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Death of a Screenwriting Guru

Syd Field: 1935-2013

The author and screenwriting guru Syd Field died over the weekend at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 77.

Field was not the first person to notice that well-told stories tend to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But he was the first person to publish a mass-market how-to book for film screenwriters — 1979’s Screenplay — that posited a three-act structure, hinged at key moments by “plot points,” as the essence of a successful movie script. His ideas provided a road map to countless screenwriters, especially first-timers — including everyone from James Cameron to Tina Fey — and informed the way studio executives, critics, and average moviegoers thought and talked about screen stories. Screenplay remains the most influential book ever written about writing for film, even as other approaches (and other gurus) have come in and out of vogue.

I bought my first copy of Screenplay at my college bookstore, slipping it into a pile of freshman-year textbooks my parents were paying for. I figured it might behoove me to learn the basics of the form before dropping out to go dethrone Quentin Tarantino. Not long after that a film-snob friend made fun of me for buying it, which was my first introduction to the not-unwidely-held opinion that Field was the worst, a hack whose ideas were also for hacks. I lost that copy of the book the next time I moved.

I bought another copy of Screenplay last year. It’s the 1994 edition, which has a picture of a typewriter on the cover along with a blurb that touts a “new chapter on screenwriting and computers.” I bought it at a Goodwill on Sunset Boulevard, along with a twice-remaindered paperback of William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade that I like to think belonged to the same person. Maybe they canceled each other out.

(Books on screenwriting: In Act I, they’re purchased hopefully, optimistically, enterprisingly. In Act II, they’re shoved in the downstairs bookcase, sold for beer money, abandoned at Goodwill, left on the sidewalk when the stoop sale’s over, no less emblematic of ambitions deferred than that set of dumbbells you can tell no one lifted more than twice. There is no Act III.)

I’ve still never written a screenplay. Or I’ve never finished writing one, anyway. “You’ve got ten pages to grab your reader,” Field writes, but I’ve never gotten that far. I think I could, though, someday. Maybe you do, too. The fact that so many people now believe this about themselves is due at least in part to Field, whose books don’t technically sell the notion that internalizing a few basic rules of story structure will make you Robert Towne, but don’t actively discourage it, either.

You’ve got 10 pages to grab your reader.

On page 10 of Chinatown, a farmer rushes the City Council chamber and demands to know who’s paying Hollis Mulwray to steal the water from the Valley. Jake Gittes wants to know the same thing.

Per Field, there should be a plot point around the 25th or 27th page of the script that sets up the second act, in which the protagonist encounters obstacles in pursuing a dramatic need, which, if you’re doing this right, you’ve spent Act I establishing.

A plot point around page 85-90 sets up the third act, which is about resolution.

There’s more to it than that, but the point is the paradigm, and how simple it seems, like an Ikea diagram that says where to put the pegs to build the table.

The word “paradigm” is Field’s, as in “The paradigm of a table … is a top with four legs.” He uses the word because a paradigm denotes a form, rather than a formula, although you could certainly treat Field’s paradigm like a formula, and more than a few Field acolytes undoubtedly did.

A page of script equals about a minute of screen time. If you know that, and you know where the pivotal plot points are supposed to happen, you start to see movies tagging the bases Field identifies. Or you start to realize that the time you’ve spent watching movies has already trained you to expect those turns at certain moments.

Ben Stiller asks God “Who am I?” and then gets the call about Mugatu’s fashion show around the 26-minute mark of Zoolander.

There is nothing about Zoolander in my edition of Screenplay. The movies Field holds up and breaks apart (and plot-summarizes at great length) are from the ’70s — Network and Chinatown and An Unmarried Woman and Dog Day Afternoon. If you wanted to be uncharitable, you could say Field’s book took the freewheeling American films of the ’70s and reverse-engineered them into a blueprint that the next generation of filmmakers would use to build formulaic blockbusters. So Field, from this perspective, is like George Lucas, a product of the American New Wave who ended up helping hasten its demise.

You could argue, if you wanted to be really uncharitable, that Field’s true influence was on movie-studio script readers and executives, who began measuring a script’s relative seaworthiness by how well it met the conditions of the paradigm. Only once this happened, you could continue to argue, did Field’s principles begin to shape the movies, because writers began putting their plot points where they knew executives would be looking for them.

