In an interview on Collider.com promoting your new film The Magic of Belle Isle with Morgan Freeman, conducted by the journalist Sheila Roberts, the following brief exchange occurred:
Roberts: I just saw Sideways: the Play. Did you know it’s a play?
Madsen: I’ve heard and I can’t imagine it. I look highly skeptical because Rex (Rex Pickett) finally got to take over and rewrite everything.
Roberts: When I heard they’d made Sideways a play, I said how could they do it?
Freeman: And they did it?
Roberts: It’s brilliant. It really is.
What struck me, Virginia, by this short, seemingly innocuous exchange – almost like a curare dart to the heart – was not only the inferential factual inaccuracy of your statement, but also the seeming utter insensitivity – or just downright ignorance – you exhibit to the writer who wrote the source material that became a movie that, once again, turned you into a star. You seem to be implying with “Rex finally got to take over and rewrite everything” that I took Alexander Payne’s and Jim Taylor’s multiply award-winning adaptation of my novel and then capitalized on a now iconic film and turned it into a play to, what? cash in on a phenomenon that I had little or nothing to do with? And that you’re “skeptical” because, what? I vitiated my own source material and, in so doing, tarnished a great film? Are you kidding me, Virginia? Can you really be that oblivious to one of the main components of what made Sideways such a great movie? Or that somehow I have no right to take my own novel and not adapt it to the stage, that the movie is somehow sacrosanct and should never be touched or reinvented? Forget the fact that Fox Searchlight let the Japanese do a cheesy remake of it a few years back.
First some facts, Virginia: I was approached to do the play by the tiny, Equity-waiver Ruskin Group Theater in Santa Monica a year and a half ago. I, too, was skeptical, but for entirely different reasons than you. When I met with them, without even knowing the contractual ramifications of a stage production of Sideways, they were emphatic from the beginning that the play be based on the novel, not the movie. For both legal and artistic reasons the final play – after 25 drafts and over a year in development – was based entirely on my novel. Legally, I couldn’t use anything in Payne’s and Taylor’s marvelous, Oscar-winning script that wasn’t in the novel. When I went back and read my novel after 7 years I realized there wasn’t anything in the script that wasn’t in my novel that I wanted to use. What I discovered, in re-reading it, is that the novel was so dialogue-driven, so chockablock with great scenes that never made it into the movie, that I realized that there was another way that Sideways could be told that would hopefully delight and thrill and emotionally move the massive fan base, give them a new experience, if you will, of a movie/novel loved so ardently to this day. It was a huge risk on my part because I was well aware of how high the bar the movie had set, and how ultimately my script would be compared to it, and it took me several months to agree to do it. But, happily, now in its 9th week, it is selling out every night. The LA Weekly gave it Pick of the Week and the critic wrote: “… more involvingly intimate than the movie.” Clearly, we at Ruskin did something right.
Virginia, this may come as a shock to you, but Sideways the movie was not the Immaculate Conception. There was a novel, a voice, behind and buttressing it every step of the way. A novel that, circa 2003, was the pinnacle of a “career” composed of years of writing screenplays and novels and making two independent feature films. When I wrote it I was destitute, left for dead by the film and publishing industry. The ‘90s had been a very difficult decade for me. After the failure of my second feature film, From Hollywood to Deadwood, I got divorced from my producer/actress wife who had been my Rock of Gibraltar; my mother suffered a massive stroke and I had to assume control of her care after my larcenous younger brother stole all her money; my agent died of AIDS … I’ll spare you, because it gets worse before it gets better. In short, I was nowhere. I started sojourning up to the Santa Ynez Valley to get away from my horrible life. It was a cheap vacation. Like Miles and Jack I always stayed at the Windmill Inn. I dined at the Hitching Post. I soon discovered it was wine country and I started going wine tasting. I fell in love with the Santa Ynez Valley. It was restorative to my beleaguered psyche. I started dragging friends up to share with me what I was experiencing. In short, I was unwittingly researching the novel that would become the hit movie of the same title. But before I wrote Sideways I wrote a mystery novel titled La Purisima that got me new representation. New life had been breathed into my shambles of a career. Or so I thought. We couldn’t sell it. Rejection letter after rejection letter poured into my mailbox from my lovely agent Jess Taylor at Curtis Brown, LTD. Hope had turned to Hell, once again.
