Ryerson dropout makes it big

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By Jason Ho

Former Ryerson film student Vadim Perelman sits confidently back in his chair. He sets his feet up on the stone table on the 23rd floor of the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto.

In his first feature film, House of Sand and Fog, Perelman can relate to both the main characters and the immigrant theme in the movie. It’s a perfect match between the story and the director — something that rarely happens in the film industry.

It was for this reason that, with no feature film experience, Perelman was chosen to direct and write the screenplay for the film, based on a book by Andre Dubus III.

Dubus refused more than 100 offers from film studios who wanted to dramatically alter his book before accepting Perelman’s proposal. Perelman explained to Dubus what other film companies would do to the book and how he would do it differently.

Perelman told him, “They’re going to take your baby, chain it to a radiator and rape and kill it.” He said he wanted to reflect and capture the book’s feeling.

Perelman decided to be a filmmaker after watching a documentary about Canadian director Norman Jewison in night school. He moved to Toronto, where he spent two years studying film at Ryerson.

“Ryerson was great in first year. it was my first hands-on experience. [By the second year] I wanted to go out and make films. I always wanted to do feature films,” he said.

If House of Sand and Fog is any indication, Ryerson’s film school dropout will have a long filmmaking career ahead of him.

The movie stars Academy Award winners Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley. Connelly plays Kathy Nicolo, a woman who has had her share of problems. Kingsley plays Massoud Amir Behrani, a former colonel in the Iranian Air Force who was forced to flee his home and move to the United States. The two are inevitably pitted against each other after Nicolo is wrongly evicted from the house she inherited from her father. The state, without realizing its mistake, auctions the house off to Behrani. A desperate battle ensues as each side struggles to keep the house.

Perelman knows what it’s like to be an immigrant and live a difficult life. He was born in Kiev, in the former Soviet Union in 1963. An only child, he lived in an apartment with his immediate and extended family. When he was nine, his father was killed in a car accident and all of his grandparents died.

Five years later, he and his mother left the USSR and moved to Vienna. They later moved to Rome for one year and Perelman was forced to work odd jobs on the street to support his mother. Eventually they moved to Edmonton where his aunt and her family lived. His mother soon remarried, but conflicts with his stepfather forced him to leave home at age 16.

These experiences gave him a great understanding of the book — which he found in an airport some 20 years later — and allowed him to make the movie.

He is currently on a press tour, making a brief stop in Toronto. Although he spoke only Russian until his teens, the 40-year-old director’s accent is barely noticeable.

“I’m really proud that I made this film,” he said.

Dubus is also pleased with the movie. He said Perelman “boiled down the essence of a 400-page book into a two-hour movie.” Going from the book to the movie, “you won’t get short-changed,” he added.

The film, also starring Ron Eldard (Black Hawk Down), veteran Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, newcomer Jonathan Ahdout and Frances Fisher (Titanic), opens in theatres Dec. 26.

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