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Monday, November 18, 2013

Syd Field

In the autumn and winter of 1999, I had the privilege of attending Syd Field’s private screenwriting class at his home.  Like many young screenwriters, I was greatly influenced by his books during my early attempts at the profession, so this was an honor and a great opportunity to hone the craft with one of the master gurus.  Each session consisted of about six writers sitting around Syd’s dining room table, reviewing the pages written the previous week.  All the other writers who attended were of my parents’ age or older.  I was the kid.

After reading his books, I wasn’t sure what to expect from his personality.  From his writing I gleaned that he knew the mechanisms behind excellent script structure possibly better than anyone, and he was always able to walk the reader through each part, step by step.  And that was how his books had helped me.  They take a potentially overwhelming project and divide it into smaller and smaller parts, and then show how each part affects another.  His Workbook had been indispensable for my previous screenplay, so I reread that book again before attending his class.

The man whose work had influenced entertainment industry development departments for decades and now greeted his students with snacks and bottled water in his home every week was not a Hollywood guy, not a Type A, not a producer, not a snake oil salesman.  Syd was soft-spoken and very calm, a generous and sweet man.  In his personal life he loved to meditate and was, at the time, studying Hindu and Buddhist texts.

I had thought the whole class would be about structure, but instead we focused on characters and the human element behind each creation.  But the true lesson I took from his class was a lot larger than anything to do with screenwriting.

The script I was working on was about a crappy schlock journalist who took a last-chance assignment to uncover the truth behind a well-known messianic cult figure.  The assignment starts to awry right from the start when he discovers his ex-girlfriend love-of-his-life is now the messiah’s lover.  I was 21 years old at the time, the age wherein one clearly knows everything about the world and humans and God.  So my script was going to be a serious expos√©, not on the messiah figure but on the miserable failure that was my main character.  And I struggled with the damn thing immediately.

Syd had me take a step back and spend a week doing writing exercises from the point of view of my main character and his ex-girlfriend.  It was a way to find their voices and personalities, and thus find out why they do things.  I had trouble cracking this part as well.  After a couple of false starts, I started writing about the terrible sex lives these two people had together and separately; the terrible stuff in the sack that screwed them up in their future relationships.  I thought it was sad and revealing, and I tried to make it a little witty, because bad sex is funny in hindsight.

I was nervous about reading it out loud to complete strangers and Syd Field.  So I chose to go last in the class with my pages.  When it was my turn, I decided to boldly dive in and not apologize for something I was already kind of regretting.   At first I heard some titters from the audience, then some chuckles, and then by the end I had to keep pausing because the laughter had risen to a roar.

My arms were buzzing with goosebumps.  I had never attempted anything comical before; all of my writing had been young-man’s self-serious DRAMA.  This project was going to be another heart-wrenching deconstruction of male delusion.  But because I could not figure out how to express this in melodramatic format, I took a look at my characters’ sources of failure and mixed it in some dick jokes.   And it worked.

Syd said to me, “Why try to keep forcing your story into a mold and tone that don’t fit?  Your characters’ voices clearly work the way you just wrote them.  The soul of comedy is failure and disappointment.  It’s okay to make people laugh, you don’t have to be serious all the time.”  I went home that night and saw my previous three screenplays in an entirely new light: how self-important, serious, and tragic I had tried to be.  I had always liked making girls smile, why not broaden my scope?  That’s of course the young man’s response.  The real lesson was I had to learn how to laugh at myself, at my failures and disappointments.  Sitting around moping about them and then weaving those feelings into screenplays was only going to perpetuate my problems.

Did that messiah script succeed?  In the sense that I learned something about myself, yes.  Or at least that seed was planted.  The lesson is something I’m still learning today.  One doesn’t usually find that level of personal clarity in a screenwriting class.  But this wasn’t a normal class and Syd wasn’t a normal guy.  We all wrestled with the characters in our stories for that handful of months.  Structure-Structure-Structure wasn’t the value.  The person, the voice, and the Why were what mattered.  And the kid in the class learned to not take himself so seriously.

Syd Field passed from this world yesterday.  His family, his wife, Aviva, and his friends were there by his side.  Though I can’t say I knew him very well personally, I do know how he approached life spiritually.  So I’m certain he saw this end as but another beginning.  Thank you, Syd.  May peace be upon you.