It was in this state, after a decade of loneliness and suicidal despair, with process servers banging on my door at 6:00 a.m., my landlord screaming at me on the phone for back rent, my mother now caterwauling in a convalescent home on her death bed, my now ex-wife remarried and pregnant with her first child, that I sat down and wrote Sideways in a furious pace, fearing homelessness or, unable to handle the ignominy of that fate, just pointing a gun to my temple and ending it. I threw in everything, Virginia, including the proverbial kitchen sink into that novel: Miles with his unpublished novel; the wife he loved now long gone, remarried and with child; few friends; a life hanging so precariously in the balance it’s not even funny – even though I made it funny!; my excessive over-imbibition at the time; and more. And, yes, there was a waitress at the Hitching Post named Renee (whom I called Maya) who I had a crush on. I bared my soul in that novel in a way that few writers dare to do. I so bared my soul that my ex-wife exhorted me to burn it. It’s a long story, and I chronicled it in a 15,000 word 7-part blog on Stage32.com called “My Life on Spec: the Writing of Sideways.”
How the book got to Alexander Payne is a miracle. Michael London, the producer, took credit for this in the press, but it’s a bald-faced lie, as were many other blatant falsehoods that he spoon-fed to the media. Jess Taylor, my smart and sensitive literary agent, had come to Endeavor to be their book-to-film agent, got it to Payne’s agent, David Lonner, risked his sanity, had a nervous breakdown and left the business when we couldn’t get anyone to buy it – no publisher nor film production co. (Again, that’s all chronicled in excruciating detail in the Stage32.com story, which I heartily recommend you read because I think it might give you a deeper appreciation of just who I am.)
When the film came out, the media, as they are wont to do, showered praise on the director and the actors. Fine. Cool. I get it. In the case of Alexander Payne, I owe him everything for resurrecting my then unpublished novel and, with it, my career. I have deep respect for him and the incredibly faithful adaptation that he and Taylor did of my novel. When the awards season rolled around I was not invited to most of the gala events – a slight that happens to many novelists – but I watched all of the ones that were televised. In acceptance speech after acceptance speech not a single one of the main cast – you, Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, or Sandra Oh – ever bothered to thank the writer who gave birth to them. Not once. It’s as if I didn’t exist. Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor – both classy guys – always, unhesitatingly, thanked me. Every single time they walked to the stage to collect their statuettes: the WGA award, their Golden Globe, their Indie Spirit award, NY Circle Critics award, and … their Academy Award. As writers, they knew where their bread was buttered. They knew that I had suffered this very, very personal book, and that its riches were a product of that suffering. We spent enough time together in pre-production for them to get to know me. They know what I went through to write this book. Apparently, even 7+ years later, the actors don’t get it. I created all of you. The novel was written in the 1st person from the standpoint of Miles (Paul Giamatti) for Christ’s sake. I am Miles. As brilliantly embodied by Paul in the movie as he is, I am Miles. This novel was not some lark I dashed off in a few weeks, in a canon of other novels and screenplays of mine, that just happened to luck out and get produced by the great filmmaker Alexander Payne. This was a culmination of a life’s work circa ’03! The novel is now appearing on syllabuses at major universities. As the movie’s reputation continues to be burnished by time, more and more people are discovering the novel. I get praise for it every day on Twitter by my now large fan base.
Now, Sideways is a play. It’s the same story of Miles and Jack and their wayward week in the Santa Ynez Valley before Jack is to be married, but it veers sharply from the movie in many significant ways. It hews very closely to my novel as far as staging exigencies would accommodate. Jack is not the remorseless sex-crazed Terminator that Payne and Taylor made him into. He’s got more heart, more soul, shows more contrition for his acts; in short, he’s more like the Jack I knew in real life whom the character was based on. Miles in the novel, despite his depressive zeitgeist, is actually a funny guy. His self-deprecating humor is a hallmark of the book and the play, but not the movie. Brilliant as Giamatti is, the way the script was written, we rarely laugh at things Miles says, we only laugh at what he does, the crazy ass situations we find him in. That was Payne’s and Taylor’s take on the character, and it turned out into a sublimely funny movie which I want to go on record as saying that I love to death. But Sideways: the Play is my vision of my novel. It has absolutely nothing to do with the sensibility of the movie as imagined by Payne and Taylor. Oh, sure, some scenes are in tact, because they were lifted wholesale from my novel by Payne and Taylor for their script. But saying that I got to take over and “rewrite everything” implies that I had no right to turn my novel – yes, my novel! – into a stage adaptation. John Steinbeck did it with Of Mice and Men after a mediocre movie had been made of his novel. More important, audiences are finally realizing that there was a voice behind Sideways, that it was indeed not the Immaculate Conception, that it was born from a writer who spent a decade in obscurity suffering indignities that you and others associated with the movie have absolutely no clue about.
