The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. Today’s episode has a few bad words from Paul Giamatti. Hello and welcome. My name is John August. This is Episode 549 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
In Episode 547 we touched briefly on the Sideways effect. Basically, movies sometimes have a real-world impact, not just in culture but also politically and economically. We see the Black representation onscreen or depictions of nuclear power. Movies can make things seem cool or uncool or scary. As screenwriters, we want to be aware of the influence our writing can have.
The term Sideways effect comes from the 2004 film Sideways, written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor from the Rex Pickett. Who better to ask about the Sideways effect than the writers themselves? Luckily, someone else just did, so I don’t have to. Today’s episode comes from the amazing Slate podcast Decoder Ring, hosted by Willa Paskin. It’s been one of my One Cool Things before, but this recent episode on the sideways effect was so good, I asked Willa if I could run it as a Scriptnotes episode. She said yes and agreed to have a chat afterwards with me about sideways and other cultural mysteries she’s investigated. Stick around after her episode for our conversation. For our Premium Members, Craig and I will chat about what he’s missed these last few weeks that he’s been gone. Enjoy.
Willa Paskin: In October 2004, the movie Sideways was released in theaters. It’s about two guys who go on a bachelors week to Wine Country. One of them is a cad who’s about to get married. The other, played by Paul Giamatti, is Miles, a hardcore wine-lover.
Miles Raymond: We’re going to drink a lot of good wine. We’re going to play some golf. We’re going to eat some great food and enjoy the scenery, and we’re going to send you off in style, mon frere.
Willa: Sideways is a small, mellow movie, but it got big. It grossed $110 million worldwide and received five Oscar nominations. It also upended the wine industry. Famously, it is said to have done this with one line of dialogue. It arrives about a third of the way in as the guy are preparing to meet up with two women.
Jack Cole: If they want to drink Merlot, we’re drinking Merlot.
Miles Raymond: No, if anybody orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any fucking Merlot!
Willa: At the time this line was first uttered, Merlot was a popular wine people were chugging down by the glass full. Legend has it that after this line, after, “I’m not drinking any fucking Merlot,” Merlot went ahead and tanked.
Laura Lippman: It’s like I’m RoboCop and that’s one of my directives now, no Merlot.
Willa: Laura Lippman is a crime novelist who saw Sideways when it first came out. Did you notice right away that it just put you off Merlot?
Laura: Yeah, right away. Right away. It was like a battle cry. I have literally tried to kind of overcome that, standing in neighborhood liquor stores and looking at what’s for sale. I can’t do it. I bet I would like Merlot. I think I did like Merlot. It’s so weird. It’s like I’m the most susceptible, suggestible person on the planet.
Willa: When it comes to Sideways, Merlot, and wine in general, she’s not the only one. I’m Willa Paskin and this is Decoder Ring. In the mid-2000s, the movie Sideways had an impact on the wine industry so notable that it has a name: the Sideways effect. In this episode we’re going to be looking closely at that effect and what it really is. Did a line in a movie depress Merlot sales for decades? Did a monologue jumpstart demand for a whole other varietal? Did Paul Giamatti’s sad sack character change our relationship to yet another wine, one that was barely mentioned in the film? Today on Decoder Ring, all of these questions and this one. Is it long past time to start drinking some fucking Merlot?
The Sideways effect is not just one thing. There are a number of components to it. I’m going to begin with the best known part of the phenomenon, the one I started with, the theory that Sideways shanked Merlot sales. When Sideways arrived in theaters, Merlot was the trendiest red wine in America, but America had not always had a trendiest wine. The country had been largely indifferent to wine well into the mid 20th century. California whites caught on in the 1970s when one of them won a blind taste test against world-class French wines. Then in the early ‘90s, red wine got a boost when 60 Minutes aired a segment on the so-called French Paradox. The paradox was that French people ate very fatty foods but had much lower rates of heart disease than Americans. The 60 Minutes piece came to a definitive conclusion about what was going on.
Morley Safer: The answer to the riddle the explanation of the paradox may lie in this inviting glass.
Willa: Sales of red wine spiked, and none benefited more than Merlot, which by the end of the decade would become the most popular red wine in the country.
Tim Farrell: Merlot is a good candidate because couple of things.
Willa: Tim Farrell is a wine buyer for the wine store Brooklyn Wine Exchange.
Tim: This is not actually too simplifying to say. It’s an easy word to pronounce. The other part is that it’s fairly fruit-forward and the tannins aren’t very strong, and the acidities are fairly low, especially when it’s made in California. It’s like a very soft, easy-drinking kind of red wine.
Willa: Merlot is most famously grown in Bordeaux, France, largely as a blending grape, but the American boom was centered in California, where production of Merlot quadrupled in the 1990s. Merlot is a relatively easy grape to grow, adaptable to a range of climates and soils, but that doesn’t mean it should be grown everywhere.
Tim: Grapes are a funny fruit because the more grape vines has to struggle to ripen, the more flavorful the fruit is.
Willa: California’s cool coastal areas are good for Merlot, but during the Merlot boom, it also started being planted in California’s breadbasket, the hot, fertile Central Valley.
Tim: That’s where Driscoll’s strawberries come from. If Merlot grows too easy in the irrigated, flat, sunny Central Valley, you’re going to have really bad grapes. That’s where the really bad Merlot grapes were coming from.
Willa: The mediocre grapes led to a lot of thin, too sweet Merlot, and even the better stuff was often made to be an affordable, easy sipper, the kind of inoffensive fruit-forward gateway wine offered by the glass and sold in Franzia boxes, all of which made Merlot something of a joke to wine people.
Rex Pickett: It was uncool to drink Merlot.
Willa: In the 1990s, Rex Pickett was a struggling writer living in Santa Monica.
Rex: I’ll try to be brief. My life was shit and I made some films and parted company with my ex-wife, whatever. I started going to wine tastings up at a little wine store. There were doctors and lawyers and snobs and whatever. It was just generally conceded that if you liked Merlot, that you were either a wine philistine or an idiot.
Willa: Rex regularly went up to the Santa Ynez Valley, just north of Los Angeles. As Wine Country goes, it’s nowhere near as famous as Sonoma or Napa, which are hundreds of miles north, closer to San Francisco. This region in Santa Barbara County was sleepy and underdeveloped, dotted with horse stables, golf courses, and vineyards.
Rex: There’s nobody up there. I’d go up midweek. I was broke. I’d go play golf for $25 on a grape course. I’d go wine tasting. It was free.
Willa: Rex poured these trips and his thoughts about wine into a book called Sideways. The main character, Miles, shared a lot with Rex. He was also a frustrated, divorced writer whose favorite wine was Pinot Noir, and who had the reflexive disdain for Merlot, of a 1990s oenophile. When Rex finished the book, it was rejected by dozens of publishers, but it ended up getting to Alexander Payne, the director of Election and About Schmidt.
