Going to the Movies: A Personal Journey through Four Decades of Modern Film

Going to the Movies: A Personal Journey through Four Decades of Modern Film

by Syd Field

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Featuring insights ... analysis ... great films and filmmakers from “the most-sought-after screenwriting teacher in the world” (The Hollywood Reporter).

A life in film. An extraordinary career. An unforgettable story — from noted lecturer, teacher, and bestselling author Syd Field.

What makes a great movie


Featuring insights ... analysis ... great films and filmmakers from “the most-sought-after screenwriting teacher in the world” (The Hollywood Reporter).

A life in film. An extraordinary career. An unforgettable story — from noted lecturer, teacher, and bestselling author Syd Field.

What makes a great movie great? ... An actor legendary? ... A screenplay extraordinary or just ordinary?

Syd Field has spent a lifetime seeking answers to these questions. His bestselling books on the art and craft of screenwriting have become the film industry’s gold standard.

Now Syd Field tells his own remarkable story, sharing the insight and experience gleaned from an extraordinary career. Using classic movies from the past and present — from Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane to Andy and Larry Wachowski’s The Matrix — Field provides a guided tour of the basic elements common to all great films.

Learn what makes La Grande Illusion a groundbreaking, timeless classic ... how Casablanca teaches one of the most important elements of creating memorable characters for the screen ... why Pulp Fiction might be one of the most influential films of our time.

Discover the legendary filmmakers, films, and stars who shaped Field’s understanding of the medium.... Meet Jean Renoir, the great French director who steered his young Berkeley protégé away from medicine into film.... Watch a dazzling young Francis Ford Coppola as he directs his thesis film at UCLA.... Spend an amazing summer with Sam Peckinpah as he shares the screenwriting techniques behind his classic western The Wild Bunch.

Rich in anecdote and insight, Going to the Movies will both entertain and inform, deepening every moviegoer’s appreciation of the magic behind the silver screen.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Watching a movie is easy. But it's hard to figure out how its structure, images, acting, camera work and scripts can make us respond so powerfully. Writing in a chatty, informal manner, the author of several popular screenplay-writing manuals (including Screenplay, which is used in numerous college courses) turns to autobiography to meditate on what makes a movie great. Whether he is addressing his friendship with the great French director Jean Renoir, whose masterpiece La Grande Illusion Field considers one of the foundations of modern cinema, or about his classes with the great feminist film director Dorothy Arzner, Field conveys an enormous amount of technical and practical knowledge. Often delivering fascinating, miscellaneous bits of information (e.g., Jim Morrison named his band the Doors after Aldous Huxley's book about drugs, The Doors of Perception), Field centers his theoretical ideas on specific films and actors. He notes, for example, that the films of John Garfield almost always follow the mythic structure described by Joseph Campbell. His odd comparison of Resnais's obscure Last Year at Marienbad with the predictable Hollywood romance An Affair to Remember illustrates the difference between a subjective and an objective position in a film script. As head of the story department at Cinemobile, Field has read "more than two thousand screenplays and more than a hundred and fifty novels" and has worked with or known almost everyone in the industry since the late 1950s. Although cloaked in modesty, his illuminating, consistently entertaining memoir displays enough wit, intelligence and empathy to inspire a host of great films. (Oct.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
"What makes a great movie experience?" asks Field (Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting) in this account, which traces his own lifelong involvement with the film industry as a documentary filmmaker, film critic, studio executive, screenwriter, and lecturer on screenwriting. Field attempts to isolate the underlying elements common to all "great" films by reflecting on some of his favorites which include La Grande Illusion, The Wild Bunch, and Chinatown and influential works like Pulp Fiction. His recollections and insights are worthwhile and occasionally moving as when he recounts his meetings with Michelangelo Antonioni. Field's passion for cinema shines throughout, and it helps to propel readers through encounters with a variety of types of film. The end result will likely please movie buffs and belongs in public libraries with film collections. Neal Baker, Earlham Coll., Richmond, IN Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The master teacher of screenplay writing charts his Alger-like rise in the film world and reveals himself to be a true Hollywood character. The story begins at Field's mother's deathbed, where Field is beseeched to become a "professional person." He tries dental school but ends up reading for a play directed by Jean Renoir, who sends him to the film program at UCLA. There, surrounded by students like Coppola, he watches Citizen Kane and begins developing his structural film analysis. Later, at Wolper Productions and Cinemobile Systems, he researches movie history and reads thousands of scripts in an attempt to determine how movies work. Eventually, while soaking in a hot tub, pondering Three Days of the Condor, he defines a screenplay's dramatic structure: "a linear arrangement of related incidents, episodes or events leading to dramatic resolution." To help a foundering screenwriting class, Field watches Chinatown and Manhattan and devises the idea of a "middle point" in Act II that turns a screenplay into two manageable 60-page units of dramatic action. More lessons follow-on bookends, flashbacks, and the whammo, which Field intuits while trying to explain the script of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. In addition, there are descriptions of the business-pitches, briefs, producers who don't read-and always enlightening friendships, like "hanging out with [Sam] Peckinpah while he was writing The Wild Bunch." Field never takes himself or his writing too seriously. He reveals his early failings at teaching, and although he quotes Fitzgerald, he allows his writing to remain resolutely informal: "Discipline had always been a biggie for me." He is serious about movies, however-moved wheneverhe sees a good film "to take it apart and see how and why it works." No one sees films quite the way Field does. An engineer's report on film construction and the view of an original thinker worth appreciating.
From the Publisher
“Although cloaked in modesty, his illuminating, consistently entertaining memoir displays enough wit, intelligence and empathy to inspire a host of great films.”
Publishers Weekly