Here’s an anecdote for you, Virginia: Payne and Taylor were perspicacious enough to give me every single draft of their adaptation. Yes, every single one. As a writer – and particularly a writer of screenplays – I knew not to overly-annotate or criticize. Writers are looking for those few bon mots that might amplify or enhance upon what they’re doing. They don’t want a deluge of notes. They’re not looking for someone to impose their vision on them. In the first draft, Miles’s self-absorbed speech rhapsodizing about Pinot Noir was met by silence on the part of your character, Virginia. Yes, that’s right, silence. Second draft: same deal. Silence. It didn’t feel right to me. In the margin I wrote to Payne and Taylor: “Wouldn’t it be lovely if Maya had a complementary speech.” That’s all I wrote. In the third draft your famous speech on wine magically appeared, a speech which, if it weren’t in the movie, I’ll go on record as saying, your chances of winning all those Best Supporting Actress awards would have been in serious jeopardy. When critics referenced your terrific turn as Maya that’s all they wrote about: that speech on wine. I told Payne and Taylor immediately in E-mail that I loved what they had written and not to change a word. It was beautiful, heartbreaking, erotic; it gave your character an inner life she didn’t have in early drafts of the script. I didn’t write it; I only nudged them to write it. Then, in post-production, Payne wanted to cut it. He’s gone on record in many interviews opining that he hates sentimentality. He thinks it dates movies. I remember being in the sound mix the day they were mixing that scene. Knowing that this was his last chance to change anything, Payne was pacing up and down the aisles complaining, if memory serves, that your speech on wine had to go, not because of your luminous performance, but because it was too mawkish. I remember telling him that he would be a fool to cut it, that he had seen it too many times in the editing room, that he had lost objective perspective, that anyone would find it maudlin after 100 viewings, but that the audience would be seeing it for the first time, with fresh eyes, with open hearts. Others in the mixing studio chimed in with the same opinion. Your beautiful, lovely monologue on wine was thus saved collecting dust on the cutting room floor, a film actor’s worse nightmare.
I don’t ask anything from you, Virginia, in acknowledging what I had to do with the success of the movie. That I created your Maya is a fait accompli. That I gave your character an inner life all came from the source material, beautifully realized by Payne’s direction and your acting and Payne’s and Taylor’s script. But it was born in my imagination, as was practically everything else in the movie. I got little or no credit for what I did, and I took it on the chin, especially when Michael London started self-aggrandizingly boasting to the media every opportunity he got that he had slaved over the manuscript with me – a major whopper – that he had come up with the title – yep, his pathological lying knew no bounds. The novelist never really gets the credit he deserves when his book is turned into a great movie. He only prays that the movie bears even the remotest resemblance to his original work. There is no question that the movie is incredibly faithful to my novel. The play, by design, and, as I said, for legal and artistic reasons, is dead faithful to the novel. What I chose to include and exclude is what separates it from the movie. I consciously did everything in my power to differentiate the play/novel from the movie. From the end of Act I through the entire Act II it’s really a completely different experience than the movie. The film, great and critically-acclaimed as it is, is not the be-all and end-all artistic interpretation of the now archetypally iconic Miles and Jack characters. They are on full display in my Sideways sequel Vertical, which just won the Gold Medal in Fiction from the Independent Publishers Book Awards. Payne gave us one version, and it was a brilliant, satiric one, and it is definitely the cinemtic definitive one, but it’s not the only one and, regardless, if it is the definitive one, it’s still based on my novel. The Ruskin Group Theater and all the wonderful actors and my young brilliant director, Amelia Mulkey, would never have staged this if they didn’t think it offered a different experience than the movie; i.e., that it didn’t work on its own terms.
