“Syd Field, the man Hollywood Reporter called “the most sought-after screenwriting teacher in the world,” has updated his must-have classic, Screenplay, with all new material. Screenplay is “quite simply the only manual to be taken seriously by aspiring screenwriters.”
— Tony Bill, Academy Award-winning producer, director
“The Bible of the Film Industry.” –CNN
EXCERPT — “In the beginning…”
“The book says that we may be through with the past,
but the past may not be through with us.”
— Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson
In 1979, when I first wrote Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, there were only a few books on the market that dealt with the art and craft of screenwriting. The most popular was Lagos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing, first published in the 1940’s. Though it was not really a book about screenwriting, but playwriting, the principles laid out were precise and clear. At that time, there was no real distinction between the craft of writing for the stage and writing for the screen. The few other books that were on the market were either about writing for television or playwriting.
Screenplay changed all that. It laid out the principles of dramatic structure to establish the foundations of screenwriting. It was also the first book using well-known and popular movies of the time to illustrate the craft of writing for the screen. And, as we all know, screenwriting is a craft that occasionally rises to the level of art.
When it was first published, it became an immediate best seller, or “an instant sensation” as my publisher labeled it. Within the first few months of publication it went through several printings and became a “hot” topic of discussion. Everyone, it seemed, was surprised by its meteoric success.
Except me. During my teaching and lecturing on screenwriting in the 1970’s at Sherwood Oaks Experimental College in Hollywood , I saw people from all walks of life burning with an incredible desire to write screenplays.
Hundreds of people flowed through my course on screenwriting from all walks of life and it soon became clear that everyone had a story to tell. They just didn’t know how to tell it.
Since that day in the early spring of 1979 when Screenplay first arrived on bookstore shelves, there has been a tremendous upsurge in the evolution in writing for the screen. Today, the popularity of screenwriting and filmmaking is an integral part of our culture and cannot be ignored. Walk into any bookstore and you’ll see shelves and shelves devoted to all aspects of filmmaking. In fact, the two most popular majors on college campuses are business and film. And with the dramatic rise of computer technology and computer graphic imagery, along with the expanded influence of MTV, reality TV, X-Box, Play Station, new wireless LAN and Bluetooth technology, and the enormous increase in film festivals both here and abroad, we’re in the middle of a cinematic revolution. It won’t be too long before we make a short film on our telephones, email them to our friends and project them on our TV. Clearly, we have evolved in the way we see things.
Take a look at the epic adventure Lord of the Rings (all three parts) or the portrait of the modern family illustrated in American Beauty, or the emotional and visual impact of Seabiscuit , or the literary presentations of The Bourne Supremacy , Cold Mountain, Memento , Rushmore, Magnolia, The Royal Tennenbaums or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and compare them to any films of the 70’s or 80’s and you’ll see the distinctions of this revolution; the images are fast, the information conveyed is visual, rapid, the use of silence exaggerated, and the special effects and music are heightened and more pronounced. The concept of time is often more subjective and non-linear, more novelistic in tone and execution. Yet, while the tools and technique of story telling have evolved and progressed based on the needs and technologies of the time, the art of story telling has remained the same.
Movies are a combination of both art and science; the technological revolution has literally changed the way we see movies and therefore, by necessity, has changed the way we write movies. But no matter what changes are made in the execution of the material, the nature of the screenplay is the same as it has always been; a screenplay is a story told with pictures, in dialogue and description, and placed within the context of dramatic structure. That’s what it is; that is its nature. It is the art of visual story telling ….
It is the stuff of drama. I learned this as a kid sitting in a darkened theater, popcorn in hand, gazing in awe and wonder at the images projected on white river of light reflected on that monster screen. My friends and I used to sneak into the neighborhood theater and watch the serials of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. During my teens, going to the movies became a passion, a form of entertainment, a distraction, a topic of discussion, as well as a place to make out and have fun. Occasionally, there would be unforgettable moments; like watching Bogart and Bacall in To Have and Have Not, or Walter Huston’s mad dance as he discovered gold in the mountains in Treasure of Sierra Madre or watching Brando stagger up the gangplank at the end of On the Waterfront.
I attended Hollywood High School and was invited to join the Athenians, one of the many clubs who hung out together during high school. A short time after graduation, one of my best friends, Frank Mazzola, also a member of the Athenians, met James Dean and formed a strong relationship with him. Frank introduced Dean to what a high school “club” was like during this period (by today’s standards it would probably be referred to as a gang). Director Nicholas Ray and James Dean chose Frank to be the “gang” consultant in Rebel Without a Cause and played the part of Crunch in the movie. At that point, the Athenian’s became the model of the club/gang in Rebel Without a Cause. Occasionally Dean would come with us when we strolled down Hollywood Blvd. on Saturday night looking for trouble. We were the so-called “tough” kids at the time, never backing down from anything, whether it be a dare or a fight. We managed to get into a lot of trouble at the time.
Dean loved hearing about our “adventures,” and would continually pump us for details. When we pulled some wild stunt, whatever it was, he wanted to know how it started, what we were thinking, how it felt. Actor’s questions.
