so violent. Can you pull off the magic trick that the audience cheers for him at the end? It’s a FRANKENSTEIN movie – that’s what it is. [Frankenstein’s monster] is still killing people, but, as we’re informed, this good man inside of him, he understands what it’s about. I think we go on that journey. Kevin was brilliant about the behavior; the moment in the pharmacy where he can’t get the top off the bottle – that’s Kevin! He finds these incredible moments to remind you that this guy is still that guy who’s been in prison, who just doesn’t know how the world works.”

Weisberg and writing partner Cook had been laboring at this script for eight years before it finally got made.

“The plot, what’s at stake and what’s missing has changed. The movie was always, ‘The Dutchman is missing. One guy knew where he was. And all we had to do was find him.’ Who The Dutchman was and who he represented and what was at stake in the movie has changed again and again and again because certain things become relevant, technology changes. The whole thing about the dark web became relevant. It’s a MacGuffin. All that matters is The Dutchman is missing and we need him.”

Returning to this story was a bit of a labor of love for their material. Weisberg said,

“You’re always pushing a lot of rocks up a hill. It’s when the elements come together – if they ever do and the timing is right.”

CRIMINAL opens on April 15.

Header photo: Jerico Stewart (Kevin Costner, center) and Pete Greensleeves (Scott Adkins, right) in CRIMINAL. Photo Credit: Jack English. Courtesy of Lionsgate.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.