Sideways the Play Press Release

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. 

"Vertical" Wins Independent Publisher Book Awards Gold Medal for Fiction!

   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.

As Luck Would Have It


   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.”

"Sideways" Play Cast & Crew in The Santa Ynez Valley

   For 15 months Sideways the Play has been in the works.  It all began when a young Jason Matthews approached me in the Barker Hanger at the Santa Monica Airport where I was signing copies of my Sideways sequel Vertical.  Then, as I blogged in here before, we met.  He was intelligent, focused, in no way sycophantic.  A few days later I met with the rest of the Ruskin Group Theater brain trust:  Mikey Myers, Mike Riley, and John Ruskin.  All smart, all eager and devoted to guiding my writing to the stage.

   The greatest decision I made was hiring just turning 30, newly-married, Amelia Mulkey.  I heard through the grapevine from some that I had lost my mind.  For those who know me this would not exactly be a news bulletin.  Amelia has been great, professional, on point, never missing a beat.  In the 6 months we’ve collaborated on honing the script, we’ve never once had an argument.  Not one.  We’ve never had a serious point of disagreement about anything.  And this has not because she’s been in awe of the source material, given that it’s already achieved a measure of fame in both book and movie form.  No, quite the opposite:  she’s pushed hard to get the words right so that when we went to casting – and then rehearsal and staging (where we’re at now) – that it would all fall into place.  It’s been one of the most creatively rewarding experiences of my “artistic” writing life.

   Last weekend, the some 15 cast and crew of the Sideways play journeyed up to the Santa Ynez Valley where my novel is set and where the movie was shot.  I planned a trip, much like Miles plans for Jack the first day they’re up there.  We started our grape tour north at one of my favorite wineries and tasting rooms, Foxen – where Jack was supposed to meet Terra (Stephanie in the movie), but for filmic reasons ended up being shot at another winery.  Sarah and the gang at Foxen gave our team – most of whom had never seen the Santa Ynez Valley – the royal treatment.  It was a blustery, blue-sky day, a little nip in the air from a storm that had raged through the previous day.  From there it was down to Fess Parker Winery for the corporate wine experience – and where the famous drinking-from-the-spit-bucket scene was shot.  All agreed that the wines did indeed taste like Raid and decomposed rodents.  From there it was a short drive to the town of Los Olivos.

   When I first started going up to the Santa Ynez Valley in the ‘90s, Los Olivos – literally a postage stamp-sized town no more than two blocks in either direction – had only two tastings rooms:  Longoria and Andrew Murray.  The rest of the quaint establishments were “hobby” shops for the rich:  art galleries, that sort of thing, along with a few restaurants.  And the ubiquitous Fess Parker and his inn and terrible restaurant.  That was it.  For years.  Cut to today:  there are now 38 tasting rooms in Los Olivos.  You can go into one, stumble out, go in either direction 10 feet and be in another.  Mikey Myers had a raft of the great posters that Amelia – yes, she’s an all-purpose director — designed with input from yours truly and my friend, Pamela Smith.  Every tasting room we went, there was immediate excitement about the play.  At Andrew Murray a cat fight broke out over my signing posters and … “Could I have one, please?”

   The Hitching Post was a zoo.  There was an over an hour wait for a table.  Well, not if you’re the one who put them on the map.  Generous owner Frank Ostini, bedecked in his iconic pith helmet, greeted the cast and crew and treated us to a repast that I’m sure all will remember, pouring Highliner liberally and grilling up his meats.

   From there it was back to the Days (nee Windmill) Inn for a little freshening up.  Then, it was over to the Windmill Inn’s Clubhouse Bar, a 50-pace walk.  The Clubhouse Bar is not for wine aficionados.  Their specialty is beer and shots and pool tables.  Their clientele is working class, mostly guys, and mostly guys who work on heavy machinery, and mostly guys who get really fucked up on the weekends.  I mean, like black-out drunk fucked up.  So, into this mix gambols our gypsy troupe to shake up the place.  Kristelle, one of our understudies and choreographers is a flamenco dancer and, after a long day of wine, was eager to showcase her moves.  Then Julia (our Maya) got into the act.  That galvanized the men.  Soon our Miles and Jack and Boar Hunter were dancing.  The heavy machinery operator drunks were sort of mouth agape/nonplussed.  It was quite a scene.  But, there was a third contingent in the bar:  women up for the Sideways tour.  A lot of women.  And, in fact, that was one of the motifs of the whole trip:  women dominated the tasting rooms, dominated the locations – the Clubhouse was used in two scenes in the movie.

   It’s been more than seven years since Sideways was released.  Many thought there would be a tourism bubble and it would die.  It hasn’t abated one bit.  People are going for the Sideways tour, but they’re returning because in many ways the place hasn’t changed.  Santa Barbara County has strict building codes and, from a distance, or just driving around, I notice little development from the ‘90s when I first starting sojourning up.  You only really notice it when you stop in Los Olivos and hit the tasting rooms, or try to get in for dinner at the Hitching Post, or make a point of seeing one of the locations.  Other than that, little has changed. 

   And yet, much has changed.  In my life, particularly.  I went up a day early on Friday and met with the two lead actors, John Colella (Miles) and Jonathan Bray (Jack).  I drove them to windswept Jalama Beach where several scenes in the book (and the play) take place.  We met at La Purisima Golf Course.  It had rained all day, but the sun was out and it was glistening green.  I started to tell them the story that I’ve told so many times, and which you can read in the Foreword to the Deluxe Edition of Vertical, or online at Stage32.com, titled My Life on Spec:  The Writing of Sideways.

