Interview with Syd Field

by Emon Hassan on April 30, 2006

All about Syd Field here.


Emon Hassan: You’ve written about your years at Cinemobile as being instrumental in writing your first book. What about the years before that? What did you grow up reading, writing, listening to that has shaped you into the person/teacher you are today?

Syd Field: The years before that?  I started out to be an actor, and then I was at UC Berkley studying English with a pre-med major, and that’s when I came into contact with Jean Renoir, the great French film director. Jean was the one who really pointed me in the direction of film, and there was a screening of his film, A Grand Illusion, that really illustrated to me that film was a medium about ideas, not only images and acting and cinematography and editing and so on. It was a film of ideas, and that film was so instrumental in my consciousness that it really got me interested in film as a way or means of expression and art. So I went to UCLA grad school. I actually went to UC Berkley graduate school in English, and I stayed there about six weeks and knew that it was not for me. Then, after that, I was talking with Jean Renoir and he told me that “The future is film, the future is film.” He believed it, I believe it now, and I believe it will continue to be as long as we are a visual society, as we are becoming with technology. So then I went to UCLA for one year and was in a film class with Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek of The Doors. We used to hang out together, and I still see Ray occasionally. We made some films together. And from there, I left after one year and got a job at David Wolper Productions making television documentaries.

I stayed there for four and a half years and was involved in some 125 television documentaries – Jacques Cousteau, National Geographic’s Men in Crisis, Hollywood and the Stars, Four Days in November – plus many other specials. After four and a half years there I wanted to try writing so I became a freelance screenwriter. For the next seven years I wrote nine original screenplays, two were produced, one was called Spree with Jayne Mansfield, her last film, the other was Los Banditos which has been optioned by Robert Aldrich, and then when he died the rights reverted back to me. Ultimately it ended up in Argentina, being made as an Argentine Western, which I haven’t seen. The next three screenplays were optioned – one was optioned by Jane Fonda, one was optioned by John Voigt, one was optioned by Ed Pressman. Actually, four were optioned, one by Dennis Shryack Ron Cohen.

The last three screenplays I made the mistake of not looking at what the market bore, and what the market was, and as a result I wrote three contemporary, personal screenplays, which everybody told me how great they were…and nothing happened to them. I still have them. That’s when I realized that I was getting tired of writing, and I went to work for a living at Cinemobile Systems as Head of the Story Department. It was there that I started reading screenplays. I was reading three screenplays a day, and in the little over two years I was there I read more than two thousand screenplays and more than hundred novels. Out of all that material, I only found forty projects to submit to our financial partners.

I wanted to find out, as a writer taking a break from writing, what made those forty screenplays better than the other 1,960 I had read. I had no answers at that point, but then I had the opportunity of teaching at a place called Sherwood Oaks Experimental College, and there I began teaching based on my experience as a reader of screenplays, and as a writer of screenplays. I worked there a little over two years, and then I got fired like everybody else in the company when it was bought by Cinemobile. I then wanted to go back to writing, and that’s when I took a year off and started writing and rewriting some scripts, and then I had the idea that I should write a book on what I was teaching at Sherwood Oaks at that time.

So I sat down and I wrote a 64 page presentation called Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting that was based on my experience as a writer, reader and as a teacher. The book was sold within three weeks after I submitted the presentation, and within three months we had gone through five printings. It became the best seller for Bantam-Dell Publishing, and from that time on I have been writing books. I just finished the revision of my last book called The Screenwriter’s Workbook, and, to me, it’s a brand new book, as is Screenplay. After the remarkable success of Screenplay I began being invited to teach [in different countries] by their Ministers of Culture, and I began to travel around the world teaching screenwriting workshops for film professionals, not sharing with them how to write anything, but really to show them how they can update their skills.

I’ve been doing that for many, many, many years now, and that’s how I actually began writing; that really shaped me. I always credit my students with really showing me, or teaching me, how to conduct a screenwriting workshop, because the experience of screenwriting is experiential and until you know what to expect, until you know what to do, in terms of the craft of screenwriting, it’s a very, very difficult process. So I never teach anyone how to do something; there’s no way I can do that. What I do is show people what they have to do to write a successful screenplay, and we focus on their skills and on tools, and that becomes the craft of screenwriting. I’ve been very fortunate, because my students have been extremely successful, and I love what I’m doing, and I love writing and I love teaching. So I always say that I am a writer and a teacher.