Virginia, when asked about the play, before you go spouting off in interviews about what it is or isn’t, may I suggest you come down to Santa Monica to see it. I have two tickets waiting for you. I will save you the best seats. We pour high-end Pinot Noir from a different winery in proper Riedel stemware at every performance for free. You might be pleasantly surprised to realize that there was a singular, for good or ill, voice behind the movie that turned out to be the unqualified zenith of your career. Yes, it’s true that the inimitable Alexander Payne rescued you from the trash-heap of bad Cable TV movies, where you were fast becoming a has-been, and single-handedly resurrected your career. But it was I who created you. It was I who suffered to get that book to Alexander Payne. Without Payne there would have been no movie, and God knows where you would be in the Hollywood firmament today. But, without me you wouldn’t exist in Sideways. I urge you to refrain from flippant remarks about me and my stage adaptation when you know absolutely nothing about me or who I am or what I endured so all you great talents could bask in the glory of a film that continues to live on today. To even insinuate that I have no right to take on this material ludicrously implies that I have no right to take on my own, very personal I might add, material, as if the movie both obviates and obliterates the novel.
Are you fucking kidding me, Virginia? Read the novel again. I love what the great film critic Peter Rainer wrote in his glowing review of Sideways in New York Magazine. After giving a thumbnail on Payne’s three previous feature films he concluded: “In Sideways Alexander Payne turned in his sarcasm for a soul.” At the risk of immodesty I would amend that slightly: “In Sideways Alexander Payne turned in his sarcasm for the voice of Rex Pickett.” And what a glorious job he did in cinematically representing that soul.
Maybe, Virginia, just maybe, you should listen to Sheila Roberts when asked by Morgan Freeman if she had seen my stage adaptation: “It’s brilliant. It really is.” And reserve your judgment until you have seen it, too. The play, as it makes its way around the world, will only continue to burnish the greatness of the movie. They’re two entirely different artistic mediums. They both have a right to exist. Because they were both born from a novel that I had the courage to write when I should have put myself out of my misery and shot myself. Instead, employing comedy, and ignoring the appalling quotidian reality of my life then, I found a way to channel that misery into a story that, today, millions still fondly remember as though it had been released yesterday. Get used to the fact that you’re not the only Maya, Virginia. But just as there is only one Alexander Payne, there is also only one Rex Pickett. That’s not braggadocio, that’s just an incontrovertible fact.
With deepest respect, from the seat of honesty, the only way I know how to write,
Posted on Jul. 5, 2012 at 3:10 PM
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Okay, this is going to be one of my shortest blogs, written hastily, at times haltingly, at times in a veritable spate of words. As I write this the premiere of my Sideways the Play is tomorrow night. This has been a nearly 15-month journey to tomorrow. Writing it really wasn’t all that difficult for me because the characters were in place and I was expertly guided by everyone at the Ruskin Group Theater, especially the director Amelia Mulkey and the Managing Dir. Mikey Myers, with assists from all the others. However, once the play was cast — 6 weeks ago?! — everything moved with lightning speed. Rehearsals (which I wasn’t involved in), production design, sets being built, costumes, PR, organizing with the indefatigable Barbara Drady to have great wines poured for free every night. It moved incredibly swiftly; or, as I’m fond of quoting myself: it suddenly became, this play, a living cyclonic force!
Last week we had a Dress Rehearsal on Tues., a friends and family Preview on Weds., two SOLD OUT Previews for Ian Blackburn’s rowdy Learn About Wine crowd, then the Private Gala for friends of the Ruskin Group Theater on Sat. I attended three of the above five straight run-throughs of the play. It was nerve-wracking, but incredibly exhilarating to see it all come together so quickly. Writing a novel or a screenplay, or making a feature film, is not like this. You’re usually so sick of it by the time you’re near the end that you can’t wait to let it go. This, this play, was moving way too fast. I wanted to stop, I wanted to pull back, I suffered with the actors when they struggled, I despaired when a scene I knew would play didn’t that particular night. I laughed with exultation when something played way better than I ever thought it would. Then, on Saturday, during the Private Gala, I saw it all come together into one beautiful, felicitous confluence of comedy and feeling and heart and soul and I practically wanted to cry. Maybe more out of outright relief than anything else.
