'Life' goes on, but with clues to how it ends

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Perelman picture:  When you find yourself talking about a movie immediately after seeing it, it's typically a very good sign.

A case in point that had me doing just that is Vadim Perelman's new thriller "The Life Before Her Eyes," opening in New York, Los Angeles and other select cities April 18 via Magnolia Pictures. The film, whose screenplay by Emil Stern ("Tenderness") is based on the novel by Laura Kasischke, is produced by Perelman, Aimee Peyronnet and Anthony Katagas. Its executive producers are Todd Wagner, Mark Cuban and Marc Butan. Starring are Uma Thurman, Evan Rachel Wood ("Across the Universe," "Thirteen") and Eva Amurri ("Dead Man Walking," "Bob Roberts").

Perelman's first feature, the critically acclaimed 2003 drama "The House of Sand and Fog," was nominated for three Oscars. In "Life" he focuses on a woman (Thurman) who survived a high school shooting 15 years earlier in which a crazed fellow student slaughtered numerous classmates. The woman's best friend at the time was among those killed, but her death came after the gunman forced his girlfriend to decide whether he should kill her or her friend. Understandably, the event has defined Thurman's character's adult life and with the shooting's 15th anniversary coming up she's an emotional wreck as she recalls her horrific past in vivid detail.

The film's ending, which I'm not going to spoil for you here, involves a terrific twist that you may or may not pick up on through clues Perelman's carefully planted in the film. It's a movie, by the way, that brings to mind things like "Sophie's Choice" with its who-will-live-and-who-will-die storyline and "The Others" with its eerie otherworldly ghost story.

Perelman's picture gives moviegoers lots to talk about, which is what I was happy to do when he called recently while in Mexico to attend a wedding. "It's a film that not only can they talk about, but I'm hoping they (will)," he told me, "because it's one of those drive home and decide what exactly happened kind of things. Some people get it and some people don't. It's not a puzzle. I don't want it to be an intellectual exercise for people. I want the intellectual enjoyment to just be almost a byproduct of at least getting into it emotionally and becoming involved with the fate of the girls and Uma's character, as well."

When we spoke "Life" had recently premiered at the AFI Festival: "It had a gala screening and there was an amazing response. There was an amazing response to it. Really incredible. The whole theater was packed and (everyone) stayed for the Q&A. That means they were intrigued."

Asked how he first became involved with the project, Perelman explained, "While I was prepping 'House of Sand and Fog' I found this book, and I optioned it with my money, just the same as (I did with) 'House of Sand and Fog.' And then I was so busy and frankly I couldn't quite crack the script myself because it was really kind of an adventure puzzle like thing. Then Emil Stern came in and did an amazing job of writing the screenplay. And then it kind of sat around for a long time because I had other projects (in development). It really was always meant to be. Three years later it came around again I ended up doing it. And 2929 (Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban's 2929 Entertainment) came in and financed it solely. So it was a really great experience in that way."

While shaping the project Perelman definitely had one of his stars in mind: "Evan Rachel Wood has always been the cornerstone of this. As a matter of fact, when I saw 'Thirteen' premiere, which was I think was a year before 'House of Sand and Fog' came out probably, I met Evan. I was so impressed with her performance in the film. She was only 15 at the time. I met her at the premiere of 'Thirteen' and I sat down with her and her mother and said, 'Listen. You did such an amazing job and you're such a good actress. I have a role for you. I'm pretty sure that I have the perfect role for you.' And she waited and she kind of remembered it. And from there cast Uma."

What were the challenges in adapting the novel? "We stayed pretty close to the novel," he said. "The novel was actually a little more poetic and even less linear than the film. But it was definitely a back and forth kind of thing where you saw the girls (in high school) and then you saw Diana (Thurman) older. The challenges were not to give too much away and not to be too obtuse. 'House of Sand and Fog' was really kind of a dramatic thriller -- an emotional thriller where you didn't know how things were going to turn out, but you kind of got this dread feeling that things were not going to turn out too well. I had the same sort of feeling with this one, but here instead of modulating emotions I tried to modulate information and keep the reveal to the end as to what exactly is going on (like) who is Uma? And who is the older Diana? Is she just a guilt-ridden survivor or is there more to it?

"If you see the film again you'll see that there are so many clues all the way through it right from the very beginning. We did a lot of testing just to gauge whether (people) are going to get it or not at certain times. But you can almost get it right from the beginning. There are very, very clear clues. And that was the trick -- to modulate them without (giving anything away) -- because what I didn't want is somebody to go, 'OK, I get it.' And then what's the rest of the movie all about?"