Alexander Payne: I read the book actually on a flight from London to Los Angeles. When I’m reading something that I think could be a movie, I’m just praying, “Oh, please stay good until the end. Don’t come up with some gimmick or guns or violence or something. Keep it a good, sad, funny human story.”
Willa: When his plane landed, he called his agent and said he wanted to make Sideways into a movie. Payne is also into wine, and when he co-wrote the screenplay, he knew the no fucking Merlot line was a good one.
Alexander: People who knew about wine knew how much crappy Merlot there was. Then I think people who didn’t know about wine and always order Merlot were called out in an affectionate way. It had this kind of snowball effect. It was a good snowballing joke.
Willa: It seemed to roll right over Merlot’s reputation. What do you guys make?
Jeff Bundschu: We’ve been growing these Bordeaux varietals for as long as I’ve been around.
Willa: Jeff Bundschu is the sixth-generation owner of Gundlach Bundschu, a family vineyard in Sonoma that specializes in, among other things, Merlot.
Jeff: A good Merlot is pretty sexy, voluptuous, round, and intense, without the mouth-puckering tannins or austerity of an ageable cabernet.
Willa: Jeff agrees that in the 1990s a lot of Merlot on the market just wasn’t very good. When Sideways called this out, his Merlot, the high-quality stuff, got caught up in it.
Jeff: You’d have thought Spider-Man himself had swung in and tossed out Merlot.
Willa: Scores of newspapers chronicled Merlot’s troubles. Katie Couric, while hosting The Today Show, said she heard she wasn’t supposed to drink it anymore. People started coming into Jeff’s tasting room and saying they just did not drink Merlot. Pretty much every winemaker and seller has a similar anecdote. Steve Cuellar, a professor of economics at Sonoma State University, has heard plenty of them.
Steve Cuellar: It was literally just repeated over and over and over, tasting room after tasting room after tasting room, even to this day. I just figured, okay, let’s try to measure it. What is the effect?
Willa: In 2009, he co-authored a paper called The Sideways Effect: A Test for Changes in the Demand for Merlot and Pinot Noir Wines. It looked at wine sales in supermarkets in the four years after Sideways.
Steve: The movie was released in October 22, 2004. Prior to that, Merlot was experiencing a really strong growth rate. After that, sales really just collapsed. If we do a percentage growth rate, it literally goes from, I think, 13% growth rate before to almost 0 afterwards.
Willa: Steve was showing me a line graph as we were talking, and it’s the shape of a steep mountain that just abruptly flattens out.
Steve: When I first saw this, I’m like, holy cow, this is going to be a huge effect. At least I’ll be able to put some numbers on it and all that kind of good stuff.
Willa: First, he wanted to check Merlot’s sales against a control, to look at another wine to see what happened to its sales.
Steve: We figured, let’s choose something that isn’t mentioned in the movie. Let’s just avoid the red wine and we’ll choose Chardonnay. It’s got large sales. It should be equivalent to Merlot.
Willa: In fact, I think of Chardonnay as the Merlot of white wine.
Steve: Exactly. It is the big seller.
Willa: As big as Merlot was, Chardonnay was bigger. It was and is far and away the most popular wine in America. When Steve looked at the sales numbers for Chardonnay, he found something surprising. He pulled up the graph for me.
Steve: When you do that…
Willa: It looks the same. The graph of Chardonnay’s sales growth right after Sideways has the same shape as Merlot’s, a steep mountain that just abruptly tables off. After Sideways, in the sample he was looking at, Chardonnay sales had flat-lined too.
Steve: Which is just bizarre. This is really the gist of the paper. Yeah, Merlot did crash, but it probably wasn’t the result of the movie Sideways, because Chardonnay, which wasn’t featured anywhere in the movie, good or bad, really experienced the same crash.
Willa: Based on these findings, Steve feels strongly that we only think the Sideways effect is real and that there must be another explanation for what happened to Merlot, one that applies to Chardonnay too. In the decade-plus since this paper was published, Steve has asked dozens of people if they have such an explanation, and they don’t. There is a sense among wine insiders that Merlot sales were already cooling off, its low quality catching up with it. Nothing can stay trendy forever. There was no major event, no financial crash, no natural disaster, nothing of note to explain such a dramatic change except Sideways. What does Sideways have to do with Chardonnay? That’s not a rhetorical question. I think there’s an answer to it. Before we can get there, I want to turn to the next component of the Sideways effect. Let’s put a pin in Merlot and Chardonnay for now and talk about a wine that Paul Giamatti’s Miles actually likes.
Miles: Pinot’s a very thin-skinned grape that doesn’t like constant heat or humidity, very delicate.
Willa: If the first theory about Sideways is that it tanked Merlot sales, the second is that it boosted sales of Pinot Noir. Pinot, wine experts tell me, is a subtle wine that is exquisitely sensitive to the environment in which it is grown. Two Pinots from vineyards just a thousand yards apart can taste really different. This distinct expression is part of what geeks wine people out.
Kathy Joseph: Those of us in the wine world feel once you love Pinot Noir, you love Pinot Noir, and you explore Pinot Noir. It’s very sensual and it’s exciting and it’s delicious.
Willa: Kathy Joseph is the owner of Fiddlehead Cellars, a vineyard and winery in the Santa Ynez Valley. She makes a Sauvignon Blanc that was name-checked in the film, but she also makes a Pinot Noir, which she readily admits is tricky to grow.
Kathy: Probably more than any grape, Pinot Noir does demand a certain environment for it to excel. It needs a cool climate. It needs good drainage. It needs a place that isn’t too rich. What happens is that it’s all expensive.
Willa: All of this had made Pinot a kind of specialty grape in America, a fanatics grape, as someone put it to me, grown in small quantities and rarely offered by the glass. Then along came Sideways. See, Pinot Noir is Miles’s favorite wine. He gives a beautiful speech about it, in which it’s clear he’s not just describing a grape, he’s also describing himself.
Miles: It’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. Only if somebody really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Oh, its flavors, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and ancient on the planet.
Willa: Upon hearing this ode to Pinot, Americans started buying it in droves.
Kathy: Absolutely. Yes, there was an uptick in immediate interest for Pinot Noir.
Willa: A Nielsen analysis found sales of Pinot spiked 16% in the months after the movie came out. Wine producers were caught off guard by Pinot’s overnight popularity, and there was a mad dash to plant more of it. In California, production of Pinot Noir has increased 75% in the years since. There was a lag at first, because it takes four to five years for a grapevine to bear usable fruit. There were other difficulties too, starting with the price. Tim Farrell, the wine buyer you heard from earlier, was working at a sports bar in Indianapolis in 2006 when a customer ordered a glass of Pinot.
