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With A House Of Sand And Fog, a Russian migrant makes a film about an Iranian immigrant played an English actor, from a novel written by an American; and it gels beautifully – they were all just made for each other, unlike the protagonists.

Andre Dubus III’s book House of Sand and Fog was first published in 1999, telling the story of two desperate people—Massoud Amir Behrani, a once powerful and influential man in his native Iran reduced to menial jobs in the United States, and Kathy Nicolo, a recovering drug addict, with nowhere to turn—and their battle for ownership of a house, which threatens to destroy both of them.

The novel became an immediate sensation with book critics who praised its power and emotion, and it was also a Finalist for the prestigious National Book Award. Those early accolades propelled the book to a bestseller, but when Oprah Winfrey selected it for her Book Club, bringing Andre Dubus III on as a guest on her show, the novel became a runaway hit, topping all of the major bestseller lists.

The adaptation sticks faithfully to the story: A wrecked marriage and drinking problems behind her, Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly) inherits her father’s house in the Bay Area of San Francisco but soon loses it when former Iranian army Colonel Behrani (Ben Kingsley) buys it for a pittance from the local council which, in a bureaucratic bungle, confiscated it. Behrani moves in, refurbishes, and plans to use it as the first rung on the home-ownership ladder, as he and his long-suffering wife (Shohreh Aghdashloo) aspire to the higher social standing they once enjoyed in Iran, but have since only dreamt about. Kathy and Behrani are each adamant to win the ensuing battle. Local cop Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard), with kindness and/or lust in his heart, takes to Kathy’s cause, leaves his wife and tries to be a single handed arm of justice, as he sees it, with terrible consequences.

"a story about loneliness"

Vadim Perelman, then a successful commercial director, was far from Hollywood when he first saw the book House of Sand and Fog on a bookrack at Rome airport. He read it as he crossed the Atlantic, and by the time he landed, he knew his career had been set on a different course. “I knew I needed to tell this story,” he remembers. “It is a story about loneliness and of being cast out…about being an immigrant in a new country and, with regard to Kathy, about feeling like an immigrant in your own country. Those are themes that are primal and universal. Who could not relate to some aspect of that?”

Perelman can relate very personally to the immigrant experience. When he was in his teens, he and his mother left their home in the former Soviet Union behind. They lived hand-to-mouth in Vienna and Rome, before settling in Canada where they had to build a new life. Perelman would eventually cultivate a successful career in America as a commercial director, but those formative years gave him a keen understanding of Behrani’s pursuit of the American Dream and Kathy’s despair at having lost it.

It was that innate understanding of the book’s subject matter that convinced its author to award Perelman the film rights, despite his inexperience as a film director. Dubus recalls, “I had spoken to several people who were attracted to different elements of the story. When I spoke to Vadim, I sensed he understood the deeper resonance of the story…in some ways better than I did. He actually said things about the book that made me say, ‘That’s a good point. You’re right about that.’ Who knew?” he laughs. “He understood the importance of getting across the immigrant experience. I really felt he was going to be loyal to the story in its true form.”

“I remember being very passionate about telling the story,” Perelman says. “It propels you forward. You might have a hint of where it’s going, but I don’t think you are ever prepared for how it is going to end, and that’s the incredible power of this story.”

When Perelman sent Dubus the final draft of the screenplay, the author “loved it. It is so loyal to the book, how could I not love it? It was very impressive, and even I was moved by it, so I just knew I had made the right choice with Vadim.”

Producer Michael London was equally impressed with the screenplay. “You don’t often read a script that makes you say, ‘I have to produce this movie,’” he says. “I remember that by the time I put it down, I felt—like many of the people who ultimately took part in the movie—compelled to raise my hand and say, ‘I need to be involved in this.’ Every bone in my body was deeply affected by the story.”

"something very fundamental: a home"

London says, “I think what the two central characters are after is something very fundamental: a home — literally a house and also figuratively a place to live and have a family—which Kathy has lost and Behrani is trying to hold on to. The thing these people are battling over is not cerebral, it’s not abstract, it’s very personal. Another thing I found so rich about the story is that you care about both of these people. There is no clear right and wrong. You believe that Kathy has been unfairly dislodged from her home, but you also become invested in Behrani’s struggle and his desire to give his family a better life. It defies any easy answers, and I believe that is where the ‘page-turner’ aspect of the movie kicks in.”

“One of the most important things I tried to achieve with this film is for people to root for Kathy and Behrani equally,” Perelman expounds. “They are both flawed people, but they both want something noble in a way. They don’t understand each other, though, and that is what will ultimately destroy them.”

Dubus agrees, “Their desires work against them. I think they both want this house so badly, it blinds them to the other’s motives. They prejudge each other terribly, the way, unfortunately, we tend to do with people from different classes and cultural backgrounds. When that’s the case, we are in dangerous territory.”

With a screenplay in hand, Perelman turned to casting the movie, beginning with the role of Colonel Massoud Amir Behrani. His first and only choice for the role was Ben Kingsley, but he soon learned that the book’s author was way ahead of him—or rather, the author’s wife, Fontaine Dubus, was. Perelman recalls, “When I first contacted him about playing the part of Behrani, he told me he’d already read it. I asked, ‘You’ve read the script?’ and he said, ‘No, I read the book. Andre’s wife sent it to me right after it was published.”

Kingsley takes up the story: “She had taken it upon herself to send me the book with a very charming covering letter saying that her husband had written Behrani with a silhouette very similar to mine in mind. Not to say that he wrote it for me or about me, but that he used me as a kind of benchmark, if I may.

“I loved the book,” Kingsley continues, “and then, months later, Vadim sent me his beautiful screenplay. I felt Behrani was a man with whom I could empathise. I wanted to tell this man’s story. I was curious about his degree of commitment and his ability to endure loss and even humiliation in order to be the patriarch he feels he was born to be.”

"our capacity to endure loss after loss after loss"

“There are enormous forces that a human being can bring to bear to sustain, to accommodate, to understand, and to cope with loss,” Kingsley says. “We are extraordinary animals in our capacity to endure loss after loss after loss. To put it very briefly, Behrani is a man who lost his king, and then loses his kingdom, his son, his wife, his home and, finally, himself.”

Behrani is not the only one who suffers great loss. Loss is also the driving factor in the life of his adversary, Kathy Nicolo, in her fight to hold on to the one thing she has left in the world: her house. Jennifer Connelly, who stars as Kathy, remarks, “She is really lost at the beginning of the film. She has been left by her husband and had to overcome a drug addiction, and so now she is in her house, kind of hibernating, when she is wrongly evicted for non-payment of a tax she never owed. You come to understand, I think, why the house means so much to her, and why she is so stubbornly clinging to it.”

Published February 5, 2004

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House of Sand releases nationally February 12, 2004

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