EH: Your first book ‘Screenwriting’ is considered the ‘bible’ in the industry. What about the book, besides teaching readers the nuts and bolts of screenwriting, makes it so popular with both the writers and the industry? What ‘aha’ factors do you think each side finds in your book?

SF: You know, it’s interesting, I’ve often asked myself that question – what makes Screenplay so successful? What makes it so individual in terms of the other books which are out there on screenwriting, and I really believe after much inquiry about this question that the true experience of Screenplay and my other books is that I focus on the experience of screenwriting. Mainly, what kind of an experience does the writer feel or experience when he or she is facing a blank sheet of paper? What thoughts, feelings and emotions go through the mind as you face this blank sheet of paper? What judgments, what kind of self-criticism, what kind of self-worth evaluations do you go through? And I think this is a part of what I handle in my books on screenwriting.

The other thing I think that makes it so popular is that I go through an analysis of a film as it relates to the experience of screenwriting. I use examples, the only really way to teach is by using examples, to show people what they have to do, and give them ideas about how to go about doing whatever it is they want to write about. I think that is what makes people have an “aha factor”; it’s simple. With the book, I spent years on focusing on a style that would be simple, I call it “one-on-one,” so when you’re reading my books it is a discussion between you and me about the craft and the experience of writing a screenplay.

EH: What are some of the habits a writer needs to unlearn to gain style, clarity, and a unique voice in telling good stories? How about a writer’s reading habits?

Well, I’ll tell you, this is the question that I had to do twice. The first period of my life when I was writing screenplays and documentary films I really had no idea what I was doing. What I really understood when I stopped writing is that I needed to get clear, and form a new intention, about the craft of screenwriting. I kept asking myself questions – What is the job of a writer? What is the job of a screenplay? What can I do?

I remember at that time I was writing on a typewriter, it became such a painful experience that I used to joke that I would write by hitting my head against the typewriter until something came out. And it became so painful of an experience after seven years that I said look, there’s got to be a better way of earning a living, there’s got to be something that I enjoy doing that does not cause so much pain, and that no one is buying anyhow. [I thought], I’ve had moderate success in my screenwriting career, but there’s got to be something that’s easier than this. That’s when I took my break from writing and I started teaching. But the call to writing was still very very prominent in me, and as a result what I did was I just found my own voice and my own way by going through and redefining my own attitude and my intention of what I wanted to achieve and accomplish in terms of writing. I always remembered what F. Scott Fitzgerald, the great American novelist, said about writers. He said “People write, not because they want to say something, but people write because they have something they want to say.” And I think about that a lot. I do know that I would like to contribute to people’s experience and the expansion of their own writing experience.

EH: What are some of the format related complaints you still have when you read scripts? Why do you suppose, with hundreds of books and online sources available, writers keep making those mistakes?

SF: Writing a screenplay is a very individual and specific craft. If you go into a novel, and you go into a play, and you go into a screenplay, you’ll find three mediums that are totally different. A novel takes place inside the characters’ heads, so the reader becomes privy to the thoughts, feelings, emotions, dreams and fantasies inside the character’s head. In a novel, the action, the story, is really told in the mindscape of dramatic action. When you go into a play, you have the actors standing on a stage, in front of an audience, where you have three sides and the audience makes up the fourth wall, and here, the story is told through dialogue, through the words of dramatic action. So the story [in a play] is told through the language of dramatic action. When you go into a screenplay, it’s so much different.  A screenplay is a story that’s told in pictures. It’s told in dialogue, it’s told in the descriptions, it’s told within the context of dramatic structure. The structure is what holds everything together.

