Monday, November 18, 2013

R.I.P. Syd Field

Sorry to hear of the passing of Syd Field today. He was 77. I never met him personally, but like most screenwriters, he had a major impact on my life. His books on screenwriting have pretty much become the bible on the subject.

When my partner David and I decided to team up and hopefully become writers we originally wanted to write movies. Woody Allen and Mel Brooks were our comedy idols and they were both very much in vogue back then. The only trouble was we knew nothing about screenwriting. The things that writers turned in were called scripts.   That's all I knew.

And there were no good books on screenwriting – at least none that I found. We decided to break into television first because we figured it had to be easier to master a 40-page script than a 120-page script.

But I didn’t even know what a TV script looked like. I had to go to a Hollywood bookstore that offered TV scripts on a remainder table. I bought an ODD COUPLE script for $2.00.

We learned the hard way. Four years later Syd’s groundbreaking book, SCREENPLAY came out. It was a revelation. And for me and my partner the timing could not have been better. We had broken into TV, had done MASH, and wanted to crack the feature world. We had to have a spec screenplay we were told. Even the MASH credit meant nothing. They had to see a full screenplay. Thanks to Syd’s book we put together the structure and turned out a spec decent enough to get us work (including the assignment to write VOLUNTEERS).

Many top flight writers credit Syd Field with being their guru. If you’re considering writing a screenplay I strongly recommend you read his books first.

Syd Field leaves a legacy. I know I speak for the entire writing community when I say thank you and I hate this ending.


AndrewJ said...

No fourth act for him.

Johnny Walker said...

Nice to see his legacy is actually held in high regard by the professionals, unlike some other screenwriting gurus I could mention.

I have a question and this seems like the place to find an answer. I've searched high and low and can't seem to find how sitcom lengths have changed over the years.

The reason I ask is that I want to know if I'm watching the shortened syndicated versions of TAXI on DVD, or the full versions. Each episode is 24 minutes -- too long for syndication now (I think), so does that mean they're full length?

Can any TV expert out there help me out? Thanks!

Waves of Gray said...

This was a very nice tribute. I was lucky enough to meet Mr. Field at a screenwriting seminar when I first moved to California six years ago. Both he and his good work will never be forgotten.

Jonathan said...

They went from about 26 minutes in the early days to 20-21 minutes now. (Ken can talk about whether that makes it harder to service the characters.) 24-24 1/2 minutes is about right for Taxi. Coincidentally, I just watched one last night. In general, Paramount shows are unedited except when there are any music clearance issues, in which case they are badly edited. But that is mostly a problem with DVD sets released after the Paramount/CBS split, so the first three seasons of Taxi should be safe even from most music edits.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Nice tribute; I have one of his books thanks to the recommendations in this blog, and think it's very good.

FWIW, William Goldman relates a similar experience in ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE, where, abruptly assigned to work on a screenplay he rushed down to Times Square in NYC, where there was a 24-hour bookstore, and found a published screenplay so he could get a look at the format. It completely weirded him out and he freaked, as I recall.

(That's another book I highly recommend for writers.)


Johnny Walker said...

Thanks, Jonathan. I hope you're right. There's one hysterical review on Amazon that insists they're the syndicated version, but who knows if that guy is just misremembering an old show.

I got a little worried, though, because one of the actor slates at the end of the show featured footage that wasn't in the final episode. Plenty of possible reasons for that, though.

Mike Schryver said...

Jonathan talking about Paramount DVDs reminded me of how they completely butchered THE ODD COUPLE. Music was used often on the show, and was the basis of some of the funniest bits. All gone.

CHEERS had a couple of episodes that suffered - I'm thinking especially of the one where Sam and Rebecca play the song "I Fought the Law" as a taunt - but CHEERS didn't rely on pop songs that much.

Jonathan said...

Yes, I listed all the Odd Couple edits on another site. A terrible shame. The trade-off from Paramount to CBS was that Paramount didn't put many shows out on DVD, but what they put out was pretty uniformly complete. CBS has been much more forthcoming about releasing stuff, but the music is the first thing to go. The Odd Couple unfortunately didn't make the Paramount cut, so by the time it was released, we got the brutally edited CBS versions.

John said...

The situation with music rights clearances has gotten ridiculous. A few years ago Pioneer released all twenty-six episodes of Judy Garland's 1963-64 variety series on DVD with every bit of music intact. Current rights holders to the series say that could never happen now because costs to license music have gone through the roof.

VP81955 said...

Before the cat was saved, there was Syd. RIP, Mr. Field.

Johnny Walker said...

Ok, I've just checked my M*A*S*H DVDs and (given that everyone seems to agree they haven't been edited) the Season 8 episodes ran for (on average) 24:30.

The same year, season two of TAXI ran for the exact same amount according to my DVDs: 24:30.

So I guess the guy on Amazon is wrong!

Glenn said...

@Johnny Walker: Average running time for a half-hour was 25:30 for many years, and some people -- I'm guessing the guy on Amazon is one of them -- have the idea that 25:30 remained standard into the '80s, even though it didn't. 24:30 became the norm by the '70s, and by the '90s, 23:30.

@John: So far as I know, Garland's series is the only musical-variety series to be released complete on DVD. Unfortunately, the cost of getting clearances on all that music makes it prohibitive to release those music-heavy series. It's a shame, as TV has produced many worthy musical performances that deserve to be seen again.

Johnny Walker said...

Thanks Glenn. Makes you wonder where we'd be if DVRs and the internet hadn't been invented. Probably 15 minutes per half hour!