The Ego Has Landed

Although you've never heard of Vadim Perelman, the first-time director of "House of Sand and Fog" already has a reputation in Hollywood. A bad one. As assured as his debut is--a dark drama that will likely earn an Oscar nomination for Sir Ben Kingsley--the 40-year-old Ukrainian native has left a ton of wreckage in his wake. "It's a tough business, and some people can flourish with grace," says someone who worked with him. "He handled this like a psychotic Russian." But Kingsley, for one, likes him. "He's unstoppable," he says. "He's a beautiful T-45 tank, the kind that crashed into Berlin in 1945."

In three years, Perelman has infuriated his former agency, ICM, butted heads with his studio, DreamWorks, and crossed swords with Miramax. He also didn't win friends last summer when he bragged that Steven Spielberg loved his movie. "Arrogant, I can admit," Perelman says. "But it comes out of incredible fear. I don't know --what the f--- I'm doing. In my whole life, I have relied on myself. The only thing I had was my grandmother saying to me, 'If not you, then who?' That's what drove me."

When Perelman was a boy, his father was killed in a car accident, and his family left Kiev for Rome. At 15, Perelman wound up a street kid. Later, he and his mother moved to Canada, and his mother remarried. Perelman fought with his strict stepfather, so he hit the streets again and started stealing. He was arrested and decided to get his life together, eventually becoming a successful commercial director. In 2000, he read Andre Dubus III's best seller, "House of Sand and Fog." He knew this was a film he had to make. Problem was, he had zero experience. He called Dubus anyway: "I told him my life story. I said, 'You're going to get all these people coming at you, but they will all have agendas. I have nothing to lose, and I will fight for this to the death'."

Before Perelman even had a script, he got a call from Miramax's Harvey Weinstein. For an unproved filmmaker, this is like getting a call from the Godfather. Perelman hoped that Weinstein would finance the film. "So I go to his suite at the Peninsula [hotel], and he's sitting there like Jabba the f---ing Hutt with his Diet Cokes and his Marlboro Reds," Perelman says, laughing. "I'm not intimidated at all. He's like my f---ing uncle."

Weinstein did want the film, but he wanted Todd Field ("In the Bedroom") to direct it. Perelman said no. "And Harvey's like, 'You're a tough customer, aren't you? I'll give you $500,000, a producer credit on the mov-ie, and anything from the Miramax slate to direct'." (Miramax sources say Weinstein offered him only a few scripts.) Perelman read them, but couldn't let "Fog" go. (Weinstein later bought the film's U.K. distribution rights.)

Meanwhile, Perelman grew frustrated with the drafts he was getting from screenwriter Shawn Otto. "I sat down and wrote for 14 days," he says. "And then I gave the script to my little agent." The script caused a sensation. Kingsley signed on, and top actresses began vying for the female lead. Perelman had all but committed to Julianne Moore, but at the eleventh hour, met with Jennifer Connelly--and cast her instead. This did not sit well with Moore's CAA agents, who rep a lot of A-list talent. "They hated my f---ing guts because I left Julianne at the altar," Perelman says.

They changed their minds. Before "Fog" was finished, Perelman left his agents at ICM at the altar, too, and eloped with CAA, saying, "I want to play for the Yankees." (This tacky remark ricocheted around the industry.) He also battled with DreamWorks over the script. But, says the film's producer, Michael London, "as difficult as he could be with others, he was harder on himself. Many people misbehave. At least this guy had the talent to back it up."

Today, Perelman seems chastened. A bit. "I should have been more humble, I guess," he says. But he's proud of his film, so why should he worry about Hollywood? "When I was living on welfare in a f---ing tenement building, when I was all alone in my life, where the f--- were all those people?" he says. "All I had was that pilot light inside me." He pauses. "I'm not going to change. It's bulls--t. I mean, what's worse than someone who is falsely humble?"