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A Personal Journey Through Four Decades of Modern Film

by Syd Field

Pub Date: Oct. 9th, 2001
ISBN: 0-440-50849-5
Publisher: Dell

The master teacher of screenplay writing charts his Alger-like rise in the film world and reveals himself to be a true Hollywood character.

The story begins at Field’s mother’s deathbed, where Field is beseeched to become a “professional person.” He tries dental school but ends up reading for a play directed by Jean Renoir, who sends him to the film program at UCLA. There, surrounded by students like Coppola, he watches Citizen Kane and begins developing his structural film analysis. Later, at Wolper Productions and Cinemobile Systems, he researches movie history and reads thousands of scripts in an attempt to determine how movies work. Eventually, while soaking in a hot tub, pondering Three Days of the Condor, he defines a screenplay’s dramatic structure: “a linear arrangement of related incidents, episodes or events leading to dramatic resolution.” To help a foundering screenwriting class, Field watches Chinatown and Manhattan and devises the idea of a “middle point” in Act II that turns a screenplay into two manageable 60-page units of dramatic action. More lessons follow—on bookends, flashbacks, and the whammo, which Field intuits while trying to explain the script of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. In addition, there are descriptions of the business—pitches, briefs, producers who don’t read—and always enlightening friendships, like “hanging out with [Sam] Peckinpah while he was writing The Wild Bunch.” Field never takes himself or his writing too seriously. He reveals his early failings at teaching, and although he quotes Fitzgerald, he allows his writing to remain resolutely informal: “Discipline had always been a biggie for me.” He is serious about movies, however—moved whenever he sees a good film “to take it apart and see how and why it works.”

No one sees films quite the way Field does. An engineer’s report on film construction and the view of an original thinker worth appreciating.