Monday, December 19th, 2011
My Life on Spec: The Writing of Sideways (Part V)
In either January or February of ’03, I got word that Alexander and Jim had started the adaptation that would ultimately end up winning every single screenwriting award a film writer can win.
Michael called about the same time and said that it was an embarrassment that my novel still didn’t have a publishing deal. Apparently, Brian Lipson had gotten a call from a publishing agent in New York wondering the same thing. I called the agent just to feel him out. He boasted that he could get me a deal. So, with heavy heart, I left Curtis Brown, LTD. and Jess’s former colleague Mitchell Waters and signed with a different agent – I was now in double digits with agents and agency changes.
About a month later my new agent called and said he had “good news.” I waited. He had an offer. I waited. St. Martin’s Press had agreed to pay $5,000 to come out with Sideways in a trade paperback. I was not happy. A trade paperback? I asked, incredulous. Then, as if to convince me, he said that of the 20 houses he had submitted it to they had all turned it down except St. Martin’s. Which put the total number of rejections on Sideways to now something close to 100. I said I would think about it.
I wrestled with my decision. A trade paperback? How demoralizing, I thought, even if it was becoming more common for an industry that was known for its blatant parsimony. But not to have a publishing deal at all with a film going into production? That would be embarrassing. I decided, after much thought, to accept the offer. Had I not accepted the offer and waited until the movie came out I’ve been told by insiders that the book would have gone for a million dollars. But then I’m not a mentalist and I couldn’t have predicted that Alexander Payne would end up making such a critically acclaimed film of my novel.
In the spring of ’03 Alexander and his writing partner, Jim Taylor, finished the first draft of their adaptation of my novel. A messenger brought it to my door. The last time a messenger had come to my door – or what I thought was a messenger – it turned out it was a process server serving me papers on a bad debt.
I set their screenplay on my kitchen table and couldn’t read it for several hours I was so afraid of what I was going to read. It had been three and a half years since Payne had read my novel and announced that it was going to be his “next” movie. Finally, the suspense killing me, I poured a glass of wine, lay down on my bed with the bound script and started to turn the pages.
The first thing I immediately noticed was how faithful the screenplay was to my book. They had changed Miles from being an failed screenwriter-cum-novelist to a middle school English teacher with hopes of publishing his first novel, but with, as in the book, his hopes dimming with every rejection letter. I was also surprised to see that they stayed in the first person without benefit of a voice-over narration. In the novel, because it’s written in first-person from the standpoint of Miles, I couldn’t go where Miles doesn’t. In the script, they could. But, they didn’t. Never once. If you watch the movie closely, you’ll see that everything is seen from Miles’s point of view. We never once go where Miles doesn’t go, even though Alexander and Jim had the luxury to do so.
Another example of how faithful they were to the book, in the novel the chapter structure was “Saturday,” “Sunday,” etc., with sub-headings like: “Stalking the Boar.” In the movie, every day is preceded by a title card on a black screen with the day of the week sans sub-heading. They literally kept the chapter structure of the novel, in movie grammar, which really floored me. In essence they wrote – and eventually shot – the novel qua novel, albeit with necessary compressions and dialogue changes.
One significant alteration was in the character of Terra. Played by Sandra Oh – Payne’s wife at the time – they changed her name (to Stephanie), her mode of transportation (a jeep to a motorcycle), and saddled her with an interracial kid and a white trash mother. Sandra Oh boasts about these changes in an NPR interview. Because she was a tertiary character, she realized that in order to draw attention to herself she would have to load herself up with more identifying character accoutrements. Since very little else was changed in the adaptation, and because Payne is very controlling of his material, I have to believe that these changes were effected largely because of their close relationship. Some of them – like the motorcycle – I liked. Others, like the interracial kid, I hated; it made Jack seem more pathetic than he is in the novel. But because Sandra Oh is a tertiary character, it didn’t bother me all that much, given the range of changes I was expecting.
Because I was so close to the material, it was difficult for me to have any perspective. In all honesty, I was just glad that it was a screenplay, because I felt certain now, after all the waiting, that it would get made. In short, I was, despite the above quibbles, tickled pink with the adaptation. Line after line of dialogue, and scene after scene, was pulled almost intact from the novel. Alexander, in interviews after the film came out, would often compliment my source material by saying that it read like a screenplay and that it was their easiest adaptation to date, that pulling from it was an “embarrassment of riches.” That made me feel really proud.
In summation, I would say that the script was 90% faithful to the novel. Sure, some scenes didn’t make it, but an adaptation of a novel is, by necessity, a bit of a truncation. The novelist hopes – prays! – that it will at least be emotionally faithful to the characters and the storyline. And it was. In another writer’s/director’s hands it could easily have been changed into two characters heading off on a bachelor party to Cancun to get drunk on tequila. Not only did Alexander and Jim preserve the quintessence of my characters, they kept the setting in the Santa Ynez Valley and stayed true to almost all of the original locations. I said to an interviewer who asked me about their script and whether I liked it or not: “As a novelist whose book was adapted for an eventual movie, I have summitted the adaptation Mt. Everest, and I couldn’t be happier.” They were honest words.
