On location with Rex Pickett, writer of the novel
"Sideways," on which the film was based. Photo
Courtesy of Rex Pickett.
Author of the Novel "Sideways"
A Blunt Exposé of His Experiences
By Beverly Cohn
Part 1: The Novels:
"Sideways" and the Sequel, "Vertical"
ex Pickett is not an immediately recognizable name until you mention
that he is the author of the novel "Sideways" on which that
iconic film was based. A random survey by your reporter verified that
the film is on most everyone's favorites list and although the film
was made in 2003, the experience is still very fresh in their minds
and most actually remember the names of the two main characters, Miles
and Jack, and their adventures and misadventures in wine country.
Pickett is a highly articulate gentleman with so much
to reveal so that this is the first of a three-part series by the end
of which you will know just about everything there is to know about
this talented writer. This exclusive interview, conducted at the Casa
del Mar hotel, has been edited for continuity and print purposes. Pickett
was nursing a cold and cough and luckily your reporter had a big supply
of cough drops that helped him get through the ninety-minute interview.
"Sideways" - the novel. Courtesy
Didn't 15 publishers turn down your novel "Sideways?"
Pickett: Many publishers turned it down and we finally
sold it at a "fire sale" for $5,000 to St. Martin's Press.
If I had waited until the movie came out, the book would have sold for
over one million dollars. Once the movie came out, because they had
paid only $5,000, their business model said that they would make one
million off of their $5,000 so they didn't promote the book and thus
the dye was set for something that has made me very bitter and angry
for a long time.
All those rejections had to be discouraging. How
do you motivate yourself to keep going?
Pickett: Something kicked in at the age of 18 and I
knew I wanted to be a writer and even a filmmaker. I made this decision
and set it in stone. I had an emotional story or a journey that was
personal that could get out some way. I moved in fits and starts like
a lot of artists. You write novels that don't work or scripts that don't
get made or they get made without the right budget or the right cast.
So, I'm motivated by the fact that this who I am and I don't want to
be anything else.
How long did it take you to write "Sideways"
and how did the story evolve?
Pickett: I wrote "Sideways" in nine weeks,
writing three hours a day. I couldn't wait to get up and get to the
next part. When I was done writing for the day, I was kind of bummed
out because then I had to face my crappy life because I escaped when
I was writing. People don't realize what a struggle I had. I wrote "Sideways"
in 1998 and 1999 and it wasn't made into a film until 2003. In the 90s,
I lived alone. I'll be very open. I went three years without any intimate
relationship with a woman and I didn't care. I was so broke I was barely
getting by. I didn't want to entertain the ignominy of saying how would
you like to go over to Baja Fresh for dinner? At my age that was a no.
With no structure to my life - no wife, no children, I kind of let myself
go up to a point and then I stopped. When "Sideways" was optioned,
my life got a little better because I got some money and then it got
L-R: Paul Giamatti as Miles (character based on
Rex Pickett,) and Thomas Hayden Church as Jack (based on Pickett's friend
Roy.) Photo: Courtesy of Rex Pickett.
Here's pretty much how the story evolved. I was going
up to the Santa Ynez Valley repeatedly in the early to mid-90s to play
golf and visit the tasting rooms. One week I went up with a friend of
mine Roy, who is the Jack character. (Pickett based the Miles character
on himself.) We went from tasting room to tasting room. At some
point, after a fair amount of wine, he said you should write this as
a screenplay. I did, but it didn't work. I had written a short story
about a local wine tasting from the point of view of a character named
Miles, a character I had used in a script Roy urged me to write called
"Two Guys On Wine." When I got to the end of the short story,
I thought this is like a prologue to a book and that was the beginning
of the novel "Sideways."
Alexander Payne (center) with the cast of "Sideways,"
L-R: Paul Giamatti, Virgina Madsen, Thomas Hayden Church, and Sandra
Oh. Photo: Courtesy Rex Pickett.
"Sideways," the extraordinary film won
350 awards and is listed as one of the 101 all-time best films. Do you
feel you got enough recognition during award season and subsequent to
Pickett: Alexander Payne (director & co-writer
with Jim Taylor of the screenplay) deservedly got all the credit.
A lot of people didn't even know it was based on my novel. The actors
took a lot of credit and the producer, Michael London, did a lot of
credit grabbing. I just sat there in a daze thinking oh my God, my whole
life is changing. People eventually discovered that there was a novel,
but who wants to read a novel after they've seen the film?
How would you describe your style of writing and
do you have any rituals?
Pickett: Before the Internet, I would get up and make
coffee, read the paper, and always wrote in the morning. Now it's tough
because there are so many distractions. The hardest thing is just to
start. I'm not a procrastinator, but now I have to look at the last
paragraph or two to get started. But once I begin, then I feel pretty
good. As far as rituals, I have a little clock on my computer so if
it hits 11:11 or 1:11 I'll stop and wait until it turns to 12. I don't
pace. I write notes, but don't do 3 x 5 cards. I'm not into mapping
things out. I let things build inside me. My writing comes pouring out,
almost like a spate in a way, as opposed to some writers who will spend
all day over a paragraph.
Rex Pickett's novel, "Vertical,"
is the sequel
to "Sideways." Courtesy Photo.
