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Syd Field: How to make your own movie

By Priyanka Jain
Last updated on: January 11, 2007 16:37 IST
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Syd Field, known to many in the film fraternity as the guru of scriptwriting, was in India recently to conduct workshops for scriptwriters and filmmakers.

Field attended the University of California, Los Angeles and his books, The Foundations Of Screenwriting and Screenwriter's Workshop, are studied at all major film schools across the world. He currently teaches screenwriting at the University of Southern California, and is well known for his articulation of the 'three act structure'.

In an interview with Priyanka Jain, he shared his insights on what makes a good script

He also has some valuable tips for budding scriptwriters and directors.

Part I: How to be a better scriptwriter

In one of your books, you mentioned Fred Zinnemann's The Day Of The Jackal as an example of a script that breaks every rule in the book and yet works brilliantly. How does a scriptwriter know when he can throw aside the rulebook?

I believe that offering yourself a challenge and seeing whether you can overcome the challenge and work through it is important. I have never met a successful screenwriter who says they know the craft so well that they feel totally comfortable in it. You always need a challenge.

For instance, The Bourne Supremacy broke all the rules in the book and it works so effectively. However, the film has a three-act structure format. The difference is that what the main character is looking for is not revealed until the end of the second act of the screenplay -- something I have never seen before and it works beautifully. The character feels there is a time past and time present. He converts his loss of memory into a search for a meaning and that propells the story forward. Now that is one of the new revolutionary films.

Is there a scope for experimentation at the writing stage or does it come during the filming stage?

In Hollywood, experimentation is looked at in a different way. We have studios and independent filmmakers.

One way of doing it is: you can get a Macintosh computer, get IPRO (an editing software) installed on it, get a small DVD digital camera, write your own screenplay, film it on the streets of Mumbai, upload it on your computer, edit your movie through IPRO, get your soundtrack from a database or download it from iTunes and you can make a movie -- all by yourself.

In that way, you do anything that you want to do. Sometimes it will work, sometimes it won't.

In traditional Hollywood style movie making, it is expensive to make a movie. It may cost around $10,000 a minute to shoot a major film with stars, above the line cameramen, writer, director, producer, actors, below the line technicians and so on -- it costs hundreds of millions of dollars to make a movie. Today, nobody there says, 'Here are 200 million dollars. Go make a movie."

We don't do that any more. So, you have the fear of losing money everyday you go on the set. There are executives from the studio who are checking in everyday on the budget; there is a time frame. Everything is well planned.

Small filmmakers there have more freedom. You can do it either way. You can write it that way or you can write it normally, get more ideas on the set -- which usually always happens -- and film it that way and the film always gets made in the editing room. That's why editors need to take writing courses and in the US they do -- because you are writing with film. 

What is a better way -- to be planned and clear in the head about how one is going to make the film or does it also work on instinct?

Ah! Let me give you an example: Michelangelo Antonioni

The master is 94, his visual eye is just as acute now as it always been. He always writes the scene he is going to film it the next day. I am talking about things three to four years ago. His wife Enrica filmed the whole process from him writing, to walking into the set, looking around, standing, thinking, coming back and shooting and then you see the finished movie -- which is totally different from what he wrote but he would have never gotten to that point unless he had written it down on paper.

You conducted a workshop with director Rakyesh Omprakash Mehra. Could you tell us more about it? What advice did you give him?

I did not know Rakyesh when I saw Rang De Basanti. Rakyesh's film is so universal -- it deals with a universal cultural theme -- of the party in power and the rise of the individual. When I saw it, I knew it was a major film.

When we met, we spoke about screenwriting and I told him what structure is -- basically the difference of the way of writing a screenplay for a novel and in a play. Then we spoke about how you evolve a character from the idea that's in your head into real life; yet, this is on paper. About the process, about how you don't get it right the first time -- you  work, think, write, cross out, re-think, add. Screenwriting is a tough job.

Any advice for young writers?

1. Tell your story in pictures, not in dialogues.

2. Work with an economy of scene.

I would be amazed if a technologically-savvy person can sit down in one scene and watch it play for 10 minutes at a stretch. The point is to not write scenes that are 10 minutes or 10 pages longer. I told him that film is behaviour -- what a person does is who they are, not necessarily what they say.

3. Cut down the number of characters and the few characters that you keep make them fuller, richer, deeper and give them more dimension -- maybe three to four characters.

4. Tell your story with dramatic visual value time, place and the length of the story. Focus more on developing characters, situation, and action and keep it short.

How aware are you of Indian films?

I have seen very few Indian films. I have seen a lot of Satyajit Ray's work. I saw and liked Bride And Prejudice. The talent in India is incredible.  

What I see here is there are two characters and their families and in the middle of something intense that is going on we break into a song and dance which is wonderful and I love it but it doesn't further the story at all. We don't do that in Hollywood.  

Do you see yourself working with Indian filmmakers?

I would love to.

Part I: How to be a better scriptwriter

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Priyanka Jain