Searchlight drinks in screenplay victory

Payne pic 'Sideways' gives big boost to Fox

Fox Searchlight’s “Sideways,” a critical favorite for its nuanced blend of comedy and pathos, capped a solid Oscar campaign with a win for Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor for adapted screenplay.

The tale of a wine-fueled road trip originated in 1998 in Rex Pickett’s Santa Monica apartment and has already managed to permeate the American consciousness since its October release. Two of its signature Paul Giamatti lines — “I am not drinking any fucking Merlot” and “Quaffable but far from transcendent” — have entered the current lexicon in a major way.

In addition to spurring sales of pinot noir, “Sideways” also became far and away the most successful Searchlight pic ever, with domestic grosses nearing $65 million, despite having remained in limited release until late January. Searchlight mirrored the marketing strategy used last year for a similar vehicle, “Lost in Translation,” relying heavily on word of mouth and stressing the offbeat nature of the comedy.

Payne, who also directed, and producer Michael London settled on Searchlight in 2003 when the shingle was willing to commit to a $16 million budget — the top end of what it’s permitted to pay — and agreed to the cast of lesser names.

“We love Fox Searchlight for letting us make a film with complete creative freedom,” Payne said in his acceptance speech.

Though “Sideways” was shut out in the picture, director and supporting actor and actress categories, it was considered close to a slam dunk for adapted screenplay after its recent Writers Guild of America win. Payne and Taylor’s “Election,” also a WGA winner, lost in Oscar’s adapted category five years ago to John Irving’s “The Cider House Rules.”

“Sideways” started seven years ago as “Two Guys on Wine,” a Pickett screenplay loosely based on one of his weekend trips to the Santa Ynez Valley. “Sideways” is the term Pickett used for being too inebriated to drive.

Pickett’s financial situation was so dire that he often faced eviction from his apartment as he struggled with the aftermath of the breakup of his marriage and the deaths of his mother and agent. So he decided to write a novel about himself, a failed novelist who retreats to wine.

“Miles’ story really is my story,” Pickett admitted recently. “At one point, the landlord was going to evict me because the rent was three weeks late, and I told him I couldn’t pay it because my mother had died. He said, ‘That’s what you told me six months ago.’ ”

Payne committed to directing the movie in 1999 but decided to make “About Schmidt” first. Pickett finally found a publisher for his novel four years later, around the time cameras began rolling on “Sideways.”

Pickett is pleased that “Sideways” evokes the laid-back feel of a 1970s road-trip film like “The Last Detail.” And he’s delighted he actually took part in a comic scene in which Giamatti appears to hit a golf shot into a cart from 150 yards away.

“Paul has a terrible swing, so I told Alexander I could make the shot,” he said. “We did four takes and I hit the cart on the third try, which is the shot that’s in the film.”

Payne and Taylor, who have been writing partners for 15 years, also thanked London, their agents and their wives. Payne’s married to Sandra Oh, who portrayed Stephanie in the film.

“Last but not least, I want to share my side of the award with the cast and crew, because we had a lot of fun,” Payne said.

Taylor also thanked his late mother for teaching him how to write.

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