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SOCAL P.O.V. / DEANNE STILLMAN

The Screenwriting Gospel According to Syd Field

May 23, 1999|DEANNE STILLMAN

Oon this very page, I once advanced a controversial theory. I argued that America is more like ancient Egypt than the Roman Empire, should anyone mistake it for the latter. Instead of the dead, we worship the famous, close-yet-distant souls who live forever in the media netherworld of the here and now. The capital of our state is Hollywood, mirage-maker to the world, vast repository of immortals. That's why I call the place Cairo-by-the Mojave--'twas ever thus and 'twill always be so.

Like other religious capitals, Cairo-by-the-Mojave issues edicts, blacklists, hot lists, even deal memos. But this commentary flows from one source only, and that is the sacred text. Here, instead of the Koran, the Bible or a row of corn, it's the screenplay. Unlike other religious doctrine, our modern scripture is hollow and user-friendly; in and of itself, the screenplay has nothing to say. It's a form, a tablet on which the maker inscribes the word. Yet its emptiness is what transports. According to those who devote themselves to its study, the magic of the screenplay derives not from content, but from structure.

Enter the high priests of screenwriting. Today they are legion; the scene is reminiscent of Monty Python's portrayal of the birth of religion. A mob is running down the street, following various leaders. "This way!"one of them cries, brandishing a sandal on a stick. "No, follow me," says another, a gourd dangling from his. The mob breaks in two, and the cults of the sandal and the gourd are born. But in the beginning, there was just one screenwriting path, and that one was led by Syd Field, the first prophet of the discipline of writing for the screen.

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Having long toiled in the movie vineyards, although being too much of a know-it-all to read manuals (Field's is the holy writ of three-act structure), I nevertheless decided to make the trek to the home of the man who is both praised and scorned, like all men and women of faith, by those who work the same fields. After all, I've lived here for 13 years. Was it not time to pay my respects?

Field welcomes me to his Tudor-style house in the canyons of Beverly Hills and takes me to his work space, a cottage behind the house and adjacent to charmingly scruffy gardens and a pool. It is instantly comfortable, with lots of windows, a fireplace and, to use today's parlance, something that feels like appropriate feng shui.

Portraits of yogis adorn the walls, there's incense burning, and a little fountain runs--suggesting that all is process, in crafting the screenplay and in life. For Field, the screenplay is a vehicle for life's journey, and from inside his studio, a fitting base of departure, he has built an empire teaching people how to conjure it.

His book, "Screenplay," first published in 1979 and now in its third edition, is considered the classic how-to. He has taught screenwriting seminars since 1980 to more than 25,000 students. He is a screenwriting consultant to the governments of Mexico, Brazil and Argentina (whose cultural ministries have sought to develop an international hit in the mode of "Life Is Beautiful"). Soon he'll be the first of the script prophets to preach the gospel on video: His workshop will be available on QVC next month, in a video that he produced with Final Draft, the software company that makes the program most screenwriters use. "We all have the desire to be transported," Field says. "Movies can take us all to the same place, to what I call the community of emotion. They are our common language."

It was in college, while studying with Jean Renoir, that Syd decided to follow the film path. "He told me that film was the future," Field says. Then he met Sam Peckinpah and read the screenplays for "The Wild Bunch" and "Major Dundee," and saw the Michelangelo Antonioni films "La Notte" and "L'Avventura," encounters that changed his life. How did these guys come up with these scripts? he wondered.

But like all paths, Field's may have been genetically encoded. His grandfather was Rabbi Jacob Bauman, founder of Shara Torah Congregation, one of the first Orthodox synagogues in Los Angeles. "I remember sitting on his lap," Field says. "A group of people came to him in tears. A butcher was selling non-kosher meat. They wanted to know if they had sinned. He said they hadn't because they didn't know. That was very wise. He was saying that intention is important, not the letter of the law. Are you coming from the heart?"

Rabbi Bauman later wrote a book called "Threads of Gold," a philosophical discussion of the Torah, perhaps a precursor to his grandson's analysis of American scripture. "What he did," Syd recalls, "was help people get through times of suffering and duress. I want to help people get over their fear of the blank page. I teach people to tell stories that are important to them and to not hate each other." And it costs less than temple on Yom Kippur.

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Patt Morrison is on assignment. Her column returns next month.

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