“When you read a good screenplay, you know it—it’s evident from page one.”
“Shakespeare knew his audience; the groundlings standing in the pit, the poor and oppressed, drinking freely, talking boisterously to the performers if they didn’t like the action on stage. He had to ‘grab’ their attention and focus it on the action.”
Syd Field’s book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting came out in 1979 putting him at the center of a new wave of interest in screenwriting that continues to this day. Sure there were books on screenwriting before Field’s released his “Step-by-Step Guide from Concept to Finished Script” but he had a flair of looking at then contemporary films like Chinatown, Taxi Driver, Midnight Cowboy as well as more mainstream movies; Star Wars, Rocky and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
By the mid-70s, the party was over for many baby boomers born between 1946-1964 and they were looking for a new guru to lead them into actually finding an income stream. Field’s, who died last month at age 77, filled that void. (And it certainly did provide an income stream for at least one person.)
I bought the “New Expanded Edition” of his book Screenplay when I was in college. To show how times have changed, I bought that book when I was in film school in the early ’80s. I think it was the first book on screenwriting I ever bought. This was long before the Internet became a great free resource for people wanting to learn about screenwriting. Before DVD commentaries featuring screenwriters. In fact, if you go back to 1979 I bet the average American couldn’t have named one screenwriter.
These days I’m often amazed at the way film savvy high school students can talk about movie structure and their favorite filmmakers (including screenwriters). These days the book Screenplay doesn’t exactly take your breath away, but you have to remember that the gems Field’s tossed out—”The first ten pages of your screenplay are absolutely the most crucial”—were not common knowledge back then.
Field wrote from the perspective of the script reader. He had spent several years as the head of the story department at Cinemobile Systems and began to wonder why so few good scripts were recommended for possible development and why other films succeeded.
“My reading experience gave me the opportunity to make a judgment and evaluation, to formulate an opinion. This is a good screenplay, this is not a good screenplay.”
And just as he was formulating his experiences, he was asked to teach a screenwriting class at Sherwood Oaks Experimental College. His book flowed from the years of teaching that class. Of course, not all of his students became working screenwriters. And one could even argue that the ratio of scripts recommended verses rejected today has basically remained unchange—despite the wealth of screenwriting info out there today.
Field addressed that reason in the introduction to his first book—talent. It’s the same reason sometimes that even gifted college athletes (even Heisman Trophy winners) don’t have sustainable pro careers.
Field ended up giving screenwriting workshops all over the world, and took a lot of blame over the years for basically starting a cottage industry that has made a lot of money over the years out of the pockets of dreaming screenwriters, but after his death there were some accomplished screenwriters that had some positive things to say about him.
“What I learned in Syd Field’s class was here’s how Annie Hall works, and here’s how Witness works, and then I begin to think, ‘OK now how would I do it differently than that?’ That concept of ‘Always being in learning mode’ has stuck with me to this day”
Producer/director/writer Judd Apatow
“I did a million drafts. And then I did the thing everybody does—I read Syd Field and I used my index cards.”
Producer/writer/actress Tina Fey
“RIP Syd Field. We can argue about formula and dogma, but Field introduced countless screenwriters to the craft. He was an inciting incident.”
Screenwriter John August
“I’m not surprised to have seen the many acknowledgements from screenwriters, professional and non-pros, about Field today. I know I never would have broken into the business without the insights into the basics of screenwriting his book gave me.”
Screenwriter/Go Into The Story blogger Scott Myers
“I’ve gone from reading [Field's] books, to being taught by him in courses! I think one of us must have done something right! I thank him all the time for inspiring me.”
The Shawshank Redemption writer/director Frank Darabont
Field went on to write several books which reportedly sold over a million copies. Just this past September he delivered the Keynote address at STORY EXPO on Why We Are Storytellers. (I’ll try to track that talk down for a future post. ) You can find several videos of Field teaching online, but here’s a short clip of him interviewing screenwriter Micahel Ardnt. (It’s worth pointing out that Ardnt was a co-screenwriter of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire which has been at the top of the box office the last two weeks and pulled in over $500 million worldwide.)
According to the Syd Field website, they list three places charitable donations can be made in Syd’s name:
- SYDA Foundation, Donations, PO Box 600, S. Fallsburg, NY 12779, http://www.siddhayoga.org
- The PRASAD Project, 465 Brickman Road, Hurleyville, New York 12747, www.prasad.org
- Tower Hematology Oncology Medical Group, 9090 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 200 Beverly Hills, CA 90211, http://www.toweroncology.com
P.S. An interesting sidenote: Field was said to have written nine screenplays, none of which were produced. I have also written nine feature scripts, but have only had my short film scripts produced. I like to point out on this blog that there are several Oscar-winning & nominated screenwriters who have mentioned having no scripts made (or even sold in some cases) after writing nine scripts including Oliver Stone (Platoon), Sheldon Turner (Up in the Air), and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine). So I think persistence is the bookend to talent. Arndt said well before his success that he made a commitment to be “a screenwriter for life.” (In his case, he wrote ten scripts before selling one.)
How To Become a Successful Screenwriter (Tip #41)
The Secret of Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)
Screenwriting Quote #144 (Syd Field)
Screenwriting Via Index Cards
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours
‘Up in the Air’—Take 2 ”I wrote 12 screenplays before I gave one to anybody.”—Sheldon Turner
Screenwriting from Pixar (Part 2) One of the all-time most popular posts on this blog. Arndt, who wrote Toy Story 3 with the Pixar team, breaks down what he found in studying previous Pixar movies.