What I find many writers do is they don’t understand the distinction between novels, plays and screenplays. They start telling their screenplays in stories, in words. They start explaining the thoughts and feelings and emotions of the characters; they start explaining what the story is all about. So you really need to start understanding the craft, and what the distinctions are in writing a screenplay, and how to make it work for you. So those complaints, you know, telling your story with dialogue, I wrote a whole book about called The Screenwriter’s Problem Solver where I went into all the problems in screenplays, either related to plot, to character or to structure. It’s those three categories which you have to go into to make your screenplay an expressive, visualized story that is dynamic and will grab the attention of the reader and the audience.

And I have no idea why writers keep making these same mistakes. I think it’s really a craft orientation. I think this is why I say I can’t teach anybody how to write a screenplay. I show people what they have to do and illustrate it through current, contemporary examples, in order to illustrate what the screenwriter has to do to learn his or her craft.

EH: Would you agree that sound, besides dialogue, plays a large part in the successful presentation of a film? If you do, why is that aspect of film almost always ignored in screenwriting? If you disagree, why do you?

SF: Well, I don’t think people utilize the element of sound as much as they should. I always use sound, and teach the usage of sound, in terms of transitions. When you make a transition in a screenplay, it’s a way to move time, place and action on a very strict, Spartan-level of time movement. Screenwriting is wonderful because you can condense time, you can slow down time, you can enlarge time, you can expand time – you have no limitations that way. So many times people don’t know that and they write in scenes and sequences, and basically, it becomes an episodic screenplay. Transitions smooth the process of getting from the end of point A to the beginning of point B, and, of course you have transitions that are either picture to picture, or sound to sound, or dialogue to dialogue, or music to music, or special effect to special effect. So in terms of sound, you can make a great transition. One of the great transitions that I use all the time as an example is from a Chinese film Farewell My Concubine. It has a transition where there’s someone being shot at by a firing squad, and what they do is they show a picture of the prisoner being led out, the execution squad lining up preparing their rifles, showing their rifles, and then they pull the trigger of the gun and the sound of the gunshot explodes into fire crackers and fireworks in the night sky. It’s the most amazing sound transition, and its function is served. You move time, place, and time and place. That’s what the purpose of a transition is. Just as you can do the same with pictures, you can do the same with sound, and that’s part of understanding the craft of screenwriting, which is what my job to do is – show people how they can expand their own craft of screenwriting.

EH: Can you name 3 common myths, about being a successful screenwriter in Hollywood, among new writers you meet?

SF: I don’t know if I can name three, but I do know that one of the myths is that when you write a screenplay you can sell it immediately. Nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, I just finished a screenplay, I had the idea twenty years ago, but the technology was not available to do the film. It’s a sci-fi film, and I had to literally wait until we got digital, and I began to see how we could do it through the digital technology of storytelling. So it took me some twenty years of holding the idea before I finally executed it last year. In terms of the screenplay, right now we’re having discussions with a major producer/director, and we’ll see what happens with it, but, you know, it’s going to take a long time. I don’t expect anything to sell overnight. One of the myths of screenwriting that I find most destructive is that Variety and The Hollywood Reporter simply talk about the stories where someone writes a film, it’s optioned in the next seven days, then it’s made into a film within the next seven months, and then a year and a half later it’s out on screen. To me that is just the exception rather than the rule.

One of the other myths is it’s “who you know.” [But] it certainly helps. I mean, there’s a real truth to that myth, in terms of it’s who you know to get your film done. Interpersonal relationships in Hollywood are, of course, the stuff of legends, and they really help. But what the bottom line comes down to is how good the script is, what the quality of the screenplay is, and, if it’s not a good screenplay, no matter who you know or what you do, you’re not going to get the thing done; it’s not going to be done. So you have to make sure that you execute your storyline to the best of your ability.

So, sorry that’s only two myths, not three. Can’t name the third one right now.

EH: You’ve talked about writers being second-guessed by everyone around them. The ‘second-guesser’ can be someone who has either never written a script, or is a famous actor, writer, director, or producer. How do you learn, as a new writer, or as one who has found some success, to know who to listen to and not feel compromised?

This is a very difficult question. Difficult because, number one you want to get your film made, and difficult, number two, because you know you’ve written a script that has a certain foundation or a certain line of integrity found throughout the screenplay, and I always say that I’ll make any changes as long as it does not impair, or impact, the story’s structure and the integrity of what I want the story to say.

