December 21, 2003|Long story short, a few years ago as I was applying for a life insurance policy, I got to know an ex-paramedic who told me that he once answered a call to Denver's beautiful Brown Palace Hotel. One of its maids had just been let go after working there for decades, whereupon she proceeded to take the elevator to the top floor and jump to her death several stories into the central dining area. "Her face was perfectly preserved, perfectly peaceful," he said. "When I got there it looked as though she were standing in a hole in the floor, looking up with something like wonder at the ceiling." I think about this story a lot, it sticks with me for some reason; it has elements of betrayal, death with symbolic meaning, the grotesque--the sort of high human drama at extremis that leaves an indelible imprint on my imagination.
On the seventh floor of The Brown Palace to meet with Vadim Perelman to discuss his directorial debut, DreamWorks' awards-season picture House of Sand and Fog, I looked over the balcony to the floor below and thought of my phantom maid, shooting through the air feet first like a sea burial--a fitting, if morbid skylark for the occasion. Perelman's film is sticky in a way, but unfortunately injured by its melodrama: more the fault of its source material (an Oprah's Book Club fave by Andre Dubus III) and its overwrought score (by the always execrable James Horner) than the young director's. Still, I didn't expect the casually dressed Perelman to be quite so intelligent and vibrant, able (and willing) to insert a medium-obscure, dead-perfect reference to The Odyssey with neither self-conscious embarrassment nor explanation.
A native of Kiev of the former Soviet Union, Perelman learned English at the age of fifteen when he left the motherland for the green shores of Canada and speaks it now with only the slightest hint of an accent. We spoke candidly about my concerns with House of Sand and Fog and both of our hopes for his next project, DreamWorks' long-in-coming adaptation of Stephen King and Peter Straub's The Talisman. Serious about film and engaging in conversation over the medium, Perelman is hot now for a reason. I hope his charisma and extraordinary opportunities allow him to pursue projects that matter in the future--that are, I suspect, closer to his heart.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: I read that Steven Spielberg gave you The Talisman after screening your film. What do you think he saw in it?
VADIM PERELMAN: Well, he told me that the feeling that he got from it was the same one that he got after seeing American Beauty for the first time and that, you know, that's an amazing compliment. But what I hope that he got from it is, and this is something that I was really going for, that The House of Sand and Fog is like being in an airplane going down. That at any moment, you expect the thing to pull up because in most American films it does pull up, but that I didn't do it, that I didn't take that out. I hope that's what Steven saw in the film, I hope that's where he wants to go with The Talisman. I'm not interested in making a children's film.
I liked the book when I was twelve.
(laughs) Yeah, but you were twelve. Read it again, I don't think you'll like it as well. It's going okay, though, Ehren [Kruger] has just finished his second draft and we're getting ready to take it in.
Did you read the sequel novel that Straub and King just wrote?
I'll tell you the truth, that the reason I was excited about the project is the emotionalism at the core of its premise. Here's this young boy who must save his dying mother. The film has to spring from that pure source, it's the direction I want to approach it from. I think with House of Sand and Fog that on the surface you see a lot of my training in commercials, a lot of my visual style is involved with scope and I think I'm good at that. I'm good at the spectacle, but with this film, the story really touched me and I wanted to experiment with pulling out the highly emotional elements of the story--to do justice to the human relationships. To finish the question, I guess, I hope that Steven recognized some kind of aptitude in me with handling a human and affecting story, and that those are elements, too, that he wishes to bring to The Talisman.
You talk about your background as a commercial director: and yet the film isn't shot as though it were by a commercial director. Is that attributable to (DP) Roger Deakins?
Roger was always my first choice, I chose him for his naturalism.
He's probably best known for his work with the Coen Brothers, though, and that's not exactly natural.
You're right, you're right, but I'm talking more about his approach and his set-ups. He's spare, really, we'd do such minimal coverage that I'd despair sometimes. We'd do a shot from one angle, set up and do it from another angle, and Roger'd say, "That's it." I felt, about two weeks in, like I'd lost control of the film and my mind in the process. It's sort of interesting in that I read that Sam [Mendes], after two weeks on American Beauty, sort of reached the same kind of impasse. They really fucked with Sam, though, you know, and I didn't have any of that with DreamWorks. They must have been watching dailies, but I never heard a word from them and that was an amazing blessing. That kind of interference from clients who often didn't know what the hell they wanted anyway, was why I was so desperate to leave commercial filmmaking.
What did you tell Deakins?
