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From the Archives: A road trip “Sideways” – Alexander Payne’s circuitous journey to his California wine country film comedy


From the Archives: A road trip “Sideways” – Alexander Payne’s circuitous journey to his California wine country film comedy

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Alexander Payne’s new movie, Sideways, took a four-year road trip from high concept to stalled project to hot property. It finally opens October 20 in a limited national release. Charting its circuitous development offers an inside look at how feature film projects come together.

The inspiration for the film came from that most prosaic of sources, a 1998 unpublished novel by Rex Pickett, who drew closely from his own life to tell the sad and comic story of two loser buddies on a wine tour.

Adapted by Payne and writing partner Jim Taylor, the film follows best buds Jack, a libidinous ex-soap star, and Miles, a junior high English teacher and would-be writer, in a classic “men behaving badly” tale. On the journey, their addictions, obsessions and neuroses with wine and women catch up with them, turning an idyll into a comedy of errors. In Jack, the lame-brained serial seducer who never grows up, and in Miles, the anxious intellectual alcoholic who can’t take a stand, the two sides of the modern American male are on display.

With a director in as complete command of his craft as Payne (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt), producer Michael London (Thirteen, House of Sand and Fog) got a director who left him little to do but sign off on expenditures, smooth ruffled feathers, cast a keen eye on dailies and keep the train that is a film production on track, meaning, on-schedule and on-budget. Payne, who also controlled the film’s “final cut,” found London a good fit.

“In terms of working with me and the actors, and then working in an effective way with the studio, he just speaks everyone’s language,” Payne said of London.

Although Sideways marks the first time the two worked together, Payne was near the top of London’s list to adapt the book to film.

“I was really just a fan of Alexander’s before this. I really didn’t have any particular history or connection with him other than meeting him very briefly at the Sundance Film Festival the year Citizen Ruthplayed there,” London said. “I’d read an early draft of my friend, Rex Pickett’s novel and we started talking about it as a movie.  At one point, Rex was thinking of adapting it himself and at one point we were going to adapt it together…I had really liked the book and had started talking to a couple of filmmakers about it. Alexander recently asked me, ‘Who passed on it for me to get this?’ I don’t think anyone passed. I think it’s a very particular type of material, and I think the instinct he was right for it was probably a good instinct.”

But London knew who and what he wanted.

“It’s not like there’s 50 directors in the world who could have done this story, and I think that’s probably true of most of the things Alexander does. They’re very unique to Alexander,” the producer said. “I was quite obsessed that he would relate to these characters (Jack and Miles) and to the whole idea of this kind of wasted wine trip and of men in mid-life crisis. It just felt like he would do something really special with that. I chased him through his agent and all the ordinary avenues, but without much luck.”

In that variegated, Byzantine way in which Hollywood deals get made, London said during the period he was trying to contact Payne in order to court him, the book somehow got to Payne through another source.

“But it wound up sitting in his hands for about nine months because he was finishing Election, and then he was touring and doing press,” London said.

Payne was in Scotland of all places when he finally called London to put his dibs on the project.

“He wound up going to Scotland for a film festival,” London says, ” and I walked in my door one Friday night and there was a phone message saying, ‘This is Alexander Payne. I just got off a plane in Scotland and I want to do this movie Sideways next.’”

London said Payne felt so strongly about the material that he became boldly proprietary about it, making his directing it a fate accompli.

“From our first conversation he was like, ‘I have to direct this. No one else can direct this.’”

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN MY NEW BOOK-

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Now available for pre-ordering.

 

 

Alexander Payne and Michael London


 

 


 

 

 

Paul Giamatti as Miles, left, and Thomas Haden Church as Jack in "Sideways," a film often cited by critics as the best of 2004.


 

 

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