Life Before Her Eyes with Vadim Perelman

“The film is about love, duty, loyalty, conscience–but there's also self-preservation. Sometimes when we talk about violent situations, we talk about heroism but not enough about real humanity, not about the primal qualities we humans possess”–writer-director Vadim Perelman

Starring Oscar nominee Uma Thurman (“Kill Bill”) and Evan Rachel Wood (“Across the Universe,” Thirteen”), “The Life Before Her Eyes” is the new film from Vadim Perelman, a follow-up to his acclaimed, Oscar-nominated debut, “House of Sand and Fog.”

“The Life Before Her Eyes” is an intense, visually evocative drama about the loss of youth, investigating how a single moment in time can define an entire life. Based on Laura Kasischke's novel, the story hinges on a pivotal confrontation: two high school girls held captive by a gunman and forced to make the terrifying choice as to who will live and who will die.

“Life Before Her Eyes” explores the reverberations stemming from the collision of past and future, reality and dream. Life can end in an instant-yet the echoes of possible futures remain inescapable. Moving backwards and forwards in time, it combines the dramatic intensity of “Sophie's Choice,” with the eerie mystery of a ghost story like “The Others.”

For director Perelman, the film of “Life Before Her Eyes” began with reading Laura Kasischke's novel. Having made his powerfully dramatic and visually rich feature film debut with the Oscar-nominated “House of Sand and Fog,” starring Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connolly, Perelman found that her book inspired his instincts for literary material that provokes visual exploration: “The whole novel is like a song about these girls. It has a real element of magic to it. Laura is a poet and this was one of her very first works of prose.”

In her New York Times review, critic Erika Krouse emphasized the visual impact of author Laura Kasischke's writing: “Life Before Her Eyes” evokes terror and redemption, shadows and light. Kasischke treads a delicate line with the precision and confidence of a tightrope walker. She reminds us to look hard at life, to notice its beauty and cruelty, even as it flashes before us and disappears.”

Yet her compressed and allusive style also posed a challenge for film adaptation. Perelman says of the book: “It doesn't have a very linear structure or a conventional narrative–it has a very dreamlike quality to it. But that's what made it so attractive to me: the challenge of bringing that to screen.” Laura Kasischke describes the central strategy of her novel: “It's about dreams and about imagination–that splash of imaginative ecstasy or agony–and the tearing of the fabric of a dream.”

Rooted in the screenplay adaptation by Emil Stern, Perelman's approach to the material was to express this sense of imminent magic and mystery, while still making sure the film was anchored in its own internal logic: “The movie as a whole is not a perfectly ordered experience with very clear causes and effects. Knowing that, I tried to echo that feeling on a scene-to-scene basis with little ellipses–for instance, Maureen is obsessed with a boy in her class and they talk about him all the time but you hardly see him.”

The audience is invited deep into the texture of how things happen. They learn very soon that Diana's experience is a series of mirrored reflections, not a simple through-line. Tracking the eerie overtones that surround everyday events is a way to help draw them into her world–and to build suspense about the ways that world is being challenged.

Deeply Emotional Textures

For Uma Thurman (“Kill Bill,” “Pulp Fiction”), who plays the adult Diana, the story explores deeply personal textures: “The way these two young women spoke to each other and observed things–it reminded me of my own life and that rich, painful experience of being on your own as a teenager.” The reality of the Diana that she plays is based on the aspirations of young Diana, who is cast with Evan Rachel Wood (“Across the Universe,” “Thirteen”). Wood speaks frankly about Perelman's perfectionism, and how it links to her own: “I'm hard on myself when it comes to acting, and he's into every detail. It's as if he has the whole movie put together in his head.”

Director's Passion

Thurman finds the keynote of Perelman's approach in his passion: “Film directors are by their nature passionate about film. Everything depends upon every image that they get. The director is standing there with sixty-to-a-hundred people trying to help make a vision come true.”

Laura Kasischke's inspiration for the book came from a connection she made between the tragic shootings at Columbine and a car accident in her small Midwestern town that claimed the life of three high school girls. “Everyone kept saying of those who died that “they had their whole lives ahead of them–all the potential that would never be realized, all the experiences that they would never have.” She investigated her own sense of the overlap between dreams and memories: “Sometimes, I have memories that seem less real for me than a dream I had last night. And sometimes I wake up from a dream which seems as though something has really happened to me. Was that less a lived piece of my life than some vague memories I have from the past.” Given that the central theme of the book has to do with “imagined life,” witnessing interplay of dream and memory further developed by seeing a film of her book being made is particularly powerful for the writer: “It's fascinating to see people pretending to be characters that I pictured in my mind. It's a strange sort of projection of my inner life out on the streets–and onto the screen.”

Before she ever met the director, producer Peyronnet (“The Lovely Bones”) shared Perelman's vision of “Life Before Her Eyes” as an exceptional basis for a film. “I had read the book in manuscript and tried to option it, but was told that the rights had gone to 'a director' they wouldn't name. Three years later, I had a general meeting with Vadim to see if our sensibilities connected. In his office I see Laura's book. He tells me that he was the director who optioned it, but the studio deal he set up didn't work out. I proposed approaching it as an independent film, and that's how the venture took form. I thought it was the only way to put a project like this together. I don't like working with people who just make films. I like people who have visions.”

