In 2003, commercial director Vadim Perelman’s first film House of Sand and Fog received a lot of critical raves and a number of awards including three Oscar nominations. After nearly four years, Perelman’s back with his second movie The Life Before Her Eyes, based on the novel of the same name by Laura Kasischke. It stars Evan Rachel Wood as Diana, a rebellious teen in a quiet religious suburb that’s rocked by a school shooting; 15 years later, the older Diana, played by Uma Thurman, is married with a young daughter, but is still haunted by the events from her past. It’s a gorgeously shot film that’s moving and thought-provoking in no small part due to the performances by Perelman’s two main actresses and relative newcomer Eva Amurri as Diana’s high school best friend.
ComingSoon.net spoke to Perelman by phone last week and quickly found out how hard it was to talk about his new movie without spoiling a major plot revelation in the film.
ComingSoon.net: What was it about the original novel that made you want to option it and make it as your second movie?
Vadim Perelman: I think it was just the same case as “House of Sand and Fog.” I read this book and it affected me, it really moved me, because it’s about life and it’s about death, and how without life, there isn’t any death and vice versa. That being the kind of theme of this film, to me, it kind of resonated to me in the same way. It was right around the same time as “House of Sand and Fog” that I optioned this book as well, and then five years later, here we are.
CS: When you read a book like this, are you automatically seeing some of the images that we see in your film?
Perelman: Actually, a lot of it is in the book. Laura Kasischke, the author, she used to be a poet, and the book is incredibly lyrical and evocative, and all the imagery was really there on the page, pretty much. All the flowers, even the rain, I mean everything. It’s just an incredible book. It’s just a really worthwhile read. I always try when I work with the books, so twice now, I try to stay pretty true to the material, and otherwise, there’s really no sense taking it on.
CS: I was curious why you decided to bring on another writer to adapt the book after optioning it?
Perelman: Part of it was just my general busyness at the time, and second of all and probably more of the truth is that I actually sat down and tried it myself, and I couldn’t get my head around this material, because as you’ve seen, it’s kind of like a puzzle that has to be built. It’s like a clockwork, and I’m very much a broad strokes emotional writer. I guess I didn’t have the skills to construct this Faberge Egg, for lack of a better word. It’s almost like an Escher painting.
CS: Was a lot of the non-linear aspect and the flashbacks in the original novel?
Perelman: Yes, it was definitely in the book, and I actually broke the book down into scenes. The trickier part and one of the biggest challenges on this film, and it’s funny how some people’s reactions are polar opposite to the film. Some people just don’t get it and hate it, some people are intrigued and they want to know more, and some people just love it, love how intricate and how it doesn’t spell everything out for you. Some people get frustrated by that though and that’s understandable. The hardest thing to do in the whole process of making this movie, and that includes editing as well, is how to modulate the reveal, because there’s clues in almost every frame of what’s going on, a million different things. For me, it was like do I want to pander and be obvious and give the whole thing away or do I want to be obtuse, and obviously, somewhere in the middle is the perfect place to be. That’s one of my biggest fears with this film is that people are either going to get lost in the clues and not be emotionally involved. I look to move the viewer in one way or another. I don’t look to trick them or anything like that. It’s all about emotion for me.
CS: You also have these two great actresses, both doing some of their best work, and I was curious which one came on board first?
Perelman: Yeah, what I did was when I first optioned the material, I’d just seen “Thirteen” at the time, and I went to the premiere and I sat down with Evan who was 15 years old at the time, and I said, “First of all, what an amazing job you did. You’re going to be an amazing actress,” because I could see it even then in that film. She was just so dynamic in that movie, so tremendous, sparkling. I said, “I have a role for you. I don’t know when I’m going to do it, but just hang in there, and I’ll make sure this is your part.” She was 15 at the time and she was 19 when we were filming, so it’s very interesting how things come about. Once I had Evan, then came Uma after that, and then Eva was very much an audition process. We saw a lot of girls and Eva came in and read with Evan, and after she left, Evan and I just looked at each other and said, “She’s perfect for this.” She had a much tougher role, and she definitely played against type, because she’s not that person at all. What’s interesting is that they’re both the polar opposite of the roles they portrayed. Evan is probably the most demure girl you’ll ever find in your life, but she’s very sweet, whereas Eva is just vivacious and outspoken. It’s really interesting how they switched roles.
