Cover image for 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
Field, Syd.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York, N.Y. : Dell Pub., [2001]

Physical Description:
xxiv, 312 pages : illustrations ; 21 cm
General Note:
"A Dell trade paperback."

Includes index.
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PS3556.I3967 Z468 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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An unforgettable history of an extraordinary career featuring the insights and analysis that have made Syd Field 'the most sought-after screenwriting teacher in the world,' according to The Hollywood Reporter. Here, the best-selling author of the most indispensable guides to the art and craft of screenwritng, including 'Screenplay' and 'The Screenwriter's Workbook', shares the exciting highlights that shaped his career and taught him how to understand and appreciate the silver screen.

Author Notes

Sydney Alvin Field was born in Hollywood, California on December 19, 1935. He acted while majoring in literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Then, at the suggestion of one of his instructors, the filmmaker Jean Renoir, he entered film school at the University of California, Los Angeles. His uncle, Sol Halprin, the Academy Award-winning head of the camera department at 20th Century Fox, helped him find a job at the television company Wolper Productions. He started in the shipping department but eventually helped produce the company's documentary series Biography, hosted by Mike Wallace.

He left to pursue his dream of writing screenplays. He wrote scripts for several television shows including The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Batman, but never had a major hit. While writing reviews of screenplays and reading thousands of poorly conceived works submitted to another production company he worked for, he decided aspiring writers needed help and wrote his first book, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. His wrote several other books including Going to the Movies: A Personal Journey through Four Decades of Modern Film. He also taught at several universities, served as a consultant to Hollywood studios, and advised scientists on how to write screenplays to stir interest in science as a career. He was elected to the Screenwriting Hall of Fame of the American Screenwriting Association. He died from hemolytic anemia on November 17, 2013 at the age of 77.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Field began teaching the art of screen writing in the early '70s at the tiny Sherman Oaks Experimental College and went on to lecture and conduct workshops around the world. He believes all great screenplays assume a rough three-act form, with plot changes and major climaxes at pretty much the same points; the same basic structure undergirds films as different as Chinatown, An Unmarried Woman, and Annie Hall. Field has written other books detailing that structure, and he elaborates his theories again here. But what really makes this book is how well he conducts us on his journey from confused college student, majoring in literature before finding his true love for the movies, to Hollywood professional and friend to such luminaries as directors Jean Renoir and Sam Peckinpah. En route, he lets us glimpse the less glamorous, 9-to-5 side of Hollywood: in his days as a script reader, he estimates that he slogged through thousands of scripts, most hopelessly flawed, to find the 50 or so he eventually passed on to his bosses. --Jack Helbig

Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

"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 (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



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." Excerpted from Going to the Movies: A Personal Journey Through Four Decades of Modern Film by Syd Field All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.