Rex Pickett Part One: The Novels 'Sideways' and 'Vertical'

Wednesday, 20 Jun 2012, 1:56:00 AM

Beverly Cohn

Rex Pickett on the set of “Sideways,” the award-winning film based on his novel.
Courtesy of Rex Pickett
Rex Pickett on the set of “Sideways,” the award-winning film based on his novel.

Rex 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 almost 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 the 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 90-minute interview.

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 $1 million. Once the movie came out, because they had paid only $5,000, their business model said that they would make $1 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 way better.

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.”

“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 that?

Pickett: Alexander Payne (director and 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.

Can you talk about “Vertical,” your second novel?

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 medals 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. So 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.

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 sequel?

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.

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: seven actors played Batman, nine played James Bond, 89 played Tarzan, seven 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 soup!

In Part 2, Rex Pickett talks about his theatrical experience with “Sideways,” the hit play on stage at the Ruskin Group Theatre through July 22.

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