Up until then, changing dialogue, that’s no problem at all. Actors sometime bring a better form of dialogue, a more natural form of dialogue, when they approach a scene. However, the dialogue is dispensable. A dialogue can simply be done and it can be changed with no problem. But if you take the integrity of a scene, and the purpose of that scene, why it’s there, what function it serves, what’s in the body of the story line, then, you better not change that, no matter who it is, if you want your screenplay to stand intact as a representation of your ideas.

Many times, you have no control over that. If you sell a screenplay and the actor comes in, or the director comes in, they [can] make changes which absolutely impair the body of the screenplay. So I think, all in all, if the changes made do not impair the structural foundation of your storyline, such as dialogue changes, then there’s no problem. If they start talking about changing characters and themes and structure and inserting new things that don’t fit, then there’s a place where you can draw the line. And knowing that you’re putting everything on the line with this, it depends on how much you want to sell your screenplay. I find as a teacher at USC [University of Southern California] in the graduate division of the professional writer’s program, that people are more interested in a career than in telling a good story, and the career is more important [to them] than learning the craft or the tools. That is a generalization on my part, and not always true, but I find more and more that younger people today really don’t want to learn their craft, they want to learn a career and how to get a career.

EH: Can you name 3 non-screenwriting sources writers should be learning from to sharpen their craft?

SF: If you look at the structure and form of the screenplays today, you will find that contemporary novels and contemporary screenplays follow very closely in terms of their structural form and integrity. Meaning, I just finished a book, a mystery thriller by Robert Crais called The Two Minute Rule, and, you know, Robert Crais is a very, very fine writer, but he always starts his novels with an inciting incident. He creates an action-packed incident that begins that story, and then from that inciting incident he starts introducing all the characters that are relevant to that particular storyline. And that’s what we do in film. In film we show or start the movie with some kind of an inciting incident that sets the story in motion. We introduce the characters in relationship to that inciting incident, and then we introduce the key incident, what story is really about, in terms of laying out the story line.

So in Robert Crais’ The Two Minute Rule story, you introduce the inciting incident, a bank robbery, and then you introduce the main character, this prisoner who is just let loose and has served his prison term, and he goes to reconnect with his son, but his son has been killed and murdered, and he wants to find out who did it and why. Very simple. And the story unfolds from that basic premise. That’s a very screenwriting-like structure. So the form, or the line between novels and screenplays, is becoming narrower and narrower, and very soon you’ll find that novelists’ tools are being used by the screenwriter. Look at Quentin Tarantino with Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction and you’ll find a novelistic form and a novelist’s structure there. As a matter of fact, Tarantino even labels Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four in order to move the story forward in the same way that novelists do. The tools of screenwriting have now become the tools of novel writing, and it’s all part of the creative process of creative writing, so it’s a very interesting time in terms of screenwriting. So I believe that new writers should read screenplays, see movies, and also read novels, and notice the similarities between the visualized dynamics of the storyline, and what they want to do in terms of the screenplay.

EH: How would you advise writers to tackle with each of the following: rejection, doubt, ego, instability, professionalism, and fame?

SF: There’s an ancient Eastern text called The Bhagavad Gita, and one of the things in that particular story from the ancient scripture is a statement that says, “You should not be attached to the fruits of your action.” Now, the fruits of your actions. We write a screenplay – that’s an action. We write the screenplay in order to sell it. That’s a reaction; that’s a fruit of the action. So everybody usually writes a screenplay in order to sell it, or to see it produced as a film. Now, that doesn’t happen all the time. However, if you’re attached to your expectations of what’s going to happen to this screenplay, once you have completed it, once you have spent all this time, months, possibly years writing this screenplay, and you get rejected and your ego gets bruised and dented, what are you going to do? Well, naturally you are going to react. The truth is you should not be attached to those feelings, they are simply feelings, they are not you. So when you are starting to get rejection notices, and everyone says “no” in reading your screenplay, you have to not be attached to what that is.

