Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Master In His Field

Syd Field has died. Outside Hollywood, that may mean nothing, but in this town, he's what Einstein was to physics, Darwin to biology, Freud to psychology. He took the mysterious art of screenwriting and made it material to millions.

His book Screenplay laid down the rules. Field looked at countless Hollywood movies and figured out how the classic story was constructed.  A screenplay should be about 120 pages long--each page representing about a minute of screen time--and made up of three acts.  The first act is 30 pages. You introduce the main situation and character in the first ten pages, and near the end of the act there's a plot point that pushes the protagonist into the serious problem which leads us into the second act, 60 pages long.  There are reversals along the way as the protagonist moves toward his goal, and another major plot point near the end of the second act which propels us into the third act, 30 pages long, that works it way to the climax.

This basic structure, as obvious as it may seem, swept Hollywood.  Not just writers were conversant in it--producers and their readers talked the language.  In meetings people would mention specific "plot points" or "second-act problems." If your script didn't conform---if you took too long to get to a major plot point--you'd get a note, or even a rejection.

Field created a whole new movement.  There have been numerous story gurus since (above all Robert McKee) and a bigger market for books on screenwriting than for screenplays themselves.  Some of these newer book even tell you pretty much what to do on every page (such as Blake Snyder's Save The Cat!--by the way, I was using the term "fun and games" in exactly the same way Snyder does long before he published his books and sometimes I wonder if he got it from me--of course, I got it from Edward Albee.)

A lot of people have blamed Field for the cookie cutter look of so many films.  They may have a point, but Field himself admitted it wasn't just about structure, it was about how you filled in that structure. Anyone can write a screenplay (and almost anyone did) but it's still content that counts.  Really he's beyond criticism.  Even if you reject his structure, that's the point--you're rejecting his structure.  Good or bad, it's his world we live in.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Codifying conventional wisdom and typical product parameters is always helpful. It becomes the standard which must become mastered or overcome.

5:53 AM, November 20, 2013  

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