Most people don’t recognize Rex Pickett at first glance.
Once he mentions his novel, however, “Their eyes pop open,” Pickett said. “ ‘Oh my God, you wrote “Sideways?” That’s one of my favorite films of all time!’ ”
Based on Pickett’s novel, “Sideways” stars Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church as two friends on a rowdy road trip through the Santa Ynez Valley wine country. The romantic comedy was one of the biggest hits of 2004, cementing the Central Coast’s status as a can’t-miss destination for wine lovers and film buffs alike.
“When you’re writing a novel, you have no idea that it’s going to become this phenomenon in the wine world,” said Pickett, who will attend a screening of “Sideways” on Friday in Paso Robles. “It’s extremely unusual that (‘Sideways’) would still have this impact.”
Pickett will sign copies of “Sideways” and its sequel, “Vertical,” at the Paso Robles Digital Film Festival, which runs Friday through Tuesday at various North County venues. Other highlights include movie screenings, wine tasting, panel discussions and performances by John Andrew Parks, Louie Ortega and Kenny Lee Lewis.
This year’s festival features a special tribute to director-producer Bruce Ricker, a frequent Clint Eastwood collaborator.
Joel Cox, Eastwood’s longtime film editor, will present the new Bruce Ricker Lifetime Achievement Award to jazz musician David Amram on Saturday.
Festival founder Benford Standley said he’s excited to showcase “Sideways” at the festival.
“Rex Pickett brings the best of the wine world and the movie world,” Standley said.
The story behind “Sideways” starts in the 1990s, when Pickett was a struggling Santa Monica screenwriter.
Depressed, penniless, and still reeling from divorce, he started making regular trips to northern Santa Barbara County. He’d play golf at La Purisima Golf Course in Lompoc, then head to Buellton to dine at The Hitching Post II and stay at the Days Inn Windmill.
Pickett’s adventures up north eventually inspired a mystery novel, “La Purisima,” and a screenplay, “Two Guys on Wine.” Around the same time, he wrote a short story about his experiences at a Santa Monica wine shop titled “The Bullpen.”
“(When) I got to the end of the short story I literally stood up from my desk and went ‘My God, there it is,’ ” Pickett recalled. “ ‘This could be the prologue for them going on the road trip.’ ”
“Sideways” is told from the perspective of Miles, a pinot noir-guzzling writer whose past and personality resemble Pickett’s own. Together with Jack, a washed-up actor who’s about to get married, he embarks on a wild, weeklong wine-tasting trip.
“Sideways,” which was published by St. Martin’s Press, became the basis for Alexander Payne’s hit indie comedy.
“The film has a freshness and a uniqueness that you don’t really see today,” Pickett said, praising Payne’s faithfulness to his source material.
According to Pickett, the director insisted on shooting at the same locations depicted in the novel. He borrowed several scenes and scraps of dialogue directly from the book — including the movie’s famous “I am not drinking any (expletive) merlot!” quote — and preserved its first-person perspective.
“He’s a real artist in a true sense of the word,” Pickett said of Payne, whose films include “Election,” “About Schmidt” and “The Descendents.”
“Sideways” went on to win an Academy Award, two Golden Globes and a handful of other filmmaking honors. The movie, which cost $16 million to make, raked in nearly $110 million worldwide.
“It definitely changed (the wine industry) in the billions of dollars,” Pickett said.
According to Pickett, the success of “Sideways” paved the way for his next novel.
“Vertical,” which hit store shelves in January, catches up with the “Sideways” characters seven years later. Miles’ novel has been made into a wildly successful movie, while Jack is now a divorced father down on his luck.
When Miles is invited to serve as master of ceremonies at a pinot noir festival in Oregon, he decides to hit the road with Jack, his stroke-ridden mother and a pot-smoking Filipina caretaker.
“‘Sideways’ was really about the travails of failure, and this is about the travails of success,” Pickett explained.
Although a “Vertical” movie looks unlikely at this point, Pickett said he’d love to see his story on screen.
“A ‘Sideways’ sequel would be a guaranteed hit,” said the novelist, who’s currently working on a stage version of “Sideways.” “It’s a great tragic, comic, epic road movie.”
Rex Pickett will sign copies of “Sideways” and “Vertical” from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Friday at La Quinta Inn & Suites in Paso Robles, followed by screenings of “Winter Frog” and “Sideways” and a question-and-answer session.
Admission is $25 and includes a concert at the Pine Street Saloon.
Call 323-850-8919 or visit www.pasoroblesfilmfestival.com for more information.