Tim: I remember thinking, oh, we do have a Pinot Noir, and it’s $12 a glass. I thought, that’s insane. We have Bud Light for $2.50. Why would you ever want a $12 glass of wine?
Willa: Pinot grown correctly is expensive. It just takes a lot of care. After the movie came out, not only was there more demand for Pinot, there was more demand for Pinot from casual wine drinkers, the kind of folks who want an affordable Pinot. You start to see a version of what happened to Merlot happening to Pinot. Pinot is planted in places that it probably shouldn’t be and attended to less carefully, and that means less quality product makes it into bottles. Another paper, one from 2021, found that most of the frenzied Pinot plantings of the mid-2000s were in the Central Valley, the sunny, fertile, hot, strawberry-growing Central Valley that wasn’t even good for adaptable Merlot.
Tim: Then you have a flood of really bad Pinot Noir coming out by about 2008, 2009.
Willa: Even good Pinot Noir didn’t necessarily deliver what a casual wine drinker was looking for, like the person who ordered a $12 glass of Pinot at Tim Farrell’s sports bar.
Tim: They returned it. They said, “Oh, this is watery. I don’t like this at all.” I took it back. I didn’t know anything about wine at the time. The flavor profile and the texture and the body of Pinot Noir is not actually what people were expecting. They were Merlot drinkers, and so they were probably expecting a big, rich, full-bodied, powerful wine, and it’s exact opposite.
Willa: Wine producers needed to please these customers that wanted a Pinot that didn’t taste like a Pinot. Fortunately, there were a lot of other grapes around, because remember, growers hadn’t been expecting Pinot to be the next big thing.
Tim: The less scrupulous producers of Pinot Noir that just wanted to cheapen their production and make a more rich, smooth wine for this market that was sending watery glasses of Pinot Noir back at sports bars, was they started adding 25% Syrah to a lot of these wines.
Willa: Blending is a common and accepted practice in winemaking. Some of the very best French wines are blends. In America, the standards are a bit looser. You only need 75% of a wine to consist of the grape that’s named on the label. All of that extra Syrah, it made the Pinot go down easier.
Tim: They had to soften up and make Pinot Noir super accessible because real, unadulterated Pinot Noir, in addition to being very expensive, is not what the American consumer in 2006 really wanted. It even confused the market for what Pinot Noir should actually taste like.
Willa: I’m not saying Pinot Noirs all became phony baloney overnight, all got bad or all tasted like Syrah. In the long-term, the interest in Pinot probably did push American palates in a new direction. In the short-term and on the low end of the market, Pinot became a victim of its own success. While this made for a bunch of lousy Pinot, the irony is it made for better Merlot.
Jeff: What it did mean there for a minute, there was a ton of really good Merlot that was available for super cheap.
Willa: Jeff Bundschu, the Merlot maker at Gundlach Bundschu again.
Jeff: The red blends in the 10 years that came out after Sideways, that became red blends because no one would buy Merlot, were way effing better.
Willa: As you may have suspected, I know very little about wine. I’ve learned a bunch from working on this episode, but I can still barely tell when a wine has gone off. When someone asks me what I think about one, I often don’t know. I think the truth is that none of the wine tastes that good to me, but I feel like it could, if only I knew more, tasted more, tried harder, grew my palate. I honestly feel a little self-conscious about how little I know. I know this isn’t a universal feeling, but I don’t think it’s uncommon.
Jeff: Like you could ask somebody, “Do you like that movie? Do you like that peanut butter? Do you like that toothpaste?” They’re going to say, “I hate that movie. I love that peanut butter. I’m down with that toothpaste.” You ask them about a wine and they’re like, “I’m so sorry that I’m not a wine expert, but this kind of doesn’t taste very good to me.”
Willa: Why is just uniquely intimidating. I think that’s at least as important to the Sideways effect as whatever was in the script. It helps explain why a little movie that opened in four theaters could have such a big impact. People want guidance about wine, and we’ll take it from a waiter, a wine store clerk, a sommelier, a wine critic, or a movie character. Miles is a man who can barely affect change in his own life. He’s miserable, lonely, and a little insufferable. Listen to him.
Miles: Don’t be shy. Really get your nose right in there, really. A little citrus. Oh, there’s just the faintest soupcon of asparagus. There’s just a flutter of a nutty Edam cheese.
Willa: He is not at all what you picture when you close your eyes and imagine an influencer, and yet he influenced the heck out of us, even though we weren’t using that word then. His high-strung, forceful, informed opinions make him a compelling authority. His strongest views are about Merlot and Pinot Noir, but maybe thinking his influence stops there is underestimating him, the movie he’s in, and how much hand-holding people want about wine. Maybe it’s all bigger. Maybe it’s even big enough to extend to Chardonnay.
We’re going to get back to that Merlot Chardonnay mystery I pinned back there. You remember the economist Steve Cuellar published a paper that showed both Merlot and Chardonnay sales plateaued, in an admittedly small, regionally specific sample, right after Sideways came out in 2004. No one had really been able to make sense of this. Then I mentioned it to Kathy Joseph, the owner of Fiddlehead Cellars. Should I tell you what the economist said?
Kathy: Yes, I’m very interested.
Willa: Kathy pointed out that in the 1990s there had been a rise in sales of wine by the glass at restaurants, and those glasses were mostly full of Merlot and Chardonnay.
Kathy: The reason, in my opinion, is because of their accessibility and also how they were made. Chardonnay was a little bit sweet. Merlot could be a little bit sweet. They were just like almost a transition wine. They were easy. People didn’t order white wine any more by the glass. They ordered Chardonnay.
Willa: Once Kathy flagged this connection for me, I realized she was not the only person who had talked about it. It came up a lot, including with Alexander Payne.
Alexander: Those were the two wines ordered by people who didn’t really know much about wine. People who knew wine would start saying, “I’m ABC, anything but Chardonnay.”
Willa: Rex Pickett had noted it too.
Rex: The waiter would say, “Red or white?” If you said white, it was going to be some really cheap, probably Chardonnay. If it was red, it was going to be Merlot.
Willa: Here are these twinned wines. Then Sideways comes along and curses one of them out and ever so slightly shades the other.
Jack: I thought you hated Chardonnay.
Miles: No, no, no. I like all varietals. I just don’t generally like the way they manipulate Chardonnay in California.
Willa: Maybe what happened to Chardonnay is just a minor version of what happened to Merlot. Audiences picked up that Chardonnay was the other uncool wine, and they backed away from it. If that feels a little overdetermined to you, another way to think about it is that Sideways made it very clear to casual wine drinkers our basic choices had been noticed and found wanting, but it also made it clear there was a whole wide world of wine out there. Walking out of the movie, you could think, I’ve got to stay away from Merlot, I’ve got to drink Pinot Noir. You could also walk out thinking, huh, I should learn some more about wine.
