An Open Letter to Virginia Madsen

Dear Virginia,

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,


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© 2012 Rex Pickett