One of the biggest mistakes a screenwriter can make is “on-the-nose” dialogue — telling your audience exactly what’s on your character’s mind without a hint of subtext. In life, people rarely trust enough to reveal their deepest insecurities and desires. There’s always subtext. Perhaps that’s why we respond to great dialogue in the same manner. We project character’s words into our lives and they become metaphors for our struggles. Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor’s Sideways (based on the novel by Rex Pickett) is a great film to study. Look no further than the famous Pinot scene between Miles and Maya.
EXT. STEPHANIE’S PORCH – NIGHT
Can I ask you a personal question?
Miles braces himself.
Why are you so into Pinot? It’s like a thing with you.
Miles laughs at first, then smiles wistfully at the question. He searches for the answer in his glass and begins slowly.
I don’t know. It’s a hard grape to grow. As you know. It’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s not a survivor like Cabernet that can grow anywhere and thrive even when neglected. Pinot needs constant care and attention and in fact can only grow in specific little tucked-away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing growers can do it really, can tap into Pinot’s most fragile, delicate qualities. Only when someone has taken the time to truly understand its potential can Pinot be coaxed into its fullest expression. And when that happens, its flavors are the most haunting and brilliant and subtle and thrilling and ancient on the planet.
Maya has found this answer revealing and moving.
Miles braces himself for a personal question. He’s not comfortable in these situations. We know he sees a shrink. We know he’s not only on Xanax, but Lexapro as well. He’s still not over his divorce. Talking with a woman is risky business for his mental, and thanks to his deep appreciation for wine, physical well-being. Because Sideway‘s screenplay is so well crafted to this point, we’re able to decipher all the above (and probably much more) from a simple line: “Miles braces himself.”
So what does he do? Like a mask, he hides behind Pinot and reveals himself to Maya. It’s thin-skinned and temperamental. It’s not a survivor. Only a patient grower can tap into its delicate qualities. That’s the only way Pinot can survive. Miles needs a safe, nurturing environment to grow. And when he finds it, the love he gives back is “the most haunting and brilliant and subtle and thrilling and ancient on the planet.”
EXT. STEPHANIE’S PORCH – NIGHT
I mean, Cabernets can be powerful and exalting, but they seem prosaic to me for some reason. By comparison. How about you?
What about me?
I don’t know. Why are you into wine?
I suppose I got really into wine originally through my ex-husband. He had a big, kind of show-off cellar. But then I found out that I have a really sharp palate, and the more I drank, the more I liked what it made me think about.
Yeah? Like what?
Like what a fraud he was.
This is a great turn. Miles throws the conversation back in Maya’s direction. Here, she reveals she doesn’t hold much value in money and material comforts. As her palate developed, she realized her rich husband was a fraud. We surmise he acquired things more as a symbol of status than personal enjoyment or fulfillment. Perhaps the beautiful Maya was one of his many acquisitions. Miles is a teacher, unpublished author and lives in an apartment. None of these things turn Maya off.
EXT. STEPHANIE’S PORCH -- NIGHT
No, but I do like to think about the life of wine, how it’s a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing, how the sun was shining that summer or if it rained... what the weather was like. I think about all those people who tended and picked the grapes, and if it’s an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I love how wine continues to evolve, how every time I open a bottle it’s going to taste different than if I had opened it on any other day. Because a bottle of wine is actually alive -- it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks -- like your ’61 -- and begins its steady, inevitable decline. And it tastes so fucking good.
Now it is Miles’s turn to be swept away. Maya’s face tells us the moment is right, but Miles remains frozen. He needs another sign, and Maya is bold enough to offer it: reaches out and places one hand atop his.
Bathroom over there?
Miles gets up and walks out. Maya sighs and gets and American Spirit out of her purse.
Maya’s a wine aficionado. She loves the small details. She’s alive, constantly gaining complexity and evolving. She’s at her peak and “tastes so fucking good.” She might as well have handed Miles an invitation. The runway is clear, the moment is right, and true to character…he blows it.
Here’s the scene, unfortunately, without Maya’s reply. If anyone has a better link, please shoot me an email at rr at screenplayhowto dot com.
You can read the screenplay for Sideways here.
The shooting script is available for purchase on Amazon.com.