Perelman's other fear, he noted, "is that they wouldn't get it at all and they would say, 'Well, I don't understand why this happened.' With some of the early cuts actually that was the case. We had a lot of confused audiences where they were going, 'It's a cool film. We like it a lot. It's very lyrical and evocative and it did tweak me emotionally at the end.' But you know how American audiences (are) unfortunately. They don't like to work too hard. They don't like to be confused. They like everything kind of (explained like),'This is a bad guy, this is a good guy and this happened and she's dead.' So for me it was all about that."

As for getting the project financed, Perelman continued, "We got Uma to agree to do it. Evan had already agreed. And then we just took it around to some brave financiers and 2929 was very excited about it and liked it so much and believed in it. They put up the full budget, which was $13 million. It's the perfect number (given costs these days), especially if you have stars. You know that you can make your money back even if it doesn't do great theatrically. That's almost always the case now with these kinds of films (that are) more artistic, more unconventional, nongenre, independent films. Your theatrical run really is an advertisement for the DVD. It kind of becomes that. You try to make as big of a splash in theaters (as possible) in order to sell a lot of DVDs. You're never going to have that huge first weekend (at the boxoffice)."

In the case of "Life," the film plays very well on a television screen and, as Perelman noted, seeing it on DVD will have some advantages: "Especially because with a DVD it's more conducive to repeated viewings where people can actually go back and say, 'Did I actually see that? Now it makes sense.' I'm going to do a commentary track that's going to have a big warning on it saying, 'Please don't watch this unless you want everything given away' because I'm going to really point out everything that we did (in terms of setting up clues to the ending)." Magnolia will distribute the DVD, he added, in June or July.

Shooting took place over an eight-week period for 40 days in Connecticut in September and October 2006. "It was perfect (weather)," he recalled. "We tried to get the leaves not to turn. We were very conscious of that. We shot the girls' section (during their high school days) first. So it was completely out of order the way we shot it."

Without giving anything away, there are some physical similarities between the characters played by Thurman and Wood that help make the story work. "A lot of that was due to them," Perelman said. "We never rehearsed with them so they never were trying to copy each other's mannerisms or anything that conscious. But I did show Uma some of the Evan footage (because) we shot Evan first. She just watched maybe like two days of dailies and she said, 'OK. I got it now.' And that was it. She's really, really great at that. And, also, my wardrobe and makeup and hair crews really did an amazing job because (in) the film the girls' looks converge until they all look identical."

Perelman didn't do a lot of rehearsing with his actors: "The only thing I rehearsed was the bathroom scene (that's a pivotal action scene in the film) because I wanted to see the movement (of the actors) so I brought the three of them in and we did a couple of days of (rehearsal). I'm not a firm believer in rehearsal. I think with good actors you're almost kind of wasting energy and making them less sure of their first sure by rehearsing it too much. With good actors it's always good on take one or two and if the spontaneity of take one or two has already gone by -- because they have a kind of visual memory of that and their own memory of their performance -- then now when they come on set they're already doing take two (or three). To me, I'm missing that take one on set on camera.

"We tried to do it in 'House of Sand and Fog' with Ben (Kingsley) and Jennifer (Connelly) and I sat there with them for like three days and I watched these thoroughbreds of acting just with a snap of their fingers giving me the most amazing performances and all it did was just piss me off because I would go, 'Why don't I have a camera (rolling) right now to capture that? And, God forbid they won't be able to get that (same performance again on camera).' So I just said, 'You know what, guys? Let's stop rehearsing now and we'll just sit and talk about it and you can ask me whatever questions you want about any scene or (anything about) the characters and let's just talk about it more theoretically. I think you would rehearse specific things -- like maybe a certain dance or a fight scene or things that are more physical, but the actual performance I don't think should be rehearsed."

Does he do any storyboarding? "No," he answered. "That's another thing that went out the window on 'House of Sand and Fog' after the first week. I storyboarded a lot of the sequences because I come from (directing) commercials and then I realized that first of all it's never going to be like the storyboard. And second of all, it's very strange because in commercials -- and I've done over 150 of them in my whole career -- I'm very, very controlling and very prepared. And in movies, even though I move very quickly I have it in my mind and yet I don't like to get over prepared for a scene, especially if it's a dramatic performance scene.

