An interview with Rex Pickett
By Daphne Charette
Rex Pickett has been writing screenplays for almost two decades. His short script, My Mother Dreams the Devilís Disciples in New York, is a "brilliantly conceived, superbly realized comic fable" that won the Oscar for Best Short Film in 1999. His novel Sideways was purchased by Artisan Entertainment. Electionís Alexander Payne will be adapting and directing the project.
Rex speaks with great candor and passion. He was kind enough to share with me some of his experiences, both wonderful and horrific, his beliefs on writing, and his opinions on the state of the film industry.
DC: Let's start way back when...What got you into writing in the first place?
Rex: I'm not really sure. But I wrote a poem for my high school annual that poked fun at the principal and it got me some attention. And I thought, hmm, the power of words.
DC: So you quickly became aware of the effect writing could have on an audience.... When did you first think about doing this for a living?
Rex: When I was in my early twenties, my roommate, a brilliant guy whom I admired, had an idea for a movie. I knew someone who knew a screenwriter in Hollywood and I asked for his number and called him and said: "If I write a script, will you read it"? And he said, "Sure." So, I did. I had an early brush with fame.
DC: Was that the script that eventually became California without End?
Rex: No. This was a totally commercial action film that was way ahead of its time: Critical Mass.
DC: What was it about? It's a great title.
Rex: Well, now it sounds utterly prosaic, but this was a while ago. It was about a group of terrorists who fashion a crude fission bomb and hold New York hostage.
DC: In the early Eighties, yes- so what happened with the script?
Rex: We were cynically hoping to cash in and have enough money to support our more "serious" writing.
DC: Of course!
Rex: I wrote it in two months. My friend, who had the idea, did no writing. I sent it to the screenwriter in LA and he thought so highly of it he passed it to his very prominent agent. Prominent agent also liked it, but thought it was rough around the edges and wanted to see something more.
DC: So did you come up with something more to send him?
Rex: Yes. My friend and I had a falling out. I wrote something new - which was dreadful - and he did, too, which was also cripplingly boring. End of Chapter One.
DC: Ker-thunk. And what happened then?
Rex: I think had we rewritten Critical Mass it would have been sold. Seriously. Bad agent advice. It was a great story idea. He's dead now. Then I applied to USC film school and was accepted.
DC: Okay, so, you're at USC, studying film....
Rex: No, not studying film. Being subjected to morons who think they know something about film.
DC: Ah, slight difference there. I take it you didn't find the experience pleasant.
Rex: No. I dropped out after one year and, with the help of my girlfriend, soon-to-be-wife and, ultimately, Academy Award winner, I wrote and directed my first feature film.
DC: Which was...
Rex: California Without End.
DC: Released in '84, yes?
Rex: Technically never "released." It was sold to German television. '84, yes.
DC: What was the story about?
Rex: It was about a filmmaker who meets a woman and journeys from San Francisco to LA with her, and the miserable experience he has with the powers-that-be. It ends darkly. It presaged the next 15 years of my life.
DC: I should read it, and then do this interview!
Rex: Perhaps. It might scare you from ever thinking about entering this business.
DC: Ignorance is a wonderful thing at times... Do you remember what the original impetus for the script was? Where the idea first came from?
Rex: That's a really good question. In all honesty, it came from my film school background at UCSD and the extraordinary person I met there, Manny Farber. He made me believe that film was an art of personal expression. Of course now that's a liability. But, back then, it was a desideratum.
DC: It's a difficult issue. As an aspiring screenwriter, I can look at the industry, and recognize that it IS an industry, the goal is to make money, but when one sits down to write, it's a different issue.
Rex: The goal is to feed the low common denominator (LCD). Read the articles and reviews on Apocalypse Now Redux to truly understand what I'm saying.
DC: It must be difficult to make the effort to be emotionally honest- even vulnerable- as a writer, and then put it into this very economically driven system.
Rex: Well, film costs money to make. That's its downfall, unfortunately.
DC: Have you tried to write solely for the goal of creating a potentially commercially successful film?
Rex: Yes. And I fail repeatedly. Because it's so disingenuous coming from me. I would love to write a script and make a million. Who wouldn't? But I have this famous saying - which I made up - What you're doing is what you're becoming; and what you've done is what you've become.
I have a friend who made millions writing for a successful TV show, but he used to always say to me: "But I want to write something great like Dostoevsky." Yeah, right, bud.
DC: I'm having a hard time responding to that last in words. It's like being confronted with, oh, a Zen quote; if you really stop to hear it, it's hard to respond except on an experiential level.
Rex: Yeah, you might end up ripping me off for years. It's cool.
But it's so true. And especially about writers in Hollywood. Because so many of them are doing one thing, but claiming they really want to be doing something else. But they'll never get back. Because it's not a leap of will. It's a life, writing.