It was only after Rebel Without a Cause was released and stormed the world, that I became aware of how significant our contribution to the movie had been. The irony of Dean hanging out with us during that period had no real effect on me until after he died; only then, when he became an icon of our generation, did I begin to grasp the significance of what we had contributed. A few years after leaving Hollywood High and roaming around the country, I enrolled at the University of California , Berkeley , packed the few belongings I had and drove to Berkeley . It was August, 1959.
Berkeley at the dawn of the 60s was an active crucible of revolt and unrest; signs, banners, slogans and leaflets were everywhere. Castro’s rebel force had just overthrown Batista, and signs were everywhere, ranging from “Cuba Libre,” and
“Time for the Revolution,” to “Free Speech,” “Abolish ROTC,” “Equal Rights for Everyone,” “Socialism for All, & All for Socialism.” Telegraph Avenue, the main street leading on campus was always lined with a colorful display of banners and leaflets. Protest rallies were held almost every day and when I stopped to listen, the FBI agents, trying to be inconspicuous in their shirts and ties, took pictures of everyone. It was a joke. It was during my second semester at Berkeley that I auditioned for, and was cast as Woyzeck in the German Expressionist drama Woyzeck, by Georg Buckner. It was while I was performing Woyzeck , that I met the great French film director Jean Renoir.
My relationship with Renoir literally changed my life. I’ve learned there are two or three times during our lifetime when something happens that alters the course of our lives. We meet someone, go somewhere, or do something we’ve never done before, and those moments are the possibilities that guide us to where we’re supposed to go and what we’re supposed to do with our lives. It was that way with my three mentors: Renoir, Michelangelo Antonioni and Sam Peckinpah.
I had auditioned for the world premiere of Renoir’s play, Carola, and was cast in the third lead, playing the part of Campan, the stage manager of a theater in Paris during the Nazi Occupation in the last days of World War II. For almost a year, I sat at Renoir’s feet, watching and learning about movies through his eyes. Being in his presence was an inspiration, a major life lesson, a joy, a privilege, as well as a great learning experience. Though movies had always been a major part of my life, it was only during the time I spent with Renoir that I turned my focus to film, the same way a plant turns towards the sun. Suddenly, I saw movies in a whole new light, as an art form to study and learn, seeking in the story and images an expression and understanding of life. My love for the movies has fed and nourished me ever since.
“Qu’est-ce que chest le Cinema?” is the question Renoir always used to ask before he showed us one of his films; “What is film?” He used to say movies are more than mere flashing images on the screen; “they are an art form that become larger than life.” What can I say about Jean Renoir? The son of the great Impressionistic painter, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Jean, too, had the great gift of sight. Renoir taught me about film, mentored me in the art of visually telling a story, and imparted the gift of insight. He showed me the door, then held it open as I walked through. I’ve never looked back.
Renoir hated the “cliché.” He would quote his father about bringing an idea into existence. “If you paint the leaf on a tree without using a model,” Renoir told us the great Impressionistic painter once said, “your imagination will only supply you with a few leaves; but Nature offers you millions, all on the same tree. No two leaves are exactly the same. The artist who paints only what is in his mind must very soon repeat himself.” It’s the same with his son’s films: La Grand Illusion, Rules of the Game, (considered two of the greatest films ever made) The Golden Coach, Picnic on the Grass, and many more. Renoir told me he “painted with light,” the same way his father painted with oils. Jean Renoir was an artist who discovered the cinema in the same way his father “discovered” Impressionism. “Art,” he said, “should offer the viewer the chance of merging with the creator….
For the past few decades, as I traveled and lectured around the world on the art and craft of screenwriting, I have watched the style of screenwriting evolve into a more visual medium. As mentioned, we’re seeing certain techniques of the novel, like stream of consciousness, fragments of memory, chapter headings, beginning to seep into the modern screenplay (Kill Bill I & II,The Hours,The Royal Tenenbaums, American Beauty, The Bourne Supremacy, The Manchurian Candidate, or Cold Mountain, are just a few examples). It’s clear that a whole new computer-savvy generation, with their interactive software, digital story telling, and editing applications, see things in a more visual way and are thus able to express it in a more cinematic style.
But when all else is said and done the principles of screenwriting don’t change; they are the same no matter in what time or place or era we live. Great films are timeless – they embody and capture the times in which they were made; the human condition is the same now as it was then.
As a writer-producer for David L. Wolper Productions, a free-lance screenwriter, and head of the story department at Cinemobile Systems, I had spent years writing and reading screenplays. At Cinemobile alone, I read and synopsized more than 2,000 screenplays in a little more than two years. And of all those 2,000 screenplays, I only found 40 to submit to our financial partners for possible film production. I kept asking myself what made those 40 screenplays I recommended “better” than the others? At first, I didn’t have any answers, but I held it in my consciousness and thought about it a long time.
