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Lessons from Syd Field, the guru of scriptwriting
Priyanka Jain
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January 10, 2007

I did not know what I was going to be doing with my life; I had no idea," said the guru of scriptwriting as we began a conversation about films, scriptwriting and his agenda in India.

Syd Field attended the University of California, Los Angeles (alongside music legend Jim Morrison). His books, The Foundations Of Screenwriting and Screenwriter's Workshop, are studied at all major film schools across the world. He currently teaches screenwriting at the University of Southern California, and is well known for his articulation of the 'three act structure'.

During his interview with Priyanka Jain, he spoke about watching Satyajit Ray's films while at UCLA, about the teachings of the Bhagwad Gita, his amusement at and curiosity about songs in Indian films and his advice for budding scriptwriters. Here are some excerpts from the interview.

Part II: How to make your own movie

Can someone without basic knowledge of scriptwriting become a scriptwriter? Or do you need to have a certain background for it?

Anyone can become a scriptwriter because scriptwriting is a craft that occasionally rises above the level of art. The craft of writing can be learnt and taught. Some people have talent, some don't. But that is not a hurdle. In Hollywood, some people have the craft and they do a great job.

Then there is the other lot who are talented but do not know the craft. But they have the natural ability and they begin to get good at the craft; they learn from the mistakes they make while writing.

The principle of writing is to be willing to make some mistakes and do some terrible writing because, once you do terrible writing, you figure out what to do to make it look good.  

Are screenplay and screenwriting two different things?

Screenplay is the definite product.

Screenwriting is the actual craft of sitting down and writing; going and facing 120 sheets of blank paper -- that's screen writing!

Can the art of screenwriting be learnt from books and by watching movies? How?

I learnt about the three-act structure by reading screenplays. When I started teaching, I had started out as a documentary filmmaker.

Then, when I started writing screenplays, my mentor Sam Peckinpah -- the great writer director -- and Michelangelo Antonioni guided me through.

When I started writing screenplays, I had no idea what I was doing. Sam gave me two screenplays and I read them a hundred times. I used to watch movies and take notes about what was happening in the beginning, middle and end, about what was happening in the scenes.

I did seven years of freelance screenwriting, then started working as a reader. As a reader, it was my job to read and evaluate screenplays. While doing that, I learnt what it takes for a screenplay to work. I knew that you have about 10 minutes to grab the attention of the reader/ your audience.

I would go into a movie and keep a check on the time to see when my thoughts started wandering. If I had already started thinking about popcorn, ice cream, bathroom, I knew the movie wasn't working. So I knew there was a certain zing that needs to be added in order to keep the audience involved.

After reading screenplays, I would normally write the synopsis. That taught me how to explain the story in three sentences. This also helped in the preparation and execution of the screenplay.

I started out blindly drawing words out on a paper, not knowing whether they worked or not. Sometimes they did; many times they did not. From my experiences of reading screenplays, teaching screenwriting and writing, I began to understand that there is a way to write a screenplay. That's when I wrote my first book.

Please recommend some movies that will help one learn scriptwriting.

I think there are two kinds to watch out of.

One is the classic, because you always learn from a classic. Try studying Citizen Kane and understand the dynamics of the film there.

The other way is to watch modern films and see what you could do to make them better.

See any film and you could find a definite structure there. If you take the knowledge of what you learn from the masters and then apply it to the actual essence of writing a screenplay, you begin to create your own evolution in terms of being a writer.

This revolution is happening in the States right now. We are using art, science and technology and turning it into one dynamic. Because of the growth of technology, the writers have to learn how to use that technology and the director sees this visualisation and they begin to put it down on film. That's real evolution.

In your books you have mentioned about the three-act structure. Is it still prevalent? If yes, then how? In an age where we are all moving towards stylised filmmaking, does it still hold true?

