Back in the Dark Ages, when I was just a movie lover fresh from Oregon with Hollywood dreams, I attended Sherwood Oaks Experimental College. Until then I had given very little thought to screenplays, let alone the idea that they had a form and a structure and a set of tools for creating a movie on paper. Then I heard Syd Field speak.
This was the first place he ever taught screenwriting – at the relentless urging of the school’s founder, Gary Shusett. (A few years later it would also become the first place I ever taught screenwriting.) Even then, Syd’s knowledge of story and movie writing, his kind, thoughtful manner, and his deep affection for writers and filmmakers were apparent. He was as he always remained – inspiring.
Time passed, and then Syd became my competitor – though I doubt he ever saw it that way. But at a time when the SCREENWRITING section of any bookstore was non-existent, he created Screenplay, and his book forever changed the way screenwriting was thought of and practiced around the world. Even today, with a million copies and counting in dozens of languages, it remains the most popular and successful introduction to the art and craft of screenwriting ever written. And, as it was for almost everyone in Hollywood, it was the first screenwriting book I ever owned.
Which was great for Syd, but not so much for those of us who followed with books of our own. It was quickly apparent when my first book Writing Screenplays That Sell was published that trying to equal what he had done was futile. Now, as then, there was Syd, and then came the rest of us, walking through the door that he had opened.
Though Syd was very clear, I believe, about his place in Hollywood and the amazing things he accomplished with all of his books and all of his teaching, I never saw him display any kind of superiority.
I don’t honestly remember the first time Syd and I actually met face to face. I’m sure it was some years later, at one or another screenwriting conference where we were both speakers. But whenever I saw him, he was – as he always was with everyone – friendly, welcoming, smiling.
And then even more years later, I was lucky enough to have Syd as my colleague. Thanks to Derek Christopher, Syd and I, along with John Truby and Linda Seger and Chris Vogler, were invited to be the headliners for a new weekend event – the Screenwriters’ Summit – where we would each present our own particular approach to story and screenwriting, and then join each other for a panel discussion.
These panels always began the same way. After we were introduced, Syd would welcome the participants. Not with some perfunctory “welcome to the seminar” statement, but with a warm, embracing message of congratulations and acknowledgment for the commitment they were showing to their craft and their dreams. Syd had a deep love and respect for what he called “our community of writers,” and his mission in life was to help writers and filmmakers achieve their dreams and improve the art form.
I love the Summit, and I always loved hearing Syd lecture. He never lost his passion for movies or writing, and he was always excited when he discovered new methods and approaches writers were using to tell stories, new ways of reflecting the truth of being human. But I used to dread the panel discussions. I never felt as smart or as lucid or as insightful as my colleagues, but I worried if I didn’t say something I’d look like a potted plant surrounded by geniuses.
Syd’s encouragement got me over all that, until I began to look forward to this part of the event – particularly when Syd or any of us disagreed about a movie or the answer to a question from the audience, and felt free to argue or take shots at each other. These discussions became fun.
And finally, as we worked together, Syd and I became friends. I think this realization hit me when the Summit went to Israel, and we got to travel around the country or simply hang out a lot. I don’t know why, but my favorite memory of Syd on that trip was when he and I were seated across the aisle from each other on the endless flight from Tel Aviv back to LAX. He was rereading a Travis McGee novel by John D. MacDonald – one of my all time favorite authors as well – when the dinner menus were distributed. Syd had trouble sleeping on long flights, so he selected what he thought would be a good, comforting meal. And then he grumbled the rest of the flight home. Having been raised on his Jewish mother’s cooking, he thought it was ridiculous that El Al airlines couldn’t manage to cook up a decent bowl of chicken soup.
Whenever Syd and I saw each other or spoke on the phone, we would tease each other, and make each other laugh, and share our thoughts and feelings about our careers and our lives, and of course about movies. I was never once in Syd’s presence when he didn’t make me smile.
Syd and I talked for years about doing a class together – one where we could simply look at movies we love and pick them apart. But as these things often do, the plan got pushed aside for more urgent, pressing matters, and it never happened. And now I can only regret letting an experience that would have been so much fun slip away.
Syd passed away on November 17, just hours after the rest of us finished presenting the Summit in London. Linda opened the event with a message from Syd – as always he was the one who welcomed everyone – and then the four of us did what we could to make it a fulfilling and inspiring event. But for us it was very sad, and unreal. He was a part of us, and he was there, but he wasn’t. To me it was like we were spokes on a wheel that had lost its hub.
And that’s how it will be from now on, I guess. Syd will always be a part of all of us – the millions of writers and filmmakers and moviegoers who have been touched by his ideas, and his humanity, and his love of story, and all of us script consultants and authors and screenwriting teachers who follow the path that he created.
But he’s here, and he’s not here. And I miss my friend.