Rex Picketts house is on a quiet tree-line street in Santa Monica.
As I approach the porch to the quaint bungalow, I see that the front door
is wide open. At the open door, I cant find a bell, and theres
no one visible inside. Hello? I call. No response.
Im here to interview Pickett, who wrote the novel Sideways. The writer
who helped change the landscape of the Central Coastal Wineries, the writer
who created Miles and Jack, two middle-aged college buddies out for one
last hurrah before Jacks wedding. Miles, the despairing unpublished
novelist and Jack, the optimistic one-time bit soap actor, on a road trip,
not to recapture something, because the point is their dreams have eluded
them. More of the road is behind, than ahead, of them, and they feel the
pinch, the narrowing of lifes possibilities.
I take this odd moment on the threshold to capture Rex Picketts wide-open
abode in repose. A bike leans against a wall, mail is strewn on a table,
non-descript bookcases are loaded to sagging point, two framed movie posters,
From Hollywood to Deadwood and Sideways, provide the only art. The furniture
is utilitarian, the room well lived-in. It is devoid of pretense. No hint
I call out again, louder, and he appears, striding across the room to greet
me. Hes tall with movie-star good looks. His greeting is both warm
and cautious. And when we settle in, he says What would you like to
know? Hes intense, engaged, willing to answer, to share.
Rex Pickett is a puzzle. Hes a produced screenwriter whose very first
novel is made into a hit movie. But Pickett, the screenwriter, did not write
Picketts circuitous career leading up to Sideways accomplishes what
all stories need to achieve: it reveals character and unleashes conflict
and opposition in the characters path. It is, in effect, a classic
A San Diego native, Pickett was raised in Claremont and attended UCSD. Like
most overnight success stories, his was decades in the making.
He started writing poetry, lots of it, as a teenager. But at 19, he threw
all of it in the trashall 1000+ pages. To understand why, is to understand
a basic truth about Pickett: He has high standards, and he abhor's banality.
It wasnt good enough. I wanted to start over, he says,
with a clean slate.
Pickett isnt a man who takes the easy path. While at UCSD, Pickett
took two semesters off to do some reading It was a period of autodictaism
and aesthetics. Turns out some reading included Carl Jungs
collected works, a 20-volume set. It will teach you all you need to
know about characterization, he says. Well, at least Volume
Six, he adds with a grin.
More advice: Avoid all screenwriting books devoted to structure, plot paradigms,
theories of outlining and plotting. If you are a storyteller,
he says with certainty, the three acts will happen unwittingly. Its
this simple: Beginning, Middle and End. And let me tell you this, if a storyteller
doesnt know this intrinsically, hes not a writer. Then
he tips back in his chair and indulges a smile, Trying to understand
screenwriting that wayits like having sex in a wet suit.
He wrote five screenplays before From Hollywood to Deadwood, his first theatrical
release, was made. Hed written and directed a couple of small films.
And in 1999, a script he wrote, My Mother Dreams the Satans Disciples
in New York, won an Academy Award for best live-action short. It was directed
by his then wife, Barbara Schock. The script reads like literature, perfectly
rendered. It was written, Pickett says, without compromise
and directed without compromise, it moved from the page to the screen as
purely as one could hope for.
But then, a rough patch. He wrote a detective novel that garnered interest
but no publishers. His marriage ended. His mother had a stroke. Financially,
creditors were held at bay as Pickett made desperate phone calls to family
and friends. I had to take in a roommate, to make the rent,
he says, pointing to one of the two bedrooms. I moved into my writing
room. I considered myself a failure. It was the lowest point of my life.
From that desperation, Sideways was born.
Sideways is a very personal work, confessional, Pickett says.
The intensity with which this is stated leaves little doubt I bared
my soul. I am Miles.
He says this without addendum, without qualification. He lets his words
stand naked despite the implications of this statement, the silent tabulations
that the listener naturally makes. Like the décor of his home, what
you see is what you get. Picket doesnt attempt to add pretty corners
or waxed floors. He lets the truth do what it will.
The humanity of Sideways, the novel and the movie, is in its ability to
move between comedy and tragedy, from moment to moment. At its best, it
is both at the same moment. Pickett knows something about this.
I knew if I was going to write about failure and despair, I better
lace it with humor," he says. "My first film was despair without
humor and it ended up selling to German television. They were the only ones
who were into just despair."
He originally started Sideways as a screenplay, but it didnt
work, he says. It was all events and no interior voice. Then
I began a short story which evolved into the novel. I realized that in writing
it as prose and in the first person that I was able to use the interior
monologue of Miles to give a perspective on the trip that the screenplay
After writing the book, Pickett tried to adapt it into a screenplay. But
it was like many novelists adapting their own work: my version read like
a series of scenes from the book. The best adaptation comes from good screenwriters
who arent afraid of changing things, screenwriters who have their
own vision of what the book should beas a film.