Reading a screenplay is a unique experience. It’s not like reading a novel, play, or article in the Sunday paper. When I first started reading, I read the words on the page slowly, drinking in all the visual descriptions, character nuances and dramatic situations. But that didn’t work for me. I found it too easy to get caught up in the writer’s words and style. I learned that most of the scripts that read well, meaning were written in beautiful sentences, stylish and literate prose and beautiful dialogue, usually didn’t work. While they may read like liquid honey flowing across the page, the overall feeling was like reading a short story, or strong journalistic piece in a national magazine like Vanity Fair or Esquire. But that’s not what makes a good screenplay.
I started out wanting to read and synopsize (do coverage) on three screenplays a day. I found I could read two scripts without a problem, but when I got to the third one, the words, characters and actions all seemed to congeal into some kind of amorphous goo of plot lines concerning the FBI and CIA, punctuated with bank heists, murders, car chases, along with a lot of wet kisses and naked flesh thrown in for local color. At two or three in the afternoon, after a heavy lunch and maybe a little too much wine, it was difficult keeping my attention focused on the action and nuances of character and story. So, after a few months on the job, I usually closed my office door, propped my feet up on the desk, turned off the phones, leaned back in the chair with a script on my chest, and took a cat nap.
I must have read more than a hundred screenplays before I realized that I didn’t know what I was doing. What was I looking for? What made a screenplay good or bad? I could tell whether I liked it or not, yes, but what were the elements that made it a good screenplay? It had to be more than a string of clever bits and smart dialogue laced together in a series of beautiful pictures. Was it the plot, the characters, or the visual arena where the action takes place that made it a good screenplay? Was it the visual style of writing or the cleverness of the dialogue? If I didn’t know the answers to that, then how could I answer the question I was repeatedly being asked by agents, writers, producers, and directors; what was I looking for? That’s when I understood that the real question for me was how do I read a screenplay? I knew how to write a screenplay, and I certainly knew what I liked or disliked when I went to the movies, but how did I apply that to the reading of a screenplay?
The more I thought about it, the clearer I became. What I was looking for, I soon realized, was a style that exploded off the page, exhibiting a kind of raw energy. As the stack of scripts on my desk grew higher and higher, I felt very much like Jay Gatsby at the end of The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel. At the end of the book, Nick, the narrator, recalls how Gatsby used to stand looking out over the water at the image of the green light, beckoning him to past memories of unrequited love. Gatsby was a man who believed in the past, a man who believed that if he had enough wealth and power, he could turn back time and recreate it. It was that particular dream that spurred him as a young man to cross over the tracks searching for love and wealth, searching for the expectations and desires of the past that he hoped would become the future.
The green light.
I thought a lot about Gatsby and the green light as I struggled through those piles of screenplays searching for “the good read,” that special and unique screenplay which would be “the one” to make it through the gauntlet of studios, executives, stars, financial wizards and egos, and finally end up on that monster screen in a darkened theater.
What is a good screenplay? I kept asking myself. And, pretty soon, I started getting some answers. When you read a good screenplay, you know it, it’s evident from page one, word one. The style, the way the words are laid out on the page, the way the story is set up, the grasp of dramatic situation, the introduction of the main character, the basic premise or problem of the screenplay, it’s all set up in the first few pages of the script.
These elements are expressed dramatically within a structure that has a definite beginning, middle, and end, though not necessarily in that order. I realized they all contained these basic concepts, regardless of how they were cinematically executed. They are in every screenplay.
Many of my students have been very successful: Anna Hamilton Phelan wrote Mask in my workshop, then went on to write Gorillas in the Mist; Laura Esquival wrote Like Water for Chocolate; Carmen Culver wrote The Thornbirds; Janus Cercone wrote Leap of Faith; Linda Elsted won the prestigious Humanitas award for The Divorce Wars; and such prestigious filmmakers as James Cameron (Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Titanic), Ted Tally (Silence of the Lambs, The Juror), Alphonso Cauron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), Ken Nolan (Black HawkDown) David O. Russell (Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees), Tina Fey (Mean Girls, SNL) to name just a few, used the material when they began their screenwriting careers.
At this writing, Screenplay has been reprinted some 38 times, gone through several editions, and been translated into some 22 languages, along with several black market editions; first in Iran , then in China , then Russia .
When I began thinking about revising this book, I wanted to upgrade the movies and use more contemporary examples to illustrate the craft of screenwriting. Most of the films I had written about were from the 70’s and I wanted to use more contemporary examples, movies people might be more familiar with. In most cases, the films I wrote about then are just as valid today as they were when they were made. Despite some attitudes which are dated, they continue to capture a particular moment in time, a time of unrest, social revolution and violence that oddly enough mirrors some of the same anti-war sentiments prevalent today. The nightmare in Iraq is very similar to the nightmare in Vietnam . What I see and understand now, in hindsight, is that the principles of screenwriting that I wrote at the dawn of the eighties are just as relevant now as they were then. Only the expression has changed.
The hardest thing about writing is knowing what to write. Whether you do it or not is up to you. Talent is God’s gift; either you’ve got it or you don’t.
Writing is a personal responsibility; either you do it or you don’t.
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Excerpted from Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field. Copyright © 2005 by Syd Field . Excerpted by permission of Delta Trade Publications, published by Bantam Dell a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.