Thank you, Syd Field
by Kara Holden
For Thanksgiving, I was going to write a piece about all of the wonderful mentors I have been so grateful for over the years… but with the unexpected passing of one of them last week, I decided to make this post a tribute to just him. I was blessed to have the legendary Syd Field as both a teacher and a personal mentor for my thesis script at USC, and I owe much of my career to his kindness and generosity. Thinking back on it, I was so naïve and new to Hollywood when I began at USC that I had no idea just what an incredible gift I had been given when I got into Syd’s class my first semester. I showed up in the basement classroom with desks nearly stacked on top of one another, felt the stuffiness that comes with a windowless room, and felt decidedly uninspired. But from the moment Syd walked through the door, I was enthralled.
He was utterly unlike anyone I had ever come in contact with before – almost, at least to me, a real-life incarnation of “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski. He wore a mysterious red string around his wrist, mud-colored Birkenstocks on his feet, and he sat on the desk instead of behind it. The expression on his face was the opposite of intimidating – he had an easy smile and eyes that portrayed genuine interest whenever someone was speaking. He was always fully engaged, even if whatever a student said was utter nonsense – which is often the case in writing classes. To me he was the living representation of “active listening.”
From the very beginning, there was no doubt that Syd loved movies. And by loved I mean lived. He breathed character, ate up dialogue, and drank in plot. From Syd I learned that the best way to learn to write good movies was to study the great movies that came before. In class we did breakdowns of brilliant Oscar winning films as well as popcorn action flicks and “dumb” comedies – Syd Field was no snob when it came to movies. In his view, nearly every movie had something an aspiring screenwriter could learn from. He was not a critic, he was a craftsman, and he taught us to build by taking apart great structures brick by brick. We didn’t dissect the films in a cold clinical sense, but rather watched with an artist’s eye to discover which brush strokes were used and to understand why each color was chosen, to allow ourselves to be moved by what we saw and to try and examine why.
When Syd agreed to be the mentor for my thesis script it was as if I had won the lottery. Of course, I took it for granted back then – I didn’t quite grasp the enormousness of getting one-on-one time writing my script with the guidance of the man who actually wrote the book on Screenplay (and it is an amazing book).
To me he was just my easy-going professor who was genuinely enthusiastic about helping me to make my script the best it could be, and he always felt more like an encouraging friend than the towering pillar that so many people knew him as. I look back on the emails he sent and I am overwhelmed at his generosity, the kindness of his words, and his nurturing spirit. He could’ve been jaded, even arrogant – he could’ve shone a harsh light on my shortcomings, he could’ve crushed my fragile hope. But instead, he found ways to gently get me to think for myself and realize what was missing in my script on my own – by asking simple questions. To this day, I start every script by asking myself as many questions as I can think of about who my characters are, why this story is important, and what I am trying to say. I write pages and pages of questions, and in answering them, the script takes shape.
Syd had a wonderful way of making me feel like writing was meant to be fun – by giving permission to let go of perfection and the over-seriousness that can paralyze a writer when they try to begin a script. By insisting that his students make their first draft as “shitty” as possible, it loosened us up to find the joy in the writing, allowed us to take huge risks and to not be afraid to fail. There was no such thing as failing in Syd Field’s class. Whether the writing was good or bad, it was all an important step to finding the real story. Which I realize now, all of these years later, is also a beautiful philosophy for life. Making mistakes can often teach us so much more about what is important and true than just trying to be right all of the time.
Another writing lesson I learned from Syd, that also turned out to be an astute life lesson, is that film is behavior. What the character says is never as important as what he or she does. That is so important to realize in the real world as well – if you really want to know who a person is, watch how he acts and he will show you more than he could ever tell you. What Syd showed me was that you don’t have to be a jerk to get respect. And that when you are respectful of others, passionate about what you do, and compassionate about what they do; you will not only be respected, you will be beloved.
Thank you, Syd, for everything.Tags: Entertainment industry, Gratitude, Great teacher, Hollywood, Kara Holden, Screenwriter, Syd Field, Thanksgiving, University of Southern California (USC)