In “D-Girl,” a second-season episode of The Sopranos, Christopher Moltisanti admits to a development executive played by Alicia Witt that he’s having a hard time with the mob-movie spec script he’s been working on. “I hit a fucking wall,” he tells her. “Third-act shit.”

“These aren’t third-act problems,” she tells him. “They’re in the second act.”

“Get the fuck out of here,” says Christopher.

“When you’re in the paradigm,” Field writes, “you can’t see the paradigm.”

Rebel Without a Cause

Field’s own story drags a little in the first act. He’s born Sydney Alvin Field in 1935 and raised in Hollywood, where he has the usual Hollywood-kid encounters with the business.

He’s 2 years old when a casting-agent neighbor gets him and his 6-year-old brother roles in Gone With the Wind. They play children running from the Yankee army as it advances on Atlanta, but their scenes get cut.

His school band performs in Frank Capra’s State of the Union and Van Johnson teaches him to play checkers on the set.

At Hollywood High School, he runs with an informal club called the Athenians, who by today’s standards (at least according to Syd Field) “would probably be referred to as a gang.” Soon a fellow Athenian, Frank Mazzola, befriends a young actor who’s researching a film about juvenile delinquents, and forever after that Syd Field gets to tell people he was in the gang that inspired Rebel Without a Cause.

More sequences that don’t advance the plot: He enrolls at USC, planning to become a dentist, acts in a few local theater productions, drops out, wanders the country for two years living off an inheritance from his late mother, finds himself one day on a stretch of road in Arizona he distinctly remembers having driven down two years earlier, realizes that something has to change, and lands at Berkeley in the early ’60s. He takes another shot at acting. Winds up cast in a play called Carola, written by the director Jean Renoir, then an artist-in-residence at Berkeley. Renoir becomes Field’s first mentor. Over and over, Renoir asks his students, “Qu’est-ce que c’est le cinéma?”

Or that’s what Field says in his memoirish Going to the Movies: A Personal Journey Through Four Decades of Modern Film. It’s probably true, although it’s also exactly the kind of provocative rhetorical question Syd Field would encourage you to have the Jean Renoir figure in your screenplay ask your future-screenwriting-guru protagonist, so as to propel him into his second act.

Field’s costar in Renoir’s play is Deneen Peckinpah, niece of Sam. Later, Field will hang out with Peckinpah as he’s writing The Wild Bunch. “We had long conversations at his home in Malibu about the movies, especially Westerns, as we sat nursing a beer and watching the sun set across the vast expanse of ocean,” Field writes. Is this relevant? Can you picture Peckinpah “nursing” a beer?

Field goes to UCLA film school for a while, where he’s a classmate of Jim Morrison’s and an occasional experimental-film collaborator of Ray Manzarek’s. Field pulls cable on one of Francis Ford Coppola’s student films.

Field finds a $75-a-week gofer job at David L. Wolper’s production company. Field works on the Mike Wallace–hosted CBS series Biography and the NBC clips-and-interviews show Hollywood and the Stars, which features “entertaining documentaries on the glitter and social influence of Hollywood’s Dream Factory.”

As a researcher for the show, Field chases down leads, comes back with gems. Never-before-seen modeling stills of a 17-year-old Grace Kelly. A Union Oil Company industrial film starring one Norma Jean Dougherty in her motion-picture debut. “I was soon promoted,” Field writes with evident pride, “to full-time associate producer.”

But he also spends a lot of time in the editing room, watching four or five movies a day, tagging clips that would be of use in future episodes. He begins to see how movies work. He starts to see patterns in everything.

At Wolper he writes three episodes of the series Men in Crisis and a documentary feature about Vegas nightlife circa 1962. Apart from a “story concept” credit on a 2002 short film by the Polish actress Beata Pozniak Daniels, who played Lee Harvey Oswald’s wife Marina in JFK, the Wolper productions are his only writing credits on IMDb, although he would allude in subsequent bios to consulting work with major studios and name directors.

After that, Field works as a freelance screenwriter, writes nine scripts, none of which seem to have seen the light of day. (In Screenplay, he claims that two of them were produced, four others were optioned, “and three nothing happened with.”)

