Part IV: My Life on Spec: The Writing of Sideways

Posted by Rex Pickett
Richard "RB" Botto Richard "RB" Botto
This is part IV of the exclusive six part series: Rex Pickett – My Life on Spec: The Writing of Sideways. New postings will be made every Monday and Thursday through December 22nd. Don't forget to check out the foreword to this series, Part I, Part II and Part III.
Click here to purchase the sequel to Sideways, Vertical. Only $10.20 from Amazon. Check out Sideways as well if you haven't read that yet. Both make excellent stocking stuffers for the "Sidways" fan in your life.

There's a saying that I'm fond of: "It's nothing until it's something". As a creative, I keep it close to heart. In periods of anticipation, when decisions are utterly out of my control, it keeps my emotions on the level. When good news comes, it gives me clarity to see the possible roadblocks that lie ahead. When bad news comes, it allows me to absorb the pain more easily, making it easier to bounce back.

The road for a creative is never straight. Better to prepare for the twists and turns than to be surprised by them.

As we enter the fourth of our exclusive six part series, Rex's agent has quit the biz and the rejection letters continue to pile up. Incredibly enough, Rex's road is about to become more treacherous.


-- RB

Some time in summer of ’99 Michael was lunching with Tom Strickler, one of the partners at Endeavor. The topic of Sideways came up. Apparently, Jess’s replacement, Brian Lipson, was under the false impression that all of Jess’s projects and clients had left with him. Well, left with him where? Michael wondered to Tom, given that Jess had left the business entirely and decamped to South America. Michael arranged a meeting between he, Brian, and me. Lipson had read Sideways, loved it, and agreed to take me on. A glimmer of hope. I now had new representation in Hollywood. In the meeting we discussed a new plan of attack since we all agreed the book had movie potential. We drew up lists of directors and actors who might be interested. I remember thinking that there wasn’t a lot of energy in the meeting, that we were just going through the motions, that the manuscript had already endured a pretty serious beating by both the film (LA) and publishing (NY) worlds respectively and that hope, though still aglimmer, was being kept alive by three semi-nobodies – a new agent, a former studio exec with virtually nothing going on in his now fading career, and yours truly, a washed-up writer/indie filmmaker. We shook hands on the new plan and I went home to my debauched roommate and his hooker girlfriend to await the inevitable new round of rejections.

A month passed and nothing happened. No phone calls. Nothing. I had given my reprobate, alcoholic roommate notice, but he was taking his sweet time to move out. I was facing the prospect of renting out the spare bedroom to someone new and I wasn’t too thrilled about it. But the situation had grown untenable. I was barely sleeping. My nerves were frayed from his all-night bacchanals just down the hall with his coke-addled whore. All I thought about was suicide. This was no life.

I returned to my house one day in late September ’99 from Baja Fresh where my credit card had been declined – on an order less than $10! The LCD indicator on my answering machine read “3.” Back in those days I didn’t look forward to messages, as they were inevitably the ravings of the miserable people who worked for collection agencies. But “3” bode potential good tidings because rarely ever did I see a number that high. I didn’t press the button to listen right away. I probably opened the refrigerator and poured a glass of white wine from a bottle I had gotten from a free sample at Epicurus to steady my nerves. Then I sat down on the couch and hit Listen.

The first message was from Brian Lipson’s assistant. He could barely contain his excitement. In a breathless voice he said, “Brian Lipson for Rex Pickett. Call us at once!” BEEP. The second message was from Brian himself. Apparently unable to contain himself, he was practically screaming over the phone: “I don’t believe this! Alexander Payne just got off a plane and said Sideways is going to be his next movie! Call me!” The third message was from Michael London. Also in a breathless, racing, voice – which was really unusual for him – he reiterated Brian’s message, adding something to the effect: “In all my years in this crazy business, I’ve never experienced anything…” the words coming like machine-gun fire.
I played the messages a second, and a third, time to make sure I wasn’t having auditory hallucinations, which wouldn’t have been a news bulletin. Then I called Lipson to find out what was going on…

The next morning Alexander Payne called me. “Rex, the king!” is the first thing he exclaimed. I don’t recall exactly what he said, but I’m positive he waxed very enthusiastic about the book.

A week or so later we finally met in his 10th story office in the mid-Wilshire district of Los Angeles. I remember him hugging me effusively when I came in, something that I was unaccustomed to upon showing up for Hollywood meetings. I was surprised to find Michael London in the office. He hadn’t gotten the book to Payne – Jess Taylor had – but he had clearly already started to stake a claim to being a producer, whether he was entitled to one or not.
After praising my work again in person, Alexander said he wanted to adapt it himself without his writing partner and make it “under the radar” and shoot it in Super-16. Okay… I didn’t care about producer credits or anything. I just wanted to see a movie made out of my book.

There was a lot of back and forth in the ensuing weeks, but ultimately Payne and London optioned the book from me for $12,500. I needed the money badly, so I didn’t press for a producer credit. London owed me the introduction, and the endorsement, to Payne – whose first words to me after his praise was: “Who’s Michael London and do we need him?” – and I could have pushed for a producer credit, but I was warned by him and Lipson that that would “blow the deal.” Penurious as I was at the time, I had no cards with with to bluff. So, I knuckled under. It was never about money or credits to me, but I soon learned that it definitely was for others.

