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.
Click here to read part one.
Karel: There are a great number of films with critical acclaim that don’t seem to find an audience. How do you explain this?
Syd Field: I teach all over the world now and people come to me and say “I want to write a Hollywood screenplay” and I say: “Have you ever been to Hollywood?” No. Have you ever lived in the States? No. Why do you want to write a Hollywood screenplay? There are people there who spend their entire lives wanting to write a Hollywood screenplay and what makes you think that your material, who’ve never been there, does not know the culture, does not know the language or the slang, why do you feel that you can write a Hollywood screenplay? Why don’t you go into your own culture and find symptoms and problems and find ways to illustrate something that you know and have lived through… something can resonate here with the human condition.
Karel: So our cultural distinctions will make the subject matter more interesting.
Syd Field: My feeling is that there are no distinctions between human beings even though we’re different colors, different races, different languages. When you get right down to it, we’re the same in terms of needs, wants and emotions. We all want to be loved, we all want to be successful, we all want to feel good, all want good health and we go through every culture, every race. Everything on this planet is the same.
James Cameron does that with Avatar. All living things are united, so why don’t we have the same culture, consciousness, that everybody else has. So that’s really my message, we rise one step above our distinctions, which have been with us since the dawn of time of course, and it’s not something we will give up very easily, but the idea is that we all exist on a different plane beyond the person, beyond the personality, beyond the culture, beyond the language, beyond the intellect, beyond all of that we are all the same, we are all the same consciousness.
Karel: So good writing creates almost a religious experience?
Syd Field: I always say if God is a sheet of paper and if you cut that sheet of paper into a thousand pieces are each one of those pieces God? For me the answer is yes, so we have to honor that and that’s in our stories. That’s what makes stories universal, that’s why Avatar deals with ideas and a cinematic experience that is extraordinary.
Karel: Cameron touched the world, not just with special effects but with great storytelling skill and he connected with the mythology of our times. Now why is it that so many writers are not even trying to connect with an audience?
Syd Field: I think people get tied into the end result before they begin the process. The great eastern text, the Bhagavad Gita, says “Do not be attached to the fruits of your actions,” meaning: don’t write a screenplay because you want to impress somebody, write the screenplay because it’s something you want to do, have to do, need to do. Nobody can take the experience of writing away from us because… I call that a one on one. It’s where the mind and the computer screen or the piece of paper really are one, they are connected. There is simply a connection of energy between the pen and the paper.
Karel: Pen and paper?
Syd Field: Well I come from typewriting, so when I started writing, and after my first stint as writer of 7 years, I had experienced so much pain in writing my joke was I would always hit my head against the typewriter until something came. And when I came back to writing after that 2 year hiatus I said I don’t want to experience that pain again that I had before.
So I realised that I cannot use the same methods as I had used in my first incarnation as a writer, I had to change and create a new form. So what I did was I started writing long-hand, and what happened was I created a new groove of consciousness, I started writing long hand and then when I got my computers I started typing it into computers.
Gradually over time, and giving myself permission to do some really shitty writing I gradually came to the idea that I did not need the in-between steps of writing long-hand.
Karel: Syd, you’ll like this anecdote. I was teaching mythical story structure in Canberra and one of the students was an ambassador. In referring to his story’s turning points, he didn’t use the Hero’s Journey terms but talked about “Pee Pee One and Pee Pee 2″!
Syd Field: (Laughs)
Karel: He admitted he had studied your book. Now, how did you come up with those specific terms?
Syd Field: At cinemobile I was working with writers everyday, taking meetings, listening to ideas, pitches and so on. Once we established the language, we could understand each other, so I said “I’ve got to create definitions!” So I created a definition of screenplay, definition of structure… “a linear arrangement of related incidents, episodes and events, leading to a dramatic resolution”.
So, I was kind of talking about writing and preparing and developing character and putting things down in a structural order… and one of my students asked me, “What is a screenplay?” The question really took me by surprise because I had no idea, I had never thought about that.
So as I was talking about an hour later, suddenly this image of a screen or a painting came into my awareness and I said “Do you want to know what a screenplay is?” And I drew a straight line and all stories have a beginning, a middle and an end and there’s some point in which the beginning turns into the middle and the middle turns into the end… that’s what a screenplay is.
And I said what do you do with Act 1? You set up your story. And what do you do with act 2? That’s confrontation, that’s where people run into obstacles and what do you do in Act 3? That’s the resolution of the story, because when I was reading I did not find those things. I felt I had to find a language common to everybody so we could understand the commonality, so a writer and reader could sit on opposite sides of the desk.
Karel: But why is it that all authors and gurus come up with new terms rather than use what’s already there?
Syd Field: Now, that’s an interesting question. I think everybody wants to be unique and creative and inventive. And the way to do that, is instead of calling it a plot point they call it a turning point.
I was interviewed yesterday for an on-line publication and she was asking me questions about the protagonist, I said “What? What is the protagonist?” I still get confused with protagonist, antagonist, themes, plot… You mean the main character and the major characters. In the article she wrote protagonist. That’s a hangover from an old tradition of English literature that to me doesn’t really exist any more.
Karel: Which of the foundations of screenwriting do you find aspiring screenwriters struggle with the most? Is there one thing you can lift out?
Syd Field: To me, if you go into a definition of a screenplay it’s really a story that is told with pictures and what I find with many new screenwriters or people who have no training is what they do is tell their story through dialogue. Through explanation. And that’s not a screenplay.
I show clips in a master class and I show films from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s and it was wall to wall dialogue. Look how much information is there! It took us eight minutes to get this information out about this character! Then I showed them one little train sequence – one minute fifty-seven seconds – from The Bourne Ultimatum and in terms of flashback and memory and story points and so on you have all the information you need to know. “Who is Jason Bourne” and “Why is that guy out to kill me?” That’s what we need to know.
I’m a big fan of Billy Wilder and The Apartment but it’s wall to wall dialogue I got antsy just listening to it.
Karel: It’s almost television
Syd Field: It’s almost television. Exactly.
Karel: People say there’s a decline in the craft of screenwriting. Do you agree?
Syd Field: I don’t think there’s a decline in the craft as much as there’s a decline in the nature and dynamics of story. I don’t think people know how to tell a story, or they are so one single lined, linear lined… that they don’t give themselves an opportunity to explore the dimensions of their character or the story. See, Jim Cameron’s a master at that. He created his own world, in Pandora… but he also created a character who was trapped between two worlds.
He has the limits of one world but also the accessibility of the other world on Pandora, so he made a choice. How many people would go into the consciousness state and would say for example that the only way we could defeat the encroaching violent human beings from earth is that if the entire living planet of Pandora rebels and fights off the invaders? I mean, how many people would go there?? Nobody. I mean this man brought in another dimension that made a single story stand out amazingly!
I walked out the first viewing of Avatar and I thought immediately of Dances with Wolves and I thought immediately of Last Samurai. The same themes are there but Jim Cameron did, was just amazing in terms of digging into another spiritual dimension and allowing that natural consciousness of humanity shine through.
When the character, Jake Sully, is in his Navi’ form, and he doesn’t know what to do when he goes to the Hometree. He goes there and he lets it go and surrenders and asks for help. How many people would do that?? How many people would think that is a dramatic enough situation to make a movie?
Well, there’s not enough explosions, there’s not enough action here, there’s no tension… but in that simple singular moment you get everything from that character and that’s what great screenwriting is about. Finding those moments.
Concludes next month when Syd discusses Cameron, Nolan and Roth.
Interview by Karel Segers, David Trendall and Niels Abercrombie, with thanks to Screen Australia