Syd Field and Scriptwriting

When Syd Field writes, “Writing is a personal responsibility; either you do it or you don’t. Do it” (204, Workbook), it is hard to tell who he sounds more like, Yippie activist Jerry Rubin and his “Do It” manifesto or a soapbox-Stan Lee and his Spiderman moral, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Wherever you position Field on the spectrum ranging from manifesto to downright silver-surfing-cheese, one thing is for certain: when it comes to the how-to’s of scriptwriting, no name shines brighter and more blinding.

What launched Field to the front in how-to’s of scriptwriting was his book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, published in 1979. At the time it came out, it was one of the first notable books aimed at the everyman to deal with scriptwriting, and as a result it became somewhat of an institution. Like any institution, it is today loved as much as it is reviled. Certainly timing played into the book’s success, yet it does lay out one tried and true blueprint of screenplay writing – a blueprint that many have acknowledged, albeit grudgingly. Field’s name is so ubiquitous when it comes to screenwriting that today he is name-checked even in the most vacuous of wastelands, such as the June 2005 issue of Maxim. On page 56 snuggled between booze ads and pages of bikini girls glossing tips on golf and car-racing, screenwriter David S. Goyer, credited with the story of the 2005 summer blockbuster, Batman Begins, directed by Christopher Nolan, gives advice to budding screen scenarists. The guidance comes in six bat-bullet points and, excluding the last (some sort of frat-meta-speak about a tough scrotum undoubtedly written in by a Maxim staff writer to placate the target audience), appears to be lifted right out of the pages of Field’s book.

Much of Field’s methodology for determining what does and does not make a successful screenplay is derived from his time spent working as a script reader at Cinemobile. In two years there, Field read some “2000 screenplays and almost a hundred novels” (Workbook, 101). Of these, he “found 40 screenplays worth submitting” to his financial partner, of which “37 were made, including Jeremiah Johnson, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Wind and the Lion, and Taxi Driver” (102, Workbook). Though Field has written screenplays, it was from his experiences as script-reader that he would go on to develop his self-labeled “paradigm” (8, Screenplay), a model with which he felt he could identify a good or bad scripts.

Field’s “paradigm” states that every good screenplay has the character with a clearly defined need or goal. Valuing structure first and foremost, Field then divides the screenplay into beginning, middle and end, or Act I: the setup, Act II: the conflict, and Act III: the resolution. These three acts come together to dramatize the character’s need or goal. Field stresses that this dramatization is of a visual nature, as the screenplay is a visual medium, a “STORY TOLD WITH PICTURES” (8, Screenplay). As a result of this visual nature, Field further argues that a good screenplay reveals characters acting to achieve their needs or goals, rather than reacting to circumstances thrust onto them. “Many inexperienced writers have things happen to their characters; they react rather than act. The essence of character is action.” (196, Screenplay)

The key in all this is action, because it is action that is the visual glue of a screenplay for Field. Suddenly it isn’t so surprising that David Goyar, credited with the 2005 actioneer, Batman Begins and others like Blade (1998), directed by Stephen Norrington, mention Field. Field’s book had been published on the heels of George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977), a film which would change the Hollywood motion picture industry and the types of films it made. In more than one way, Field’s book is prophetic, predicting the next wave of Hollywood that came, the FX laden action blockbusters of the 80’s and 90’s, still lingering on into the 00’s with films like Batman Begins.

Interestingly, while Field does acknowledge Star Wars, he does not talk about the film ad-nauseam in terms of scriptwriting. Instead many of the films that Field discusses in conjunction with his screenplay “paradigm” are the taut, dramatic thrillers of the 1970’s, like Marathon Man (1976), directed by John Schlesinger, Three Days of the Condor (1975), directed by Sydney Pollack, and most of all Chinatown (1974), directed by Roman Polanski. Chinatown is mentioned so many times by Field that one has the sneaking suspicion it is the only film in existence.