DC: I have to say, there's a lot of pure entertainment that I enjoy, but I understand (at least I think I do) the distinction you're drawing.
Rex: I think writing as a career comes after writing as a life. But then I'm old-fashioned in the sense that I believe first in the innate need to write - in whatever form - and then whatever happens happens. "Intrinsic need to want to write" maybe is better phraseology.
DC: I know for me it's consistently been the primary way I grapple with my life...
Rex: Well, certainly "art" is the via regia to the unconscious, where all our complexes roil. Writing - in my case - helps me exorcise those demons.
DC: I remember an interview with Stephen King, he said something to the effect that all he did was take the things that haunt all of us and give them flesh on paper so he could deal with them, and yet he's probably the most commercially successful writer of all time. Do you think there's room for the two goals to coexist?
Rex: Stephen King is a hack, a good hack, but a hack. That's not what I'm talking about. Commercial success is independent of the need to want to write - or should be. Again, to reiterate: if it happens, it happens. But, who would you rather be: Stephen King or Franz Kafka? I'd rather be Kafka. Again - and I'm very different from a lot of writers and other artists - but I don't think about the money, success, or potential fame. I just don't. Don't get me wrong. King is a very good writer and a very competent story-teller, but what he writes is utterly ephemeral.
DC: What do you think about when you're writing- what things drive you to pick up the pen or turn on the computer?
Rex: Ideas that possess an emotional component, ideas that I think are sui generis, worlds that I know and that I believe I can successfully inhabit.
DC: In the context of your earlier comment, I wanted to ask about the Alien III script assignment- how did that come about and why did you take on the assignment?
Rex: This is a long and convoluted story. One that was inaccurately chronicled in Premiere Magazine. My ex-wife - who directed, btw, My Mother Dreams ... - was hired to be the asst. to the first director of Alien III, Vincent Ward. He was fired and they ended up hiring David Fincher. They were already building sets in London. Sigourney Weaver had a pay-or-play contract. But there was no script.
A high-priced (at the time) writer named Larry Ferguson was brought in to write a whole new script based on Fincher's changed idea about what the film should be.
Then 20th Cent. Fox made a horrible decision. They hired Walter Hill and David Giler - the producers of the Alien series - to do a rewrite.
Barbara put me in touch with Fincher and I critiqued their script - in no uncertain terms - and I ended up flying out to London. I rewrote the script in 9 days clandestinely. For no money. Fincher liked what I did and finally revealed his hand to Fox. They were, at first, nonplussed, because I was a nobody writer, and this was a big, big movie. But they hired me.
So, anyway, it was the holidays, and Fincher and I hunkered down and wrote and rewrote and rewrote until he had what he wanted. Fox approved my script and it was sent to all the depts. - EFX, costumes, etc.
DC: So why wasn't it used?
Rex: Hill and Giler were given more money and inveigled to come back. They did. The first thing Hill did was have my script recalled shortly before shooting was scheduled to begin and have it shredded. It was a lesson in big-time studio filmmaking. Or, to put it differently: Hollywood is not a meritocracy.
DC: Do you think that's necessary? I mean... in an industry where we're talking about enormous amounts of money, do you think it's unavoidable that the deal is going to be more important than the product?
Rex: The product - just the word "product" connotes something inferior as far as I'm concerned - is diminished by the money, by the deals that are brokered. In the end, it's about getting your film greenlighted so everyone gets paid a lot of money. With Alien III, there were a lot of ugly back-room politics. The end result was that cynicism and greed won out, and the audience lost.
DC: What attracted you to writing films in the first place?
Rex: Films I saw in film school that transformed me. 8 1/2, Kings of the Road, The Mother and the Whore, Fists in the Pocket, Contempt, Detour ... too many others to mention.
DC: That's one of the things about film, for me- it can be such an incredibly powerful experience.
Rex: 8 1/2 - Federico Felllini - is arguably one of the greatest films ever made in the history of cinema.
DC: So you write- only things that matter deeply to you.
Rex: Look, now and then in desperate moments, I think: what would make me a lot of money? But it's hard to fake. And people who know me don't believe that from me. Itís not that Iím opposed to commercial work. Sideways is a very commercial piece. What I object to is when commerciality becomes the primary concern, and the quality, the emotional reality of the story gets sacrificed to that.
DC: So tell me about Sideways- how did that novel come about?
Rex: I went through a period where I didn't want to write screenplays any more. My agent had died of AIDS and I was agentless. So I wrote a mystery novel called La Purisima. And it got me a literary agent in New York. Jess Taylor. Wonderful, brilliant man. We went through 3 drafts together. Then, he had an opportunity to come out to LA and be with Endeavor, a big agency. My novel was handed off to another agent, another great guy, at Curtis Brown, and so now suddenly I had representation on both coasts.