Steve Cuellar’s graphs of Merlot and Chardonnay in the wake of Sideways show consumers cutting back, but the wine market didn’t collapse. We just started drinking something else. This is certainly how the winemakers I spoke with saw it. They thought Sideways encouraged people way more than it shamed them. Jeff Bundschu again.
Jeff: I think that what happened in Sideways is Miles, who I can’t believe I know of by first name basis, was like, “This Merlot sucks.” He sort of just gave voice to an entire world of people that had been choking down what they think they should have been choking down instead of standing up for saying, “I don’t care. This isn’t very good.”
Willa: Do you really think that people were trusting their own palate or they were just like, “We trust Miles.”
Jeff: I see it more as permission, but I guess that’s because I’m an optimist. Everybody is like total sheep, like a permission to hate wine that they don’t like.
Willa: Kathy Joseph use the exact same word, while being similarly optimistic.
Kathy: The movie gave people permission to explore beyond what they already were comfortable and familiar with.
Willa: This is based on her experiences in the years after Sideways, years in which the Santa Ynez Valley, where the movie was set, became a bustling tourist destination, when the wine market doubled and wine was diversified way beyond Merlot and Chardonnay. It all amounts to a third theory of the Sideways effect, that Sideways encouraged wine drinkers to branch out. As it turns out, there’s a speech in the movie that makes the case not for any one varietal, but for wine in general. It isn’t from Miles. It’s from Maya, the wine connoisseur and romantic interest played by Virginia Madsen.
Maya Randall: I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes, and if it’s an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve. If I opened a bottle of wine today, it would taste different than if I’d opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive, and it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity.
Willa: Maya isn’t relaying rules about wine. She’s praising it for always changing. There’s a contrast between her and Miles, and the movie knows it. It’s why they make a good romantic pairing.
Maya: It tastes so fucking good.
Willa: Miles’s rigidity is set off against her flexibility, his instructions off her explorations, his acidity off her balance, two ways of appreciating wine and life. Steve Cuellar’s paper about Merlot and Chardonnay sales only covered the four years following Sideways. Chardonnay sales bounced back. It’s still the most popular wine in America. Merlot production and prices stabilized too, but it’s now often used in America as it’s used in France, as a blending grape. The overall percentage of it, compared to all the grapes crushed in the country, has fallen.
Jim: A few years in, our Merlot sales were down and I’m like, “Dad, we got to get out of Merlot. We got to plant something else.” He was like, “Oh, it’s going to come back, Jim. It always come back,” for a decade, two decades. When’s it coming back? When’s it coming back?
Willa: This brings us to the final wrinkle in this story, that Miles, the guy that destroyed Merlot’s reputation, doesn’t even hate it.
Maya: What gems do you have in your collection?
Willa: About halfway through the movie, Miles tells Maya that he’s been holding on to this one really good bottle of wine.
Miles: I’ve got things I’m saving, definitely. I guess the star would be a 1961 Cheval Blanc.
Maya: You’ve got a ’61 Cheval Blanc and it’s just sitting there?
Miles: Yes, I do.
Maya: Go get it. I’m serious, hurry.
Willa: A ’61 Cheval Blanc costs about $4,700. He tells Maya he’d been saving it for his 10th wedding anniversary, but is now just waiting for a special occasion.
Maya: The day you open a 61 Cheval Blanc, that’s the special occasion.
Willa: In one of the final scenes, Miles finds out his ex-wife is pregnant with her new husband, and he decides to drink that wine. He takes it to a diner, orders a burger and onion rings, and drinks it out of a Styrofoam cup. As he sips it, he lets out an appreciative, “Hm.” Even in these degraded circumstances, the wine shines through.
This shining wine, this Cheval Blanc, as Alexander Payne knew, is made mostly out of Merlot. Some viewers spotted this contradiction instantly. You can read comment threads about how this makes Miles an idiot and a hypocrite. The meaning seems plainer to me. Miles really loves wine. He really knows wine. He doesn’t hate Merlot, one of wine’s essential, noble grapes. He just hates the bad version of it. This love hate thing is right at the heart of why this little movie had such unpredictable and outsized effects. It tapped into the dualities that exist in most of us, people who hate being uncool, but who also love to try new things. We’re sheeple and we don’t want to be told what to do. We’re easily led and we’re curious. We’re Miles and we’re Maya.
When I spoke to Laura Lippman, who rejected Merlot like RoboCop at the beginning of this episode, I told her about the twists and turns of this story and my sense that Miles himself would now have it in for some other trendy wine. The next time we talked, a few weeks later, she’d just gone to the wine store.
Laura: There was something going on where I was like, “I should get a really good bottle of red wine.” I was like, “What if I bought Merlot?”
Willa: She did it. She took the bottle home, made a nice dinner, and poured herself a glass.
Laura: I thought it was terrific, actually. I was like, “I will do this again. I will drink Merlot again.”
John: I am thrilled to welcome Willa Paskin, who is the host of Decoder Ring podcast and Slate’s TV critic. Willa, congrats on another great episode of your show. Willa: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me, John.
John: Recently we’ve been doing episodes on nuclear energy and climate change, looking at how stories we tell have an impact. The idea of the Sideways effect has come up multiple times. It was just amazing kismet that your episode this last week was on the Sideways effect. How did it come to be? How did you decide to do it for an episode for your show?
Willa: At the beginning of every season, I scratch around for ideas. I think I had asked on Twitter if anybody had any thoughts. It had come up. I had looked into it really perfunctorily. It seemed like the answer was really obvious. It seemed like everyone was like, “Yeah, it just tanked Merlot sales,” whatever. I was like, “That’s not interesting enough.” Then, luckily, a couple of weeks later, this other tweet started going around that was a graph of what had happened to Merlot after Sideways essentially. We just started talking about it in Slate’s internal messaging system. There was a wine guy on staff. He’s Jordan Weissmann. He writes about money and economics.
John: I know Jordan.
Willa: He’s entwined. We just started side chatting. He was my wine guy basically. He has a wine guy. His wine guy, who’s a wine seller in Brooklyn, had basically talked to him a lot about Sideways. It just suddenly became very clear, just from this brief chat on Slack, that oh no, there was enough there for it to be interesting. Had it really affected Merlot? Had maybe it actually affected Pinot? Then I started talking to people, and it turned into this nice little delectable rabbit hole, which is always super fun. I ended up, in the episode, speaking to an economist who had done a study about it.
One of the things that’s interesting and funny about something like the Sideways effect is we all know what it is and everyone talks about it, but of course, it’s not actually hard science or news, and so there have not actually been… Most people who are economists or who study stuff for a living have not actually been like, “Definitely, I need to look into the Sideways effect.” There actually haven’t been that many real papers about it. When I did speak to one of the guys who had done one of the papers about it, it ended up taking me places I was not expecting.
