Syd Field was the first true screenwriting guru and his book Screenplay is still a standard, more than forty years after its initial publication. During his first visit to the city with his name (Sydney, Australia), we interviewed him about his career and craft.
Karel: I’m excited to have with us today the godfather of screenwriting theory: Syd Field.
Syd Field: Thank you, thank you so much. The godfather, it’s a little odd sounding but I will accept that with gratitude.
Karel: You started long before Robert McKee…
Syd Field: Of course, many many years before. I started teaching in ’75 and wrote the book in ’79, I started doing workshops in ’80 at the weekend and I really designed the weekend form which McKee took and borrowed freely from. I think I was about 3 to 4 years ahead of him and I was travelling as he was just starting out in LA.
Karel: How did you get inspired to write Screenplay and develop “the paradigm”?
Syd Field: I was a documentary filmmaker in the beginning for four years, then I became a freelance screenwriter for 7 years, I wrote 9 original screenplays, 2 were produced, 4 optioned, and 3 nothing ever happened to. And then out of work, broke, trying to be a single parent, I got a job as the head of the story department at a place called Cine Mobile. So as a writer taking a break from writing I started reading screenplays to sharpen the skills of my craft.
Karel: How many scripts did you read?
Syd Field: In 2 years I read more than 2000 screenplays and more than a hundred novels and I only found 40 to submit to our financial partners, so my question to me, Sydney, what made these 40 better than the other 1960?
Karel: What did?
Syd Field: I had no answer whatsoever but I kept reading and I took apart those 40 screenplays, because I love to analyze, and I began to see those screenplays started on page 1 word 1. And there was an incident that grabbed everybody’s attention and the writing was so stylized and so active, all present tense, that I immediately became hooked so when I had the opportunity to teach a course at Sherwood Oaks Experimental College I went in there as a writer and a reader.
Karel: That’s how you started teaching.
Syd Field: I started teaching a class and I assumed an incorrect position teaching that class, which was a great lesson for me. Since I was there at the head of the class and everybody was there coming to hear me talk, I assumed I knew something they didn’t. What a mistake that was, I was the most terrible teacher because I had this opinion about… because I was there I had to know something. After a year I had no students left and all left and all walked out.
Karel: How did you deal with that?
Syd Field: I began teaching from a different perspective, I became the student and my students became the teacher. They wanted answers to questions about writing, how do you develop character, how do you write a story, what makes good dialogue, how do you structure a story. So I answered their questions, and out of answering their questions I began to realize everybody has the same questions, how do you prepare your material, how do you execute your material. How do you write great character, how do you write great dialogue.
I began to go into my experience as a reader and a writer and answer those questions and that’s how the whole thing started. Pretty soon those classes became pretty full and popular and when I wanted to go back to writing and about another year or so after teaching, the urge to write again came back. I said why don’t I write what I’m doing right now, why not write from my experience. So I wrote a 67 page book presentation, sent it to an agent in New York and she called me 3 days later and she said we’ve got a deal. And I was just astonished.
Karel: But didn’t you want to write screenplays?
Syd Field: I believe in a very simple philosophy: when you’re riding a horse you don’t ride a horse backwards. You go in the direction the horse is going in. So I’m going to put screenwriting aside right now and I’m going to write books. Random House and Bantom Dell were just astonished. They had no idea that this book would take off like this, they published the book on a flier: “Here’s a little money for you kid, go and write and see what you can do,” that was their attitude. The first printings were 5,000, second was 8,000, the next was 15,000. The president of the company came to me and pushed me in a corner, he’d been drinking: “What is it you’ve got in your book here?” and “I want another one!” so I said whatever is working, works.
Karel: So why don’t we know you today as Syd Field, the bestselling prose writer?
Syd Field: I wanted to write a book but not the same thing I’d already done. So many times people are writing books and writing the same thing all over again and I said forget it, and I started with Screenplay which is now published by the way in 28 languages and sold more than a million copies. Used in 500 Universities across the US and abroad. So that’s how the things started
Karel: Since then you’ve been teaching people how to write.
Syd Field: I started traveling and teach the professionals… not how to write, nobody can teach anybody how to write… but what you can do is help the professionals sharpen their skills, go into the dynamics of story and evolution of story and find out ways to make your characters deeper, more dimensional and more interesting. Find ways to grab your readers attention more quickly and to keep the reader, and the viewer hopefully, perched on the edge of their seat, that’s my whole intention. My intention in writing all these books, I want to see better movies.
Click here to read part two.
Interview by Karel Segers, David Trendall and Niels Abercrombie, with thanks to Screen Australia