I believe it does. I believe that structure is the foundation of the entire universe. There is a beginning in the universe, the Big Bang theory, there is a middle, which we are a part of right now, and someday, because the universe is expanding at such a rapid speed, the centre of gravity is going to fall apart and we will all end up in dust and go back to being as we were before the Big Bang.

So there is a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.

When new people get into filmmaking, do they bring the visual element into filmmaking? Do they have it already?

New filmmakers have the ability. They need to train their mind to execute it that way. The real problem is that most screenwriters, when they are first starting out, have a good idea, great characters And then they start to explain their characters, thoughts, feelings and their emotions.

For example: We are both sitting and talking here. If we were to film me talking about various aspects of screenwriting and you want to be cinematic about it, you could start out with you and me at the table doing an interview. And when I mention Sam Peckinpah, you insert a cutaway of him.

Talking about your story and creating your story visually are two different things. If you understand the dynamics of screenwriting, it is really a story that's told in pictures. So, how do you create a picture that will tell a story?

Are there any dos and don'ts to bring in that visual element?

Be creative, be open to experimenting, open to making some mistakes and to do some terrible writing -- a lot of people don't want to do that.

Once the screenplay is written, does the writer himself analyse it for the quality of what he has written?

Go to a certain extent to access your screenplay. Most people tend to get pretty close to it sometimes and we can't see the forest from the trees. So, if you see a forest, you walk into it fast and when you walk in, you see trees; there is no forest anymore. It's the same with screenplays -- you get lost in the maze of your own creation.

When you write a screenplay and you think you have finished it, let it be seen by someone. Give it to a few people, let them read it and take their critiques as if they are right. This may not necessarily be true but you get a different viewpoint.

One of the writers we interviewed was Michel Arndt, who wrote a screenplay for Little Miss Sunshine, which essentially is a funny film with an emotional connect. He told us how he had to take the family dysfunction and find a way to visualise it and make it funny yet touching. Let me tell you he did a great job of it.

But, during the process of writing the screenplay, he had people read it all the time. He took notes, feedback and created that whole procedure to protect himself from falling in love with the screenplay.

I always tell budding writers -- you are not your material. At a certain time, when you complete your screenplay, the screenplay stands on its own. All you can do is shelter it, nurture it but that screenplay has its own life and it is bigger than you are. Most people can't do that; especially young aspiring writers cannot let go of that fact.

The Bhagvad Gita has a very interesting verse which says that you should not be attached to the fruits of your actions.

Now, your action is that you are writing a screenplay. What do you expect your your fruits will be? Sell it, get it made, you will be honoured, welcomed, it will be seen around the world, you will get an Academy Award, get so many dollars -- that is our expectation. If you are attached to that when you are writing your screenplay, it will do nothing for you. 

You cannot be attached to the fruits of your action.

Are there tools available in the market to evaluate your screenplay for a quality check?

Oh, I wish there were some technical tools available so that you could put your screenplay into a machine and the machine evaluates it (laughs). 

Please tell us the importance of the revision stage that you have mentioned. And how does one know that the script is now ready, that the writer is not going touch the screenplay anymore and is ready to film it?

I am going to answer your question by giving you an example from my own life.

Before I became a screenwriter, I was going to be a major in English literature, get a PhD somewhere and teach. I dropped out after six weeks. It was not my kind of thing.

During that time, I had a class with a very famous American poet Josephine Miles. She was confined to a wheelchair. Josephine would say she would never be ready to let her poetry go -- that people had to knock down the door and literally yank it out of the typewriter. I realised that was such a valuable lesson.

You go into the script, change a few words here and a few words there and you do it over and over again. The truth is no one is going to know those few words that you have changed; if they do, they are going to ask you to rewrite it. You would say I agree with your comment and I will make the changes or I don't agree with your comment and I won't make the changes.

The point is you don't know when the script is ready. You have to trust that you have gone as far as you can. Otherwise, you hold onto it and when you start changing the word 'and' and put the word 'but' you know you are ready to let it go.

Part II: How to make your own movie

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