In June of ’03 I took a trip up to the Santa Ynez Valley with Alexander and his writing partner Jim. Jim had never been before. We spent a lovely June-warm day wine tasting, scouting some of the locations and just cracking wise. Everyone was in an ebullient mood. The following morning, as Jim slept off his jet-lag, Alexander and I met with a realtor who was to show us some rental properties. Payne wanted the first property he was shown and a deal went down that day. Even though Artisan Entertainment was out of the running now, and there was still no financing in place, I felt supremely confident that it was going to be funded. Payne must have, too, when he promised the realtor to send a check for a couple thousand to hold the house.
July 3, 2003 I was house-sitting a hilltop home in San Diego overlooking the ocean. I was scheduled to return that day. My phone jangled me awake at 6:00 a.m. It was my new film agent, Marti Blumenthal, at Writers & Artists. Agents don’t call that early unless they have something truly exciting to report -- or have been up all night snorting coke and have lost their minds. I didn’t pick up, but on my voicemail Marti said in an excitable voice: “Read the trades.” I immediately went online and logged on to Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. It was front page news on both trade dailies: Fox Searchlight, the specialty division of 20th Century Fox, had greenlit Sideways. It had been nearly five years since we had first submitted the novel and it was finally going to be a movie, as well as get published. Euphoria would have been an understatement.
I packed up my belongings and drove on my threadbare tires back to Santa Monica, a weight having been lifted from my shoulders, an elation suffusing me like no other I had ever experienced. I had waited for this for a long time. My elation quickly turned to dread when, just out of San Diego, one of my tires blew out on I-5. I pulled over to the emergency lane, climbed out of my battered Honda Accord, buffeted by speeding traffic, and stared down at my shredded right rear tire, car manual in hand. Had this happened to me before Payne and Fox Searchlight I think I would have just hurled myself into the oncoming traffic. Instead, I changed the tire with the little doughnut one they give you, limped to a Sears Auto Center and bought all four new tires off a credit card that fortunately had enough left on it to not be declined. As the work was getting done I walked over to a mall and got a coffee. A peace had finally settled over me as I sipped the coffee. Then, the phone start ringing. And never stopped.
Sideways was published June 1, 2004, six months after the movie had completed filming and a mere five months before it was scheduled to be released, in a trade paperback with a cheap-looking cover. St. Martin’s in-house publicist, who barely gave much of a thought to promotion, fielded some requests for book signings. I went. Almost no one showed except, in some cases, friends. On my own I arranged a big launch signing in conjunction with two friends of mine – one of them Roy Gittens, the inspiration for the Jack character – who put on these irreverent, at times hilarious, wine tastings. I invited all the above-the-line, and some below-the-line, people involved in the making of the movie. No one bothered to come.
The movie opened in late October to thunderous and overwhelming critical acclaim. Review after review was a knockout. On my favorite Web site, Metacritic.com – a better, streamlined version of Rotten Tomatoes – Sideways scored a stratospheric 94. Whenever I’m depressed I go to Metacritic and read the reviews. They’re overwhelmingly ecstatic.
Under duress from my publishing agent, St. Martin’s reluctantly issued a movie tie-in edition of Sideways. They used the poster art – a really cool design that Alexander was intimately involved with, I understand – from the movie. Most authors dread the movie tie-in editions of their books because the covers, utilizing the poster art, usually features garish photos of the A-list actors in the movie. But the Sideways poster was so cool, and my vineyard/empty road cover so washed-out and cheap-looking, that I was elated to see the latter jettisoned in favor of the former.
Still, St. Martin’s did no publicity. And I had no stake in hiring a publicist to draft off the enormous, and burgeoning, success of the movie, because I was making only $0.70 royalty per copy sold. On my own, or through random, serendipitous connections, I started orchestrating my own book signings. They were now, because of the movie, huge successes, sold-out affairs. I hosted two sold-out faculty dinners at my alma mater, UCSD (they had never sold out a faculty dinner before). I was often invited to be a celebrity guest at wine festivals, now that the wine industry started to realized how colossal an impact the movie was having on their product. These events were incredible successes. At the Paso Robles Zin Festival, e.g., I signed so many books my hand cramped. Lines stretched and snaked out of the pavilion with fans of the movie eager to meet me. I exhorted my agent to tell my publisher to hire a sales rep and get it into every tasting room on the Pacific Coast, where it was guaranteed to be a big seller. His, and my, pleas fell on deaf ears. Tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of dollars were left on the table by St. Martin’s. It was sad, and frustrating, to watch it all unfold as the movie soared to critical and commercial heights.
In the final part of Stage 32's exclusive series, with Rex watching from a distance, "Sideways" is showered with accolades and nominated for five Oscars, including Best Original Screenplay. Will he be invited to the Academy Awards? And, taking the entire experience as a whole, would he do it again?
Part VI will be posted Thursday, December 22nd. In the meantime, we invite all Stage 32 members to leave comments on the series. Or ask Rex a question. He'd love to hear from you.