Unlike Star Wars, a film whose dialogue has been heckled by even its most adoring fans, the aforementioned films all have good, lean dialogue, often displaying their own internal logics in relation to their chosen subject matters and themes. In his follow-up to Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, Field’s book The Screenwriter’s Workbook (1984) proposes dialogue as an extra narrative level of film, not meant to comment on what is being shown, but rather, as he quotes the scriptwriter of Chinatown, Robert Towne, to add “subtext” (86, Workbook). Dialogue applied in this manner gives the screenplay new narrative dimension, allowing the truly adept scriptwriter, like the aforementioned Towne, to exploit both visuals and dialogue in order to propel narrative in a multitude of ways. Chinatown, for example, had been based on the Los Angeles water scandal (known as the Rape of Owen’s Valley) at the turn of the century and transposed to the 1937. To add narrative subtext, it uses water imagery in its dialogue. Referring to the character Hollis Mulwray for example, the detective Jack Gittes comments, “Jesus Christ, this guy’s really got water on the brain.” (Towne 14). The line refers to the disorder spina biffada, which causes destruction of neural tissue, and insinuates rather nastily that Mulwray is stupid. This nastiness, however, is completely in keeping with Gitte’s cynical, hard-nosed character. The line also offers a double entendre telling exactly what Mulwray has been doing — thinking about water. Just prior, Gittes and his men have been following Mulwray who had been visiting various water reservoirs around Los Angeles. Finally, the line foreshadows the emerging plot of a story involving the water scandal, which at this point in the screenplay has yet to surface. The line thus functions on three levels. First it is literal, second it tells about the character of Gittes, and third it echoes the theme and subject matter of the plot.

Though the films and scripts Field uses to illustrate his point tend to date his book1, the real problem with Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting is the types of movies that it assumes its readers want to write, i.e. Hollywood blockbusters based on a select few movies of the 1970’s. For instance, Field doesn’t take into account anything that won’t potentially feature an A-list Hollywood actor. Field is aware that movies and scriptwriting are constantly morphing beasts, but the movies he primarily limits his discussion to (ones starring Robert Redford or written by Robert Towne) also limit the book.

None of this is to say, however, that Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Scriptwriting shouldn’t be checked out, because it should. The book does provide a lot of excellent insight. Field’s follow-up, on the other hand, The Screenwriter’s Workbook, doesn’t offer so much. While The Screenwriter’s Workbook does cover some new ground, it is more a rehash of the first book. This is exaggerated by the slapped-together feel of the book combined with Field’s writing style, which might at its best be called inspirational in tone, and at its worst preachy and rambling. Chapters 11, 12 and 13 feel hastily written, starting with almost the same line: “When I first started my screenwriting workshops,” page 111; “When I first started teaching my screenwriting workshops,” page 120; “When I first started teaching the concept of midpoint,” page 131. Field also has an inclination towards the anecdotal, and in The Scriptwriter’s Workbook, this inclination can come off like filler. In talking about writing character biography, an element which Field argues is important in character creation, he uses an example that contradicts his point.

Actors and actresses also use the character biography to build character. One actress, auditioning with Martin Scorsese for a part in The King of Comedy, approached her reading by doing a character biography, then structured the scene into beginning, middle, and end. Scorsese liked her and called her back three different times, twice to audition with Robert De Niro. They both liked her, but she didn’t get the part. They decided to go with a thin actress. That’s show biz. (65)

If that’s show biz, then The Screenwriter’s Workbook feels a bit like book biz, because there is more than a little of the sense that Field is cashing in on the first book’s success.2

If The Scriptwriter’s Workbook leaves something to be desired, The Foundations of Screenwriting is well worth the time and money of the individual who is interested in screenwriting. And for all of Field’s anecdotal tales and stodginess, his “Do it” attitude, half Stan Lee and half Jerry Rubin, does ring true. The only way one will ever write is by sitting down and doing it.

1 On his own website for example, Field has a tough time coming to terms with even decade-old films like Pulp Fiction. Field’s analysis of the film seems to miss the mark by even his own standards. Rather astutely Field points out that the main characters of films like Network (1976), directed by Sidney Lumet, and Nashville (1975), directed by Robert Altman, aren’t people in the traditional sense, but rather the film titles’ namesakes. In the case of Network, the main character is the television network, and in Nashville it is the city of Nashville. Puzzlingly, Field isn’t quite as accurate in his assessment of Pulp Fiction. Instead, he is initially caught up in his own personal dislike for the film and its roots in pulp, B-movies and exploitation cinema. Eventually, Field does admit the movie marks a shift in filmmaking and scriptwriting. However, his final analysis of the script is that it is comprised of three separate stories, surrounded by a prologue and epilogue, rather than a film like Network or Nashville, about its main character; in Pulp Fiction‘s case, pulp fiction.

2 While the working stiffs of scriptwriting like Michael J. Reeves charge $350 dollars to proof and advise on a script, Field commands $1500 dollars screenplay evaluation done digitally through his website. A meeting with Field in person costs $2500. Reeves is primarily a television scriptwriter, with credits on the cartoons, Batman (1992), Jem! (1985), Transformers (1984), The Mighty Orbots (1984), Dungeons & Dragons (1983), and TV shows such as Swamp Thing (1990) and Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987). Reeves has written numerous novels including the top 10 bestseller, Star Wars: Darth Maul — Shadow Hunter (2001) and the cult favorite, Darkworld Detective (1981).

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