CS: Knowing that you’d have these two actresses playing the same character, did you shoot all of Evan’s stuff first and then have Uma watch it? Did the two of them get together at all? What was the process?
Perelman: The first half of the schedule was the girls, and the last thing we did was the bathroom scene. We did three days of that on a set. It was the only set that we built for the whole film. It was all shot on locations. It’s kind of indie. The whole thing was $13 million and was very run and done, even more pressure than my last film. We shot the first half of the schedule with the girls and then after that, we shot Uma, but I never really rehearsed them to say “Try and ape each other’s mannerisms or come to a common way.” What I did with Umaand Uma’s a very good actress as wellwhat I did was I sat down with her and I showed her just a take or two of Evan’s dailies that we had at the time, and she looked at it and just said, “Okay, I got it.” And just like that, she knew what she needed to do, and somehow by osmosis, they worked it out.
CS: It’s pretty amazing that it works because you have to cut between the two of them so much.
Perelman: Yeah, at some point, I was actually playing with the idea of having just one actress play it with some sort of aging technique, but then I thought that would be too gimmicky and decided to just have two people play it.
CS: You’re definitely getting a reputation for getting great performances out of actresses. Do you have any secrets you can share?
Perelman: I’m not sure I’m such a svengali when it comes to that. I think they’re just great actresses, and they are paired with a really good role. For me, I probably couldn’t get a good performance out of a bad actress.
CS: Have you ever figured out why you seem so drawn to stories and movies with strong female characters?
Perelman: Listen, I was raised by a single mother and my grandmother, and I guess I have a certain sensitivity and understanding towards women. I guess that must have something to do with it.
CS: Obviously, the school shooting aspect of the movie is a very difficult topic to handle, as it would have been five years ago, but did you know early on how you wanted to handle those scenes?
Perelman: Yes, to me it’s an event, that could have been a mugging in an alley. I think it’s a horrific event that happened in our country, but this film is not about a school shooting. It’s just an inciting incident of this film. It’s not “Elephant” for example, going into the psyche of the shooter and why that’s happening. Was he bullied or this or that? Really, the whole film really takes place in that bathroom. Everything else is either imagination or memory. Even then, I wanted to treat it with sensitivity. Remember the shots of the kids just lying there? It was very difficult to shoot, it was a very somber kind of mood. I wanted to treat it like church in a strange way. It even has the strange bells. I didn’t want to be gory or gruesome or in your face like the person in the gym who’s just an outline in the shafts of life. I guess that would probably indicate that I wanted to treat it with some decorum and taste.
CS: I really thought the way you mixed the beauty of the flowers with the horror of the event really affects you.
Perelman: It’s very funny, because I’m always being accused of being heavy-handed with the metaphors and the imagery and the scorepoor James Horner gets raked over the coals all the timebut I really feel like I don’t know how to make movies in any other way. I just got for the full-on and hopefully, people don’t get turned off by it.
CS: Well if the desired effect is to stir emotion, I think it worked.
Perelman: That to me is music to my ears. That’s all I want to hear really. As I’ve said in many interviews during “House of Sand and Fog,” people asked me why I became a filmmaker, and I just said, “To move people. I don’t want to make them think, I want to make them feel.”
CS: I really loved the beautiful colors in this movie, so what was the process for capturing that sort of color on film?
Perelman: Originally, my first pass on the coloring of it was even more colorful. First of all, we shot anamorphic, and the art direction, Maia Javan is one of the most talented people that I know. She did “House of Sand and Fog” with me as well, and the DP Pawel Edelman is amazing, Polanski’s guy. He’s really great. The color was on purpose. If you recall, the film was called “In Bloom” before, and I think we really tried to be evocative. It’s like you said, seeing the horror in the bright daylight, the darkness in the light…
CS: Just the way the flowers are shot and the insects, those are the colors like you have in dreams. It’s almost like a painting.
Perelman: If you’re right then Maia will be very happy, because that’s kind of her baby, the look of the film, but we had one of the best greensmen there is. They’re actually doing a New York Times article about the greens in the movie. A lot of our flowers, because we were shooting in the summer and many flowers don’t bloom in the summer at all, so we had to search the world for a lot of flowers. And a lot of them were silk. We found this amazing silk flower supplier because if you’re shooting over three or four days, they would wilt. Every day we would decorate those. The greens guys would go out and put flowers in the trees.