   Now, there’s going to be a play.  It’ll be, of course, different than the movie, and, though closer to the novel, different than that as well.  Reading a novel is a private experience with everything left to your imagination.  A movie is a two-dimensional experience that employs montage and music in a way that a book or play can’t.  But a play is truly three-dimensional, palpable, raw, real.  In the five cold reads and one cast read-through, through now 18 drafts of the play script, it’s still funny as hell to me.  And maybe even more poignant than the movie or book because the characters are right there, so real.

   Every night, included in the price of admission, you’ll be poured a high-end Pinot from a different winemaker who’ll be in attendance.  In proper stemware.  And you’ll be able to take it inside the theater.  Sideways lives on.  In yet another artistic medium, this time theater. 

   Thank you Ruskin Group Theater, and especially Amelia Mulkey.  And thanks to the entire cast and crew.

Brad The Boar Hunter

   Hamilton Matthews — Brad the Boar Hunter in Sideways The Play

   In the ‘90s when I was sojourning up to the Santa Ynez Valley and unwittingly researching my novel Sideways, which ultimately became the iconic Alexander Payne movie, I experienced a lot – not all! – of the things in the novel.  One night, after a few too many Pinots at the Hitching Post I shambled back to the Windmill (now Days) Inn.  I guess I needed a few more because I trundled over to the Windmill Inn’s Clubhouse Bar.  It’s a nondescript bar with pool tables, hard liquor, standard beers and dreadful wines by the glass.  I was sitting at the bar when I struck up a conversation with a guy who told me he was a boar hunter.  Inebriated, naturally I was intrigued.  He explained that he hunted them at night, that they were nocturnal animals, that he shot them with a long range rifle, but sometimes with a .45 magnum.  Now, that intrigued me!  This conversation took place, I’m guessing, at about 11:00 p.m.  At some point he invited me to come out to bluff above Jalama Beach to go boar hunting with him.  I declined.  I did not have a good feeling about driving out with him to Jalama Beach – 30 miles away – and watching him shoot wild boar with a .45 magnum under a full moon at midnight.

   A few years later when I was writing the novel, it occurred to me that, at a certain moment in Miles’s and Jack’s crazy week, maybe they should go out wild boar hunting with a character I named Brad.  I remember laughing out loud when I wrote it.  I remember being disappointed when Alexander Payne didn’t include it in the script.  When I asked him about it he told me it was “too much of a set-piece scene.”  What?  Three guys and a gun?  Alexander doesn’t like action sequences – you’ll rarely see one in his movies.  He told me once that he doesn’t even like car shots.  He prefers the comfort of interiors.  The “boar hunt scene” promised to be an all-nighter in some remote location. 

   When Jason Matthews approached me about doing the stage version of Sideways one of the first things I asked him was what he thought should or shouldn’t be kept in the play from the novel (the play is based on the novel, not the movie, for both artistic and legal reasons).  I was almost sure that the Boar Hunt Scene would be one of the first things eliminated because it would be too difficult to stage.  No, he wanted it in.  Not only did he believe it could be successfully staged, he thought it would differentiate and distinguish, the play from the movie even more, something we were endeavoring to do.  I included it in the first draft, adapting it almost verbatim from the book.  It read well in the first cold read, was funny as hell.  It made it to second cold read, still fresh and funny.  When I started interviewing directors the first three I met – all men, by the way – all said there was no way they could do the Boar Hunt Scene.  Really?  My fourth interviewee was a 29 year-old, fearless, woman named Amelia Mulkey.  I liked her instantly.  Somewhere in the course of our nearly two-hour “interview,” I asked her about the Boar Hunt Scene.  She said something to the effect:  “Oh, of course we have to have the Boar Hunt Scene.”  “Yeah, but these other directors, all men, some award-winning, said it couldn’t be staged.”  She looked at me like:  What?  I would have hired her anyway – and it’s one of the greatest decisions I’ve ever made in a life where I’ve made some really bad ones – but when she said “Of course we have to have The Boar Hunt Scene,” I knew she was my director.

   In the first three cold reads, Mike Meyers, the Managing Director of the Ruskin Group Theater, read Brad The Boar Hunter.  And, you know what?   He was pretty damn good.  But “Mikey” is one busy dude, and he’s integral to making sure that Sideways gets put on right, so Amelia brought in Hamilton Matthews (see above picture) for the fourth cold read.  First of all, when I saw him, I almost said out loud:  “My God, that’s the guy!”  It was if I had been transported back to the Windmill Inn’s Clubhouse Bar and was revisiting that wine-soaked night.  Hamilton also read it really well.  We did audition others, but Hamilton had the role from the start.  A side note:  Hamilton, unlike Brad, is actually an intellectual of sorts, well read, mild-mannered … just goes to show what a real actor can do to fool you into thinking he’s someone totally unlike who he is in real life. 

   This Saturday (4/14), most of the cast and crew of the play are journeying up to the Santa Ynez Valley to visit some of the locations in the novel.  Hamilton (uh, Brad) will get a chance to see the real place where I met the guy who inspired his character many moons ago.  I hear he’s very excited.  Congratulations on getting the role, Hamilton.  You earned it.




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© 2012 Rex Pickett