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The Sideways Publishing Saga -- Part III: Whiplash; Dismay!

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The Academy Awards this coming February 26th hold a special place in my heart. I'm somehow miraculously behind two Oscars: the Best Adapted Screenplay for Sideways (based on my novel of the same title) and the writer of the 2000 Oscar for Best Live Action Short, My Mother Dreams the Satan's Disciples in New York, directed by my ex-wife Barbara Schock, now a professor of film at NYU.

In Part II of my publishing saga I left off with Alexander Payne optioning Sideways; Artisan Entertainment greenlighting it as a $10 million film; front page Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter articles announcing that it would be Payne's next movie; Sony Publishing buying the Japanese foreign rights for $20,000; and the U.S. publishing world turning up their noses on a second round of submissions and slapping my indefatigable Curtis Brown, LTD agent, Mitchell Waters, in the face with another fusillade of nasty rejection letters. We were both nonplussed. Okay, I thought, I wrote a crappy novel that Stanford-educated, hot filmmaker Alexander Payne, idiotically saw a movie in. It's going to be a Hollywood film, not a novel, except maybe in Japan or Croatia. And, according to one dyspeptic senior editor at a major publishing house, it was going to be one of the "worst movies ever committed to celluloid if made." I've been excoriated before, been dealt worst fates.

After a decade of destitution, defeat, and abysmal failure, the beginning of 2000 was shaping up to be a dream year. All of the above was happening, a movie was in the works, my agents were calling - and returning calls - with alacrity. And Barbara's film had just been nominated for an Academy Award! It was a stunning enantiodromia the likes of which I couldn't have fantasized in my most wine-fueled delusions.

On Super Bowl Sunday in 2000, Alexander Payne -- now the owner of Sideways -- and I took a road trip to the setting of my novel, the now famous Santa Ynez Valley. It was a gray and bleak day. We had a wonderful time, and I've chronicled this trip elsewhere. Finally, I thought, when he had dropped me off at 11:00 p.m. after a long day of wine tasting, concluding with dinner at the now iconic Hitching Post, this decade of failure, where I never stopped writing, will be redeemed. To hell with the publishing industry! No one's reading anymore, as Steve Jobs would opine much later, my story will be a movie and reach millions. And then, ignominiously or not, Sideways will finally be officially published.

In February of 2000 I was at one of those guilty-pleasure Oscar parties pandemic here in L.A. when the luminous Cate Blanchett and the grinning Jude Law opened the lavishly large envelope and read the winner of the Best Live Action Short for 2000. When they announced Barbara's name I fell to the floor and wept like a baby. We had spent the '80s making two indie feature films together, and though we had parted company, though she had remarried and bore a daughter, our lives would seem to be forever intertwined. It was sweet redemption for her because the two indie films had been hard on her and her family and she had had to claw her way to the American Film Institute to reinvent herself as a director. It was a moment I wish every writer could experience. And even though I wasn't at the awards ceremony, to hear my name thanked (of course!) in front of millions of viewers, along with the imminence of Sideways being Alexander Payne's next film, I truly began to believe that all the suffering and heartache, panic attacks, etc. had finally dealt me an almost mythological reprieve (I'm thinking of Lazarus here!). But life as a writer in Hollywood is not, as I would learn, a meritocracy.

Shortly after the 2000 Oscar-cast -- and two lovely weeks spent with the golden statuette itself -- I got a call from Alexander Payne. He started in casually, saying he was taking a date to a restaurant and wanted a wine recommendation. He had remembered a Pinot Noir I had exulted over and seemed to believe that this restaurant had it on their list. I gave him the name of the winery - ironically, Steele -- and then there was a pause. I'm paraphrasing his next words: "The real reason I'm calling, Rex, is that I'm going to make another film before Sideways. But, fear not, Sideways is up next." Up next, when? It takes minimum two years to make a film the way Payne makes one where he's hands-on from script to post-production. I felt like one of those guys who's walking briskly down the street text messaging and is suddenly knocked cold by a streetlight stanchion he didn't see. Imagine being mere yards from summiting Everest and your pitons ripping out of the rock face and free-falling in space. When he had concluded the call -- a call he knew would monumentally disappoint me and wanted to end as quickly as possible -- I looked at the receiver in my hand as though it were a dead sparrow. Are you really going to do this to me, God? Are you really going to test me like this, you motherf#@*#*?!! With my contract calling for 3% of the budget (with a ceiling of $300,000) to be paid beginning principle photography, I would automatically "ceiling out," as they say in the biz. Are you really going to make me suffer like this, O Lord? (Yes, I was getting religious, alternately invoking and haranguing the Almighty.) Doubts plagued me immediately like a sudden electrical storm. Most saliently: would the bloom be off the rose in two years when Payne finished this film before Sideways?

In my next post: I get a girlfriend who has a great job and who believes in me; I write a spec script that gets optioned; my Curtis Brown, LTD agent once again withdraws Sideways from submission and implores me to rewrite (I'm too depressed to go back inside the ms.); and I wait -- and wait! -- for Alexander Payne to make his Jack Nicholson-starring, and eventual award-winning, About Schmidt.

For Part I go here, and for Part II go here.