John: In the episode you frame three questions, which is did a line in a movie depress Merlot sales for decades? Where do you stand, Willa? How strong do you think the Sideways effect was for what happened to Merlot?
Willa: I think the consensus about Merlot is twofold. One is that it did depress both Merlot sales and Merlot plantings. There was another study that just came out very recently, actually, about the long-term effect of it, but not dramatically. It affected it some. Wine, as an agricultural product, it’s interesting in the sense that it takes years to plant a grapevine and then for it to make grapes that are good enough. You just can’t act on information as quickly as you can on like, everybody wants a strawberry or everybody wants a pair of jeans. You have to wait. While you’re waiting, you’re not making any money. No one was ripping Merlot out, basically, because that’s just-
John: That’s suicide. It got blended into other wines, as you talked about.
Willa: Over time, it did not get replanted at the rate that it had. It does seem that Pinot really did get planted at a huge rate. That’s the first thing. I would say the second thing is much, much fuzzier. Just reputationally, absolutely, it really, really hurt Merlot. That doesn’t mean that it hurt it for everybody. That doesn’t mean that all consumers were suddenly paying attention to this movie. Madmen doesn’t have to be watched by that many people to have a really big footprint or to feel like it has a really big footprint. I think something like that is very similar.
John: I always think about Twitter, because not very many Americans are actually on Twitter, but Twitter has a huge impact on the national conversation. People didn’t need to necessarily see the movie to know that, oh, we’re not supposed to be drinking Merlot. It just had a stink to it because of the smart people who saw the movie said, “We shouldn’t be doing this.” It had an outsized impact.
Willa: I think similarly to Twitter, there’s tons of people that have no idea what’s happening on Twitter, are never affected by it all, but the people that are paid attention to by the media basically did.
John: It was a meme, basically. Don’t drink Merlot is a meme. It just got spread in a pre-internetty kind of time.
John: We’ll put a link in the show notes to… The Travis Lybbert paper that you mentioned is behind a paywall, but there’s another, Journal of Wine Economics, that shows the graph of the two things. You really see how Pinot Noir just really took off. You can also see that the prices fell for Merlot, which I think is also useful to see that supply and demand… There just wasn’t demand, and so the prices for Merlot fell.
Willa: I would say one of the things that was interesting from talking to wine people about it is this isn’t settled. I think if they looked into these papers, it would be, but it was not. Something happened and everyone has a ton of anecdotes, but a lot of the serious people were like, “It’s not clear that that’s really true,” which I was surprised by. I was like, “Oh, isn’t it obviously true?”
John: These can all be future episodes of Decoder Ring down the road if you want to. Around the office we were talking about other examples of things that are like the Sideways effect, where movies had had a weird impact in the real world. I wanted to bounce them off of you and see what your instinct is for these.
Willa: Is your first one Clark Gable and the undershirts?
John: Hey, it was my third one, but yes, let’s talk about Clark Gable and the undershirt, because it happened one night. He takes off his shirt, and he was not wearing an undershirt. Apparently, men realized, oh, I don’t have to wear an undershirt underneath a dress shirt. Snopes says it’s unclear whether that’s actually a real thing or not. What’s your ruling on Clark Gable and the undershirt?
Willa: I would love to believe that is true. How can we have any idea? It would be hard to follow that, track that information at the time.
John: If you were to do an episode on that, you’d probably need to talk to fashion historians and really figure out where we were at at that time and was the undershirt going away at that point.
Willa: If I was doing that, there’s a couple things. There’s immediately, I think, a number of things. One is I start to think about hats. It’s similar to-
John: What happened to hats?
Willa: What happened to hats? In a way that it’s like, you were going to do a couple stories from one episode. It’s like, what happened to hats, what happened to undershirts. I could imagine undershirts being the open. Then also undershirts, which we’re not allowed to call wife-beaters anymore, but what is the semiotics of the undershirt. I think there’s probably a bunch there.
John: It gets complicated.
John: Two other things that you actually can measure. Super Size Me. We had the documentary Super Size Me. Six weeks after the movie came out, McDonald’s dropped the term super size me from everything. They stopped using the term all together. That’s an impact.
Willa: Can I tell you my cocktail party chatter about Super Size Me?
John: I want to hear this.
Willa: This is truly basically the only thing I remember from Super Size Me. I remember the takeaway was McDonald’s is really bad for you. There’s in passing a graphic about how one bagel is equal to eight slices of bread. It’s a picture of the bagel. It’s a drawing. Then it equals eight slices in bread. I believe in carbs. I don’t have a problem with carbs. It has haunted me. It didn’t ruin McDonald’s. It just really gave me pause about bagels forever. That was my personal impact [inaudible 00:40:40].
John: That was your Super Size Me. Blackfish, the documentary about SeaWorld, the stock in SeaWorld fell 50%. That’s a pretty direct cause and effect there. I want to talk about the name Madison. What is your perception of where the name Madison came from?
Willa: Oh my god, I have no idea. I do just perceive it as being one of those on the top 20 girls’ names now.
John: It came from Splash.
Willa: Did it?
John: In the movie Splash, Tom Hanks is with Darryl Hannah. “What’s your name?” She looks at a sign for Madison Avenue, and she says, “Madison.” He says, “That’s not a name.” It wasn’t a name. It was the 216th most popular name for girls in 1990, but then it became 29th, and by 2000 it became number 3. It was not a name being used.
Willa: It does fit in with a ton of other name trends, which is the last name for first name trend, like Hudson. There’s a lot of names that sound like that, Lawson. It’s snugly right in there, and then also it’s upscale.
John: It does fit in with that trend. My very first TV show, there were these twins, a boy and girl twins. I named them Mason and Finley.
Willa: You nailed it.
John: I’d never seen anyone in the real world named Mason and Finley. I called that trend. They are now popular names.
Willa: I’m really impressed. That reminds in Baby Mama, the kids are named Banjo and… They didn’t call it, but they just made fun of it nicely. Those are perfect. You did it.
John: Finley and Mason. We also talk a lot about representation and how depictions of people on screen matter in terms of how people interact with people. Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Sidney Poitier, hugely important, probably the face of a Black man on screen was helpful. Philadelphia, for just Tom Hanks playing a person with AIDS was important. We can have our faults with either of those movies, but they were important in their times. It’s always hard to remember what it was like before that movie came out.
John: Jaws and perceptions of sharks, perceptions of shark safety. We can’t go back to a time pre-Jaws.
Willa: No, we definitely can’t.
John: People weren’t worried about sharks. Now my daughter was scared to be in the pool because of sharks.
