Going to the Movies: A Personal Journey Through Four Decades of Modern Film—Syd Field

What makes a movie great? Why are some movies memorable while others disappear into obscurity? The foundation underlying the performances and the directing is the screenplay. A screenplay can make or break a film. Going to the Movies is a combination of memoirs and a lesson on the art of screenwriting by a man who is known to have written some of the definitive books on the subject, Syd Field.

Field studied film at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1960s when it was buzzing with talent. One of Field’s early mentors was Jean Renoir, one of the great French film directors, whom he met when he was studying film at the University of California, Berkeley. Renoir believed that film was a “new form of printing” and Lumière, the inventor of the motion picture camera, was the new Gutenberg (who invented printing in the 1400s).

Other students who went on to become famous were a young graduate student called Francis Ford Coppola and Ray Manzarek, who was part of a then little-known band called The Doors. It was the time of the New Wave, a revolt in cinema against the “puff films” (such as wholesome Doris Day fare). The New Wave produced films like François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour[1] and Jean-Luc Goddard’s Breathless, all films that Field admired.

Field also met some of the greats of cinema during the course of his career: Renoir, Michelangelo Antonioni (whom he saw sitting on a bench as an old man and plucked up the courage to talk to) and Sam Peckinpah, with whom Field spent a summer when Peckinpah was writing The Wild Bunch.  

The book follows Field’s career and provides a glimpse into the film business, particularly the Hollywood film industry. He worked at Cinemobile, which started out as a “studio on wheels”, providing the technical and physical aspects of a film’s production. It was the brainchild of Fouad Said, who now wanted to produce his own films and had created Cine Artists. Field’s job was “find material”. For two and a half years, he read through piles of screenplays, looking for the one that would be good enough to go into production. But producers did not read scripts and had a minimal attention span: the script needed to be summarized in a couple of sentences. Among the scripts he pitched successfully were American Graffiti and Rocky, unlike Taxi Driver by Paul Schrader, for which there was no interest.   

Trawling through never-ending piles of scripts allowed Field to understand the elements that make them work—or not. Based on his close reading, Field devised a three-act paradigm that could be applied to most scripts. Briefly, this is how it works: Act 1, the first 20-30 minutes, sets the scene. This is followed by a plot point that pushes the protagonist into Act 2, which Field calls the Confrontation (and which also gives the protagonist his/her goal). Act 3 is the struggle to reach the goal and the resolution.

Field’s analyses films such as Sunset Boulevard, Chinatown, Citizen Kane, Pulp Fiction, Matrix and Casablanca to understand how they function. I enjoyed these analyses, and they made me want to go back to the films, so I could watch them with a different perspective, this time with an awareness of the nuts and bolts of the script.

This is an interesting book, even if you are not planning to write for films. Many cinema-goers do not always pay attention to the scriptwriter, although she/he is fundamental to the film (I do only when the writing stands out). Syd Field shines a light on this essential part of cinema: the writing on which the entire production rests.

Buy from Bookshop.org UK / Bookshop.org USA

[1] I saw Hiroshima Mon Amour when I was studying film, and I can still remember how it moved me, well over 30 years later. A powerful script.

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