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.
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Karel: When Avatar broke out so massively and the whole planet went to see it, still people were in denial about the craft of that screenplay. What didn’t they see?
Syd Field: They wanted some type of screenplay that was totally new and just so foreign to their normal state of consciousness like Inception. What people don’t see about James Cameron is that he does not create screenplays, he creates a cinematic experience, going to the movies is a cinematic experience.
I talk about that in my book Going To The Movies: what is the nature of going to the movies? I mean what do we do when we sit down in a darkened theatre, and the curtains part and the screen becomes alive and we are all united in this community of emotion? At that moment we are all united and the film grabs us in the first 10 minutes. So I teach people that if you don’t have them in the first 10 pages, I’m outta there, there’s no reason I need to read more.
Karel: You pitted Inception against Avatar, how do you see it so different?
Syd Field: In Avatar I was emotionally engrossed, because of the choices the character had to make. In Inception I found this wonderful, inventive, intellectual state that I could really relate to but it was so hard-working to find out where I was.
Once I began to see that there was 3 levels of dream and he kept stating in dialogue “Well we’re in the second level and now we can get out of the dream” and so on, then it became very, very interesting. I have to tell you I watched that film on the plane coming over and I was not touched, I was not moved. But Avatar I watched in 2D at home and I was moved and I was touched.
I think that is where the future is going to go, into that hidden state of consciousness which no one has explored yet. What Chris Nolan does is explore that and that becomes really exciting and new and so on. But as a film it’s pretty dull for me, a lot of great special effects, yeah a lot of interesting things once I think about them, but it was not a dynamic experience that Jim Cameron can create.
Karel: Apart from Jim Cameron, are there any other screenwriters today that are delving into–
Syd Field: I like a little film called 500 Days of Summer , that Scott Neustadter did, I like that very much. Benjamin Button was just brilliantly done. There’s a sequence I show in my workshops of the Brad Pitt character when he goes to the hospital and he sees his mother. She got her coat and she went back to get it when she opened the door and the phone rang and then she went to pick up her package, it wasn’t wrapped because the shop girl had a fight with her boyfriend. If she had gone back 5 minutes earlier that present wouldn’t have been ready and she would not have been hit by the car and her dancing career lost forever.
Karel: Like the butterfly effect.
Syd Field: Exactly. I mean that’s brilliant.
Karel: Why did Forrest Gump work and Benjamin Button didn’t?
Syd Field: Many people think Benjamin Button was too long. I would say it needed the extra length to set up the notion that as he ages he gets younger. You can’t just accept that notion with any degree of reality, you have to set that up. I don’t think it had enough moments of dynamic action or interaction between the two of them. It was more intellectual headgame whereas Forrest Gump was just there. Very emotional, very real, very authentic.
Karel: Benjamin Button needed a long setup, which becomes an issue for the screenplay’s proportions. Would you therefore say that some concepts aren’t right for film?
Syd Field: Never. I think if you want to do any kind of concept for film, you can do it. You just need to find out how. As a writer all you have to do is have the responsibility to go into your idea, because it’s probably a great one, and begin to find out various ways that you can best illustrate that dramatic premise.
If you’re lazy and you don’t want to take the time and you want instant gratification like many of us do, then that’s too bad, go onto another story. Write a simple three guys hold up the Chase Manhattan bank and just do that kind of a story.
Karel: What do you think about Eric Roth’s process? Apparently he only ever writes one draft?
Syd Field: Eric lived right up the street and every night during the seventies when I was teaching he was just beginning his career, we’d get loaded, we’d talk and hang out maybe 3 or 4 times a week and he was experimenting.
Now, I can see that one draft and you change it a hundred thousand times because normally when you’re working on a draft like that I find there’s nothing I can change. It feels right so I’m not going to go in and change something that’s foreign to my sensibility so I will keep it there but will change the dialogue, change the voice, add a preceding scene, write a scene after or something like that so I will re-do that over and over.
It happened when I wrote for an Indian producer, which is now in pre-production in Mumbai. We talked about the storyline, we both agreed on the story form and unfolding of the structural dynamic and then I wrote a draft based on that structure and added 30% new scenes but after that point I just kept rewriting those scenes because it worked for me… and it worked for him as well. He did some doodling and then he sent it back to me and that was it.
Karel: How do you approach a culture like that to allow them to grow but at the same time stay true to their own.
Syd Field: It’s very difficult, cultural heritage in India, that is not easy to break through and I feel the only way I could relate to them is through their spiritual side. I’ve been a meditator for many years now, and I’ve been to India several times, and I go to an Ashram. I know some of the culture, a little bit of the culture. Even last night an indian girl said “I hate to bother you but in India we have this tradition in India where we honour the teacher where we honour them by giving a gift”, and I said “a dhakshana”, and she just was floored.
You have to blend into the dynamics of that culture, like going into a burocratic or governmental system, and find out how that system works, how you can get into that system as a flow rather than an obstacle. I had to do that when I was a single parent when I in LA many years ago. I was living with a woman, she had a nervous breakdown, she was institutionalised, the state was going to take her son away from me.
The system went haywire but finally I worked through a number of social workers, found I had to get support and have to be able to defend your position and that’s what I did and I finally got the license to become a foster parent.
Karel: What was harder, be a single parent or surviving Hollywood?
Syd Field: I don’t think you ever survive Hollywood. I don’t know if you ever survive being a single parent! But, you know, there are great rewards and great drawbacks, but I knew it was a great teaching experience for me.
Karel: I would like to ask one final question about the craft side. Some people say ‘the more you know, the less you will achieve’ or ‘I don’t need all that formula stuff because I won’t be able to think creatively’.
Syd Field: That’s an interesting question, I’ve learned over the years that life consists in options. We have choices to make so if you want to receive something you need to be open to receive it. Whether it’s right or wrong makes no difference. It’s just that you have to be open to receive and that was a hard thing for me to learn, how to receive.
Through that choice of receiving everything is when my life started changing. I talk about it in my courses about the neuroplasticity of the brain: the brain is such a unique organ that it can adapt to any situation with practice and training. We have these Vets coming back from Iraq, the same in Australia and so on, they have to learn how to live again. But the brain is able, with the right practice to find a way to handle that situation.
Karel: It was a great pleasure talking to you. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us in the Story Department.
Syd Field: Thank you for meeting me, thank you for your invitation. I have to thank Screen Australia for getting me here. I‘ve wanted for years to come to Australia, I was never invited, so it’s a great pleasure to be here.
Interview by Karel Segers, David Trendall and Niels Abercrombie, with thanks to Screen Australia