The day before he discovered the novel "House of Sand and Fog" in 2001, Vadim Perelman asked his chauffeur to drive him to a slum in suburban Rome. Perelman, a successful commercial director, was in Italy on an AT&T shoot. But he wanted to return to the tenement that had been his home when he arrived from Kiev with his mother in 1977.
The Jewish émigré hoped to revisit the decrepit flat where they had lived without glass in the windows and with dead animals in the streets. He wanted to see the room in which he had lain deathly ill, treated by a veterinarian because a doctor was too expensive. He wanted to walk the streets where he had pumped gas for change, guarding his turf against vicious gang members.
"I almost died there many times," he said.
So when his chauffeur refused to drive him deep into the slum that day in 2001, Perelman, now 40, walked the 10 blocks alone to his old building. He found his former landlady and silently sat in her apartment, under a naked light bulb, as she served him a glass of rancid wine. As he got up to leave, he placed $5,000 on the rickety table.
"I felt like I was giving the money to her, but I was also giving it to myself, back then," he said with emotion. "I was seeing this 14-year-old boy lying there with his throat closed off, having the vet cut into it just to keep him alive. And I walked out of that place like I was walking on air. I felt like I had closed one of the circles of my life -- and there was a gift at the end."
The "gift" was Andre Dubus III's bestseller, "House of Sand and Fog," which he bought at the Rome airport, and which revolves around another set of desperate people and a rundown home. The story tells of recovering drug addict Kathy Nicolo, who is evicted from her Northern California bungalow as the result of a bureaucratic error. The bungalow is then bought for a pittance by Iranian immigrant Col. Massoud Amir Behrani, a former aristocrat reduced to working menial jobs to support his wife, Nadi, and their son. For Behrani, the house represents a last shot at the American dream.
"I read the novel on the plane and I wept," Perelman said. "I immediately knew I had to turn it into a movie."
Like the book, the film, which stars Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley, "is about loneliness and being cast out," he added. "[It's] about being an immigrant in a new country and, with regard to Kathy, about feeling like an immigrant in your own country."
Perelman brought his Russian aesthetic to the melodrama: "It's a great, operatic tragedy," he said.
The intense director told his life story over steak salad at a cafe near his Hancock Park home, it sounded like the stuff of melodrama. Until he was 14, he lived with eight relatives in a one-room Kiev apartment, sharing a bathroom with 60 neighbors.
On New Year's Eve, when he was 7, his paternal grandfather, "a strong bull of a man, poured himself this giant glass of vodka, toasted us, drank it down and fell over dead," he recalled. Soon after, Perelman's maternal grandfather, who had survived four heart attacks, summoned him and said, "I'm going to tell you a secret. I'm going to die today." (He did.) The following year, Perelman's grandmother was fatally hit by a streetcar and his father died in a car crash.
Seeking a new life, Vadim and his mother took advantage of the Soviet Union's then-permissive Jewish emigration policy and applied for exit visas.
"It felt very Holocaust-like," he recalled of the train journey West. "That whole mass movement of Jews, with all their cr--, fearful and not knowing where they were going."
As they traveled from Vienna to Rome, he supported his mother emotionally and financially, who was as shell-shocked as the fictional Nadi. Books were his only companions as he worked a series of odd jobs, sleeping on park benches when he missed the last bus home. But when his mother married a man he despised after they settled in Edmonton, Canada, he moved out, left school and joined a gang of teenagers who "broke into houses and robbed places," he said.
A night in jail convinced Perelman to go straight four years later; he promptly earned his GED and enrolled at the University of Alberta, where a film appreciation class changed his life during his sophomore year. The epiphany came as he viewed a documentary on the making of Norman Jewison's "Fiddler on the Roof": "I saw the director creating his own little world and I realized I wanted to do that," he said. "I walked out of that classroom as huge snowflakes were falling and I thought, 'I know what I want to do with my life.'"
He didn't attempt his first feature film, however, until he discovered "Fog" in 2001; securing the rights wasn't easy. The author had already turned down more than 130 directors, Dubus told The Journal in a telephone interview.
"I didn't feel that a story with this kind of darkness would get out of Hollywood alive," he said. "And Vadim had an additional strike against him: He was a commercial director."
Undaunted, Perelman phoned Dubus and, over the course of 90 minutes, recounted his life story. Dubus, who had also grown up poor, with a single mother, identified with the director. Intuitively, he felt Perelman wasn't going to "reduce the story into a digestible, Big Mac version of the book," he said
The film, co-written by Shawn Lawrence Otto, closely follows the novel's tragic trajectory. Newsweek recently noted that while it "is one of the most impressive debuts since 'American Beauty,' it may be just too bleak [to earn an Oscar nomination]."
Perelman -- who hopes to adapt Jerzy Kosinski's Holocaust novel, "The Painted Bird" -- believes the melodrama has purpose. He cited how reading tragic novels helped him endure difficulties in Rome and beyond.
"I've seen death and I've seen catastrophe, so I know how such stories can help people," he said. "It's something the audience can experience vicariously so they may live through their own tragedies gracefully."
"House of Sand and Fog" opens today in Los Angeles. Â