Vadim Perelman, a native Ukrainian who emigrated to western Europe, and eventually to Canada, as a boy in the late 1970s, had built a successful career directing music videos and commercials when he picked up a copy of Andre Dubus III’s novel, “House of Sand and Fog,” at the Rome airport while waiting for a flight after a shoot. He read the book, involving a tragic struggle between Kathy Nicolo, a troubled young woman who’d lost the family house to back taxes, and Massoud Amir Behrani, a proud Iranian expatriate who’d purchased it at auction, on the plane ride back home, and thought it would be a perfect vehicle for him to move into feature directing; he immediately contacted Dubus to negotiate for the rights to bring the story to the screen. Perelman and Dubus discussed the genesis of the novel, and the film, during a recent promotional swing through Dallas.
Dubus explained that he embraced writing only late in his student days, when he had gone to the University of Wisconsin at Madison for graduate work in social science after getting his undergraduate degree at the University of Texas in Austin; his eventual goal was to go into politics. But when he started dating a girl who was taking creative writing, he was drawn to take up the pen himself and wrote what he called a “terrible” story. But the experience of writing itself invigorated him. “When I finished, I said to myself, I don’t want to be a writer”–largely because his father was already a well-known author, and Dubus thought one in the family was enough–“but I tell you, I felt more like myself than I’d ever felt in my life.” Soon he’d left school and any idea of politics behind, and was taking a series of night jobs that would allow him to write during the day. The rest, as they say, is history.
How Dubus came to write “House of Sand and Fog” was equally serendipitous. “It began by my falling in love with a Persian girl, in 1977,” he recalled. “I was in college, I was seventeen years old, and she was stunning–not just physically, she had this presence. Somehow I snaked myself into her life, but you can’t date a Persian Muslim girl–a traditional one–so I ‘dated’ her family. One day I looked on the wall, and there’s a picture of the Shah of Iran with this bald guy–her dad. I got closer to him than I ever did to her. He was living the same life as Behrani.” Dubus remembered in particular one incident when he was helping the man, who was working as a clerk in a convenience store, carry groceries up to their apartment, and the man mused on his present circumstances, dreamily noting that he’d once worked with kings and princes and prime ministers.
“That’s part one,” Dubus said. “Part two is, years later, I read in a local newspaper about a woman who’d gotten evicted from her house in northern California for failure to pay back taxes she said she didn’t owe. They evicted her anyway and auctioned off her property. The man who bought it had a middle eastern name.” He thought back to his Persian girlfriend’s father and asked himself, “What if he bought it?” The resultant story, told in alternating chapters of first-person narrative by the woman and the man, was written in unusual circumstances. “I wrote this book in a car, in a graveyard,” Dubus explained–a quiet refuge from the noise and chaos of his own growing household. “In notebooks.” He added, “I did not intend to write such a painful story.” He father, who read it before publication, predicted that it would be in the running for the National Book Award–which did in fact happen, though the elder Dubus did not live to see it. (Later, the book was featured on Oprah Winfrey’s book club, which vastly increased its visibility–and sales. “I’ve named all my kids Oprah–the boys too,” Dubus joked.)
Dubus remembered a curious link between the book’s first days and its later filmization. “My wife’s a big film buff,” he said, “and actually a screenwriter, too, and she said, ‘You know, if it’s ever a movie, who do you see as the colonel?’ I said, ‘Well, if it’s not an Iranian actor, Ben Kingsley–he looks just like the guy I based it on.’ So I came back from work one day, and she said, ‘I sent Ben Kingsley your book today.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s just tossing it off a cliff.” But Kingsley received it, and years later remembered the cover letter Dubus’ wife had included with it. “So when Perelman approached him, he said he’d already read it.”
Perelman approached Kingsley for the role of Behrani after finishing a script he was satisfied with, one he rewrote after a first draft by Shawn Lawrence Otto. “The hardest part of the adaptation was not going to voiceover, because each chapter in the book is told from a first-person perspective,” Perelman said. “It’s really a roller-coaster ride the whole time. I tried to just even it out, so you’re not wrenched so much. The whole book is this gorgeous, beautifully written inner monologue that goes on in these characters, in their recollections, in the way that the future ties into the past, all so beautifully woven. Losing that, and trying to put it into dialogue–that was the hardest part.”
Casting, Perelman said, had its difficulties as well. Kingsley was the obvious choice for Behrani: not only had Dubus had him in mind from the beginning but, as the director remarked, “I don’t know if there’s a better actor–I really don’t.” (Dubus added: “He nailed it–he was perfect. What a contained performance!”) Kathy, however, was another matter. Dubus remembered his reaction when Pereleman told him he’d settled on Connelly: “Gorgeous, refined-looking Jennifer Connelly? I said, no way–are you out of your mind? She looks like the doctor’s daughter!” But Perelman explained that Connelly could bring the character the vulnerability she needed to touch the audience, and now Dubus admits, “I was so wrong!”
Perelman knew he’d found the actress to play Behrani’s wife Nadi the moment he auditioned Shohreh Aghdashloo, “a theatre actress in L.A. who used to be a film actress in Iran,” and whose self-exile paralleled that of the Behranis. But the part of Esmail, the Behrani’s son, was another matter. He’d cast a young actor, but as the shoot approached, he was apprehensive. “Something wasn’t quite right,” he said. “So I got rid of him two days before I was scheduled to shoot, and then scrambled–went back to the audition tapes of all the kids, and just fast-forwarded through them.” He came on the tape of Jonathan Ahdout, an Iranian-American teen whose only acting experience had been in school plays; and though, as Perelman recalls, his tape was “poor,” he asked that Ahdout be found and brought in to read immediately. “What a breath of fresh air!” he recalled; he hired him on the spot, and now enthuses over the chemistry between him and Aghdashloo: “He’s the soul of the film, and she’s the heart.” Dubus revealed that Kingsley and Ahdout developed a close relationship as a result of their work together: “He’s become like an uncle to Johnny…He stays in their house when he’s in L.A.”
Perelman put his experience directing commercials and videos to use in making “House of Sand and Fog,” but appreciated the differences. “Technically [I benefitted] greatly, because I knew how to run a set. The hard part was trying to rein it in, as far as my visual sensibilities went. As a commercial director, your nature is to wow the eye. And in this case [cinematographer] Roger [Deakins] and I consciously stepped back. I felt so free. It’s like having negative space. I felt like I was running without weights on, for once. I didn’t have to cram everything into thirty seconds.”
Dubus was especially pleased that Perelman has captured the ambiguity of his book so well. “One of the things that I love about the movie is that people come away and say, ‘I don’t know what to feel or what to think–I have so many questions. Who was right? Who was wrong?’ I love it. I think that’s the job of art–to plunge you more deeply into existence and leave you with deeper questions, which you can work your way toward answering. I’m just so thrilled the movie does that.”
Perelman’s next project is an adaptation of the Stephen King-Peter Straub bestseller “The Talisman,” to be produced by Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy. It’s a very different book from “House of Sand and Fog,” but the director aims to generate the same genuine feeling from it. “I’m going to put the emotion of this [film] onto a much larger canvas,” he promised.
“House of Sand and Fog” is a DreamWorks Pictures release.