Posted by Valentina Valentini on June 8, 2012 at 1:34 am
Sideways the play is currently Los Angeles’s little best kept secret. For $25 you get a ticket to the theater and unlimited tastes of some of the best Pinot Noirs from some of the most little known but top-notch California wineries, like Sharp Cellars, Kenneth Volk Vineyards, and Loring Wine Company.
And since women buy 80 percent of all wine and drink 65 percent of it, as author and filmmaker Rex Pickett (“Sideways” and it’s follow-up “Vertical”) informed me, the Santa Ynez Valley is California’s little best kept secret. Or was, at least. Although the secret has definitely gotten out since the quirky and affable adaption of Pickett’s autobiographical novel into the Alexander Payne-directed indie hit, just over the hill from Los Olivos it’s still quite undeveloped and breathtakingly serene.
“Guys are blowing it,” says Pickett. “It’s almost all women up there right now.”
But if you’re not going to make it up to Santa Ynez, (which soon, you might get to do both wine tasting and play-watching if the proposed deal to do a road show of Sideways up the coast goes through) then at least get yourself to the Ruskin Group Theater in Santa Monica for an evening of Pinots, laughs, characters you already know and love, but with twists not found in the film.
I was able to sit down with Miles, er, I mean, Rex Pickett and pick at his brain about the last year and the process of changing his novel into a stage play subsequent to the success of the film version.
“There truly three different mediums,” Pickett explains. “The book is purely Rex Pickett; the movie is Pickett-Payne; the play is Pickett-Ruskin Group-Amelia Mulkey.”
Who approached you about doing a theater version of Sideways?
I was approached by Jason Matthews, who is associated with he Ruskin Group Theater [and is a producer of the play], when I was at the Barker Hanger [across the street from Ruskin], doing an event called “Pinot Days” and signing some copies of my newly published book, “Vertical.”
Jason pitched the idea of a stage play so intelligently and I was really intrigued. He wanted it to be based on the book, which for legal reasons nothing can be based on the movie that isn’t in the book already, anyway. So I met with the whole team, and again everyone’s passion really blew me away, especially Mike Meyers’, the managing director at Ruskin. He and the whole team had read the novel and all had great ideas about staging it.
Why did you want to do a stage version of an already successful film?
There are four reasons I knew I wanted to do the stage version of Sideways:
One: I hate the purgatory of writing screenplays. You can even get paid and be in purgatory and never see anything made of your script. I’d rather take no money and see an end result. So the end result with this scenario was that I knew that I’d see my production put on.
Two: Because they all wear two or three hats at Ruskin, I realized that this would take me back to my indie film days, albeit in a stage version.
Three: Writing is a lonely existence. Doing the play I knew I’d get to be collaborating with people, other artists, all the time.
Fourth: I would have full creative control of the play. When the movie came out, I was very much pushed aside. I didn’t have PR, my publisher didn’t get behind it, and I didn’t get the credit I deserved for that novel. It’s well known that novelists aren’t the ones people want to see – it’s the directors, the stars. So with the stage version I would get to have final say on everything – the director, the cast, nothing would be re-written without me.
Was adapting the novel into a play difficult?
Actually, it was quite easy. I did it in two weeks. You see, the novel had read too much as a screenplay. I had over 110 rejection letters and three sets of submissions. Everyone said it was too dialogue driven. But really, that worked perfectly for a play. Movies don’t need a lot of dialogue, books don’t either, but a play, it is a dialogue and character-driven medium.
The cold read, which was 165 pages long, went really well. Everyone was laughing and afterward we met and started to strip it down a bit. I started to understand the exigencies of putting on a stage play and I went back in and cut it about 20 pages, taking out phone conversations that had the other person speaking off-stage, eliminating a bunch of tertiary characters, and things like that.
How did you come to hire a fairly “green” stage director, Amelia Mulkey?
Ruskin Group started sending me directors and by the third one I was really dismayed. These award-winning, older, male directors were just not right. One had re-written my script, all of them said the boar-hunting scene couldn’t be staged. It was like they were patting me on my shoulder and telling me that they’d take over, no problem. I didn’t want that.
So I told Mike and them to send me something else entirely different, somebody young and probably a woman. They brought me Amelia – 29 years old, had only directed one other stage production, but she was hungry and passionate and I knew she’d go 150 percent. On top of that, having grown up with two actor parents, she had it all coursing in her veins already.
Did you have a lot of say in casting?
I wasn’t able to be a part of the original picks, or the first round of auditions, but I was there for all the callbacks. Those were three brutal days.
Julia McIlvaine was a little on the young side to play Maya, but I knew she had soul and could do Maya great.
Cloe Kromwell who plays Tara had this raw, feral attitude and I knew she’d give Tara the depth that was needed, and perhaps not there in the film. Same with Jonathan Bray, who plays Jack. Casting Jonathan was a no brainer, I knew he could channel Jack but also give him a bit more heart in the stage version.
Miles was hard to choose because it’s me we’re talking about. John Colella was terrific in the callbacks, but there were others I thought were terrific as well. My team really convinced me that John would grow from week to week, and he’s truly lived up to that. We knew there would be the inevitable comparisons to Paul Giamatti, but I feel that John’s really taken hold of the role and made it his own. To be honest, Giamatti is Payne’s version on Miles, but John is Rex Picket’s version of Miles.
How did the idea for wine tasting come to fruition?
I had this idea from the very beginning and I would joke that Heineken and Yellowtail would never be sold at the performances. One day, I came across Barbara Drady, a wine consultant and her husband is a wine maker. She expressed interest in my query to her about having tastings at each performance.
I wanted smaller wine makers and I wanted real stem wear. Sharp Cellars, a gold medalist winery poured a Pinot that he doesn’t even pour at to his customers. It has been a lot of hard work for Barbara, but it’s been a complete success. It aids the play to be not just a stage performance but an entire experience.
What next, for Sideways the play?
I don’t like to think of Sideways as a brand, but it is… we all know that. We could go the bigger theater venue, like the La Jolla Playhouse or South Coast Repertory, London or Toronto, in route to Broadway. But another way to go is to take it straight to where the brand is so strong: wine country. We take it into Sideways-ground zero – Santa Ynez.
Just yesterday it all came together, we’re putting on 12 shows in a 350-seat, tent-like venue with wineries in residence. Hypothetically, the opening show will be on Labor Day weekend.
As long as we’re a success up there, which I feel is fairly certain, then on to Napa Valley, Sonoma, Willamette Valley in Oregon.
‘SIDEWAYS THE PLAY’ opened May 18. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm thru July 22 at the Ruskin Group Theater in Santa Monica.