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Sideways Author Goes Vertical, and Sober

Rex Pickett Talks Writing, Movies, and Wine Life-as-Alcoholism


The film Sideways changed Santa Barbara wine country forever, simultaneously boosting worldwide appreciation for pinot noir and raising the profile of the region’s winemakers. Today, plenty of Santa Barbara County pinot goes for more than $35 a bottle, almost every tasting room charges upwards of $10 for a tasting, and those rooms tend to be packed with people on the weekends, three realities that weren’t quite real when the Oscar-winning film hit the big screen in 2004.

Rex Pickett
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Courtesy Photo

Rex Pickett

It took a little bit of time for word to spread, but by now, most folks know that Sideways started as a book, written by Los Angeles-based screenwriter and director Rex Pickett. Late last year, Pickett came out with his sequel called Vertical, in which the roles for main characters Miles and Jack are reversed. Coming off a successful novel and film, our formerly depressed protagonist Miles is a wine fest-hopping superstar, scoring sips of priceless wines, plenty of praise, and the occasional threesome. The once happy-go-lucky character of Jack, meanwhile, is divorced and bummed out. Both, however, are total boozers, sipping chardonnay instead of coffee in the morning. The plot, which is again loosely based on Pickett’s own life, sends them on a trip northbound to deliver Miles’ ailing mother to her old stomping grounds in Wisconsin with a stop at the big annual pinot fest in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Throw in a joint-puffing Filipina nurse, some love interests, and an erection problem or two, and Vertical proves to be a complicated romp of a book, a lot funnier that Sideways in many scenes although much more emotionally wearing too.

Pickett is coming to sign copies of Vertical and talk to the masses this Saturday, October 8, 1-4 p.m., at the 2011 Celebration of Harvest, held at Rancho Sisquoc. He’s also be at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club for the Concours d’Elegance on October 29 and 30. He spoke with The Independent on Friday morning, and this is an edited version of that conversation.

How’s the book tour going this time around?

It’s obviously been a very different thing because initially when Sideways came out, seven months before the movie, I went to book signings with two people there. Then the movie came out and there were 350 people there. We’re kind of in between now — we don’t have the movie, but we have the previous movie. The key thing is people know the book is out there. Also, we have the first hard cover edition of Sideways coming out, and so many people asked about my life leading up to Sideways, I wrote a new 13,000-word forward. So I’m very excited about that.

Why did you decide to self-publish Vertical?

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I don’t really believe in traditional publishing anymore. It’s fast going the way of lacework. The only thing that’s a little tough going this tour is that traditional reviews by legit people are a little harder to get than if it’s published by Random House. Where books are going is a wide-open field. The good news is that it gives authors way more of a chance than going the traditional route of finding and agent and finding a publisher. But the bad news is that it’s going to give everyone a chance.

Is there a Vertical movie in the works?

A lot of people tell me that it’s a better book than Sideways, that it’s more emotional and not just another rehash like Hangover 2. The producer called me and asked if I’d write a screenplay. But [Sideways] director Alexander Payne, I’m not sure if he wants to intersect with my journey a second time. I wrote the screenplay and everyone loved it, but right now, Fox Searchlight owns the film rights and I own the literary rights. They own the film rights into perpetuity. My agents approached everyone with the script, and they said, “We will not do anything without Alexander Payne.”

Alexander Payne is a finicky guy. His new film, The Descendants, it will have been over seven years since Sideways. He’s gone seven years without making a movie. This is one of the hottest directors in Hollywood. He’s very much an auteur. He’s very much concerned about his legacy and everything else. Everybody knows there’s millions to be made with the sequel.

It’s about getting into the head of Alexander Payne. That’s the nuts and bolts for you. Fox Searchlight, they so venerate Alexander Payne, they’re not gonna move without him. And if Alexander doesn’t budge, then Paul Giamattti won’t budge. Yet everyone wants it to happen.

So I’m gonna tell you that there’s going to be a sequel, but it’s not in the works right now. There’s the novel, there’s the screenplay, and at some point, the financial pressures will build, and someone’s gonna cave.

