Thursday, November 12, 2009

Everything you wanted to know about Syd Field and Penny Peyser

As I head off to do another SITCOM ROOM seminar, here are a few Friday Q’s and even A’s:

From Sammy Glick (I love THAT name):

Who is Syd Field and what prompted him to write screenplay instructional books? Do you know of anyone who read the book and went on to write a successful screenplay? What did would be screenwriters do before Syd published his book(s)?

Of all the how-to screenwriting books, his have risen to the top. Not sure what he did before. He doesn’t have a lot of credits. Now he teaches at USC and Harvard and makes a shitload of money conducting seminars.

His three-act structure for screenplays is very sound. If you’re looking for a book on the subject, it’s as good or better than any of the others out there. Certainly better than those goofy “How to Write a Screenplay in Eleven Minutes” books.

According to Field’s website there have been a number of former students who have gone on to write successful movies including John Singleton, Kevin Williamson, and Randi Singer just to list three (of the six).

One word of caution: This goes for all screenwriting books. Use them as guides not the gospel. You do need sound structure but don’t slavishly squeeze your vision into one format.

unkystan has a TONY RANDALL SHOW question:

I was wondering why Devon Scott was replaced by Penny Peyser for season two.

Honestly, CBS wanted someone more attractive. Now usually the trade-off is looks for acting ability but I have to say, with no disrespect to Devon, that in this case Penny was better and funnier.

From leor:

This year, Rob Thomas remade his show Cupid, and although that didn't work, do you think a show like Almost Perfect could be more successful if remade now, with perhaps a more sophisticated audience (if you believe that to be the case in the first place)? And would you ever want to revisit a previous effort that you were proud of and felt didn't get a good enough chance?

Actually, Robin Schiff, David Isaacs and I tossed around the idea of rebooting ALMOST PERFECT but it’s a very hard sell. Networks would much rather try something new. We also wondered if it would be as timely now as when it premiered in 1995. A highly successful career woman trying to balance work and a personal life was novel back then. This was even a few years before ALLY MCBEAL. Now there are any number of them.

The other problem for us was casting. Nancy Travis was just so wonderful and special in the role it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing that part. You spoiled us, Nancy, damn you!

There are a couple of unproduced pilots from our checkered past I’d love to see get another shot. I’d also like a subway on the Westside of Los Angeles.

And finally: From Alan Coil:

In regards to the number of writers on a movie (as opposed to a television series), I'm generally of the opinion that a movie with a large number of writers is likely to be a bad movie.

Does this seem to be true, or am I making a generalization based on anecdotal information?

More often than not it is true. There have been exceptions but what you usually end up getting is a mish-mash of styles. And if a LOT of writers are involved that generally means the script is in trouble.

What you lose is a singular voice and vision. You can argue that writers assigned to rewrite are better and more experienced than the original writers and in many cases this is true. Especially when a studio buys a spec. But ultimately, when is art by committee ever much better?

What’s your question?


Tim W. said...

"Networks would much rather try something new."

What?? How ironic is that? Maybe the networks should talk to the movie studios and try and convince them of this.

MirrorJames said...

In regards to screenwriting books, without a doubt the most helpful and interesting one I've come across is Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder.

There is also a second book in the series but I haven't read that. Honestly, I'm not too sure what to think of a follow up to a book that was billed as "The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need".

Blaze said...

I think you should say "when was art by a large committee any good compared to art by a very slightly smaller committee". The only reason a script would have a rewrite after polish after rewrite is because the original committee of minds and suits decided something needed to be done.

Brian Phillips said...

R.I.P. David Lloyd.

Thor said...

In Hollywood, the movie director is king...

...and writers are treated like Kleenex.

That's why we the audience have had, for years, a preponderance of movies that look great, but you don't give a flying s**t about.

This won't change, by the way, until we the audience stop supporting the paradigm.

Don't hold your breath.

Roger Owen Green said...