Like his storys character Miles, who spends his trip with Jack waiting
to hear from his agent about his latest manuscript, Picketts future
was riding on his own unpublished novel. His agents shopped Sideways simultaneously
to the print and Hollywood folks. Nine months later, when it seemed that
his last chance had run out, Sideways was pulled out of the reading stack
by a young assistant to writer/director Alexander Payne (Election, About
Schmidt). Pickett praises Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor on their
script. Sideways went on to be nominated for 5 Academy Awards, including
Best Picture. And, with irony abounding, its only Oscar went for Best
Its all about characterization, Pickett says intensely,
leaning forward. Without characters, you have no story. Characters
are alive, breathing, and if youre honest about your work, you cant
make them do something against their nature.
Pickett develops the characters in his head first, then the story. My
characters are living beings in my mind. He uses characterization
and dialogue to create differentiation. Opposites attract and create
conflict; create tension. Miles and Jack are opposites.
Miles is introverted, and for him the glass of wine is always half empty;
and Jack is the extrovert, his glass is always half full. Miles loves
Jacks ability to walk into a restaurant and light up the room!
Pickett says, his eyes alive, as if he just started to talk about a lover.
You gotta love Jack, the way he can turn any situation around and
make it seem positive!
In the screen adaptation, Payne chose to give Miles a respectable job, teaching
eighth grade. In Picketts novel, Miles has nothing solid to
fall back on, nothing to make failure palatable. Only the free-fall of despair.
It makes failure cost more and is one of the biggest differences between
the novel and the screenplay.
Its also the way Pickett has lived his life.
Ive known some talented people who didnt have the courage
to follow the path, and Ive known some mediocre ones who were so obstinate
about making it that they just bulled their way to success. The need writers
have to express themselves grips them, some more intensely than others.
And you either have the courage to follow that path or you dont. Thats
not fate, thats choice.
He believes in free will, hard work, and having the goods when luck shows
up. As for God? It is for me the Unknowable thingcall it, like
Jung, the Unconsciousthat entity greater than me who descends on me
with dreams, ideas, fears, exhortations. I do feel there are forces outside
my ability that are shaping me, annealing me in some invisible way. But
I dont surrender to organized religion, to a being greater than me
whos puppeteering my fate and decreeing whether, at the Rapture, or
my death, whether Im headed to heaven or hell. If Heaven is where
shallow-thinking people are going, then Ill take hell. And at least
I know Ill be in good company with other artists. Plus the wine will
Endings, though, are important. I saw an early draft of Paynes
screenplay in which the movie ends with Mayas long phone message to
Miles. If it ends like that, Pickett shakes his head, puts his
right hand to his temple and mimes pulling the trigger of a gun. Might
as well hear a gunshot.
The movie doesnt end like that, though. The last scene is of Miles
on Mayas doorstep, ready to try again, knocking and waiting. There
has to be a sense of hope and redemption, Pickett says.
I believe in the innate need to writein whatever formand
then whatever happens, happens, Picket says. He never expected the
writing life to be easy; he expected sacrifice. I have never thought
that art should pay bills. I think writing as a career comes second to writing
But dont mistake him for a saint. Pickett says that he has thought
of selling out, writing for commercial success, Look, in desperate
moments I think: What would make me a lot of money? But its hard to
fake. Its hard to be good when youre faking it.
In Picketts absolute world, theres this strong sense that if
you lose your integrity, you lose you soul.
Thats a price too high to pay, Pickett says in his intense
way. What youre doing is what youre becoming; what youve
done is what youve become.
Picketts living room turns into a cluster of shadows as the sun recedes.
Perhaps being semi-cloaked in darkness, Picketts humanity, his vulnerability,
lies closer to the surface. He seems spent by his own intensity.
He is Milesbut with a different ending. And so now is the time to
ask the question I have been turning over in my mind through the afternoon:
Are you happier now, since Sideways?
Pickett exhales and leans back in his chair. Im certainly more
comfortable than I was before. He explains, I still possess
that same sense of pressure to write better, to dredge out of me the deepest,
most truthful expression of myif I can be so arrogantartistic
being. And Sideways seriously raised the bar on what I expect from myself.
And from what others expect as well. But the question hasnt been answered.
So I again ask: Are you happier now, since Sideways?
Picketts fingers make a tee-pee and he leans his chin into them. As
I wait for him to speak, I think back over the interview, about how for
the first time in his life hes being paid an advance (Knopf) for his
next novel, how hes bombarded with requests for appearances at wineries
and readings and book signings. And I think about Miles, Picketts
autobiographical character. What if Miless agent had called to give
the happy news that his novel had been sold? How would that have changed
the story? What would Miless reaction have been? Initial euphoria,
yes, and a splurge on a pricey Pinotbut beyond that, what? Would success
have helped Miles get over his obsession about his ex-wife? Would he drink
less? Would he chose the light over the dark?
Pickett finally speaks, through his interlaced fingers. Happiness
is, for most people, contentment. But contentment for an artist is death.
In preparing for the interview I had read Picketts explanation on
how success had changed him: "I drive a car now that, when you get
in it, it smells like it's going to start." I liked the wry understatement.
But I ask again, for a third time: Are you happier since Sideways?
There is a long beat.
Then Pickett answers.
No. Im not happier.
© 2007 Vera Caccioppoli