The Sideways Publishing Saga -- Part II: Exultation

In my last blog I left off with the year of waiting dangerously. 16 publishers had turned Sideways down and my book agent had pulled the manuscript, fearing skunk-like saturation. My book-to-film Endeavor agent more or less suffered a nervous breakdown and left Hollywood for distant ports in search of psychological recovery. I, destitute and borrowing to stay afloat, was morbidly fantasizing high buildings and firearms on the Internet.

(A quick parenthetical: lest you think my admittedly tendentious view of the publishing world is a jeremiad born of experience and is all too banal, it's true. But, something you should know about me: I love books. I trolled bookstores in my youth with the avidity of any obsessive. When I was 19, I spent an entire $1,500 pain and suffering settlement from a car accident and purchased the Collected Works of C.G. Jung, dropped out of school and spent six months every day reading them, a life-transformative experience. I love books for what they've given me. It was my choice -- yes, choice -- to go down the romantic path of literary fiction with first St. Martin's Press, then Alfred A. Knopf (when there was serious heat on me after the success of Sideways), and they, over the course of 10 years, robbed me of all the joy that I believe transiting from book lover to book writer would bring me.)

The saga cont.: A year after Sideways had been pulled for submission, and the film industry had turned a deaf ear to two guys who go wine tasting in then little known Santa Ynez Valley, my life was in tatters. I researched camping gear because I feared losing my rent-controlled house. My roommate had gone on a tequila- and marijuana-fueled bender and was bringing coke-addled hookers over, staying up all night and carousing with money he had conned out of investors on a spurious Alaska natural gas lease scheme. Insomniacal and now paralyzed with fear -- one night my con man roommate threatened my life if I continued to criticize his -- I was going mad. After 20 years writing/directing two indie movies, countless scripts, all that remained for my salvation from suicide (which I sweetly fantasized) or incarceration in a state mental hospital for catatonia-induced panic anxiety that had me strangled in its vice-like grips, was for something to happen with Sideways. To say I was running on fumes would be an understatement.

I came home from Baja Fresh where my last credit card had been declined on a $6.99 order of a burrito combo plate. There were two messages on my answering machine. The assistant to my new book-to-film agent, Brian Lipson, was practically breathless on the phone with excitement. "Brian Lipson's office! Call us immediately!" The second message was from Michael London (eventual producer on Sideways, and a "friend" who wouldn't loan me $200 to get my phone and electricity turned on just months previously), who was more or less screaming on the phone: "I can't F$*#ing believe this. Alexander Payne just got off a plane from Edinburgh, called David Lonner" -- Payne's agent, and whom Jess Taylor, my now long-gone agent had submitted the manuscript to -- "and said Sideways was going to be his next film." I called Brian back first. Agents, occupational pachyderms when it comes to rejection, live for just this rare moment. He was beside himself. We speculated far past the usual five minutes an agent vouchsafes a client who hasn't been producing revenue.

Two days later, Alexander Payne called me. Multilingual and knowledgeable in Latin, he seemed to like the correlation between my name Rex and its Latin meaning: king. "Rex, the king, I loved your novel." His next line was: "Who's Michael London and do we need him?" I don't remember much else of the short conversation except that we agreed that it was time to meet.

Alexander Payne, hot off Election, now had, within budgetary reason, greenlighting power. That's the Holy Grail in Hollywood. We met on his top floor office in a building somewhere in Hollywood off Wilshire a week or so later. Michael London, for some strange reason, was already there. Payne, wiry thin, with a thick mane of, then, black hair, greeted me effusively with a hug. I was so wired from the breathless phone calls I hadn't slept the night before and I'd taken a mg of Xanax because panic attacks were accompanying my drive over from Santa Monica. I didn't know if it was meeting someone who had the power to change the fate of my life -- he didn't know how drastically -- or the expired tags on my '91 Accord and the fear that I would be stopped, car would be towed and I would miss the meeting since I didn't even have enough money to take a cab.

Alexander's idea was to rush right into production, shoot it in Super-16 mm. on a budget under $3 million. Okay. Ultimately, three months later he and Michael London (in the biggest coup of his career, and one he has never thanked me for) optioned the book for one year for $12,500. Specialty divisions circled like deep-sea predators on the scent of a profusely bleeding porpoise. Artisan Entertainment's charismatic nutbag co-president Bill Block, in a grandstanding move, convinced Payne to let them finance and distribute. In early 2000 both Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter ran front-page stories, with headlines like "Payne Goes 'Sideways.'" Mitchell Waters, my publishing agent, high off the news, immediately went back out with my previously much-derided manuscript, smelling a bidding war and a six-figure deal. He was slapped in the face again and rejected by every single publisher for reasons that flummoxed both of us. Sony Magazines, a Japanese publisher, however, bought it for $20,000. I was now facing the prospect of being the first author to have his debut novel published, but who wouldn't be able to read it.

Next blog: Payne decides to make another film before Sideways. But I get laid for the first time in three years.