The Rookie: Vadim Perelman

First-Time Director Looks Back At His Journey To Hollywood

In Kiev, Ukraine, first-time director Vadim Perelman is looking for his childhood home. Perelman, 40, emigrated from there 25 years ago.

These days, Perelman is more at home on a red carpet, with the success of his Oscar-nominated debut film, "House of Sand and Fog."

The film stars Ben Kingsley as the immigrant desperate for his family to succeed in America. He pours his life savings into a house, but fears losing it to a down-and-out woman played by Jennifer Connelly.

As powerful as the film is, Perelman's own life story may be more dramatic. And, unlike "House of Sand and Fog," Vadim's story is true. Correspondent Peter Van Sant reports.

What is it like to be back in Kiev? "It's painful. It's really painful," says Perelman.

Forty people shared the Kiev communal apartment where Perelman grew up. A separate family would live in each room, and they would all share one toilet.

"The joke was the toilet seat is never cold," says Perelman.

Vadim's mother, Zhanna, says the hard times were even harder because they were Jews: "So engrained in their brain with hate for Jews."

"It's a word called "Jed." Which means, you know, it's like 'kike,'" adds Perelman.

His father, Valery, was never able to pursue his dream of making movies. "Those doors were closed to him because of anti-Semitism," says Perelman.

Instead, his father made a meager living as an engineer. But when Vadim was 9, he says that whatever joy the family had disappeared: "I remember finding out in this apartment that my dad was dead."

His father had been killed in a car accident. "It was just the two of us holding the hands of each other, clinging to each other," says Zhanna, who struggled for four years to make ends meet before her son told her it was time for a new life. "He said, 'Mom, we have to leave this country. I don't wanna live one day here any more.'"

"It was just too much," says Perelman. "It's just too much death."

In March of 1977, one of the most dramatic scenes of Perelman's life began at a train station in Kiev. With less than $200 dollars in their pockets and just a few boxes of their possessions, he and his mother caught a train to the West.

They ended up in a slum in the small, Italian seaside town of Ostia, just out of Rome.

"I lived the life of a street person," recalls Perelman. "I lived a life of being preyed upon, of trying to just scrape any money. I was hungry sometimes."

At 15, Perelman and his mother got a chance at a better life crossing the sea to Edmonton, Canada. But his life once again fell apart when his mother remarried and he had a confrontation with his new stepfather.

"He hit me," says Perelman. "That was the last straw. That's why I left home. I moved out."

At 16, he was on his own and turned to crime to survive: "We'd break into homes and steal some private possessions from there … TV set, back up a truck and take half the furniture in the house."

Perelman finally straightened outafter the authorities caught him and threatened to deport him. Eventually, he made it to college. When he saw a documentary about making a movie, he decided to become a director. After a childhood of misery beyond his control, he realized he could take control of a set.

"I want to have that. So it was an incredible 'Eureka' moment," says Perelman, who spent the next 13 years directing hundreds of television commercials.

He moved to California, married and had a child. His bitter past was but a dim memory, until the day he was in the Rome airport four years ago, about to fly home from a business trip. He was looking for something to read and found one title that caught his eye on a bookrack: "House of Sand and Fog."

"Thank you, book rack," says Perelman. "Like a gift that was given to me at the end of this circle that I've closed in my life."

On every page, Perelman saw parallels between his own life and the lives of the books' characters – refugees who had been stripped of everything --desperate to survive, determined to maintain their dignity, and prove their worth.

By the time the plane landed, Perelman vowed to make this film. And his finished draft was enough to entice Sir Ben Kingsley to star in it.

"I was pretty overwhelmed by its confidence," says Kingsley.

"He [Kingsley] has that very imposing kind of visage, and I remember coming to him and just being terrified, and I felt this incredible warmth from him," says Perelman. "We became the closest of collaborators on this movie."

"I think he [Perelman] brings to the screen the epic journey that he's made from what used to be the Soviet Union to where he is now, California. That's a huge journey," adds Kingsley.

But the most memorable moment of Perelman's journey happened not on the red carpet, but in a cemetery -- half a world away from Hollywood in Kiev, at his father's grave.

"I told him actually today, I told him what I did," says Perelman. "I said, 'I did what you wanted to do. That you breathed this, you wanted this, and I took your breath and I made it happen.'"