Syd Field died last Sunday in Beverly Hills. He was 77. You probably already know that if you’re the kind of person most of TVWriter™’s visitors are.
I first heard about yesterday but decided to give myself a day or two to think about Syd and what he’s meant to the screenwriting and by extension the television writing communities.
For the past 20+ years, Syd’s been described as a “screenwriting guru,” and his various books on the subject have sold by the ton. His life and accomplishments have been rehashed all over the interwebs, and although I hate to say it, I think you’ll get the most info for your buck HERE at The Hollywood Reporter.
(Why do I hate to say it? Well, the Reporter is almost as entrenched in Old Media and its power structure/business model as you can. And I’m basically your aging hippie rebel who, released from Old Media’s grasp, spends most of my time merrily biting the hand that used to feed me because I think…well, let’s just say I think that whole thing is obsolete and let it go at that for now.)
I knew Syd as an unassuming, sweet, and knowledgeable guy. A good host. (Hey, he always paid for lunch.) And, less importantly in terms of human existence but just the opposite in terms of what we do here, undeniably the best script analyst ever. But over the years, I’ve seen him both elevated to writing godhood and at the same time reviled as “the great Satan who destroyed Hollywood creativity.”
The Syd I would talk to from time to time certainly wouldn’t see either of those descriptions as accurate, and neither do I. The problem is that people have always confused the man and his intentions with not just his writing about, well, writing, and, even more so, with the way showbiz and academia reacted to what he wrote.
When I first met Syd, he and I talked about the controversy. He told me that what he’d intended to do with his books was simply to tell the world about the commonalities he’d found in successful screenplays. In our conversation, he defined “successful screenplay” as one that had been bought, paid for, and made into a film that became popular with both audiences and critics. His book suggested that writers keep those commonalities in mind when writing their own screenplays and use them as structural guides that would better their chances of writing saleable/popular films.
This made sense to me when I first heard it from him in the mid-’90s, and it makes sense to me now. By then, however, Syd had written another book and become a popular lecturer and figure at writing workshops, and he seemed genuinely puzzled by his reception and stature.
“I’m afraid people are taking what I’ve said the wrong way,” he told me. “They’re using my analysis as more than just a guide. They’re using it as a set of absolute rules for what constitutes a ‘good’ screenplay, forgetting that individuality and creativity have to be part of the writer’s package and interpreting everything in the narrowest possible way.”
Over the years, as Syd’s books became more and more popular, I watched as the number of people working in the business as executives/producers who used his analysis as a set of “absolute rules” increased dramatically, totally overpowering those who also valued individuality and creativity. The reason for it was as simple as Syd’s original intention: As the cost of making films – and TV shows – soared, those who could greenlight them looked more and more for objective, measurable ways of insuring success, and Syd’s Not Really Rules at All were something they could turn to with relative confidence in order to justify their decisions.
Does that mean that he really was the Satanic figure responsible for the homogenization of Hollywood’s product? Not at all. It’s his apostles who’ve done that, by misusing Syd’s work.
Well then, was he in fact the writing god? Sorry, but I can’t go for that one either. I do, however think that he helped a generation of writers immeasurably, by showing us all that there’s more to being artful than just slapping down the words, and that there are certain structures and formats that mesh so perfectly with our most primitive needs, desires, and fears that a knowledge of them is essential if we’re going to create the emotional effect that all good storytelling does.
The real writing god is inside all of us who spend our days, and often our nights, sweating out our dreams and presenting them on the page in the hope that they will entertain others.
But I think all writers owe a debt to the original “screenwriting guru,” for making us think about the way we put down our words as well as which words we put down, and for opening up the publishing/lecturing/interweb channels through which other writers, including myself, can work our mental butts off to spread whatever knowledge and maybe even wisdom we have to help new storytellers everywhere.
Buy yourself some Syd Fields smartness on Amazon.Com. (Just remember it’s a guide, not a rule book!)