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Director Series: Vadim Pearlman

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By Bill Desowitz
Vadim Perelman knew he wanted to make the transition from helming music videos and commercials to directing features the moment he finished reading the powerful novel for the film House of Sand and Fog. Born in Kiev but transplanted as a youth to Vienna, Rome and Canada, Perelman’s credits include spots for Microsoft, General Motors, Panasonic, Nike, AT&T, Sony Playstation, Coors and Mastercard. However, with the jarring DreamWorks drama that opens Dec. 26, in which Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley (playing an Iranian immigrant) are locked in a tragic tug-of-war over possession of her house, Perelman confronts several universal and timely issues, including xenophobia and the shattering of the American Dream.

Below the Line: What was it like making the transition from music videos and commercials?
Vadim Perelman: It felt very liberating in a sense. I wasn’t as worried about time as much and the time that you have to develop a character and to tell a scene. I could work much more in negative space terms—the silences became a tool for me, whereas before they never let me have them. I also feel that the whole commercial business has taught me a responsibility to the story. You have to be able to justify your creative decisions to yourself because ultimately you’re doing it for a client, and in the case of this film, I was the client. It was sort of self-imposed expectations. A lot of people can get lost in that and become very esoteric about what they’re doing.
BTL: So no visual flash here.
Perelman: No, quite the opposite. Stylistically, one of the important things that I did before starting this film is that I vowed to stay extremely simple cinematically. Even though I had this incredible compulsion to show the world what I could do visually, with camera angles and movement, and all the things that commercial directors get caught up in when they do films, I tied myself to the mast with the idea to tell the story in the most non-invasive way possible.
BTL: Which is what cinematographer Roger Deakins is a master of…
Perelman: Really, he is a great naturalist, in a way that I don’t think anyone else is, now that Conrad Hall is no longer with us. The way he can light a face and make it seem invisible and beautiful…All the camera movement is imperceptible, which is the way it is in my film. You’re in a completely different part of the space and you don’t know how you got there. I’ve always been a huge fan of his work, and if I could have anybody, it would be him.
BTL: What were his suggestions?
Perelman: He really helped me keep it simple and not let the style rule this. And even though it’s a gorgeous, soft kind of movie the way it’s lit because of the overcast skies, it really works well with the themes and the characters.
BTL: Anything knock you out?
Perelman: I think it was right there in the camera tests when he lit Jennifer’s face. And he’s so simple with it. He used almost no direct light at all, just this soft bounce kind of feel. He blew me away with how he would light a scene with one key light essentially, and the speed of how he worked.
BTL: Tell me about working with production designer Maia Javan.
Perelman: Well, she being of Iranian descent—the story is about Iranian immigrants. She also had the right sensibility. Nothing that stands out and wows you, but I think she will get a lot of recognition from her peers because that is a lot harder to do than a cylinder for people to fight in with lasers. She’s very naturalistic too.
BTL: Where did you shoot?
Perelman: The exteriors of the house were shot in Malibu, the interiors were shot on-stage and some second-unit work was done up in San Francisco, where the story takes place.
BTL: Your location manager was Tim Falconer.
Perelman: It was a tough puzzle, and I think Tim and his people did a great job. The house had to be just right. Not too big, had to be on a slope, a certain kind of neighbor situation so that a certain kind of the goings on wouldn’t be too apparent to the people around it. After looking at hundreds and hundreds of houses, I ended up driving by one and it just felt right.
BTL: Costume designer Hala Bahmet…
Perelman: She’s the only one I brought with me from my commercials. She has impeccable taste and never gets frazzled. Costumes, again, were important because it’s a multicultural story.
BTL: Give me an example of what she came up with.
Perelman: There was a shirt that Kingsley wore when he saw the house for the first time. He brought it from Iran in the late ‘70s. And you could see that he was a close associate of the Shah, and that he would wear this shirt very proudly. So Hala did a lot of research, pulling out shots of the Shah on the Caspian Sea with his family, and copied a few of those shirts.
BTL: And Lisa Churgin, your editor?
Perelman: For somebody to get into the characters through the pace and the timing of the conversations and the dramatic tension, she did an excellent job. A common trait for all of these people I worked with who signed on for a lot less than their quote, and they did it because they really believed in the material. And Lisa used to call me in dailies and tell me that she was crying. And I said hopefully for the right reasons.

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