You can kind of see it from Payne’s perspective though too. If he only make two movies a decade, maybe he doesn’t want to do a sequel.

Well, not to compare myself to the great Coppola, but he did Godfather 2, and that was better.

How close is Vertical to reality?

The trip didn’t happen with Jack, but everything with my mother was real. I lived that, and Jack is that character now, he’s a guy who’s gone to seed. And I am a guy who’s had success and overimbibed and did some things that I don’t do anymore.

So are you reliving the dream on tour?

With Sideways, I didn’t know what was happening. I went from nowhere to having success slam me in the face. I’d go place to place, and I was over-imbibing. I’m much more focused now. I’m looking forward to the Celebration of Harvest because it’s right in the middle of Sideways country. They’re finally discovering me. How would you like to go to a wine fest and have 300 people come up to you and say how much they love you? It’s great.

And Vertical is kind of my magnum opus. I’m not sure I’d write another novel, not because I don’t have it in me, but because I fear for the future of reading.

There’s a Sideways play in the works now too?

We just had a second cold read, and we’re going for a director on Monday and Tuesday. It’s a guaranteed 12-week run. I’m pretty sure it’s going to premiere in January. Every night or every weekend, we’re going to get some higher end winery sponsor. I’m excited about the material. For legal reasons, the play is based on the novel and not the film. So I’m finding rich new stuff in the novel that really works in the play. It’s so fucking funny. The books are very character-driven dialogue. In a play, I can really let that stuff rip.

It’s at the Ruskin Group Theatre, right next to the Santa Monica Airport, and I’m fairly confident it will start January 20. It was their idea. The last thing we want is a greatest hits of the movie, that would be a mistake. It is Miles and Jack, and they get in a shitload of trouble before the wedding, but there’s different stuff in there. In some ways, the laughter is more eye-watering because it’s right in front of your face, because there are longer scenes that seem to cut a little deeper.

Very few projects have gone from novel to movie to theater and been successful with all three. Mice and Men is one, and no one can think of another novel that went that route. It’s because there are a lot of universal themes in Sideways. I didn’t know this when I wrote it, but that’s why it has endured. It hasn’t endured because of “No fuckin’ merlot!” It’s about friendship and about friendship coming to a parting of the ways.

In Vertical, your character Miles stops drinking by the end of the book. Is that the case for you?

Yea, I still don’t drink.

Do you still taste and spit?

I’ll taste and spit, but certain things—for instance, at the Celebration of Harvest, with 110 wineris there, I’m perfectly comfortable. But, say, a wine dinner, which I get invited to a lot, I wouldn’t do that.

I just came to a point where it was a tough place: the ‘90s, and fast forward to Sideways, where I went through so much deprivation and then rocketed up. You have money in the bank, no wife, no kids, no structure to my life. It’s a very dangerous place to be.

I know a lot of people who drink a lot of wine who integrated it into their own lives. [Wine critic] Robert Parker, by his own admission, drinks two bottles a day. Two bottles a day? I don’t function. It’s easier for me not to drink than to have a couple glasses and try to shut it down. It took a long time to reach that point, and I found I was losing days. I love wine, and I really miss it like a great mistress, but the truth of the matter is I’m so much more productive and happier this way.

I’m not some prohibitionist here. I don’t even like being around sober people to be honest with you. But after too many hangovers, I decided I really needed to clear a path for myself. Yet ironically, Miles had become, if nothing else, the film embodiment of wine appreciation. That doesn’t mean that, in a year or two, will I see if I can enjoy it more responsibly? Sure.

I’ve seen that too, and maybe been guilty of it myself from time to time, in which people in the wine business are sometimes using wine as a way to hide perhaps their desire to drink.

You hit the nail on the head. Does winemaking draw winemakers because they love wine or does it draw them because it’s a great place to cloak their addiction? But I’m not judgmental. I don’t care what anyone does. I don’t give a shit about your input. I care about your output.

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Rex Pickett will signs copies of Vertical this Saturday, October 8, 1-4 p.m., at the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association’s annual Celebration of Harvest at Rancho Sisquoc (website here , and again later this month at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club for the Concours d’Elegance on October 29 and 30. See rexpickett.com.

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