“I based Like Water for Chocolate on what I learned in Syd’s books. Before, I always felt structure imprisoned me, but what I learned was structure really freed me to focus on the story.”
— Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate

“If I were writing screenplays ... I would carry Syd Field around in my back pocket wherever I went.”
— Steven Bochco, writer/producer/director, NYPD Blue

Also by Syd Field

The Screenwriter’s Workbook
Selling a Screenplay
Four Screenplays
The Screenwriter’s Problem Solver

Available from Dell

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Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

La Grande Illusion

“The future is film.”
— Jean Renoir

August 1959.

The sun was high and it was very late in the morning when I finally got into my car and headed north on Highway 101 to Berkeley, California. It was a big step for me. For several years after my parents’ death, I had been floundering, not knowing what direction I wanted to take in my life, not knowing what I wanted to be or do. My mother’s last wish before she died was for me to become a “professional person,” which meant, in that special, unspoken communication between mother and son, that she wanted me to become a doctor, lawyer or dentist.

Wanting to honor her wishes, and thus ignoring my own, I enrolled at USC in predentistry, but it took only a few weeks for me to discover it wasn’t really for me. The courses I liked were English literature, but as my aunt, who was raising me after my mother’s death, patiently explained, the only thing I could do with an English degree was teach. And what was the future in that?

A friend of mine from high school, Frank Mazzola, happened to be taking an acting class at a local theater, and convinced me it was something I should do. I sat in on just one session and, needless to say, loved it. Acting was an ideal opportunity for me to avoid dealing with all the future “life decisions” I was confronting. In exchange for the acting lessons, I was offered a “job” as stage manager for the little theater, and I jumped at it. I participated in many of the productions, as a walk-on or background extra, but I ran the stage with responsibility and efficiency. By the following summer, I had improved my acting skills to such a degree that I was invited to become a member of the Shakespearean Repertory Company at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego. I was seriously considering pursuing an acting career.

When my aunt, who promised my mother to take care of me, heard about this, she told me, “Acting may be a great hobby, but it doesn’t pay the rent. What are you going to do for a living?” I had no idea, of course, and simply refused to deal with it. But I certainly knew what I didn’t want: a “9-to-5” job in a bank or insurance company.

What did I want to do with my life? That was really the question. Should I become an actor? What about the promise I made to my mother on her deathbed? I had no answers, of course, and the pressure of trying to deal with these questions became too much, so I decided to just take off.

So, when the little theater finished its current slate of productions, I decided I would drive across the country and visit my brother, then attending Washington University Medical School in St. Louis. I loved that driving experience so much I decided not to return to school, and for the next two years I traveled back and forth across the country. It was really a time of freedom; I had inherited a small sum of money from my mother’s estate and was very fortunate not to have to work. I just kept driving; I never knew where I was going till I got there. I had good times and bad times, and loved every minute of it. I was like a cloud on the wind, drifting without aim or purpose. But deep down, no matter how far or how long I drove, I was always aware that I would eventually have to come back to myself.

