In the 1970s, Syd Field’s job in Hollywood was reading scripts all day and picking out the gems that might make it to the screen. In one two-year period he figured he read 2,000 screenplays — and turned down 1,960 of them.
The rejects were an “amorphous goo” of confusing plot lines and poorly developed characters that often caused him to close his office door at 2 or 3 in the afternoon and go to sleep. But eventually he figured out what distinguished the winners from the losers.
The answer was crystallized in “Screenplay, The Foundations of Screenwriting,” Field’s 1979 bestseller that today remains the bible of scriptwriters. Later Field took his advice into the classroom, teaching the essentials to several generations of screenwriters, including Alfonso Cuaron, Judd Apatow and John Singleton, many of whom produced their first successful drafts in one of his famous workshops.
Field, 77, often lauded as the “guru of screenwriting,” died Sunday at his Beverly Hills home. The cause was the blood disorder hemolytic anemia, said family friend Valerie Woods.
“Syd Field wrote screenwriting books which did exactly what they were supposed to do — they made screenwriting seem possible,” Apatow, a student of Field’s in the 1980s, who co-wrote and directed 2005’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” said in a statement Monday.
“Whenever I write a screenplay, I take out his book and re-read it,” Apatow said, “to see if I screwed anything up.”
Field wrote eight bestselling books on screenwriting, including “The Screenwriter’s Workbook” (1984) and “The Screenwriter’s Problem Solver” (1998). He gave workshops around the world, in Tel Aviv, Paris and Mexico City, where Laura Esquivel adapted her novel “Like Water for Chocolate” under Field’s tutelage.
Singleton, the Oscar-nominated writer-director of “Boyz N the Hood,” said he was only 15 when he devoured two of Field’s how-to books. When he got to USC in the 1980s, he took a class from the master, whose genius, he said Monday, was that he “just broke it down … about what worked and what didn’t work in American films.”
Field’s approach was formulaic, but for a novice it was essential knowledge: “You can’t change the rules unless you know the fundamentals,” Singleton said.
Experienced screenwriters say they still refer to Field’s book. “The most inspirational thing he ever said was, ‘Confusion always comes before clarity,’” recalled Anna Hamilton Phelan, whose credits include the screenplay for “Gorillas in the Mist,” the 1988 film about the mysterious death of zoologist Dian Fossey. “I know people like myself still have moments when nothing makes sense. You remember that and relax.”
The Field method could be summed up in a few words: three-act structure. It may seem obvious that any story needs a beginning, middle and end, but after slogging through thousands of horrible scripts, Field realized that many writers needed to be schooled in the basics.
In “Screenplay,” he takes students by the hand and spells out the steps without fancy language or intellectual pretense. Written in a conversational tone, it tells nascent screenwriters what a screenplay is (“a story told with pictures”), what a plot point is (“an incident, or event, that ‘hooks’ into the action and spins it around into another direction”), how many plot points are needed (two), and how many pages translate into a minute of screen time (one).
Using examples from such classic films as “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Chinatown,” he goes on to outline the requirements of each of the three acts. Act I, for instance, should be devoted to telling “WHO your MAIN CHARACTER is, WHAT the premise of the story is, and WHAT the situation is.” Act II brings the confrontation or conflict that reveals the protagonist’s main goal. Act III resolves the story, showing whether the main character succeeds or fails, lives or dies.
He called these elements “the paradigm,” the diagram of which is plastered on many a weary writer’s wall.
There were at least two major plot points in Field’s story.
Born in Hollywood on Dec. 19, 1935, he grew up immersed in the film world. His Uncle Sol was head of the camera department at 20th Century Fox, and his next-door neighbor was an agent who got Field a bit part in “Gone With the Wind” when he was a toddler.
His scene was cut, but his path seemed set. He blew the trumpet in a band on the set of Frank Capra’s 1948 film “State of the Union,” where he learned to play checkers from actor Van Johnson.
At Hollywood High School, his best friend was Frank Mazzola, who introduced him to James Dean. Mazzola later was the gang consultant on Dean’s breakout movie “Rebel Without a Cause.” At Mazzola’s urging, Field started to study acting and was quickly hooked.
His mother’s death before he finished high school would make an apt first plot point: Field jumped in his car and drifted across the country on Route 66 for two years until he realized he was lost, literally and metaphorically. Pulling himself together, he enrolled at UC Berkeley, where he met the person who would point him toward film.
At Berkeley he was cast in the world premiere of director Jean Renoir’s play “Carola,” which takes place during the Nazi occupation of France. Field spent a year at Renoir’s feet, learning about the art of visual storytelling. “My relationship with Renoir literally changed my life,” he wrote.
After studying film at UCLA, where he made a film with Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek of the Doors, he found work as a writer, producer and director on TV documentaries.
He wrote nine screenplays, but none turned him into a writing star, so he went to work as a screenplay reader instead, first for David L. Wolper Productions and later for Cinemobile Systems. In the mid-1970s he began teaching screenwriting at Sherwood Oaks Experimental College on Hollywood Boulevard, where the instructors included actor Richard Dreyfuss and producer-director Tony Bill.
After being put to sleep by too many dreadful screenplays, Field began to analyze the good ones. Here was his next plot twist: He realized that the basic elements — such as the set-up of the story, the development of the main character, the conflict the story turns on — were always “expressed dramatically within a structure that has a definite beginning, middle and end, though not necessarily in that order.”
It took him a year to write “Screenplay,” but it became an instant success — one that has since sold more than 1 million copies in 42 languages. By the late 1980s Field was in high demand, leading workshops around the world.
He met his wife, Aviva, at a workshop in Vienna in the early 1990s. She survives him along with a brother, Dr. Morton Field, of Beverly Hills; and a daughter from a previous marriage, Lisa Arcos, of Atlanta.
Like many of Field’s most successful students, Cuaron, whose credits include “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (which he started in a Field workshop) and this year’s hit “Gravity,” did not slavishly adhere to the Field formula but regarded it as a pliable model for launching the screenwriter’s creative odyssey.
“For a writer,” Cuaron said in an interview, “the most important thing is to put things on paper. He helped you put things on paper.”
Times staff writer Steve Chawkins contributed to this report.