In early 2000, the former agent-turned-movie producer Bill Block (then at Artisan Entertainment) made a bold play. Tired of being blown off by Payne and Co., he burst into the latter’s offices one day and demanded an answer to whether Artisan could produce Sideways. Payne caved and it was front-page trade news in both Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter that Sideways was going to be his next film and had been budgeted at $10 million. At about the same time, my ex-wife’s AFI film had been short-listed for an Academy Award. Shortly thereafter it was nominated. My life was rapidly changing.

Armed with the trade news of an impending film of my novel, my publishing agent at Curtis Brown, LTD. re-submitted the book. Obviously, unimpressed that Sideways was soon to be a movie by one of the hottest directors in Hollywood, it was roundly turned down by every publisher to which it was submitted. Their rejection letters were hateful, spiteful, mean-spirited, bilious. However, word had spread and the Japanese – God bless them! – bought the foreign rights to a then-unpublished novel for $20,000. After unrecoverable foreign taxes and 20% in commissions and being billed for copies of my manuscript – something that doesn’t happen in the film world – I got a check a few months later for around $13,500. But, it helped. However, I was now facing the potentially ignominious, and probably unprecedented, situation where I might be the only author to have his novel published in a language he couldn’t read.

On a stormy, windblown, gray-sky Super Bowl Sunday, Alexander and I drove to the Santa Ynez Valley, where he had never been, to afford him his first look of the setting of Sideways. I was so nervous I hardly slept the night before. A half milligram of Xanax sandpapered the anxiety on the journey up. Wine tasting kept me calm the remainder of our reconnaissance trip. We’re both big cinephiles and I think we spent a fair amount of time congenially trying to out-iconoclast each other.
Being Super Bowl Sunday, the tasting rooms were ghostly quiet and empty. And being early February, the vineyards were completely exfoliated and the valley bore a kind of stark beauty that Alexander marveled at for the look of the film he wanted to make. I feared the comedy, and the romance, wouldn’t play against this desolated backdrop of winter. As luck would have it, the schedule had them beginning principle photography in late September, and the film was able to capture the Santa Ynez Valley in all its arboreal glory.
We spent 12 hours together, talking about everything. It was a special time. Once the film took over and became the juggernaut that a feature film is, AP and I became more like ships passing in the night, dipping flags ceremoniously. But I will always fondly remember Super Bowl Sunday 2000.

In March of 2000, at an Academy Awards party of a friend, I watched my ex-wife accept the Oscar for Best Live Action Short from Cate Blanchett and Jude Law. The cameras panned the audience and isolated her new husband. After a decade of suffering, deprivation, opprobrium and personal ignominy I sort of half remember falling to the floor and weeping.

Shortly after the Oscars, Alexander Payne called to ask for a wine recommendation. Then he slowly let me down by announcing that Sideways was now not going to be his next film. About Schmidt was. But, he promised me, he was going to make it after Schmidt. My heart sank. I felt like someone had punched me in the solar plexus again. Later I would joke to him that it was good he made me suffer extreme anxiety for another two years because I think he needed to make a film about maturity in order to go back to make a film about immaturity. He smiled wryly. The option money was decent, but didn’t change my life. I still had roommates, now a woman who locked herself in her room when she came home from work and never came out until the morning, relieving herself in plastic bottles.

Alexander and Michael continued to re-up the option at year’s end, which gave me hope, but my worry was when Payne finished About Schmidt, would the bloom be off the rose?

About Schmidt was released in ’02 to critical acclaim and Payne’s best box-office winner to date. His stature in the business had risen yet another notch. He now had the power to contract for final cut, an artistic luxury that few directors are afforded. Sideways, the novel, remained unpublished. The Japanese were waiting for the film. I was waiting for the film. My benefactors, and my creditors, were waiting for the film.

In the winter of ’03, I got a call from Michael London. He said he’d just gotten a crazy call from Alexander. Apparently, Payne had agreed, almost on a whim, to direct a major studio film called Gambit, a caper film rebooted from a film of the same name starring Michael Caine and made in the mid-‘60s. It was to feature his star from Election, Reese Witherspoon, and was based on a screenplay by the inimitable Coen Brothers. According to London, he had officially agreed to do it on a Friday, apparently had a panic attack over the realization that he would disappoint me and Michael, and on the following Monday phoned his agent and informed him Gambit -- the big film -- was off and Sideways -- the little indie -- was on. Had I been privy to that drama as it was unfolding over the weekend, after everything I had been through, I probably would have been facing down five white-coated men with tranquilizer guns.


VerticalIn Part V of Stage 32's exclusive series, amidst huge buzz, "Sideways" finally goes into production, but Rex still can't get a publishing deal.

Part V will be posted Monday, December 19th. 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.


-- RB

Vertical, Rex Pickett's sequel to Sideways, is available now for only $10.20 in paperback and $7.69 for the Kindle edition. Don't forget to check out the first novel, Sideways. Both will make great holiday gifts for any "Sideways" fan.
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