It didn’t take me very long to see I was lost. I didn’t know who I was, or where I was going. And then, one day, while driving through the Arizona desert, I realized I had traveled this same road before. Everything was the same, but different. It was the same stand of foothills in the same barren desert — but it was two years later. In reality, I felt like I had gone nowhere. I had spent two years ostensibly trying to get my head together, and still I had no aim, no purpose, no goal, no destination. I had no direction in my life. I suddenly saw my future — and it was nowhere.

Time seemed to be slipping away, and I knew in that moment that I had to do something, that it was time for me to stop wandering and go back to school. I thought that at least I’d give it a shot, maybe find something I liked, perhaps get a degree — not realizing then that the choices we make always take us to the place we’re supposed to be going.

And so it was in that late summer of 1959 that I packed my belongings, said my good-byes, got into my car and began driving north to Berkeley. It was the first time in my life I truly felt I had some kind of direction, and I was both confident and unsure in the choice I was making.

Berkeley at the dawn of the sixties was an active crucible of revolt and unrest. Signs, banners, slogans and leaflets were everywhere: Castro’s rebel force had just overthrown Batista, and signs ranged from “Cuba Libre” and “Time for the Revolution” to “Get Out of Vietnam,” “Free Speech,” “Abolish ROTC,” “Equal Rights for Everyone” and “Socialism for All, & All for Socialism.” Telegraph Avenue, the main street leading onto the campus, was always lined with a colorful display of banners and leaflets as I walked to class. Every day there were protest rallies, and when I stopped to listen I would see the FBI agents, trying to be inconspicuous in their shirts and ties, taking pictures of everyone. It was a joke.

Hunger strikes on campus protested the mandatory ROTC courses, and it didn’t take long for me to be swept up in the activities and issues of the time. Like so many others of my generation, I was influenced and inspired by the “beats”: Kerouac, Ginsburg, Gregory Corso, those poet/saints who were blazing a trail of rebellion and revolution. Inspired by their voices, and their lives, I, too, wanted to ride the waves of change. It wasn’t too long before the campus exploded into a political frenzy initiated by Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement.

One of the summer jobs I’d had a few years earlier was working in a heart research lab on the then-new heart bypass machine, and I really loved it. I had a notion that I might like to become a doctor, a cardiologist to be exact, but I discovered when I enrolled at Berkeley that I couldn’t declare premed as a major. So I enrolled in English literature instead, got a part-time job working in a record store, and took my required premed courses like chemistry and physics, along with my English requirements. It worked out fine. I liked the school, the environment and the people.

One day, during the second half of my first year, as I was walking across campus I read a poster advertising an open reading for a university theater production of Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck. I was restless studying, wanted to find a way to unwind, and since I had some spare time, I decided, why not? I would read for the play, without expecting anything because I was not part of the Theater Arts Department. So I joined the hopefuls, did my reading, and that was that. A few days later, I checked the casting board, and found to my surprise that I had been chosen to play the lead character, Woyzeck.

The rehearsals were intense, and when the play finally opened in Wheeler Auditorium, Berkeley’s main theater, we played to full houses almost every night. One night, after the evening performance, I was introduced to the man who would soon become my mentor: Jean Renoir. As “artist in residence,” Renoir would present the world premiere of his play Carola. Because of my work in Woyzeck, I was asked to read for Renoir’s play, and while I knew it was a great opportunity, I didn’t think too much about it. Not knowing anything about Renoir or his films, I read for the part, then learned I had been cast to play the third lead, Campan, the director/stage manager and lover of Carola.

What can I say about Jean Renoir? He was a man like any other, but what separated him, at least in my mind, was his great heart; he was open, friendly, a man of great intelligence and wit who seemed to influence the lives of everyone he touched. The son of the great Impressionistic painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, he, too, had the great gift of sight. He literally opened my eyes to the world of film and theater, what it is and what it could be.

The rehearsals for Carola were held in the basement theater, and when I walked in for the first table reading, I noticed several well-known faculty members and press people hovering in the background, anxious to observe Renoir at work. Renoir, who reminded me of a warm, cuddly teddy bear, spoke with a pronounced French accent and walked with a slight limp — the result, I learned later, of a wound suffered in the First World War. I immediately tuned in to his presence, which emanated a sense of excitement that I found friendly and inviting.

Renoir sat the actors around the table and began to talk about his play. The action, he told us, takes place in Paris during the German occupation in the Second World War. It was a time of fear and mistrust in Paris; the Nazis had installed the Vichy government to oversee the occupation, and the French secret police — the French Gestapo, as they were called — answered to no one.

