The Sit-Down: An Interview with House of Sand and Fog Director Vadim Perelman

THE FIRST THING an animated, fast-talking, and almost too-smooth, too-friendly Vadim Perelman tells you about House of Sand and Fog is how much the story connects with his own hardscrabble immigrant experience. Visiting Seattle recently, he was quick to recap how he and his mother emigrated to Italy from Kiev when he was 14, his father long dead. “Being a refugee in Rome, and living essentially in the streets as an urchin . . . I came full circle,” he says of the Andre Dubus novel, which he discoveredwhere else?at an airport in Rome. By then an adult and a successful director of TV commercials, he explains, he could nonetheless relate to the Behrani family’s craving for property and status in a foreign land.

He recalls thinking to himself, “I have to tell this story! It’s got everything,” Perelman continues. “That’s why it’s such an incredibly well-received book. It’s about home. It’s about being a refugee. It’s about being an outsider. It’s about self-respect.”

So Perelman called Dubus, who by then “had over 100 offers on this thing,” he saysperhaps exaggerating a tad for effect. Concerned that other writers or directors would compromise the book, make Kathy a more sympathetic character, and change the ending to smiles and sunsets, he made his pitch. “I told him my story. And I said, ‘Look, Andre, I have nothing to lose. I will be a rabid fucking dog for this thing. I will fight to the death. Because I have no master. And I will try to be as truthful and as credible [to it as possible].”

Dubus was evidently impressed by his ardor. So was DreamWorks, which gave an A-list cast and prime, end-of-the-year Oscar position to the neophyte director, now basedwhere else?in L.A. Certainly, Perelman’s confidence is contagious and convincinghe’s smart as well as smooth.

Heroine Kathy would seem to have no dreams, no ambitions, nothing at all in common with the bootstrapping director, but Perelman still finds something redeeming in her. “Behrani’s dream is to build a life. Kathy wants to go back to the womb . . . she’s depressed, she’s an addict. She wants to crawl back into her water bed, essentially! That’s not a very noble goal, but you can still empathize with her for it.” He also cites Kathy’s more generous impulsesparticularly for the kindred soul she sees in Behrani’s wife (despite their near-total language barrier): “She sees this lady, and she sees this kindness. She has nothing to say to this woman. That’s the beauty of Kathy’s character. I don’t think that’s inaction; I don’t think that’s passivity. I think that’s compassion.”

But isn’t House a little too dark for the holidays? “I don’t think that ever . . . gave me pause. I really believe that these are the kind of stories that need to be told. I don’t think it’s any accident that four of the supposed contenders . . . for the Oscars this year [meaning Mystic River, 21 Grams, Cold Mountain, and, of course, his film] are pretty dark, downbeat movies.” Yet in citing his own film among likely nominees, he makes it seem almost modest and unsurprisingnot rabid at all. No wonder Dubus likes the guy.