Willa: Sometimes when I’m just swimming out, I hear the song in my heart. You feel it. It’s coming for you. I think I talked about this in the episode pretty directly. A thing about Sideways that really tickled me and that I thought was really fun about this episode was we don’t imagine that someone like Miles would have an impact upon us. He just is not a poster child for that. That’s just not how things work. Sometimes it’s who you least expect. I like that. I like that it’s unpredictable in that way, because if it was just up to people who make decisions based on what you think is going to happen or what’s happened before, you’d never cast… You’d make Miles be totally different. You’d sand off his edges and you’d make him someone else.
John: We often talk on this podcast, what is the nature of a protagonist, what is a hero, what is a hero going through. Also, Miles feels like a sidekick character to somebody else, and yet he’s centered in this movie. He’s like a Shrek at the very center of this movie, who is grumpy and angry, and we learn to love him because he’s just center frame the whole time. One of the things that I really liked about your episode is that you bring up Maya, who is his antagonist, who’s this person who’s challenging all his beliefs and actually genuinely loves wine in a way that’s more approachable than maybe he does. She’s not strident. She’s embracing of like, let’s celebrate wine, rather than pit them against each other.
John: Which is fun. I want to talk just a moment about some of your other episodes.
John: It’s been a One Cool Thing repeatedly on the show for me. You have a two-part episode on the Jane Fonda workout, which was a really fascinating deep dive in terms of it’s so strongly associated with her and yet she’s really taking this work that someone else has done and repackaging it. You broker a conversation between the two women.
Willa: That’s one of my top two episodes we ever did. It was totally not what I was expecting to happen. I basically had decided that the Jane Fonda workout itself was fascinating and that Jane Fonda’s story is fascinating, because it is. When I started looking into it, the woman who actually created the workout is named Leni Cazden. Jane Fonda had cited her in a couple places and in her biography, but also she’d thanked her at some awards show. She was findable, essentially. It wasn’t a secret. Then a lot of things just fell into place that I didn’t have anything to do with it. My timing just happened to be really good. I got to speak to both of them and then got to follow up with Leni. I just felt this delicious psychological long-term relationship just fell into my lap. That doesn’t happen that often. That was super fun. Then we basically did the episode that I had been imagining second. Then we did this other fun one that I hadn’t been expecting first.
John: A lot of them are just one-offs that are just great and fun. The history of Gillette razors, let’s go to five blades, then the razor wars was just weird and how we got into that and the history of razors. It feels like there’s some, not necessarily a movie, but there’s some version of that absurd way we got to it. It feels like a Soderbergh movie, where it’s just like how we got to five blades eventually.
Willa: Some corporate espionage. The thing that I always want is there to be an actual idea, that’s not just the idea that the show purports to be about. It’s not just the topic. With that one, with the five blades one, the big idea was just like, oh my god, capitalism is so silly. Why do we keep doing this? It’s cool, a single-blade razor actually works pretty well. It lent itself to that. I usually find those things as I’m looking into them, but that one was very clean in that way.
John: I want to talk to you about the making of the show, because unlike Scriptnotes, which is exactly what we’re doing, which is just a conversation between two people, and there’s an outline I’m looking at, you are fully scripting the whole thing. It’s starting with research, and then you’re doing your interviews. You’re figuring out what parts of those interviews you can use. Then you’re having to write every word you’re saying to get that right and make it all fit. What is the process for you? You’re figuring out your ideas for the season, but what are you actually doing on a daily basis to get this stuff written?
Willa: The process is, I’m like, okay, what sounds like a good episode? As I said earlier, I start to dig around about a subject, just Google around about it. The ones that are right, they feel like, you know when there’s things hollow, like there’s a trick door or something, it’s going to spring back at you? It actually feels that way. You’re like, “Oh, this has a little give. There’s stuff here that I wasn’t expecting.” Once it starts to feel that way, there’s just… I just have to have one idea about it or just a sense that there’s a layer.
Then I just start to report. I do a lot of research. I’m also having a lot of conversations as I’m doing it. It’s not like a one and then two. They’re together. Then ideally, I would do all the reporting. I now report a couple of episodes at once, just because it’s just a better use of time. Then I essentially sit with all the stuff that I have, all the actualities, all the research, all the audio, all the interviews, and I write from the beginning. I listen back to the tapes and stuff, to the tracks. I’m trying to get somewhere, usually. I’m trying to make a point or explain some history.
It feels really written. It feels sculpturally written in a different way. It’s pretty that. Then I just spend a bunch of time writing it, however long it takes. It always takes longer. It’s the part that still hurts, as writing anything does. Ideally, that doesn’t take more than two weeks, but it’s been to. In some ways, it’s hard to track it. Then it still takes a pretty long time, because basically it’s-
John: It’s all the post process. You had this plan going into it. Then you’re listening to this thing. These episodes are scored. They have ins and outs. You have to figure out breaks.
Willa: A hundred percent. It’s all those things, but it’s not even that. It’s almost like when you turn in a first draft to an editor, they change it. They tell you all these notes. They give you all these thoughts. Weirdly, putting it on tape is the same thing. Suddenly, you just hear all these things that are wrong with it. You hear all the places it’s paced wrong. You hear the information that’s in the wrong order. You hear the beats that aren’t quite working right. Because a show is trying to build and often is about ideas…
Just with the Sideways episode, for example, there was a third sections that’s about… It’s after Pinot. It’s after the Merlot section. It’s after the Pinot section and trying to resolve what happened with Chardonnay. I knew where it was going. I knew what the end was. All that stuff was written. There was something about the pacing that was making that pay… It just wasn’t working. On paper, it was working fine, but it’s not working fine when you actually hear it. That takes a long time. I think that takes longer than it probably should. I think it takes longer than other people’s process. There’s a lot of iterations basically. The music comes in later. The breaks are written in. It’s a lot about making sure the arc works. I have found that that is not… It’s supposed to be written to be heard. When you’re just writing it, it’s not in the form it’s supposed to be at. Something really changes there.
John: The closest I’ve done to this is I did a podcast called Launch, which was a six-episode series about the creation and printing and release of my book series. It was great, but it was such a different experience. I was not prepared for how much time it was going to take and also just what a different workflow it was. We hadn’t transcribed everything, all the interviews, but then we missed out on stuff. Are you transcribing everything you do from all these people or are you just taking these are the bits we need?
Willa: This is a thing that I don’t know what would’ve happened in the past, but we use basically an automated transcription program. A computer does it. You get them back fast. There’s use cases that I don’t have, where you would need it to be really precise. It’s pretty good actually. Because I’m listening back to it no matter what, the transcript lies, you still have to hear. It sounds like it’s great, but then you listen in, they’re talking in a monotone. You still have to listen back to it. We do transcribe everybody, but that’s because it’s not what it was.
John: Once you’re writing it, is this in Google Docs? What program are you using when you’re writing?
