SYD FIELD AND THE SHERWOOD OAKS EXPERIMENTAL COLLEGE – PART 1 JULY 2020
Syd Field was an early writing mentor of mine. Syd wrote the ever-popular book Screenplay. When it was published in 1979, it was the definitive book on screenwriting. It opened the door for other books by other authors.
I first met Syd Field at the Sherwood Oaks Experimental College in Hollywood, California. Its second-floor space in a building on Hollywood Boulevard and Ivar Street had the feel of a warehouse. I don’t remember who went there first Anita or me. Anita took a film making class where the participants went out and shot a short film.
The school was co-founded by Gary Shusett shown above. (His brother Ronald wrote the Alien screenplay with Dan O’Bannon.) The school wasn’t accredited, nor did it have any resemblance to how a real college operated. It was probably best described as a trade school for the entertainment industry. Classes were taught by professional writers, producers, directors, and actors. Lucille Ball taught comedy acting classes for a while.
I first went there for a screenwriting conference. It was a weekend-long event with many bigtime screenwriters, directors, and producers. Among the notable speakers were Buck Henry (The Graduate), John Melius (Dirty Harry, Apocalypse Now), Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest, West Side Story), Marshall Brickman (co-writer of Annie Hall with Woody Allen), Syd Field and many more.
Syd was in the process of writing his book when I first met him. He was a terrific lecturer. When the book came out, reading it was like sitting in the classroom and listening to Syd talk. His main premise for explaining successful movies is what he called the paradigm.
He defined that as a three-act structure. Act 1 of the screenplay was the setup which was somewhere around 30 pages (approximately 30-minutes of screen time). The first ten pages usually contained the hook that pulls you into the story, usually an incident or event that propels the story forward. Around that first 30 pages, a plot point occurs. This is an incident or event that spins the story in another direction. One of the examples Syd used was the movie, Rocky. He would say something like Rocky, a down and out fighter gets his shot at the championship of the world. Act 2 is the confrontation that shows Rocky getting into shape to fight the champion of the world. In Act 2, at about 90 pages into the story another plot point occurs, and this time it spins the story to its conclusion in Act 3 the final act in which Rocky fights Apollo Creed the champion.
Syd acquired his knowledge about screenplay structure as a reader for the David L. Wolper Company. He claims to have read hundreds of screenplays and concluded that most successful pictures contained the paradigm. Many writers of box office successes had been writing their scripts that way all along. Syd’s book clarified this, thus introducing the paradigm to the rest of the world.
One of the things Syd said at the conference was that many people in Hollywood will tell you about the roles they’re going to play, the movies they’re going to produce, and the screenplays they’re going to write. Syd went on to say that if you have a screenplay in your hands that you wrote—you had more than most of the people in Hollywood.
After that initial conference, I decided to join Syd’s screenwriting workshop. There were only a few of us in the class so it was very personal, and Syd took a serious interest in our work. We had a good class of budding screenwriters who were already writing their screenplays when we joined Syd’s class. His goal was for us to have a completed first act by the end of the 8-week session. To help us get there, Syd would give us sections of Screenplay, which he was writing at the time, to read to see if what he wrote made sense to us, or not.
We had a very enthusiastic and inspired group of screenwriters who exceeded Syd’s expectations. Many of us finished our first act before the session ended. One writer completed his screenplay. His was about the Detroit riots of the 1960s as seen through the eyes of a drug ingested bunch of hippies. Despite the seriousness of the rioting, it was hilariously funny.
I started my first screenplay entitled D.E.B.E. in the class. It was about the introduction of robots into our daily lives. The title is an acronym for “Does Everything But Eat.” When an earthquake hits in the middle of the night, the robots escape into the neighboring community and fall into the wrong hands. I never sold the script, but it got me my first literary agent. He submitted it to Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios. I was told someone at the studio liked it, but nothing ever came of it. I lost touch with the other writers in the class, so I don’t know whether any of them were successful either.
I took another 8 weeks with Syd and completed the D.E.B.E. screenplay. After that, I never saw Syd again. I followed the success of his first book. He taught all over the world and the book became a best seller. Someone in France plagiarized it, resulting in a lawsuit that went in Syd’s favor, and the book was pulled out of publication. Syd also wrote several more popular books about screenwriting.