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When his light comes on . . .

Times Staff Writer

It was as assured and self-actualized a debut as any in recent movie history: In 2003, Vadim Perelman catapulted from the relative anonymity of directing car and tire commercials to become the talk of Hollywood with his first feature film, “House of Sand and Fog” -- a heartbreaking work of raw emotion and catharsis that almost no one expected from a filmmaker with his limited professional pedigree.

But then, as quickly as the Kiev native had staked his claim as an Auteur to Watch, Perelman fell out of the limelight. Five years would pass before he released another film, “The Life Before Her Eyes,” an adaptation of the Laura Kasischke novel, which went into limited theatrical release on Friday.

In the interim, Perelman has seen no fewer than eight projects fall by the wayside -- among them, a Steven Spielberg-produced adaptation of the Stephen King-Peter Straub novel “The Talisman” and a big screen blowup of Lois Lowry’s young adult euthanasia novel “The Giver” to be produced by Jeff Bridges’ ASIS production company.

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From the ‘Fog’

Although Perelman admits the many ups and downs are not the most streamlined methodology imaginable, he remains steadfast about his “process” of making films: finding a book he can envisage as a film, optioning the material with his own money, adapting it (usually before any producer has agreed to come on board) and then taking his lumps in order to get the thing made (or not).

“For me, it’s never a conscious plan about what I want to do,” Perelman said over a recent breakfast. “I don’t have a plan. I just go with the material.”

The moviemaking creation myth of this 44-year old Venice local famously begins with his optioning and helping to adapt “House of Sand and Fog” (before it became an Oprah’s Book Club selection), Andre Dubus III’s bleak bestselling novel about a depressive divorcee and a deposed Iranian colonel on a collision course to claim ownership of a house in Northern California.

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Then, through a combination of force of will and Perelman’s fine-tuned literary sensibilities, the writer-director coaxed career-defining performances from his stars Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley and Shoreh Aghdashloo.

A spate of award season props followed suit, including Oscar nominations for Kingsley and Aghdashloo and an Independent Spirit Award nomination for best first feature.

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Obstacle course

In late 2003 and into early ’04, around the time “House’s” distributor DreamWorks had Perelman on a strenuous promo push for the film, the writer-director was sent the manuscript for Kasischke’s dreamlike, then-and-now flashback novel “The Life Before Her Eyes.” It was, the director says, a eureka moment.

“I said to my production designer, Maia Javan, ‘This is going to be my next movie,’ ” said Perelman.

The story follows two teenage girls, the rebellious Diana (played by Evan Rachel Wood) and her demure best friend Maureen (Eva Amurri), who get caught in the middle of a Columbine-esque high school massacre. When confronted by a teen shooter, they are forced to choose which one of them will live and which will die.

Flash forward 15 years, when Diana (now Uma Thurman) seems to be walking through life tenuously, unable to come to grips with her survivor’s guilt, despite a seemingly idyllic marriage and young daughter. The action flip-flops between what led to the 16-year-old Diana’s fateful decision and the adult Diana’s increasing existential gloom in the face of her husband’s marital infidelity and the mysterious disappearance of her child -- leading up to the metaphysical curveball that attempts to explain all in the movie’s final act.

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After Perelman optioned the material, he hired Emil Stern to write a spec draft of the script for $1 (yes, one dollar) and secured Wood’s commitment to star, which eventually led to Thurman’s attachment. Then the travails of landing studio backing began in earnest with producers searching for backing from many of the so-called “mini majors.”

“They said, ‘It’s too dark.’ ‘House of Sand and Fog’ had a lot to do with that,” the director said. “It spilled over into their assessment of this. It doesn’t help that it’s very hard to classify this film.”

In the end, the production landed $13 million in independent financing from Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner’s 2929 Entertainment. But just before the movie went into production in Connecticut in 2003, Perelman was charged with sexual assault and assault for an altercation that took place in a bar. In 2006, the writer-director was placed on probation but will have the charges dropped if he can stay out of trouble for two years.

“It was basically an unfortunate incident where I got drunk in a bar,” Perelman explained. “I think I was just releasing energy. The pressure was on me. It was just a really stupid, unfortunate incident that I regret to this day.”

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Beyond ‘career’

Despite the protracted process of getting “Life” from page to the screen, Perelman -- who recently whittled Ayn Rand’s blunderbuss 1,088-page novel “Atlas Shrugged” into a 150-page script and is attached to direct the movie at Lionsgate as a vehicle for Angelina Jolie -- doesn’t have any regrets about his modus operandi.

He continues to direct television commercials in order to cover the spread for his movies, each of which he describes more in terms of passion project than some calculated career move.

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“My projects are things I either invested great amounts of money or time into,” said Perelman in his slightly Slav-inflected English. “I never do a movie for a career.”

He added: “People don’t leave behind careers. They leave behind works of art.”

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chris.lee@latimes.com


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