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Waking from American Dreams

Kiev native Vadim Perelman knows firsthand the realities immigrants can face, a sensibility that helped get him the job directing 'House of Sand and Fog.'

October 19, 2003|Sorina Diaconescu | Special to The Times

On a blustery morning a few days before last Christmas, 39-year-old Ukrainian-born director Vadim Perelman sat down at a cafe on Larchmont Boulevard to talk about his art. But first, he had to talk about his life.

So burning through many cigarettes and cups of coffee, he recalled the turbulent voyage that yanked him at an early age from his hometown of Kiev, dragged him through the gutters of Rome, Italy, Edmonton, Canada and Los Angeles, and finally deposited him at the helm of a major-studio Hollywood picture.

The timing somehow seemed right to reminisce: Perelman had just finished shooting "House of Sand and Fog," the first feature film of his career, based on a script he had adapted from a 1999 bestseller by American writer Andre Dubus III. The cast of the drama includes two Academy Award winners, Sir Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly, as the main protagonists. The DreamWorks film, which opens Dec. 26, elegantly weaves strands of the American DNA -- immigration, individualism, materialism, capitalism -- into a narrative propelled by force of Sophoclean circumstances, which Perelman passionately believes to be "a summation of life at its rawest."

DreamWorks not only financed the project but is already giving it a full-court Oscar press similar to the one given by the studio to 1999's "American Beauty" (though "House of Sand and Fog" is a far bleaker film than the darkly comic "Beauty"), including showing the film early to influential critics and film writers. (Because of the ban this year on Oscar DVD and tape screeners, DreamWorks will be screening the picture for academy members at the Music Hall theater in Beverly Hills from Nov. 14 through Dec. 11.) The early buzz on the project has been strong, with praise for the boldness of its vision and the power of its performances.

All of the above are auspicious circumstances for any filmmaking debut, and last winter, though the film had yet to be patched together in the editing room, the director knew he'd finally wrenched some kind of victory from the jaws of fate.

For Perelman the conclusion of the shoot felt like arriving at a train station after a long journey. It was the culmination of an improbable odyssey that pulled together a novice director with the kind of unsettling source material that generally scares away studios.

And the crazy thing was, all of it seemed to have unfolded for Perelman as if in preparation for this first project: his bittersweet Soviet-era childhood, his tragically romantic adolescence, interrupted by prolonged stints spent hustling on the street; finally, his newfound sense of purpose bestowed by maturity.

Even in the midst of quiet, verdant Hancock Park, where Perelman now lives with his second wife and a 4-year-old son, the drift of his former life was suddenly and palpably present. At times there were tears in his eyes. "I want you to tell my story," he told me.

But in fact he has already done so himself. "House of Sand" is his story as much as it is anybody's.

A NEW LIFE

Born in the Ukrainian city of Kiev, Perelman grew up in an old apartment building where his extended family -- parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles -- shared the bathroom and the kitchen with a dozen neighbors. When he turned 9, Perelman's grandfather had the first of a series of heart attacks. On the eve of his last, fatal one, the ailing man spied his chance and pulled the boy aside. "Let me tell you a secret," he said. "I'm going to die today."

And so he did, his wife following him shortly. The next blow came when Perelman's father died in a horrific car crash. Then the aunts and uncles moved away and the Perelmans fell on truly wretched times. With nothing left to lose -- or so they thought --they escaped from the Soviet Union in search of a better destiny. Embarking on a westbound train with about 40 suitcases in which they had packed their life was "like the Holocaust," Perelman recalled.

It is a feeling that certainly echoes those of Kingsley's character in "House of Sand and Fog." Forced by the 1979 Islamic Revolution to abandon what had been a happy, prosperous life in Iran, Kingsley's Col. Behrani, an esteemed higher-up in the shah's air force, escapes to California where his new immigrant life turns out to be one humbling defeat after another. The proud colonel, who once stood at the side of kings, is now a mender of roads and a gas-station clerk, a man who secretively slaves to protect his beloved family from the embarrassment of poverty.

Until, that is, the chance to reclaim a shard of former good fortune comes along as a piece of real estate; a seized home, auctioned off and bought by the Behranis for a pittance. To them, it is an investment they hope will pay off; to the erstwhile owner, Connelly's troubled Kathy Nicolo, all she has left in the world. So in the book, and in its faithful cinematic adaptation, the single woman and the immigrant family get locked in a ruinous conflict over a house.

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