Sunday I traded E-mails with Amelia. We had worked very hard together for six months to get the play script into shape, then collaborated on the casting, then I let her have it to stage it with little or no interference. Monday we did final notes. At some point she said her job was almost over, which meant my job was over. It was up to the actors and all the technicians behind the curtains and walls to make it happen now for the next 12 weeks. It’s a living thing. There’s no more tweaking in the editing room; there’s no more going back for more rewrites. This is it. And a sadness enveloped me, a post-partum depression before the actual premiere! I had never experienced that before. Maybe I was feeling that I was going to miss working with Amelia. We had shared so much in our back-and-forths on the script, listening to the cold reads, conferring, my going back in for rewrites, the whole wonderful creative process when you feel like you have something special. We never argued, there was never a moment of contention. We were always on the same page. I’ve never experienced this kind of writing collaboration before. Usually on scripts there’re a lot opinions you have to navigate — and some truly stupid and obtuse, and borderline intransigent. Even on my novels I have had to listen to alien voices that make no sense to me — and I’ve been blogging about it extensively on Huffington Post Books. But with Amelia and me … we never disagreed on anything. It was as pure a creative dialectical process as I’ve ever experienced: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. And we kept moving forward, kept improving it, never ever retracing our steps. Just moving ineluctably forward to where we had the two acts the times we wanted them, the precise scenes we wanted in them.
Then, one night I saw the whole play run through. The play is a beast for the small Ruskin Group Theater. There are over 20 scenes in the two acts and a buttload of lighting and sound cues. It is the single most technically difficult play the RGT has put on in their 10-year history from my understanding. And Amelia — a 30 year-old, second-time feature play director! — pulled it off with amazing aplomb. Her transitions are brilliant. In the play script it just reads: Lights go down, Lights come up. Well, this never would have worked with an audience because those intervals between scenes when actors are frantically changing their costumes — sometimes in the parking lot! because there’s no inner entrance to the two stage entrances! — would have been deadly. Amelia devised these funny little wordless scene changes that are fitting, sometimes quirky, at times creatively brilliant, but always advancing the story. Is this what a theater director does?
Yes, and more! She also directs actors, of course. And with the limited time to get this show up and running, I’m sure tensions ran high at times as the actors memorized their lines while construction workers were hammering together the set, our costumer was combing through the actors wardrobes with her parsimonious budget. And, then, one night … it all came together. And tomorrow night, after a week of tightening the screws on everything, knowing that they’re 90% home I have this uncanny feeling that it’s going to really soar.
I’ll miss the process. It was like a 1,600 meter relay. I had the baton for the first 1,200, the first 400 with the RGT people; the second 800 with Amelia; then, well, the last 400 standing on the periphery watching it all come together, cheering them on. Now, they’re on their own. This has been a much more personal process than the film Sideways was because I had little to do with the script, and absolutely nothing to do with pre-production, forget production and post-production. That was Alexander Payne’s baby all the way once he took my novel into his creative hands. But this play — well, the poster says it all:
And below that: ”Directed by Amelia Mulkey.” Of course this kind of credit tiering would never happen on a movie poster in a million years. But Amelia deserves so much credit for what she pulled off, what she went through to get this play where it is. And, of course, the actors (John Colella, Jonathan Bray, Julie McIlvaine, Cloe Cromwell, Hamilton Matthews, and other tertiary characters), who have worked so hard, Mikey Jason, John, Mike, C.J., Nicole, Elizabeth, Kirstelle and too many others to mention, behind the scenes.
One of the reasons I signed on to do this play was because I was hoping, as I blogged a long time ago, to return, sort of, to my indie filmmaking days, when the process of making a film was collaborative and not so lonely and private like that of writing. What I didn’t count on was that I would be adopted into this family of creative beings who do this Equity-Waiver theater thing for peanuts and passion. I’m not being disingenuous when I say it’s been the single most rewarding creative experience of my entire life. The sorrowing voice I hear is that of my adopted family now taking off in their gypsy covered wagon with my words. Then, too, I reflect: it was only words, typed one day that brought this troupe together. It’s as though I hurled a boomerang from my soul, it transited through Amelia, then the actors, who took it into their souls, and then delivered it back to me as something else and it struck me in the heart like a curare dart last Saturday night. That thing is called theater. And, when it clicks, it’s transcendent.
Here’s Terra and Jack and Miles and Maya at the Ruskin Group Theater. Sideways lives on in yet another artistic incarnation.
Posted on May. 18, 2012 at 12:22 AM
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May 15, 2012
Sideways, the book that became a movie that launched a new generation of wine drinkers, and drove Pinot Noir sales up threefold in the U.S. wine industry, is returning: this time to the stage in Santa Monica, California.