"Something like the shooting scene (in 'Life') I wanted to do because I just wanted to get the geography of the room and have a kind of special memory for the actors of how to do that. And that melee outside the school (after the shooting) -- I kind of had to draw a whole map of it and where everybody will be running and how the triage was going to get set up and the where the cop cars were going to be put. And all that I mapped out. But, you know, two people in a room having an incredible dramatic moment (is something that's best not rehearsed)."

Referring to a scene between Thurman and her husband in the film, "Originally I thought, maybe I'll put it by the window and when she came in she said, 'I'd kind of like to sit on the floor for this,' so I said, 'Great. Do it.' I let the actors decide (things like this) a lot of times. It's funny because people call me an actors' director. I guess I am in a sense because I really trust them. I trust their choices. I don't try and mold them to my will at all."

The worst challenges during production, he told me, were "scheduling (which) is always tough. And this is, after all, a fairly low-budget film -- $13 million. Maybe a little more days would have been great. But then again, I took out like 40 minutes from the film. My first assembly was 40 minutes longer. So we could have had a 28 day shooting schedule! I'm a firm believer in being very tough in the editing room with not getting too precious about material. It's like not thinking, 'Oh, my God, this scene took me like a whole night to shoot and it was so tough (to do) blah, blah, blah.' You know, if it doesn't work, it doesn't work. Or if it doesn't fit into the story, it doesn't  serve the story or serve the movie as a whole. But a lot of times you only know that after you film it."

Weather is often a challenge for filmmakers, but in this case, he said, "The weather was great. One of the things -- I'm knocking on wood right now -- is I was extremely lucky in both films. Weather really for some reason cooperates with me all the time and even unknowingly so. Like, for example, in that forest (scene) with Uma when she was running around looking for her daughter it was pouring rain that day. We were so miserable. We were wondering, 'Should we call the shoot?' It was cold and rainy and just impossible to get anything done and there was mud everywhere. And then Uma was brave enough to say, 'You know what, guys? I don't care if I get wet. Let's go shoot this.' And we did. It really added a whole a new element and a layer to it (with) wet leaves and steam coming out of her mouth and all that. It was really great."

"Sarah" sizzles: After an early look at Universal's "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," opening wide April 18, I'm climbing out on my boxoffice limb to predict that this one's going to be big! It's a highly commercial R rated romantic comedy that should generate great word of mouth from its target young adult demo.

"Sarah" marks the feature directing debut for Nicholas Stoller, who wrote 2005's "Fun With Dick and Jane" with Judd Apatow. Apatow, a producer of Universal's summer of '07 blockbuster "Knocked Up," produced "Sarah" with Shauna Robertson, who also produced "Knocked Up." Apatow and Robertson also produced Universal's summer of '05 blockbuster "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." "Sarah" stars Kristen Bell, Jason Segel (who wrote its screenplay with Apatow), Mila Kunis and Russell Brand, all of whom make "Sarah" sizzle!

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Jan. 14, 1991's column: "At a time when many independent distributors are struggling to stay in business, it's especially reassuring to see in the case of Miramax Films a well-managed independent with boxoffice muscle.

"'We've been fortunate in that Bob and I have chosen the right films to get involved with, either from a production or an acquisitions point of view,' observes Harvey Weinstein, who with his brother, Bob Weinstein, is co-chairman of New York-based Miramax, which they co-founded in 1979…

"'A lot of this business is taste. We've been presented some excellent scripts and in some cases have the courage to go for projects that seemingly don't look commercial, but have a high quality to them,' Weinstein told me. 'That's always been the way of operating at Miramax. If it's good we'll worry about the marketing. When I speak to the people who compete against us, they're always saying things like, 'Well, I don't know how to market this.' I think the trick at Miramax is that we always try to go for good projects and we'll find the way to market them. Once we have a movie we can find that handle and we've very active in our pursuit of it.'

"Although there are those who identify Miramax with adult product because of its role in last year's controversy over replacing the X rating with NC-17, Weinstein says that's not really the case: 'That was just timing that 'The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover' and 'Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!' came out back-to-back. It was a situation where there were two films and both of them got rated X at the time. We protested in the traditional methods with 'Cook, Thief.' When 'Tie Me Up!' got rated X, we thought that was really unjustified…

"While he acknowledges that marketing costs are higher for NC-17 films because they can be and, therefore, are now advertised in media that refused to run ads for X movies, Weinstein's pleased with the broader distribution they can now get: 'The trade-off is that you can get into theaters. You can pay no money to advertise something, but if you don't get into theaters, then what are you going to do?'"

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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