Judged by its $15-million budget, "House of Sand" is a small movie. Judged by its themes, it is ambitious, epic -- the kind of sweeping social realism rarely seen in Hollywood movies. "The issues are not cerebral, indie-style issues, they are visceral. It's a big movie masquerading as an indie movie," said one of the producers of the film, Michael London, a former L.A. Times film writer.
The film's background details -- the sadness of neon-lit suburbia, the majesty of nature are exactingly Californian. But the arias of disillusionment, hope, bitterness and despair in the narrative are spelled out in a distinctly Slavic syntax. Perelman's touch is unsentimental but has its own built-in allure. His shots of Northern California nature -- pine trees enshrouded in mist, sheets of rolling fog, sunset shadows lapping at a morose Pacific -- punctuate the story with a Russian sense of spaciousness and doom.
In the film's opening scene, Behrani recalls nostalgically the cedars he had once cut off to clear up a vista in front of his vacation manor on the Persian shore of the Caspian Sea. Shortly thereafter "our life," he says in the film, "went the way of the trees."
And so it was for Perelman's family.
After their traumatic exit from Eastern Europe, the Perelmans settled in Rome in a rank basement tenement in the suburb of Ostia. The only money they had came from selling knickknacks.
His mother, too embarrassed to help, would instead "walk around Rome, visiting museums and churches." In an eerily similar manner, in Dubus' book, Behrani notes of his wife that "... my dear Nadereh could not and cannot bear to let other families know we have next to nothing left from the manner in which we used to live." The young Perelman, who by now had turned 15, took to the streets.
The vagabond life was beastly. He constantly got into fights with Italian and Russian street kids, competitors stalking the same territory. "There was no solidarity among us. It was everybody for himself," Perelman recalled. "We were like wild animals, completely savage and mean."
It is partly because of this background that the director said he takes the enterprise of moviemaking in stride today, knowing better than to stress about going over budget or fret over his actors' tantrums. "Now, no matter what life throws at times, it doesn't scare me," Perelman said.
He lived on the streets of Rome for about a year, until finally an aunt agreed to sponsor him and his mother to immigrate to Canada. They arrived in Edmonton, Alberta with $28 to their names, "my last gas-station money."
Family life was rife with emotional turmoil and discontent. His mother married a Russian emigre, who became Perelman's stepfather. "I hated him," he said. So Perelman dropped out of school and hit the skids again. He hooked up with another gang of young delinquents, stealing and unloading goods for cash.
Books were his only connection with the world, reading his only faith. "My gods," he said, "were Dostoevsky, Charles Bukowski, Ralph Ellison and Rimbaud. I guess it was a pretty romantic life for a teenager." The romance lasted for four years, but eventually the law caught up with him. Perelman's gang was rounded up and he ended up spending a night in jail. The experience shook him up. "I decided to straighten myself out," he said.
He took a job on the oil rigs, enrolled in evening classes, got his GED and was soon college-bound. It was in a film appreciation class there that he saw a documentary about Norman Jewison making "Fiddler on the Roof." "I walked out of there with an epiphany," he said. "I went outside -- it was snowing and these huge snowflakes were coming down -- and I spread my arms wide and shouted: 'Yes! I know what I want to do with my life!' "
He hastily applied to Toronto's Ryerson University, home to one of Canada's most prestigious film production programs.
But he felt too grown-up and weary to fit in there. The righteousness of his classmates, their naive left-wing ideology, irked him. "I was so disgusted with my peers," he said. "They were like young kids, and I felt like I had lived so much, that I had seen it all. I have a line in my script, where Behrani says, 'Americans have the eyes of small children.' That's how I felt at the time."
Eventually he made a name for himself by cutting music videos, got married, and in 1992 came to Los Angeles to break into film.
A NOVEL CLICKS
If storytelling is meant to restore the mythical dimension of life, Perelman suddenly saw his existence memorialized in a novel he picked up by chance a couple of years ago. He read Dubus' "House of Sand" on a plane in 2001, and making it into a film became an obsession.
He wrote the script in a fever that lasted 15 days. Something clicked: The characters felt as if they were part of him. "My mother is Nadi," he said. "My stepfather is Behrani. My first wife is Kathy. And I used to be Esmail [Behrani and Nadi's son], although a less innocent Esmail."