Like packing a suitcase

Hollywood screenwriting guru Syd Field has crammed a lot of valuable information into his upcoming seminar in Tel Aviv.

syd field 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
syd field 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Syd Field, the screenwriting guru, wants to teach you how to pack your suitcase. Field, who will teach the Screenwriters Summit in Tel Aviv on January 30 and 31 at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, along with fellow screenwriting teachers Linda Seger, Michael Hauge and John Truby, is happy to explain.
“A screenplay, when it’s written according to the paradigm [he has developed], is like a suitcase,” he explained. “It has a three-act structure – a beginning, middle and end – and that’s the foundation. But how you pack the suitcase, what you put in it, that’s up to you.”
For aspiring screenwriters everywhere, Field is something of a legend. The California native, who was called the “most sought-after screenwriting teacher in the world” by the Hollywood Reporter, counts some of the most famous writers in Hollywood among his students and admirers, including Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption), Tina Fey (30 Rock) and Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin).
Field, who has never been to Israel before, is “incredibly excited” to be visiting the country, and notes that his grandfather, an Orthodox rabbi, established the first shul in Los Angeles in 1907. His family also owns what he describes as “an empty lot in Holon.”
He is enthusiastic about the prospect of the summit here, saying, “Film has become an international language. People all over the world have become very sophisticated about that language. Having four acknowledged screenwriting teachers, with four different, individual points of view, provides a rich opportunity for someone to drink it all in, to ask their questions or just listen and take notes.”
Field came to teaching after working in the entertainment industry for many years. Although he thought about becoming an actor, he studied in the pre-med track at Berkeley. But after meeting and studying with master filmmaker Jean Renoir, he switched gears.
Renoir, the first of Field’s three important mentors, told him, “The future is film,” and he moved back to Los Angeles, eventually writing more than 100 television documentaries, including some for Jacques Cousteau. Field also wrote a number of screenplays himself, several of which were optioned but not produced. As a single parent, he was under pressure to earn a living and began working for a production company, where he read and evaluated more than 2,000 screenplays.
“Out of these thousands, I found about 40 good ones. My question to myself was: What makes these screenplays better than all the others?” As he pieced together his theory of the cinematic paradigm, he taught a course at the Sherwood Oaks Experimental College and found his calling.
“I was the student, and the students were the teacher. Those questions about how to write a good screenplay were the same for everybody,” he recalls.
“In the 1970s, Los Angeles was a crucible of talent. Marlon Brando and Paul Newman were teaching courses there in acting and directing....I had the urge to write again, to utilize what I had learned as a writer and a teacher.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
WHILE MANY have claimed to have the secret to writing a good script, Field has been spectacularly successful at helping writers master the screenplay form. His books, including Screenplay, The Screenwriter’s Workbook, and The Screenwriter’s Problem Solver, have sold more than 1,000,000 copies and have been translated into 19 languages.
In addition to his own study and analysis of what makes a screenplay work, he credits three master writer/directors with influencing him. Renoir, at Berkeley was one. Another was the controversial director Sam Peckinpah, whom Field met through Peckinpah’s niece, and whose visceral style he admires. It may surprise some of Field’s devotees to learn that the third was Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, known for his artistic, impressionistic films, many of which feature little dialogue and motivations that are hard to figure out.
“I was fascinated by how he created his language of film without dialogue,” says Field.
Challenged to analyze Antonioni’s L’avventura in terms of his cinematic paradigm, Field instantly describes the film’s three-act structure, with plot points, a midpoint and so forth.
Getting back to the metaphor of the suitcase, he notes, “You can pack a film with images or with dialogue, but structure stays the same.” Talking about recent movies, he points out that James Cameron’s Avatar “followed the structure to a T.”
But his method is not only about screenplay structure but also about the writing process. It was Renoir who gave him the permission “not to write perfectly. He used to say, ‘Perfection exists only in the mind, not in reality.’ We all want to be perfect. We all want what we write to be perfect. But it’s never going to be perfect.
When I ask people to write 10 shitty pages, it’s so that they are freed from the pressure of trying to write perfectly. Renoir said he would walk away if ever felt he had written something perfect.”
Field, who is excited about digital technology and is working on iPad and iPhone apps for screenwriting, says that “when a film is good, I’m not aware of the structure. I’m only aware of it when it’s not working.”
For film students, “this summit is a great opportunity. But the work will really begin after we leave.”

For more information and to register, go to the Screenwriters’ Summit Website at