It's been five years since Vadim Perelman's critically acclaimed feature debut with House of Sand and Fog. Now the director is back with his newest film, The Life Before Her Eyes, starring Uma Thurman, Evan Rachel Wood and Eva Amurri. The film is about Diana, whose life starts to crumble as the 15th anniversary of the school shooting she survived nears; it flashes back and forth between older Diana (Thurman) and the younger Diana (Wood) and her best friend Maureen (Amurri) in the weeks leading up to the tragic event. Cinematical sat down with Perelman and Amurri at AFI Dallas to talk about the film, which opens in limited release this weekend.
Cinematical: Eva, can you talk about the challenges of playing this role, which is much more of "nice girl" than you've played in your previous films?
Eva Amurri: The earlier roles I'd had just happened to be more bad girls. This is the first role I'd had where the role was basically all good, this very pure, selfless girl. What's funny is that Vadim really cast us against type – in real life, I'm much more the "bad" girl, while Evan is the serious "good" girl. I was a little worried about it, but I trusted Vadim, and he did a great job guiding us through it. It was an interesting exercise.
Cinematical: Vadim, you mentioned in the Q&A after the film that you'd had Evan in mind for the part for years before making this project, but when did you decide you wanted Eva for the part of Maureen?
Vadim: We considered a lot of other actresses (including Jena Malone) for the part. I just really trusted Evan's judgment, and after the read-through with Eva, I asked Evan, what do you think of that one? And Evan knew right away, Eva was the one. Evan thought she was perfect for the role.
Cinematical: How did you handle filming the past and present? Did you film simultaneously, or the older and younger Diana parts separately?
Vadim: We were supposed to shoot Uma first, and then the girls the next half, but then Uma got sick after the first two days, so I had to see if Evan and Eva could come in and shoot. Which actually ended up working out better, I think, because Evan only had to worry about Diana's relationship with Maureen, with making that friendship feel authentic. Since she was shooting first, she could just worry about that and not having to match Uma's mannerisms.
Eva: I don't think I ever saw Uma during the shoot actually, we didn't cross paths.
Vadim: It was tougher on me, because the logical thing was to shoot overlapping.
Cinematical: Eva, The friendship between your character and Evan's felt very real, but you didn't actually know each other before this film. What did the two of you do to get into that head space?
Eva: We met one day in New York City. Evan was going through some personal stuff and I didn't really know her well yet. So we were working on her problem together, and I said, you know what? Let's go get some ice cream. And we bonded over the ice cream. Evan is really smart; she's talented but she's also very professional. She's a very open girl, we joked around a lot. She's funny. Our relationship on the set, was very much the opposite of our characters. She was the serious, professional one, I was always joking around. But once she let loose a bit -- a lot of that scene where we were walking in the rain, she was singing "Purple Rain."
Vadim: (laughs) We had to cut all that, because we couldn't afford to pay Prince hundreds of thousands of dollars for the rights to the song.
Cinematical: Eva, what drew you to this project and to working with Vadim?
Eva: I'd seen House of Sand and Fog, which was a big wave in Jennifer Connelly's career -- I'd always been very aware of her, ever since she starred in Labyrinth as a teenager. And the opportunity to work with Vadim, of course, was compelling.
Cinematical: Social and political activism is a big value in your family (note: Amurri's mother is actress and activist Susan Sarandon), can you talk a bit about the activist work you do when you're not making films?
Eva: I think, any time it's been made important to you that you need to do more than your job, you tend to absorb that value. My parents have always said, you'll be so unhappy if you're no more than your career, that it's important to get out there and do things other than just your career. I was made a Goodwill Ambassador last year, and was lucky enough to get paired with a wonderful program. But really, through my parents' example, activism was just always made important.
Cinematical: Was your mom happy that you chose to follow her career path and get into acting?
Eva: She's happy if I'm happy. (laughs) They were skeptical at first – it's a tough career choice.
(Amurri has to excuse herself to do a phoner; Perelman and I settle in on the patio for a longer chat.)
Cinematical: Your previous film, House of Sand and Fog, also used a lot of imagery. Can you talk about use of imagery in your work, and why you like to make films that are both visually lovely and symbolic?
Vadim: I think of House of Sand and Fog as my "air" movie; this is my "water" movie. I don't think the impetus is making an artistic film very much. I do try to minimize the coverage, I only do one or two takes; I know when I have it. I have the movie here (taps his head) and I know when what I've shot matches it. But I also know when it doesn't match it, but what I shot is better than how I'd envisioned it. So if it matches it, great, but sometimes I'm surprised. I've seen when I've got enough, to make a scene. I learned a lot of that from Ben (Kingsley), and from Roger Deakins (his cinematographer on House of Sand and Fog).
Cinematical: Why did you choose to make this as your next film, after five years away from features?
Vadim: I read the book and just fell in love with the source material. It's so poetic, so full of imagery ... just from the opening, I knew I wanted to make it into a movie.
Cinematical: Did you visualize the imagery in your head, as you were reading the book?
Vadim: Yeah, I always do that. As I'm reading, I can see exactly how I would want it to look on screen. But I have to give a lot of credit to Maia Javan, my girlfriend, who was also my production designer, on both this film and on House of Sand and Fog. All the visual clues that are there, all those details, are there because of her, and everything -- every single thing -- has a reason for being there. There are so many little clues woven in, you could spend hours dissecting them. She's just amazing ... she would be my designer, even if she wasn't my girlfriend.
Cinematical: It's been five years since House of Sand and Fog; unlike a lot of directors, who churn out a movie a year, you seem to like to have space between your projects.
Vadim: I'm very lucky, I do a lot of commercials. Did you ever see the film My Architect, about Louis Kahn? It's genius. He built these amazing buildings, but he only built a handful of buildings in his entire career. They interviewed IM Pei, and asked about this guy's buildings. He said, I've done millions of projects, and I'd rather have done just one of his (Kahn's) buildings. That's how I feel about making movies. Who cares if you have hundreds of listings on IMDb under your name, if most of it is just crap? I'd rather make just six movies in my lifetime, but be proud to have my name on each one.