Can you talk about "Vertical," your second
Pickett: I was hot after "Sideways" and my
publishing agent, who was eager to do a deal, read my script called
"The Road Back" which was optioned for years but never made.
He urged me to novelize that screenplay, which I didn't want to do.
But, I finally wrote a one sheeter that Knopf (Knopf Doubleday Publishing
Group) bought for less than $100,000. I had such a miserable experience
with St. Martin's that I thought, wow!
How did that turn out for you?
Pickett: I wrote a first draft and it took six months
for my editor to get back to me and her notes were nothing. The story
gets worse. At some point it morphed into "Vertical," the
"Sideways" sequel, but Knopf said they wouldn't publish it
with the ending so I found a private investor and got out of my contract.
It was a horrible experience. By the way, "Vertical" just
won the gold medal from The Independent Book Publishers Awards.
What's the story line?
Pickett: It's a very personal story. My mother had a
massive stroke in 1990 and was in the hospital for three months. My
younger brother brought her home and proceeded to use that as an excuse
to take most of her money. I assumed control of her care. In "Vertical,"
Miles and Jack are back. Miles is now a successful author and is being
celebrated in the wine world. He's imbibing too much and is somewhat
debauched. Jack is divorced and on the skids and Miles' mother had a
stroke and is unhappily in an assisted living facility in San Diego.
She would rather be with her sister in Wisconsin. Miles gets offered,
as I was, to be the Master of Ceremony at the International Pinot Noir
Celebration in McMinnville, Oregon, a three-day bacchanal. He rents
a handicap van and he piles in his mom, who is paralyzed on the left
side, like my mother, her Yorkie Terrier, a pot-smoking Filipino nurse,
and Jack and we all head up to Oregon.
Rex Pickett with "Sideways" director,
Alexander Payne. Photo: Courtesy Rex Pickett.
Is "Vertical" going to be a movie?
Pickett: Alexander Payne read the novel and said he
loved it, but that he didn't want to do a sequel. Fox Searchlight Pictures
owns the film rights to Miles and Jack. They are enamored with Payne
and obviously if he woke up tomorrow morning and said he wanted to do
the sequel, it would be on the front page of VARIETY, The Hollywood
Reporter, and the New York Times. It's that big of a brand and everybody
knows there's a lot of money on the table. Despite how much money is
on the table for a sequel, Payne is very conscious of his film legacy
and sees himself as an auteur who is creating a body of work.* With
"Vertical," it's a powerful, emotional journey and I've been
told it's even better than "Sideways," and I've already done
the screenplay. What pisses me off is that these are not cartoon characters.
What made the film so great is that these are real flesh and blood human
beings and "Vertical" takes them to a different level. I really
don't want to give it away but it starts with hedonism and ends in this
completely transformed place.
So why do you think he doesn't want to direct the
Pickett: I want to be very careful how I phrase this.
Payne knows that we intersected at one point and it was wonderful and
he deservedly got all the credit, but I did create the original material
that was very personal. "Vertical" is even more personal,
as it's Miles' journey with his mother. This time the attention is going
to shift more to Alexander doing Rex's journey and I don't think he
wants that as he would be more viewed as a slave to my journey, but
a wonderfully artistic, creative one.
Paul Giamatti with Rex Pickett.
Photo: Courtesy Rex Pickett
Can't someone else direct "Vertical?"
Pickett: He (Payne) doesn't want that because
if it wins the Best Picture Oscar, then it's going to look like he made
a mistake that he didn't take that journey. Although Fox Searchlight
legally owns the rights to Miles and Jack, Payne controls it and here's
why. He owns Paul Giamatti. Let's say, for the sake of argument, they
(Fox) say to Alexander that they want to make this movie. We already
have a novel and the script so let's get another director if you don't
want to do it. He's a cool guy and might say, 'sure, explore that possibility.'
But, honestly, behind the scenes, if he doesn't back it, Paul won't
do it and without Paul, you don't have the original "Sideways"
character. That said, I have had some people say you could cast different
actors. There have been at least three different actors playing Batman.
(For the record: 7 actors played Batman: 9 played James Bond, 89
played Tarzan, 7 played Superman, and 22 played Dracula.)
Are you in touch with Alexander?
Pickett: Other than the odd email, we don't speak much
because he knows he's disappointing me by not doing "Vertical."
He could make one phone call and say 'let's do it.' This is what everybody
in Hollywood would want - when you could make one phone call and set
in motion a $25 million film. There wouldn't even be a board meeting
about it. As far as another director, Fox won't do that without Payne's
endorsement and he's basically saying that he doesn't want to see this
sequel get made. Period. End of story.
I hope not
How do you see yourself today?
Pickett: I don't want to be a pretentious person or
somebody who is some kind of diva or moves in a rarified world. But
you do have to say no to a lot of stuff unfortunately and can disappoint
people. But, even with this bad cold, I wouldn't cancel this interview.
I thought I'd be better this morning but I'll go home and have some
tea with honey.
I hope you feel better and don't forget the chicken
*Alexander Payne: Director: "Election," "About Schmidt,"
Executive Producer: "The Descendants," "Hung" (TV
In Part 2, Rex Pickett talks about his theatrical
experience with "Sideways," the hit play on stage at the Ruskin
Group Theatre in Santa Monica through July 22nd.