Rex Pickett, the author of Sideways, has adapted his book for the stage which is to open at The Ruskin Group Theatre on Friday, May 18 for a 12-week run. All preview performances have been sold out.
The 2004 film by Alexander Payne was nominated for five Oscars, garnered over 350 awards worldwide, and was named as one of Top 100 Screenplays of All Time. The film was translated into five different languages and established a worldwide audience.
“I could not have been more fortunate than to work with this talented theater group,” said Pickett, whose Miles Raymond character is loosely based upon his own life. “They bring the story to life in an electrifying live performance.”
The play, the story of four young 30-somethings who meet and travel the California wine country rhapsodizing about the joys of wine, is directed by Amelia Mulkey, who most recently directed Arthur Miller’s “Memory of Two Mondays.”
The play also has the distinction of pouring wines worth-or more than worth the price of admission. Top Pinot Noir producers have rallied to pour at every performance, which expects to run for 12 weeks. At a pre-opening gala, Central Coast wine producer, Laetitia Vineyard and Winery poured Brut Sparkling and Pinot Noir to a grateful audience. This weekend is Sonoma Coast Vineyards, Dunstan Vineyards and Sharp Cellars.
“It’s a situation where I am having to turn vineyards away,” said Barbara Drady, whose company Affairs of the Vine arranged for these “refreshments”. “ There are a lot of people out there grateful for Sideways.”
It has also inspired a sequel by author Pickett, entitled Vertical, (Loose Gravel Press) which follows the further adventures of the characters Miles and Jack as they travel into the Pinot Noir rich Willamette Valley of Oregon. This month Vertical won the 2012 First Place Gold Medal for fiction by the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Sideways had originally received over 100 rejection letters.
Payne’s Oscar winning movie starred Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church as “Miles and Jack” respectively and Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh as the two women who become romantically involved. The film spurred tremendous interest in the California wine industry. Oregon wine officials are hoping Payne will do the same for the Willamette Valley, where Pickett’s new novel, Vertical is set.
Loose Gravel Press, an independent publishing house, co-founded by Pickett, has released Sideways in hard cover with the new novel Vertical. Loose Gravel will also be publishing Sideways the Play in a new edition this summer.
For more information, please visit www.ruskingrouptheatre.com. Or contact Starr at Starr@loosegravelpress.com
For author interviews, contact @RexPickett or visit RexPickett.com.
Posted on May. 16, 2012 at 6:27 PM
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My Sideways sequel Vertical just won the Independent Pubishher Book Awards Gold Medal in the category Popular Fiction. This means a lot to me, because it’s redemption from the way I was treated by Alfred A. Knopf, whom I was under contract to for the selfsame book. For the intricate, detailed story, I’m blogging about it on Huffington Post Books. I invite you to go there and read about the Byzantine world of the publishing industry.
Posted on May. 6, 2012 at 1:55 PM
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I have written extensively about this elsewhere in a recent piece on Stage32.com titled My Life on Spec: the Writing of Sideways, but I thought it bore being isolated, and amplified, on its own. The subject is luck. Some prefer the term serendipity, but serendipity implies “happy accident,” and, to me, that’s an entirely different preternatural phenomenon all together. Jung’s term synchronicity perhaps better explains what I’m about to write because that word was coined to explain conjoined events that are, well, inexplicable.
As everyone who knows me and the story of Sideways by now knows, my unpublished novel was optioned by Alexander Payne and Michael London in the winter of 2000. Payne’s romantic, somewhat impetuous dream, was to rush it right into production, shoot it in Super-16 mm – a format that automatically ends up in 35 mm, but which allows for the shooting of a lot more footage, since the raw stock is cheaper. Great. After a decade of much-chronicled suicidal despair and destitution I was ready to watch my ship — hell, my argosy! — come in. Not so fast.
In March of 2000, after having taken one reconnaissance trip up to the Santa Ynez Valley where my book is set, Alexander Payne called me. He began by casually asking me for a wine recommendation, remembering a wine I had recently exulted over. I reminded him what it was. Then, in a somewhat halting, sheepish, voice, he told me that he was going to have to put Sideways on hold — my heart fell into my stomach! — that there was another film he wanted to make first — nonplussed would be a mild term for what I was feeling at that seemingly fatalistic moment. That film was About Schmidt. He went off to make it. I didn’t hear from him in nearly two years. He and London kept re-upping the option on my book, but it still remained unpublished, unfilmed.