Well, the notion of a "new" show is relative, given the number of TV shows adapted from movies, and other sources. Current shows include V, 90210 and Melrose Place, which seem hauntingly familiar.

WV: cater. What the TV industry tries to do to the lowest common denominator.

A. Buck Short said...

I know this might be OT, and with the weekend seminar approaching it may be a bad time – but something has come up, and I thought I might submit a Friday question related to the fundraising solicitation you posted approximately two weeks ago on behalf of the “Annie Levine Teacup Pig Foundation.” The question is:

Would it be inappropriate to give a Teacup Pig for Chanukah?

I only ask because, apparently someone in our family may have once removed a thorn from Wendy Malick’s paw or something. Over the past two weeks, in addition to the online ALTPF supplication, our regular mail has included (no lie) heart-rending solicitations from:

The World Wildlife Fund , the Humane Soc. of the US, the ASPCA, the Humane Farming Association, Alley Cat Rescue, In Defense of Animals, United Poultry Concerns, the Doris Day Animal League, the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine, P.E.T.A., the New England Anti-vivisection Soc., the Jane Goodall Institute, the SPCA of Texas, the Defenders of Wildlife, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and finally the North Shore Animal League of America.

We get so much of this mail I can hardly find the daily credit card offers from Capital One we so covet. In these difficult economic times, my wife and I have been forced to limit our animal welfare contributions only to those in which the request also includes a photo of a starving child and Sally Struthers.

Nevertheless, one that arrived in yesterday’s mail did catch my eye as of possible interest to the Levine household in this season of giving. It was from:

of Tucson, Az.

Apparently domestic porcine abandonment is a genuine problem In the flyer, I learned the IPS currently boards a grand total of 580 abandoned, abused, neglected or unwanted pot bellied pigs on their 80 lush acres approximately one hour north of Tucson as the pig flies -- if pigs could fly. (The Witness Protection Program in Scottsdale no doubt already having been filled to capacity as the favored designated location in 8 out of 10 TV series and motion pictures.) I understand they have also served as a safe house for the likes of Kevin Federline and David Gest.

You can find one of the residents to sponsor on the pig sanctuary website:

Complete with enlargeable photos of Owen, Popeye, Princess, Claire, Pearl, Bubba, Misty, Tulley, Eddie, Flapjack, Taylor, Mr. Pibb, Oliver, Desiree, and of course, Arnold – all laid out for your inspection like those online catalogues of Russian brides. In fact…oh, nevermind.

Now having come out as swi-curious, I put one of our Cheaters detectives out on the trail to compare and contrast those in residence with the aforementioned Teacup Pigs, also listed for sale as mini pigs, micro-mini pigs, teacup potbelly pigs, and, on rare occasions, just “Bob.” Athough there may be some veracity to the claim these began as a cross between the standard PbP and the Kune Kune breed of New Zealand at Pennywell near Buckfastleigh, England -- which to me sounds like a low-end callgirl solicitation – the general online consensus is that, indeed although tiny at birth, most, at best (worst), identified as the parents of same in this country are nothing more than your standard potbellies starved for life into Munchkinhood. So, unless Annie plans on naming her pet something like “Anorexia,” I have been led to believe she can count on hers ultimately growing into a standard 80-120lb. potbelly. Small by comparison – but still....

The point being, with so many thousands abandoned every year by owners who only belatedly become aware of these growth spurts, why buy from a breeder and add to the overpopulation, when you can save a life through one of the pig rescue programs available?

(more next --to accommodate character count limitations.)

A. Buck Short said...

The good news for Annie
(and perhaps for you by extension) is that, there may be a career opportunity in this for the right recent college grad. The website lists the following current opening:
WANTED: “Trustworthy, caring person who loves animals to live and work at the Ironwood Pig Sanctuary.” Although there is no mention of pay, nor any request for salary requirements, the position described more fully does include numerous perks including cleaning pens and fields, care of disabled or injured pigs, handling 50 lb. bags of feed and hay bales, and the necessity of working weekends and holidays.

