How to write a screenplay

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The Independent Culture
What's the connection between Gorillas in the Mist, The Mask, Boyz in the Hood and Mrs Doubtfire? They were all written by former students of Syd Field, screenwriter, teacher and internat-ional lecturer, whose specialist subject is how to conceive, write and sell screenplays.

Field, author of bestsellers including Screenplay, and The Screenwriter's Workbook is coming to London for the first time this weekend to present a two-day workshop on which all his books are based.

Having worked extensively as a writer, producer and script editor for, among others, Cinemobile, United Artists and Hemdale, Field was given the chance to pass on what he had learned at the Sherwood Oaks Experimental College in Hollywood. Sherwood Oaks draws extensively on the expertise of leading practitioners in movie making with people of the stature of Martin Scorsese (above right), Alan Pakula and Robert Altman giving seminars on directing, whilst Paul Newman and Dustin Hoffman have presented masterclasses in film acting.

Field's conceptual approach to writing a hit movie is built on two basic foundations: that a screenplay is essentially a story told in pictures and that it consists of a strictly defined beginning (set-up), middle (confrontation) and end (resolution).

Field's paradigm lays great emphasis on the importance of the first 10 pages of the set-up, the building and creating of logically motivated characters and the development of the story to a "comprehensible and complete" ending.

He draws extensively on such accessible modern classics as Roman Polanski's Chinatown, Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Robert Altman's Nashville to illustrate his points and succeeds in being simultaneously informative, entertaining and inspirational.

Axioms such as "Action is character", "Find the subject of your shot" and "Know your ending before you start" are stressed at every opportunity, as is the need for simplicity of story and clarity of structure.

Having established the fundamentals, Field goes on to cover the mechanics of scene writing, the need for interior/exterior balance in credible characters and the structuring of the screenplay as it builds to its climax and resolution. He also details invaluable practical advice as to what to do with your masterpiece when it's finished, such as getting helpful feedback, copyrighting your material and finding and employing an agent to act on your behalf.

As Field is inclined to point out, everybody's a writer or thinks they are. Everyone's got great ideas but few have a clue how to practically develop a basic premise and get it down on paper. A weekend workshop like this is a sure-fire way of finding out whether you have the write (sic) stuff.

With the British film industry on another up-curve at the moment, it might be a good time to turn that idea you had in the bath into hard cash.

Field has been brought over by the European Film Institute and his seminar will be conducted in the somewhat unlikely setting of The Comedy Store on Oxendon Street in central London. At between pounds 250 and pounds 295 it's not cheap and for those who want a less expensive introduction to Field, his theories and his methods, both Screenplay and The Screenwriter's Workbook (published by Dell) are currently available at a bookshop near you.


Syd Field's seminar takes place on 16 & 17 Mar at The Comedy Store, Oxendon St, London WC2 from 9.30am to 6pm. To book a place call 0171- 437 3991 (European Film Institute, 81 Berwick St, London W1)