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Photo Credit: www.sydfield.com
Syd's Field of Dreams
by Quendrith Johnson
Syd Field. The name is almost synonymous with "I want to write a screenplay." For years he's been awash in media labels along the lines of "Hollywood's guru of screenwriting," "the Godfather of screenplay structure" -- all this because of a little book called "Screenplay" first published in 1982 that ushered in an industry of analysts who make a living dissecting the movies. And telling the general public how to write same.
He's probably one of the few people who says things like "now I'm going to flashback" in everyday conversation. But, is he also the man responsible for giving away the floor plan to Oz? Public enemy number one to studio executives? Because if everyone could write a hit, wouldn't they get their own parking spot on the lot and a reserved booth at The Grill? Has he broken the golden rule of Hollywood: "nobody knows anything?"
After decades of lobbing tomes over the wall of the entertainment establishment: "Screenplay," "The Screenwriter's Workbook," "Selling a Screenplay" and a recently revised reissue of "Screenplay," Syd Field is the first to admit he can not get a movie made. "I think they're afraid of me," he intones of the suits behind the closed doors.
"I did have a quote unquote assignment with Tri-Star on a three-picture deal," consulting on a project, specifically on "Thunderheart" (starring Val Kilmer, Sam Shepard, Graham Greene, directed by Michael Apted). "The exec came up and said 'Syd, this is really great, but you are doing our job for us," and showed the screenwriting wizard the door. "The executives felt I was doing their jobs... which meant the studio heads would feel like they [the execs] weren't doing their job."
And therein lies the rub, if you're going to give away the keys to the candy store, expect to be locked out of the Dream Factory.
"I consider myself an insider who is looking in from the outside," he quips.
When pitched, Syd Field laughs at the concept of a reality show based on making a big budget movie using his secret formula -- just to test his structure theory once and for all. "That's a great idea." Then points out that he has just released a DVD project ("Screenplay Series with Syd Field") to further breakdown the winning "it" factor of hit movies.
Random House, his publisher, lists Syd Field as "at present he is creative consultant to the governments of Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Austria, and South Africa, and has been a script consultant for Roland Jaffe's film production company, for Alfonso Arau and Laura Esquivel on Like Water for Chocolate."
Syd Field seems positioned like an international go-to guy on how to make your movie industry work. In conversation, he has a relentlessness that comes from defending his territory as the originator of "plot point" and similar pivotal screenwriting terms. And he drops anecdotes like cluster bombs to support his notions. After all, he has legitimately picked cinema's undisputed stellar brains such as the late Stanley Kubrick.
And he packs a punch like "when I worked with Jean Renoir..." Or, "Sam (Peckinpah) told me that he structures his stories by aiming for a mid point, an incident that happens in the middle of the script. You set up the characters -- the middle of the script has the train robbery. Sam said 'I always start aiming for a middle point and go form there.' Meaning the incident that propels them to the middle of the screenplay -- he spins everything off on that."
The movies' original story mechanic underscores his place in film history with humble pride. "Nobody had really defined what structure was in a screenplay. I began to take my experience of reading and writing [and] put it together in a presentation. Out of that became a body of knowledge based on working with Sam or being with Sam... and reading 2000 screenplays." The 2000 screenplay figure is from his early career days at Cinemobile.
It comes as a complete surprise when Syd Field mentions Michelangelo Antonioni as "my mentor."
Antonioni can arguably be called the antithesis of everything Hollywood Blockbuster. The late auteur described by Martin Scorsese in a New York Times tribute as having "defined Postwar alienation on screen," is the same man who allegedly scrapped a Jim Morrison penned track for one of his films, cut an early Harrison Ford walk-on, and generally thumbed his nose at the establishment during a political time when you could still get a movie of substance made despite throwing a philosophical monkey wrench into the dream machine.
"Blowup," Antonioni's first English language film that rooted Vanessa Redgrave as the thinking man's sex symbol of the 60's, was preceded by a long career of wrenching Italian films that anchored Antonioni's place in world cinema. He dominated the screen when black turtlenecks and berets were not just a fashion statement.
When Syd met Antonioni in Italy in the 1980's, the legendary director was partially physically impaired, though mentally sharp as a tack.
"Antonioni really shows us that language is not enough. Even for the last film when he was here at our house -- 'Beyond the Clouds' ("Al di l` delle nuvole" (1995) co-directed by Wim Wenders) with John Malkovich -- [which is about] all shades of the idea of searching for love. You had the technical genius of Antonioni."
Having had the legend at his house on repeated visits, Syd saw the director's decline. "He was the only person I ever called 'maestro.' By this time he had had a stroke. But he had a great gesture. Whenever you would ask a question -- he only had use of his right arm -- he would raise his hand 'I don't know.'"
Still emotional over the director's passing, Field attempts to peg his legacy in film history with an example: "The emotional language of silence in films is what he gave us. It's the scenes in his films that are the most powerful because nothing is said. "Eclipse" ("L'Eclisse" (1962)) opens in a living room; a fan in the foreground. And all we hear for almost six minutes is that fan. Three minutes into that scene of silence says everything about a relationship that is not working -- it is over nothing left to say. That's power of Antonioni."
Which stands in stark contrast to the current movie landscape of nebbish chic with "Superbad." Concerning same, Syd Field is ever at the ready with "an evolutionary approach" to the form and craft of screenwriting. He blips over "Superbad" to the movie structure milestone "Pulp Fiction," and more recently mentions consulting with Scott Frank on "The Lookout." Scott Frank, who also directs, is one of the rare breed of what you'd call literary screenwriters, meaning he is rumored to have turned down a few blockbuster assignments in favor of his artistic integrity and creative sanity.
"'The Lookout' by Scott Frank is an extraordinary film. It is so tightly structured -- but there is a clear beginning. There is a definite middle, and there is a definite resolution. It has a clear-cut ctory line told in a number of different techniques."
Toward the end of our talk, Syd Field goes epilogue, like a true story purist.
"You need to evolve your thinking; your narrative visual thinking. I'm working on a script right now with someone, a martial arts film [set] 1000 years earlier that created this whole grandmaster technique... these are different planes of information visually."
"We all have to revise our thinking [about screenwriting] based on the technology... It's an evolutionary approach, the integration of memory as story elements, not just as flashback [as in film noir days]."
Like a grand master of structure, Syd Field leaves room for a sequel. "By the way," he adds in parting, "you didn't ask me the right question about Antonioni earlier. How I felt about his films."