La Purisima was submitted and garnered 30 rejection letters. It was very dispiriting. So, in my desperation - money running out, process servers at the door - I wrote Sideways, a comic novel. My agent here, Jess Taylor, flipped for it. We made the decision to submit it to the film community before the literary since it read so much like a movie. And we did. It was a heady time. But there were no takers. Then Jess started to have a hard time at Endeavor and eventually up and left the business. Except for my lit agent in NY, I was once again agentless.
4 months after Jess left the business, Alexander Payne - Election - disembarked from a plane having just read my book on a flight back from the Edinburgh Film Festival and proclaimed that it was going to be his next movie. People got pretty excited.
DC: Did he see fit to mention this to you first?
Rex: No, he called his agent. But he wanted my # so he could talk to me.
DC: So I take it he calledÖ
Rex: Yeah, the next morning.
DC: Had you already heard about this or did you just get the call out of the blue?
Rex: No, I knew it was coming.
DC: And so heís doing the adaptation, right?
Rex: Yes, he's working on it now in-between post-production on his new movie. I don't think a novelist should ever adapt his own novel.
DC: Why so?
Rex: Novelists are too close to their material. Payne, judging by his last two films, takes great liberties with the source material. As well he should. It's his idea now, not mine. And I have absolutely no problem with that. But, unlike some others, I'm very fortunate, because he's one of the few genuinely talented filmmakers in this business.
Rex: The reason I have no problem is because I've written and directed two features and I know intimately how much they change.
DC: That must be a wonderful feeling- to have the book with someone you trust.
You're probably going to shoot me for the comparison, but I remember the first Dune film and what trying to stay true to the source material did to it.
Rex: Well, Dune was a case of Lynch being too enamored of the material. Payne will personalize my novel vis-a-vis his own sensibility. And, again, I have no problem with that. Honestly. It's very possible his film will be better than my book.
DC: Can I ask- what if you'd gotten an offer on it from someone you knew would not do, um, a good job with it? Would you have sold the rights?
Rex: If it was the only offer, probably. But I really feel my material serendipitously fell into the right hands. Sometimes you get lucky. It's not about fate, it's about luck, and having the goods when luck beckons. Most everyone will one day get their chance. But they have to have the goods.
DC: What films have come out in recent years that you've respected?
Rex: Very few. Rohmer's Autumn, Payne's Election, Before Night Falls, You Can Count on Me, to name a few.
DC: What was it about those movies that appealed to you? I guess the question underlying that is what do you see as the difference between good writing and great writing?
Rex: A depth of honesty, unwillingness to pander to the Low Common Denominator sensibility - i.e., happy endings, etc. - about something their creators seemed to have a feeling for or know. Original.
DC: I remember reading an interview with David Mamet- he was talking about Schindler's List- and he mentioned the fact that Jews are forbidden to verbally comfort someone who's grieving, because what is there, really to say? And there's so much of life that's like that- that its very hard to react to or express in words, which is one of the things that potentially makes film so powerful, I think- you can convey things in images, in layering images, that you can't express in words.
Rex: And vice versa- You can gain a better sense of a character's inner life through words, I think. But film, when all its elements come together - acting, writing, directing, music, and images - is, ultimately, perhaps, a greater medium.
DC: Reading My Mother Dreams... I was blown away ,and its a very hard thing to quantify. It was one of the few screenplays I'd read that was literature in its own right. There are things in there that I can't imagine surviving the translation onscreen. To see that level of writing in a screenplay was astounding.
Rex: My Mother Dreams ... was written w/out compromise. And it was directed w/out compromise. It moved as pure from the page to the screen as one could wish for.
DC: I have to say, to some extent I disagree about the LCD though- don't bite my head off! What I think is sad is that there seems to be very little room in the industry to take risks-
Rex: Oh, it's the going concern in Hollywood. Trust me, I know. I just finished a new spec, Repairman, a dark, little movie that will be hard to set up. But my agent and producing partner both see what I'm going for and think it deserves a chance. All I'm saying about movies is that people, in general, have lower expectations than when they read books or go to a play.
DC: I can't help but wonder if it's learned behavior- they lower their expectations because they know they're not going to get as much.
Rex: They don't demand any more.
DC: Do you think the industry would respond if they did?
Rex: Slowly, but surely.
DC: I'm impressed by your courage- even when the mortgage is staring you in the face. What do you do at that point?
Rex: I've never believed that art paid the bills. I just say: Fuck you! I refuse to be disingenuous.
DC: Itís a hard row to hoe.
Rex: Oh, I should lower my sights. But it's selling your soul.