Interview: Rex Pickett
How did the theatrical production of your novel, Sideways, come to fruition at the Ruskin Theater in LA?
I was doing a book signing for my new novel Vertical at Pinot Days, a huge wine event held in the football field-sized Barker Hangar, across the street from the Ruskin Group Theater. I was approached by Jason Matthews, a person associated with the Ruskin Group Theater. He asked me if I had ever thought about doing a stage production of Sideways. I said no, but I’d be happy to take a meeting about it. We met a few days later. I liked what he said. Then I met with the whole team at Ruskin: Managing Director Mikey Myers, Founder John Ruskin, some others. They were very passionate about a stage production, and I responded positively to that. I also responded to the fact that I would have total creative control – over the final script, the hiring of the director, etc., so I said: Okay, let’s do it. I also agreed to do it because I knew there would be a final product. Writing screenplays for hire is a drag because 99% of the time your work just ends up mired in development, and never sees the screen. This would be something real, the reason I made indie films back in the ‘80s.
First I had to read the novel, which I hadn’t done in 7 years. I was surprised how dialogue-driven it was, and how that would transfer to the stage. With no restrictions I wrote a first draft. We held a cold read. There were notes. Mostly they were about how to compress the play, get it down to a reasonable length. Then came the director hiring process. After some unfelicitious interviews with some award-winning older gentlemen who treated me condescendingly, I ultimately chose a second-time director in Amelia Mulkey. The two of us went to work on the script. We never fought. She’s amazing. The whole crew at the Ruskin Group Theater was amazing, very supportive, never imposing their vision, only helping me bring my vision to the stage. It was a total collaborative process from start to finish, a year and a half after they approached me to opening night. The single most rewarding creative experience in all the things I’ve done.
The film adaptation of Sideways was a huge critical and commercial success. How closely were you involved in the creation of the movie?
Alexander Payne (the director and co-adapter) and his writing partner Jim Taylor gave me every draft of the script and were very interested in my input. My only main contribution was Maya’s speech on wine delivered by Virginia Madsen. I didn’t write it, but I urged them to write a complementary speech to Miles’s soliloquy on Pinot that precedes her now famous one after reading two drafts where her speech didn’t exist at all. I also had a little something to do with the ending. Other than having created the universe with my novel, I didn’t have a whole lot to do with the movie. Payne runs a tight ship, and once they get past the script and into pre-production there isn’t a whole hell of a lot the novelist is required to do.
What was your reaction to your original idea becoming an Academy Award winning film?
It was nominated for 5 Academy Awards, but only won for Best Adapted Screenplay, not Best Picture. Which, of course, made me happiest of all. Even more than Best Picture. Exultation was my reaction. Surprise, shock and exultation. After what I went through in the ‘90s, chronicled in a very long 7-part blog on Stage32.com, I felt like the proverbial Phoenix risen from the proverbial ashes.
I read that you had submitted your manuscript of Sideways numerous times for publication and were rejected. How did you persevere?
I blogged about this extensively on Stage32.com in a piece called My Life on Spec: the Writing of Sideways. I highly recommend your readers read it. Go to “Blogs” and then to “December.” It’s 15,000 words long and, for an aspiring, not for the faint of heart.
Are the characters, Miles and Jack autobiographical?
Sideways is written in the first person from the standpoint of Miles, so it’s very personal, very autobiographical. Jack is based on a close friend of mine, Roy Gittens.
In the novel, the Miles and Jack take a momentous trip to the Santa Ynez Valley in California. Can you describe the beauty of this area to readers? (FYI: The blogger is a huge Napa Valley fan).
The Santa Ynez Valley sort of reminds me a little of what I imagine Tuscany must be like, albeit having never been there, and with the added bonus of being nestled close to an ocean. It’s a sleepy place, sort of a “hick” place really, but it’s not overrun like Napa/Sonoma, which is also incredibly beautiful. There’s just something tranquil about wine country, whether it be the Santa Ynez Valley, Napa/Sonoma, or the Willamette Valley.
Why did you want to become a writer and who are some artists of any genre who continue to inspire you?
I didn’t want to become a writer necessarily; it wanted to inhabit me. It came from inside. And then it was all about film. I’ve been inspired as much, if not more so, by film than by literature.
I know it sounds self-serving, but I’m inspired by the work of Alexander Payne in U.S. cinema, but very few others. Fatih Akin in Germany. Marco Bellochio out of Italy. And I’m trying to read the great Chilean writer Roberto Bolano. Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye still moves me.
Can you discuss your new novel, Vertical, and the mother/son theme that it conveys?
It’s a long story. My mother had a massive stroke that left her full left-side paralyzed and wheelchair-dependent in ’90. My younger brother wrested control of her care and, more or less, squandered her life savings in two years. I had to assume control of her care and it wasn’t easy. I wrote a script titled The Road Back, inspired by this. It was sold, but never made. Then when Sideways became successful, my publishing agent twisted my arm into novelizing The Road Back. I did so reluctantly, and it was a horrible experience with Alfred A. Knopf. The book wasn’t working, so I got out of the deal and morphed the mother/son story into what is now the Sideways sequel Vertical.
As a successful writer, what is your advice for individuals who are just beginning in this career?
Follow me on Twitter @RexPickett because I Tweet #Writing tips all the time. First of all, it’s a life, not an avocation. You might make it sooner than others, but more than likely it’s going to be later, and it’s going to be a tough road. Be mindful of the marketplace, but try to find your own voice. Read copiously. Read great novels, read great screenplays, and see great movies. Develop an aesthetic sensibility. Writing and experiencing what great writers have written or great filmmakers have made feed and nourish one another. Don’t complain. Writing owes you nothing.
Do you have plans for a third novel and what are some current ideas that excite you as a creative person?
I didn’t have plans for a third novel until I was approached to do one. And that’s all I can say on that front, except that it will be, if I elect to do it, Part III of the Sideways trilogy.
I’m excited about Sideways: the Play and where it will travel next. It could easily consume the next couple years of my life. And there’s a script that I just optioned that I would like to direct titled Repairman.