Conservative Best Friend

A core relationship for young Diana is her connection to her more conservative best friend Maureen, played by Eva Amurri (“The Banger Sisters,” “Saved”). Says Perelman: “Young Diana is a rebel–she smokes, she's always in trouble. On the other hand, Maureen is more timid; she goes to church and she's just discovering how to be an adult, whereas Diana is ahead of her in that respect. Both have been raised by single mothers who just can't supervise them, so they have to rely on themselves and, as their friendship evolves, on each other.” The bond formed with Maureen and what happens in their desperate confrontation with the shooter continues to resonate in the way the older Diana lives her life. “You are profoundly affected by the people around you–not just now, but forever,” says Perelman, “and this film dramatizes this with narrative echoes between past and present.”

Uma Thurman observes: “The film is really the dream of a young girl about what it will be like to grow up and get past everything she's struggled with. She sees the moment of choice as a watershed between now and then. The movie is about the way life can go from bumbling along, where all you're concerned about is your boyfriend and your mom and your homework and your grades–totally mundane stuff–and then some horrific tsunami of human anger can just tear through a community and destroy it.”

Defining the turning-point situation in emotional, not political terms, Perelman declares: “The Life Before Her Eyes is not a film about a school shooting. It's about how the incident guides people's characters and about how these characters find a way to reaffirm their own lives.”

Evan Rachel Wood

Since the production depended on finding two actresses who could convincingly play the same character, casting the two Dianas was a central challenge. Perelman had been tracking Evan Rachel Wood since her first breakout film role: “Evan was 15 when I met with her after the premiere of her film 'Thirteen.' I told her, 'I have a film that would be perfect for you.” She was always the young Diana for me. Wood remained committed to the picture for over three years. Producer Peyronnet points out that the young actress turned down other films to honor her interest in “Life Before Her Eyes,” as if the film were written for her.

Uma Thurman

The task then became finding the perfect choice to play adult Diana, someone who could capture the mystery of the character without losing the specific edges that make this woman alive and accessible. Perelman describes his first encounter with Thurman: “When I met Uma, I really felt she had a depth of character. She's a mother herself and has a real understanding of life that is important to portraying this character.”

Uma Thurman found the script beautifully written, with a dream-like feel that “put you into a sort of trance.” She finds a entry to adult Diana in the way trauma has formed her sensitivity–how she takes the fears that remain from her ordeal and projects them into her concern for her own daughter Emma (played by the exceptional Gabrielle Brennan). She says the essence of her job as an actress in this movie is “to play the emotional thrust of the character–a real woman remembering something and trying to work out her life with her husband and child.” In a telling phrase, she describes the particular terror that haunts her character Diana: “the vision of a life unlived.”

Not My Character Anymore

In calibrating the two actress' performances so that audiences would believe that Thurman and Wood were playing the same character, Perelman found the giving of trust was a key tool: “First of all,” says Perelman, “Diana's not my character any more. As soon as I give them the role, I relinquish it to them. And they become the vessel–all I can do is stand by and very gently steer them. Every day I would show both of them the dailies from the other's performance. I wanted them to understand that they were really playing the same person. They both understood each other's mannerisms and speech patterns–it looks like the most natural thing in the world but it took a lot of careful scrutiny.”

For Perelman, actress Eva Amurri wasn't an obvious choice to play young Diana's best friend Maureen. A child of the theater, daughter of Susan Sarandon and director Franco Amurri, Eva did not share Maureen's aversion to risk or her natural quiet reserve: “She's a self-assured, bubbly person. She's not the meek, religious little girl at all. And I think that Eva's true personality helped humanize Maureen. It gave her a kind of fire inside the character and highlights her heroism in this story.”

Evan Rachel Wood describes the interplay between young Diana and Maureen, “the free spirit” and “the good girl”: “They are complete opposites, but they somehow completely get each other.” She and Eva found that Perelman used their own growing on-set friendship to deepen the connection between the characters they play: “Sometimes Vadim wouldn't even tell us the cameras were rolling and just let me and Eva go off and be ourselves.”

Tough Taskmaster

Yet Perelman could be a tough taskmaster: “He's very blunt–I appreciate it because I'm hard on myself and it helps to have someone there obsessing over every little detail with you,” says Wood. Amurri concurs: “What Vadim does is very, very calculated. He knows exactly what he wants and he's making the movie he wants to make every day. It's really his baby.”

Risk in Making the Movie Itself

Thurman found the risk-taking theme extended to the decision to make the film itself: “I think there's this real epidemic in cinema that nobody makes dramas any more. I love drama and so when I saw the boldness and bravura in House of Sand and Fog, I thought, 'Here's someone who said, 'I'm going to make a drama' and really did.”

Edgier Material

Produced and financed by Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban's 2929 Productions (“Good Night, and Good Luck”; “We Own the Night”), “The Life Before Her Eyes” was the very epitome of an independent production. Says Thurman, “This is exactly what independent cinema is for, to do edgier material, to do it economically and smartly and to present it to the right audience. That's how a complete vision can be created.”