Willa: I was a faithful Microsoft Worder for all my writings, and I still am. Google Docs, it’s just if other people have to get into it, which obviously the producer and editors do at some point. Then also, just when the drafts were just changing so much, after you’re going through, we basically listen and we make changes and then retrack. It just became so much easier to just have it all just in this one place. You just need the link, not to email the document every time it changes.
John: That’s brutal. The episode we listened to, how many hours of work on your side was that?
Willa: I couldn’t…
John: Is it three weeks?
Willa: I work really hard.
John: It was a ton of work.
Willa: That one I will say, it was a lot of work, but in a different way. The writing of that one was the smoothest, cleanest writing experience I’ve had in a long time. I think it took me, not counting the day that I just went back through all the audio that I had… I also didn’t over-report that story, so that helps a lot. I wrote that piece in four days, which never happens. Then I got stuck with it at different stages once it was whatever. It’s almost like I’m almost sad it happened. I’ll be like, “I can do it in four days.”
John: [inaudible 00:52:42] “Maybe I can do it in three days.”
Willa: It hasn’t happened in a long time that I’d done it that fast, and it’s not going to happen again. It was nice. That one was just very structurally, very clear in my mind as I was doing it. That’s not always the case.
John: Willa, so many of your episodes are just incredible fodder for our segment How Would This Be A Movie. In a future How Would This Be A Movie, would you mind coming back and talking us through some of these things?
Willa: I would love to. Anytime.
John: Fantastic. Willa, thank you so much.
Willa: Thank you.
John: That is our show. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli. You can find the show notes for this episode and all other episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you can find transcripts and sign up for our weeklyish newsletter called Inneresting, which has lots of links to things about writing. You can sign up to become a Premium Member at scriptnotes.net, where you get all the back-episodes and Bonus Segments, like the one we’re about to record on what Craig’s been up to. Now, let’s roll the credits for the original episode of Decoder Ring.
Willa: This is Decoder Ring. I’m Willa Paskin. Decoder Ring is written and produced by Willa Paskin. This episode was produced by Elizabeth Nakano. Derek John is senior supervising producer of Narrative Podcasts. Merritt Jacob is our technical director. Thank you to Jim Taylor, Jordan Weissmann, Peta Work [ph], Lo and Lou, Josh Levine and Travis Lybbert. The 2021 paper Travis co-authored called A Sideways Supply Response in California Wine Grapes also corroborates the Sideways effect, and we’ll link to it on our show page.
If you’re a fan of Decoder Ring, please sign up for Slate Plus. Slate Plus members get to listen to this show without any ads, and they’re supporting the work we do to make Decoder Ring. Members will also get to hear a special behind-the-scenes episode with me at the end of the season. Please go to slate.com/decoderplus to sign up now. I really appreciate your support. Thanks for listening. See you next week.
John: Craig is back. Craig has been gone for weeks and weeks and weeks. Now Megana, last week I asked you, “Hey, is anybody wondering where Craig’s been?” You are the person who’s responsible for the ask@johnaugust email account. I was wondering whether people were wondering where Craig has been.
Megana: Yes. We had one person who wrote in, curious about where Craig has been.
Craig: One person was wondering where I was.
John: By the time this Bonus Segment is out, I guess the news will be out. Craig, you were in space. You were the first screenwriter to fly on Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin spaceship. I guess my real first question is, what was it like to leave the bounds of Earth? What was that experience like? They always say to send a poet, but a screenwriter is the person to send.
Craig: Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise a kid. In fact, it’s cold as hell. Anybody? Anyone?
John: I don’t know what that’s from.
Craig: That’s Elton John’s Rocket Man. It’s a popular song.
John: It’s a popular song. I’ve heard it once or twice.
Craig: 1970-something. God, this is just one kind of sadness upon another. One person cared, and neither one of you know Rocket Man. I think it’s going to be a long, long time until touchdown brings me around again-
John: That I do recognize.
Craig: I’m not the man they think I am at home.
John: You were not on Mars. You were instead in night shoots. You were in night shoots for your TV show, which is just a lot. Your schedule, which was difficult, became impossible.
Craig: I’ve been doing pretty well, I think, all things considered, by when you go into three weeks of nights, you’re no longer on the schedule that any other normal human being is on. It’s amazing actually how fast you can get used to it. Much easier to get out of it than to get into it. I would say that much at the very least.
John: While you were gone, you missed some episodes. I don’t think you had a chance to listen to the episodes. I thought we’d review what we learned and get your opinions on some things. The first episode, which I really missed you for, was on nuclear issues. We had two experts on to talk about nuclear war, nuclear arms, nuclear energy. You obviously have a background in this stuff. We were looking at what the current landscape was, and of course with the war in Ukraine, the growing escalation of possibilities of nuclear war. It was not a fun episode. I wouldn’t say it was joyful.
Craig: No, never joyful to talk about things like nuclear weapons. I don’t really know what the point is of talking about the possibilities. Either they will or will not occur, and if they occur, we’re all dead. That’s basically the deal.
John: I would say going into it, I was of the mindset that because of the reduction in number of nuclear arms that are out there in the world, nuclear war wouldn’t be as bad as what we grew up expecting. It’s still terrible.
Craig: Oh lord, yeah. The arms race that occurred, I’m sure you guys covered this, largely in the ‘80s, between the Soviet Union and the United States, led to a situation where both nations had this absurd surplus of nuclear warheads. We don’t need that many. We know that a single large nuclear weapon can destroy most of a city. There are only so many cities. Once you start lobbing them, the destruction that occurs is dramatic not only to the people that live there. Obviously it’s fatal. Then you have long-lasting effects around it. Economies are shredded. The environment is destroyed. It’s almost impossible to imagine a situation where one nuclear weapon is intentionally fired and set off and is not followed by a retaliatory strike. Essentially, nuclear weapons are unusable or usable all at once. It’s actually amazing that we have these here and have had them for our entire lives and they haven’t been used in our lifetime.
John: Let’s keep it that way.
Craig: That would be nice. Unfortunately, we are not in charge.
John: Craig, are you familiar with the story of Stanislav Petrov?
Craig: Was he the guy who said, “I’m not going to fire that nuclear weapon.” The Soviet said, “Fire nuclear weapon,” because they had misunderstood a test, and he was like, “No, I’m not going to do that.”
John: Yep, it’s that guy. That was brought up as one of the potential stories that has not really been very well dramatically told. One of the things I brought up is that I think it’s sometimes really challenging to tell a story about a thing that didn’t happen. The guy who stands in the way of a bad thing happening is a little less dramatic than the guy who does the thing.
Craig: There’s one movie that I think does that very well is Crimson Tide, 1994’s Crimson Tide, which I think probably drew quite a bit from the Petrov incident and is very much based on that idea that a submarine receives orders to fire a nuclear weapon and then there’s another message coming in, but the radio’s damaged. They don’t get the rest of it. It might say, “Wait, actually don’t,” but they don’t know. There is essentially a debate and mutiny over whether or not they should fire those nuclear weapons. They made it very exciting. A fine Tony Scott film.