The action of the play takes place backstage, in Carola’s dressing room and just outside, in the adjacent hallway, before and during the performance, which takes place offstage. The play opens when Von Claudius, the German general in charge of Paris and former lover of Carola, comes back to see her. He is weary of the war, and is one of the instigators in the plot against Hitler. He wants to renew his love for Carola and run away with her to South America.

Carola was played by a young actress named Deneen Peckinpah, and since we had many scenes together, we spent a lot of time hanging out when rehearsals were over. We liked each other and developed a close relationship, both in and out of the theater.

My character, Campan, was the flamboyant, theatrical director/ stage manager of the theater who is deeply in love with Carola; in the end, he sacrifices his life for her, for France and for the theater. Like most actors trained in the realistic approach of the “method,” I liked to feel my way into the heart of the character, much like a butterfly circling a rock. During the early rehearsals, I read my lines simply, in a basic monotone, trying to find something — a word, a phrase, an emotion — I could latch on to.

Renoir was patient and persistent, saying, “Creating a part is like going into a store to buy a new jacket. First, you try it on and see how it looks and how it fits. Then, it needs alteration; you have to alter the sleeves, perhaps the length, maybe let out the back a little. Once it’s altered, you try it on, and while it may fit, it feels a little tight under the arms, and the material is a little too stiff. It takes a few times wearing it before it really becomes comfortable, before it becomes an extension of yourself. It’s the same in the creative process.”

This image and his words have stayed with me. Facing the blank sheet of paper, I’ve learned to simply “throw down” thoughts, words and ideas, and gradually, a shape and form appears. Then I add, tighten, condense, hone and polish, and pretty soon I have something I can relate to. That’s the creative process.

One of the first things I learned about Renoir was his aversion to the “cliché.” The character of Campan was overly dramatic, and I had no experience to bring to that aspect of the character. So I played it as I thought it should be played, creating a character more from my imagination than from my experience. It didn’t work. I wanted to play it more “real,” but he wanted me to become more theatrical, “larger than life.” It was a tough adjustment to make. Renoir was patient, nurturing. He would quote his father on bringing an idea into existence. “If you paint the leaf on a tree without using a model,” the great Impressionistic painter once said, “your imagination will only supply you with a few leaves; but Nature offers you millions, all on the same tree. No two leaves are exactly the same. The artist who paints only what is in his mind must very soon repeat himself.” If you look at Renoir’s great paintings, you’ll see what he meant. No two leaves, no two flowers, no two people, are ever painted the same way. It’s the same with his son’s films.

I learned to become observant, searching for people who would show me a kind of behavior I could draw upon, and it didn’t take long for me to become adept at noticing mannerisms and behavior patterns. I would see a gesture, or the way someone walked, and try and incorporate it into my characterization of Campan. Over and over again Renoir would tell me to “avoid the cliché,” and he constantly instilled in me, and every member of the cast, the value of my own experience. “Bring yourself to the character,” he would say, because “an actor either plays ‘true’ or plays ‘false.’ If he plays ‘true’ he may allow himself all manner of exaggeration.” Don’t worry about being “too dramatic,” he repeated over and over again; that’s who the character is. He instilled in me a great understanding: as long as I avoided the cliché I could be true to the character and the situation. It was a lesson I still carry with me today.

Renoir often spoke about his love for the movies, about the theater, about art, acting and literature. “Qu’est-ce que c’est le Cinema?” he would ask over and over again; “What is film?” Is it art? Is it literature? He shared with us his view that movies “are a new form of printing — another form of the total transformation of the world through knowledge.” And he would refer to Lumière, inventor of the early French motion picture camera, the Cinématographe, as “another Gutenberg.”

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Meet the Author

Syd Field is the internationally acclaimed screenwriter, producer, teacher, lecturer, and author of the bestselling books Screenplay, Selling a Screenplay, The Screenwriter’s Workbook, Four Screenplays, and The Screenwriter’s Problem Solver. Published in 1982, Screenplay has been translated into seventeen languages and is used in more than 350 colleges and universities across the country. At present he is creative consultant to the governments of Mexico, Argentina, Austria, and Brazil, and has been a script consultant for Roland Jaffe’s film production company, 20th Century Fox, the Disney Studios, and Tri-Star Pictures. He lives in Beverly Hills, California.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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