Searchlight high-beams helmers

Payne will head 'Sideways' at Fox

Director Alexander Payne will make his next film, “Sideways,” at Fox Searchlight. Ensemble comedy will begin shooting around the wineries of Santa Ynez in mid-September.

Landing Payne is another coup for Peter Rice’s division, which got a $10 million opening weekend from the Danny Boyle-directed horror pic “28 Days Later.”

Searchlight has been aggressive in drawing distinctive directors into its fold, recently pacting for Woody Allen’s next film as well as “I Love Huckabee’s,” a David O. Russell-helmed ensemble comedy that stars Mark Wahlberg, Jude Law and Dustin Hoffman.

“He’s one of the few filmmakers who write and direct their own material and attract wonderful actors,” said Rice, who, with Fox topper Jim Gianopulos, pursued Payne for years. Pic will be supervised by Searchlight’s Claudia Lewis, Payne’s former UCLA film school classmate.

Payne has been working with producer Michael London to bring “Sideways” to the screen since he first read a manuscript by screenwriter Rex Pickett (Daily Variety, Sept. 30, 1999).

Pickett wrote it as a novel, which will be published next year by St. Martin’s Press. Payne wrote the script with Jim Taylor, his writing partner on “About Schmidt,” “Election” and “Citizen Ruth.”

It is described as being a little more of a broad comic effort than “About Schmidt,” but, like that pic, deals with feelings of mortality. Paul Giamatti and Sandra Oh are attached to star.

The main characters are a writer and a washed-up actor who is about to get married. To salute what remains of their youth, they get lost in wine country on a weeklong vacation. Trouble ensues as the pair come to terms with maturity.

Giamatti will play the writer, Oh, who is married to Payne, will play one of the women orbiting the frolicking duo.

Payne is repped by Endeavor.

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