First day on set I told him, "Roger, I'm tying myself to the mast." I told him that I had instincts as a commercial director that would betray me, that I trusted him implicitly, that I knew that he knew what he was doing and it was rough for me at first, but like I said, a few weeks in, I felt really comfortable. At the start, though, I was really thinking, "For fuck's sake, we're shooting a TV movie here." We'd do coverage for four scenes in one day--it was so fast--I was worried we were doing "Barney Miller".
I found the book House of Sand and Fog to be a little maudlin and perhaps not the best choice for a film striving for realism.
That's interesting. Let me tell you that I think you're right, that I'm at heart a big sloppy Russian romantic. I went home a few years ago for the first time, went back to where we used to live--ten people in one room about the size of this hotel room. No television, no movies, at least not for me, I wasn't interested in them, the only broadcast media exposure I got, I remember, is that we all went to some hall one night to watch some figure skating event in the Olympics. But I read, I read a lot as a kid, everything I could get a hand on--but I went back home, I found my old landlady and we just sat and cried, remembering how hard things had been. In the airport on the way home, I found Dubus' book and felt as though I'd come full circle in my life somehow.
Is it too facile to wonder about the connection between your immigrant background and the Ben Kingsley character's?
No, no, that's something that's there, I guess, and a lot of people zero in on that, but I have to say that I identify almost more with the Jennifer Connelly character, Kathy. That was me when I first got to Canada, you know, that was me--divorced from my own family, a stepfather that cast me out and the feeling that my mother had betrayed me. The immigrant connection is there but sort of shallow, the deeper connection is between Kathy and me. I feel as though both of us had a lot of tragedy, and that through it I was able to gain a keener understanding of life and the human condition. That sounds pretentious--maybe it's better to say that I hope that it gave me that insight. There's a quote that I wrote down that I've been carrying around with me. (Perelman goes to his desk, pulls out a folded memo.) Here it is, take it with you.
Leon Bloy, turn-of-the-century Catholic novelist?
Right: "Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence."
It sounds like that Longfellow poem used in the adaptation of Dubus III's father's "Killings," In the Bedroom.
That's interesting. Yeah, there are similarities. I love the quote, though, for me that's the film in a nutshell.
The main thing I had trouble with, I have to confess, is James Horner. I have this deep, abiding hate for the kind of work that he does.
Me, too. Listen, Jamey did this film for one dollar, he really pursued this project. We got a lot of interest, any composer you can think of probably threw his name into the hat, but Jamey was persistent so I finally went to his studio with all his scores on CD and stuck 'em in the player, stopped them now and again, and said, "This, I fucking hate this fucking schmaltz." And Jamey, to his credit, he just listened, just let me have my say. That thing that underscores the boat going out in The Perfect Storm, I can't stand that shit and told him so, and, in his defense, he said that he gave the director what he wanted. Wolfgang [Petersen] wanted "bigger, bigger" and so that's what Jamey gave him--but I was really clear that I wanted none of that, and I think he really delivered. I think his score is different from anything he's ever done--the way he weaves in a little of those Middle Eastern strings, it's beautiful--if the score is a problem, it's that I may have overused it, and that's my fault.
Can you give me an example?
The opening sequence, it's almost a silent film and I went into it with that in mind. I wanted to introduce the characters by their actions: Kathy in bed and Massoud going to work, getting changed. That sequence would have played so beautifully just with sound design, you know, and I think that I lost my nerve. I got scared that I couldn't convey the emotions that I wanted to, I didn't trust myself enough, and my cast, but that's my fault as an overemotional Russian, not Jamey's as a composer. In fact, the only part of the score I wasn't completely happy with was a little bit in the operating room towards the end that sounded a little derivative of A Beautiful Mind--but that's it.
You mention sound design.
Yeah--are you familiar with Amon Tobin?
Brazilian/Brit, ambient dub stuff.
(laughs) Right--my sound designer was really into him and recorded all these tones, these emotional tones. Like "dread" you know, and I tried to incorporate them into a lot of the scenes of happy, cheerful, surface business. I loved the idea of having something dark, this almost subliminal hum of dread undercutting the scenes of togetherness and love--it really appealed to me.
You said that you read a lot as a child, any novels from your youth that you'd like to make a personal project?
The Painted Bird.
Kosinski? Are you a fan of Roman Polanski?
Not particularly. My touchstone, my idol, is Vittoria De Sica and Bicycle Thieves (released as The Bicycle Thief in the U.S. -Ed.) in particular.
Another example of a filmmaker ostensibly working in realism but really steeped in the romantic.
(laughs) True, true. I wonder if we should put the picture in and see how much of Cicognini's score De Sica uses.