About Schmidt was released in the winter of 2002 and collected a number of awards. In the winter of 2003 Alexander Payne returned his attention to Sideways. Or, ostensibly. I took a trip up to the Santa Ynez Valley with him and this then wife, Sandra Oh; George Parra and his then wife (forget her name); Michael London and his still current wife, Lynn; and me. It was a heady time, and I sensed that a film was finally in the works.
Then, one Monday, around 10:00 a.m., shortly after this trip, I got a call from Michael London. He was unusually animated for him. He said he had just had the weirdest conversation with Alexander Payne. Apparently Payne, on the previous Friday, had been offered a lot of money to direct a remake of a ‘60s caper film titled Gambit. The script had been retooled by no less than Joel and Ethan Coen and was to star the lead in Payne’s critically-acclaimed Election, Reese Witherspoon. On Friday, as the story unfolded from Michael, and unbeknownst to both of us, Payne told his agent David Lonner to close the deal for him to direct Gambit. Michael swore he no knowledge of this until he got the call on Monday. However, over the weekend, Payne apparently had had an apostasy on Gambit. According to Michael, Payne explained over the phone that he had had a “panic attack” about telling us, after three long years, that he wasn’t going to be making Sideways after all, and that he had phoned his agent and told him to call Paramount – or whatever major studio it was – that he was reversing his decision and wasn’t going to make Gambit, that Sideways was going to be his next film. He concluded the call, in his effusive manner, by telling Michael that he loved him, he loved me, he loved the project, mea culpa, etc. The rest is history.
If Payne had made Gambit I am convinced he never would have made Sideways for a host of reasons, the main one being that the project would had just languished so long on his docket of films that he wanted to make that the bloom would have been off the rose for good. Why he had a “panic attack” and turned down what no doubt was a very healthy payday to accept a way lesser payday — that worked out for him in the end since he got serious back-end remuneration on Sideways — I’ll never know. Understand something, Dear Reader: no one else wanted Sideways. Hell, no one else got it. Not a single publisher, not any other director or Hollywood development company that it had been submitted to. Let me repeat: NO ONE wanted this project. And yet, to this day, the film is fondly remembered. So fondly, there’s now going to be a play that will be staged, premiering May 18th at the Ruskin Group Theater in Santa Monica, CA. So fondly that, as I reported in the below post, that to this day, the Santa Ynez Valley is overrun with Sideways fans more than seven years after the film was released. With no immodesty intended, Sideways has become a certified iconic film/book.
And yet but for a panic attack there almost wasn’t a film. Was it luck? Did some unseen being, smiling down on my wretched soul, inhabit Payne over that fateful weekend and have a little heart-to-heart with him in the middle of a restless slumber? One wonders how many films that could have been a Sideways — now enshrined with commemorative plaques in the WGA Theater in Beverly Hills as one of the 101 Greatest Screenplays of All Time — never got made because that preternatural voice never bothered to raise His voice. Was it luck? Was it “meant to be”? — a phrase that always makes me cringe because, well, was it “meant to be” that 19 religious zealots would kamikaze fly jetliners into three buildings and murder 3,000 people in the name of Allah?
And, yet, it’s true: Sideways was almost never made because of one weekend panic attack. Because of one sensitive artist, with agents and studios pulling at his sleeves every five minutes of the day, imploring him to do this, do that, who had, in a moment of monk-like self-reflection, a true enantiodromia.
The following week after his epiphany that spending two years of his life on some studio remake of a ‘60s caper film would not have been a wise choice for his auteurist oeuvre, Payne settled down and started to write the script with his longtime writing partner, Jim Taylor. In a matter of weeks they had cranked out a first draft. The die had been cast. The hook had been set. I was pretty sure now there was going to be a film.
I always tell aspiring writers that one day they, too, will get lucky, that their work will wend its way into the hands of someone who has the power to make it happen. But when that moment arrives, they have to have the goods. Maybe the strength of the material is what bought me that blinding fulguration of “luck.” Or maybe it was just … luck.
Or, as the great golfer Ben Hogan – a laconic man known for his blunt sententiousness – once answered when asked if golf was a game of luck. “It’s a funny thing, the more I practice the luckier I get.”
Posted on Apr. 22, 2012 at 12:50 PM
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