But wait, there’s more. If the above weren’t enough, the announcement says the position comes with free housing that, depending upon availability would consist of: 1) a bedroom with private bath and walk-in closet; 2) A 40-foot “completely self-contained” trailer; 3) a 35-foot trailer; or4) bedroom with shared bath. Utilities and high speed internet access available in all. Companion pets apparently welcome (should 580 of the porcine variety be insufficient for some of the applicants).

What’s not to like?

Emily Blake said...

I read Syd Field's Screenplay about 9 years ago in a college class. Does that mean if I go on to be a successful screenwriter, he can take credit for my success?

Honestly, though, I think his book is a good place for beginners to learn the basics, but if Syd Field is all you ever study then you probably suck as a writer.

Matt said...

Why doesn't TV suffer due to being written by a group? From what I've seen on various dramas I've worked for, stories are broken by the whole room. Outlines and scripts are written alone or in pairs, but the showrunner and the whole room still discuss each step.

In a sense, that's writing by committee, and while there is a showrunner, it's not exactly a "singular vision." So why does there seem to be better writing in television than in movies?

Ben K. said...

I second the recommendation of "Save the Cat."

If you've seen enough mainstream movies and have half a brain, you already know what basic three-act structure looks like. (But recognizing it and being able to craft an entertaining screenplay with it are two different things.)

If you're trying to write a saleable romantic comedy or buddy-cop movie, knowing this structure is vital. If you want to write "2001" or "Being John Malkovich," it can get in the way of your creativity. (Although some great writers have absorbed structure in order to pass beyond it, in the same way that Picasso learned to draw incredibly realistic figures before he pioneered cubism.)

Anonymous said...

"Networks would much rather try something new."

How does this explain 90210 II and Melrose Place II?

YEKIMI said...

Words of warning to Annie: Sally Struthers used to be teacup sized.....look at her now. She may end up at a sanctuary also one day.

Anonymous said...

I read a book about the making of "Rebel Without a Cause" called"Live Fast, Die Young" by Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel which makes a surprising revelation about Syd Field. He was one of a group of tough bikers hired as technical advisors for the film by director Nick Ray. He was considered one of the more dangerous of the group, apparently. Working on the film got him interested in screenwriting. Who woulda thought?

Baylink said...

> approximately one hour north of Tucson as the pig flies -- if pigs could fly.

As God is my witness...

alver: A small city in Wyoming.

Andrew Feldstein said...

Can't think of anything more delicious than Penny Peyser at the end of the Frisco Kid.

Chalmers said...

Watching the Seinfield "reunion" on "Curb," you could see the real affection between the reunited actors, particuarly when some of the bit players (Newman, Bania, George's mother) read their lines.

It reminded me of Gary Burghoff talking about Henry Blake's legendary farewell scene, where he said something like "It was written as Radar saying goodbye to Henry, but it was really Gary saying goodbye to Mac."

Ken, do you recall similar instances where actors on your shows seemed to be relating on camera (positively or negatively) as actors rather than their characters?

Do you ever write to take advantage of that, such as "Leading Man is still steamed at Leading Lady for scratching his Jag, so we'll get a great reaction if her character drops a bowling ball on his character's foot." Of course, your scenario wouldn't be nearly as banal.

Jack James said...

Ken, would love to know your approach when going to write a script. Do you outline a beginning, middle and end, then add a subplot or two? (Could you share one of your old outlines as an example)? Or do you just sit down at the keyboard and let your sitcom muse course through your fingers? Also, did you take screenwriting courses in college? If not, how did you learn the basics? (I read where Steve Marshall took a screenwriting course through UCLA extension, escaped to Big Bear to write a WKRP spec script over a weekend, dropped the script off at the 'KRP production office, and voila, was later hired).