Syd Field was one of the most famous names in Hollywood screenwriting — even though, by his own account, the only movie script of his ever produced was an obscure Argentine film, Los Banditos. “I never saw the film,” he once explained. “But it was a pretty good script, as I remember.”
Field, who died on Nov. 17 at age 77 in Beverly Hills, became famous by analyzing the art of screenwriting and then giving other writers tips on how to do it. In 1979, he published Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, which became a bible for countless writers who dreamed of seeing their name in the credits, and quite a few who eventually did. Among the students in Field’s screenwriting workshops were Frank Darabont, who went on to write and direct the 1994 megahit The Shawshank Redemption, and Judd Apatow, auteur of recent smash comedies such as Bridesmaids, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Funny People.
Emmy-winning actress-writer Tina Fey once explained her method this way: “I did a million drafts. And then I did the thing everybody does — I read Syd Field and I used my index cards.”
Here are some interesting facts about Field:
- At UCLA in the mid-1960s, Field made a one-minute film with classmate Jim Morrison, later the lead singer of The Doors. “It was [of] a hose that came alive, you know?” Field recalled in a 2010 Vancouver Sun profile. “We saw it coiled up like a snake and then we turned on the water full force. Suddenly the hose started weaving like a snake, and we just filmed that, and the reaction of people getting wet and running away.”
- Field began his Hollywood career in the shipping department of Wolper Productions, which produced TV comedies, documentaries, miniseries and made-for-TV movies.
- Field started thinking about the structure of films while working at Wolper on a documentary series about Hollywood. “It was my job to sit in a darkened editing room and view and pull the greatest scenes from the greatest movies.” He reportedly went on to read and analyze more than 2,000 screenplays, and from them developed the classic three-act structure that, as Entertainment Weekly once put it, “became the backbone of cinematic storytelling.”
- Field taught for years in the University of Southern California’s film school, but he may have made a bigger impact by traveling the world to give film workshops. In Mexico, he coached novelist Laura Esquivel on transforming her novel into the 1992 international hit film Like Water for Chocolate, according to a 1993 article in Variety.
- Field was heavily into meditation and was a longtime student of the Indian yogi Baba Muktananda.
Here’s a video in which Field talks about what he learned from director Sam Peckinpah, whom he met while the latter was writing his classic western The Wild Bunch.
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