I finished my screenplay and I was looking for representation so I called an old friend of mine. We started out together, and he now runs a very big talent agency in Hollywood; he’s one of the presidents of it. And I called him and I said, “Look, I’ve written this screenplay. Will you read it for possible representation?” So he said, “Sure, send it over.” I sent it over, and, first of all, it got lost in the shuffle of screenplays which are being submitted. Secondly, I called about it and they realized they had lost the script, so they [asked for] another copy. Then I got a call from his assistant saying she wanted to talk to me about the screenplay. Now, you know when you get a call like that it just simply means that he didn’t like it, and, for whatever the reason, he didn’t want to take the time to call me, so he had his assistant do it. And I don’t need to listen to what she’s going to say. I mean, I like the screenplay the way it is. Of course, I’m prejudiced, but it’s that kind of thinking, that I’m not attached to it, that that’s just the way it is. You wait for someone who’s going to respond to your work. There’s always one person who will respond to your particular work, and if there is no one person, then you sit down and you write your next screenplay. I can’t tell you how many writers have written seven or eight screenplays, un-produced, unwanted, that are lingering on the shelf gathering dust, and then suddenly they hit it with one screenplay, and they start their whole career.

I always quote Larry Kasdan on his writing career. He tells people if they want to break into show business as a screenwriter, you should “Get a job you hate, because in a job that you hate, it will only force you to keep writing to do something you really want to do.” So in his case he wrote seven screenplays and not one of them was considered a viable project. His eighth screenplay someone liked and they gave him a small option on it, and then [he got a job] on a major motion picture where the writer died, but, because they liked his particular screenplay, they liked his writing, they gave him the opportunity of rewriting the screenplay. Now, he came in, rewrote the screenplay, and that’s what started his extraordinary career. The film that he was called in to rewrite was called The Empire Strikes Back, and from that particular film he got the job of writing Indiana Jones and he got the job of writing and directing his own screenplay Body Heat. He became a very well-known writer and director, and the film that originally got him optioned and that got him all this work was his eighth screenplay. It was called Continental Divide, and it was finally made into a film as well.

So get a job you hate, and just keep on writing, because you’re not going to sell your screenplay overnight, and if you do, it’s an aberration, it’s the exception, it’s not the rule. I can name many writers who sold their first screenplay, and never did anything else. So there’s a great lesson, in terms of that.

EH: Syd Field is writing his memoir and we are given the opportunity to read the first page. What would we find written on that first page?

SF: My job is simple, and I’ve thought about this as well. What I do, what I feel is the most important thing, is to contribute to the growth of other people. I think we’re put on this earth for a specific reason, and I think we’re here to help others. Especially, I think, in the times that we’re in right now. It’s really what I’m here for – to contribute to other’s well-being. And if I can show them the way, if I can shine a light on their path of education, if I can shine some kind of a light for one person who may write something significant, who may ultimately alter the destiny and shape and form of our country and our society, then I’ve achieved my job.

As it is now, I go all around the world and I find that the international screenplay is becoming a lot like the Hollywood screenplay. I really see that as a reflection of the work that I’ve been doing, and that my other colleagues have been doing, when they teach screenwriting around the world. People want to copy the “American screenplay.” I’m in Brazil and people say, “We want to write an American screenplay,” and I tell them they’re crazy, they can’t write an American screenplay, they’re not American. They don’t know it; they need to go into their own culture. One of my students wrote Central Station that way, and was nominated for Best Foreign Film because he wrote what he knew, he wrote about the Brazilian society and a certain particular situation in that society. So it’s very important to write what you know, and at the same time to write from a position or a point of view, that you are really saying something about things you know about. I think it’s just a very important thing.

I feel that I’m still accomplishing a great deal by traveling and teaching, because I feel if I can touch just one other person, and that person can do something somewhere down the line – it may not even be in my lifetime – that will be significant, that will be reward enough. And I think that’s really the meaning of Karma or destiny. Destiny is not necessarily what you do right now, it may be the seed that’s planted now, and it may be two or three generations into the future before that particular seed is realized and blooms into a living thing. So that’s I think what I’d like to see. I even said that in my last book called Going to the Movies which is basically my memoirs.

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