John: Agreed. Other episodes you missed. Episode 546 was Limited Series. We had Liz Meriwether on the show, finally…
John: …and Liz Hannah. They both recently had limited series out there. We had a talk about what that was like. You of course did a limited series for Chernobyl. One of the things I think was so key from their descriptions of why tell this story now was that feeling that in a limited series or a dramatic series versus a documentary series, you can tell that central character’s internal POV, that you just couldn’t if it’s strict documentary. They had a chance to really explore what was inside the character, rather than what just the facts were.
Craig: The difference between a limited… Any kind of fictionalization, doesn’t matter whether it’s a limited series or an ongoing series or a single movie, but any dramatization affords you a wildly different palette than you would have as a documentarian.
John: Lastly, the episode that we are going to be putting this Bonus Segment on, was about the Sideways effect. I think we’ve talked about the Sideways effect just between you and me, or maybe on the air as well. Of course, that’s the impact of the film Sideways on Merlot and Pinot Noir in America and around the world and how one character’s rant, or he rants twice, can have a measurable impact on popular culture and economics. We talked with Willa Paskin about that.
Craig: It’s an interesting thing. I remember seeing Sideways. I remember that happening. I didn’t know anything about wine then. I barely know anything about wine now. I know the kinds of wines I like. Interestingly, I don’t like Pinot Noir.
John: I’m not a fan.
Craig: I don’t know about you, John. I like a huge, big, red, stupid wine. I like a dumb, big Cabernet. That’s what I like.
John: That’s what I say too. Whenever somebody’s coming over, “What kind of things you like?” I just say, “I like a big, dumb red.” I’m not apologizing for that. It’s just actually what my taste is.
Craig: I like to be hit in the face with a Cabernet bat. That’s me. That’s just what I like. Am I a cretin? Probably. I don’t care. I don’t like Pinot Noir. It’s thin. It’s like it’s not really there to me. Merlot, it’s not offensive to me. I don’t mind it. It’s fine. Actually, there are some fantastic wines that use Merlot as part of their blend.
John: Of course.
Craig: There are some great blended red wines out there. Sideways, I don’t know. By the way, I love that movie. It’s amazing. Why was it so obsessed with Pinot Noir? I don’t know.
John: Basically, Willa’s argument is that Pinot Noir was really just meant to be a stand-in for the Miles character himself, and that he’s difficult, but there’s actually something good underneath the surface, and you have to really come to appreciate what it’s trying to do and take it as what it actually is. He feels like he is a Pinot Noir that people are not appreciating properly.
Craig: Thus an entire industry was disrupted.
John: It was. Now, part of the reason we got into the Sideways effect is on Episode 547 we had Quinn… You know Quinn Emmett.
Craig: Of course.
John: The other folks behind Good Energy were coming on to talk about how we talk about climate change in our films and TVs and how we can put messages out there that have an impact. We talk about how sometimes things really do have an impact, but in terms of representation, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner or other films along the way have that impact in terms of showing a different way of people interacting, dramatizing situations that people may not have thought of, and certainly for LGBT representation. There’s important films along the way like Philadelphia that get people to address their prejudices.
Craig: I don’t know how good of a tool movies are going to be for climate change, because the thing is most people recognize that it exists, most people are concerned about it, and most people, meaning almost everyone, feels that they have no direct impact upon it, and they’re right. It’s going to take large governmental action and sweeping changes globally to prevent this situation from getting worse. I think that’s not going to happen. I think the situation will get worse. I don’t know what it is. With something like climate change, where we can see it’s there and we’re just not sure how to deal with it, it very quickly can turn into lecturing or it can be parody or satirical. We can make fun of people for being stupid and ignoring climate change.
Ultimately, I’m not sure how you’re going to do, because the problem is you don’t see the end result. Philadelphia, you see a man change. You see the way he thinks about another human being change. You see how that human being’s death changes him so that theoretically, moving forward, he will be a better person. We can identify with him because he’s Denzel Washington and he’s a great actor. That’s impossible to do with climate change, because they’re not going to see it happen.
John: I would debate the premise that it’s impossible for it to be done with climate change. I think it’s a question of what are you trying to do. Are you trying to make a movie that is specifically about climate change or are you trying to normalize things that you wish people would normalize in their real lives? An example would be, if you have characters who are going onto the roof of their building, are there solar panels on that roof, and normalizing that expectation. Are you seeing people do small things like take public transportation rather than be in a car? Those are some small steps. Then there are also… We’ll put a link in the show notes again to the Good Energy playbook.
There are things that don’t feel like climate stories, but of course really are climate stories. Anything about disasters have a climate element to it. One of the points they try to make is that in anything we’re doing in film or television, if you’re not addressing climate change, you’re making science fiction, because a reality of the world is climate change. To not address it is science fiction.
Craig: Sure, unless you’re telling a story that really doesn’t have anything to do with outside. Even if it does have something to do with outside on any given day, you’re not going to be experiencing this specific aspect of climate change. I don’t know. I don’t know about that. I love Quinn, and I get what he’s doing, and I appreciate how devoted he is to this. To me, honestly, the thing that we could do, the thing that I could do, I try to do this, is talk all the time about how positive nuclear energy is.
I feel like I have a somewhat privileged position in that regard because I made a show about a nuclear disaster. I’m saying nuclear energy is a good thing. In fact, if the United States invested heavier in nuclear energy, and I know that Quinn and I agree on this, that would matter more than anything else. That would matter more than solar panels. That would matter more than wind turbines. Just putting us back on a nuclear grid would change everything. I try and talk about that. It’s hard to put that into… Maybe I’ll have a character yammer about it in a show. I can do that, I suppose.
John: Talk about your show, because your show’s going to have some connection to climate change, just by necessity. There’s fewer people on this planet.
Craig: Climate change stops. Once we stop driving cars and pumping coal carbon into the air and burning fossil fuels like oil and gas, then climate change essentially gets reversed. I think it’s fair to say, without giving too much away, that climate change is not irrelevant to what happens. That’s as far as I’ll go.
John: That’s as far as you’ll go. Craig, it is wonderful to have you back on the show. Next week we’ll have you back for a full episode. Anyway, congratulations on surviving your night shoots.
Craig: Thank you.
John: I’m looking forward to having you back on the show and back in Los Angeles before too long.
Craig: I’m almost home.
- Decoder Ring and the Sideways Effect Episode
- Sideways Movie
- Willa Paskin on Slate and on Twitter
- A “Sideways” Supply Response in California Winegrapes by Travis Lybbert for the Journal of Wine Economics
- Snopes on Clark Gable and Undershirts and Madison Name from the Movie Splash
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- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John August on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Outro by Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
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