No one will be calling "House of Sand and Fog" the "feel good movie of the year." It is a bleak tragedy, based on the novel by Andre Dubus III, in which a woman and an Iranian immigrant fight over the ownership of a beachfront home she inherited. The tragedy comes from neither of them being at fault - she lost the house due to a bureaucratic error and he purchased it at an auction - and from the impossibility of them both realizing their desires.
Opening for limited runs in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 19, and nationwide on Dec. 26, the release of the movie has less to do with the holiday season than with the Oscar season. Starring past winners Jennifer Connelly ("A Beautiful Mind") and Ben Kingsley ("Gandhi"), it is being positioned as an award contender.
For those who prefer happier stories, consider this: For both novelist Dubus and writer/director Vadim Perelman, this movie marks a fairy-tale ending after years of struggle.
For Dubus, the movie is like having Aladdin's genie coming back with a few extra wishes. His father, Andre Dubus, was a well regarded author in his own right, but even being a literary scion didn't prepare the son for the success of his third book. When it was released in 1999, he was still having to teach part time to supplement his income. "House of Sand and Fog" was greeted with positive reviews and solid sales. Then Oprah happened.
Oprah Winfrey selected the novel for her book club, and invited Dubus to be a guest on her show. Virtually overnight he was transformed into a star author. "People should know that a literary book today is considered a huge success if it sells 15,000 to 20,000 copies. When she picks a book ... it sells a million copies," he says. "It was like winning the lottery."
It was a payoff he could not have imagined during the 4-1/2 years he spent writing it. Movie sales seemed like a distant dream as well. "If you get six calls, that's a lot. I got 140 calls," he says. Many offers he rejected out of hand, as producers talked of turning his human tragedy into a thriller, or softening the book's shattering conclusion. When Vadim Perelman called, his approach was different. He told Dubus, "I'll take care of your baby," Dubus recalls.
If the book's smash success was a surprise, Perelman's getting the chance to make the film version is nothing less than astonishing. A first-time director, Perelman could make an interesting movie from his own life story. Born in 1963 in Kiev, he left the former Soviet Union with his mother after the death of his father. As a teenager he was a refugee for over a year in Vienna and Rome before finally making it to Canada. After finishing school, he made his mark filming rock videos and TV commercials. He was not the first would-be movie director to do so, but the work hardly making him the lead candidate for such a prestigious film project.
"I felt so deeply about it, there's a lot of chutzpah about it. I felt I could do it better than anybody," Perelman says. "I always believed my whole life I could do anything. I've come so far from nothing."
Crafting a script that Dubus calls "completely loyal to the essence of the characters," Perelman saw the film approved with himself as director and two stars in lead roles. How did it feel to direct an actor who was winning acclaim while he was still in school? Intimidating, Perelman admits, "but you can't let that show. Sir Ben [Kingsley] gave me the greatest gift: respect."
Perelman is wise enough at the start of this new stage of his career not to make predictions about the Oscars, but he does hope audiences will respond. "The reason people should go see this is to feel deeply and suffer with the characters so they don't have to suffer themselves."
As for Dubus and Perelman, Dubus is working on his next novel, and Perelman has already been signed to direct an upcoming Steven Spielberg project. They're not suffering at all.