After seven years of this kind of luck, he takes a job at Cinemobile, founded in 1964 by the Egyptian impresario Fouad Said, who while working as a cameraman on I Spy dreamed up the idea of a self-contained van that could transport every piece of necessary film equipment — lights, camera, actors — to a location shoot. By the early ’70s Said is a rich man with a fleet of these movie buses, and he decides to put some scratch together and start cofinancing movies of his own.

Cinemobile is instantly deluged with scripts; Field is hired to vet the slush pile. Field reads 2,000 screenplays for Cinemobile. In the years that follow, that number will be his primary credential as a teacher of screenwriting: He has read 2,000 scripts. Of those, he rejects all but 40. His first book is, among other things, an attempt to explain why this happened. Whatever it has to say about art, it’s first and foremost a book about how to engineer a script to get it past a studio script reader.

Syd Field Book Covers - Syd Field

The belief that characters must heal psychic wounds,” wrote David Bordwell in his book The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies, “may bear traces of the West Coast self-actualization fads of the 1970s, evidenced in therapeutic movements like transcendental meditation, yoga and Primal Scream therapy.”

Was the fact that Field never became an in-demand Hollywood screenwriter his psychic wound? Over and above whatever psychic wound caused him to choose writing in the first place? He was a failed screenwriter who sold millions of books as a teacher of screenwriting. He was probably OK with that. I don’t know. I do know that Screenplay is, in a low-key way, as much a self-help book as it is a text on screenwriting.

When he died, the Los Angeles Times talked to one of his former students, Anna Hamilton Phelan, whose screenwriting credits include Gorillas in the Mist and Girl, Interrupted. “The most inspirational thing he ever said was, ‘Confusion always comes before clarity,'” Phelan said. “I know people like myself still have moments when nothing makes sense. You remember that and relax.”

Screenplay helped beget a whole industry. After Field came Robert McKee’s ruminations on classical structure and the Archplot, Christopher Vogler’s distillations of Joseph Campbell, and whatever’s going on in the works of James Bonnet, an actor turned screenwriter turned mystic whose credits include the Barney Miller teleplay “Voice Analyzer” and the script for the Christmas episode of Adam-12, and whose 1999 book Stealing Fire From the Gods one-ups Field’s paradigm and everyone else’s by postulating an Aristotelian/Jungian/Campbellian dream catcher and calling it the golden paradigm.

According to countless other books, you, despite perhaps being a dummy, can in 21 days, or 10 days, or 10-minute bursts, write a screenplay that will sell and doesn’t suck. But the real golden paradigm in Hollywood right now — in the sense that you can watch bad movies and see it being obeyed pretty much to the letter — is the 15-point “beat sheet” from Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat!, a virtual schematic that tells you not only that your character must experience a “Dark Night of the Soul” but exactly on which page of your script it needs to happen. All the writer has to do is decide what fake job Adam Sandler or Vince Vaughn is going to have. It’s the next-to-last step before the rise of the algorithms.

Three-act structure is the best way to conceive your movie, unless five-act structure is better. Field’s approach works except when it doesn’t. All the approaches above that have supplanted or augmented Field work exactly as well. Here’s what I mean by self-help, though: Field advocates thinking of your script in terms of individual sequences, which when combined will add up to a complete story. It’s a fairly obvious point to make about movie scripts, but it’s also a very important Bird by Bird–ish lesson about breaking down a daunting writing project into pieces of manageable size. When you’re in the paradigm, you can’t see the paradigm.

At one point, Field writes, “Keep moving forward in your story. If you write a scene and go back to clean it up, to polish it and ‘make it right,’ you’ll find you’ve dried up about page 60, and might shelve the project.”

The key to writing anything is quieting the brain-voice that tells you that you’re doing it wrong. Whether or not Screenplay‘s approach is foolproof, whether or not its influence was detrimental to movies as a whole, for more than 30 years it has provided an architecture of reassurance to writers, a class of people not known for bringing vast reserves of inborn assuredness to the table. Demonstrating to yourself that you can follow instructions is one way of tricking yourself into forgetting you suck; only after you’ve done that do any other possibilities open up.

Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.