CS: You mentioned the film’s original title “In Bloom” but obviously you went back to the title of the book. Can you talk about why you changed it and then changed it back? They’re both good titles but they evoke different things as you watch the film.
Perelman: Yeah, they do, absolutely. “In Bloom” is more metaphoric for her, the “cut down in bloom” they say, but it’s more evocative, more poetic. There’s actually a sentence in the book almost at the very end, where we cut outside the school and it says, “And it was April and everything was in bloom.” That’s where I got the idea. “What a great title that would be, In Bloom” so it went all the way through production, post-production, and even Toronto, it was “In Bloom” but then we did a test and we just thought that “The Life Before Her Eyes” even though it’s less poetic of a title, I think it explains things a bit better.
CS: And people who’ve read the book will know that the film is based on the book.
Perelman: Yeah, that but also people going into the film, the general concept of this film and its revelation, if you have that even at the back of your mind, it makes the realization a little bit clearer.
(We then discussed a part of the movie that was taken out since the Toronto Film Festival, but it’s such a major spoiler that we’ll be removing our discussion from this interview as well.)
CS: What are your feelings about the movie playing at Toronto and being able to make changes before its theatrical release?
Perelman: We kind of rushed it into Toronto, that’s why I’m really pleased with this version a lot more. It’s a little bit tighter and I think the ending works better. We changed things subtly. Then we went back after Toronto and looked at a lot of the things. Whenever you see it with an audience, you start getting a feeling for what works, what doesn’t. So we did a few tweaks, and I think every single thing we did was a good thing. At this point, I’m very happy and proud of this version.
CS: How did you feel about the festival experience? I always talk with filmmakers about this because it’s a great place to show your movie before a rapt audience, but then you also have hundreds of cranky critics who have watched way too many movies in a short period of time trying to be objective.
Perelman: Exactly, and they’re burnt-out, but no, I love festivals. I was on the jury of a few. I was on the jury at Rotterdam and Kiev, because for me, it’s like a treasure trove. Of course, premiering our film at the Toronto Film Festival was incredible for me, because I went to film school in Toronto. I’m a Toronto film guy, so it was a big deal for me.
CS: You’ve optioned and adapted a few books, so as far as having the original author involved, what’s your take on that?
Perelman: So far, I’ve had three, now four, adaptations that I’ve done to date. I did “The Giver” which is like a big huge young adult novels, and then I’m just in the process of doing “Atlas Shrugged”… well, that author is dead, but she has millions of minions that are watching over me.
CS: I know a lot of people who consider that book their favorite book, and it’s a really hard book to try and adapt.
Perelman: It’s kind of like “Lord of the Rings” in a way. There’s a very vocal fandom and community and very intelligent ones at that, so you can’t really f**k around with them.
CS: How’s that going by the way? I know it’s been in various stages of development over the course of years until you came on board. Have you started adapting that now that the strike’s over?
Perelman: I’m finished. I’m just doing a polish on my rewritethat sounds so Hollywood (laughs)and hopefully… the studio and everybody’s telling me they want to film this fall, which should be pretty incredible. They want to start prepping in the fall, and then probably shoot in like December or something. Who knows? It’s all really script-dependent and we’re still working on it.
CS: It’s a huge book, over a thousand pages, so do you think you’ll be able to get it down to under 3 hours?
Perelman: I think so. That’s the goal, definitely. It’s gotta be a movie after all. The book is the book.
CS: And is Angelina Jolie still planning on starring in it?
Perelman: Oh, yeah, she’s still very invested in it. She’s actually one of the “spearheaders” of the project. She’s actually the one who’s behind the whole thing. Yeah, we’re collaborating.
CS: You’ve mostly been done with this September before the writers strike, but have you had time to work on anything else?
Perelman: Well, I was doing “Atlas Shrugged” and one of the good things for me is that I read a lot. That’s where I get a lot of material and get inspired, so it was a nice little break, the strike was pretty good for me, and I did a couple commercials because I still do that. Commercials are really a blessing in my life, because they allow me to wait for the good movies, not to just jump onto everything that comes up.
CS: Because you’re optioning many of these books yourself, you obviously have a lot more control over your own movie career, rather than just taking whatever Hollywood throws your way which happens a lot with directors who have a coupe decent movies under their belt.
Perelman: Yeah, well you know I’m very pleased with this film. It’s very different, but I think it’s good for me to do a film like this.
The Life Before Her Eyes opens in select cities on Friday, April 18.