Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Sam Peckinpah: Visual Metaphor, Theme and Story Structure

Syd Field wrote Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting back in 1979. The book deals with screenplay structure, but also shares many anecdotes about key Hollywood figures. 

Syd Field was born and grew up in L.A. He was an extra in a Frank Capra movie at the age of 10. He attended Hollywood High School. One of his best friends knew James Dean; their high school gang became models for the gang in Rebel Without a Cause

When I first read some of the details of his early life, it put me in mind of a quote from Terry Rossio's WordPlay, a quote that intimidated me for years:
At age 21, George Lucas was hanging out with Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich. Who are you hanging out with?
The following excerpts are from Chapter 4 (Building a Character) and Chapter 11 (The Sequence) of Syd Field's book:
When I first began writing screenplays, I had the good fortune of hanging out with Sam Peckinpah during the time he was writing The Wild Bunch. His niece, Deneen Peckinpah, and I had both worked with Jean Renoir on the world premiere of his play Carola when we were students at UC Berkeley. When she came to L.A. seeking an acting career, she stayed with Sam at the beach.

Sam was amazing—brilliant in his visual awareness, talkative when he felt comfortable, and, of course, moody and self-destructive when he was drinking too much or thought someone had gone behind his back or broken their word to him.

One of the things I like most about Sam Peckinpah as a filmmaker is the way he designs his sequences in what I call "the contradiction of image." Things we don't expect begin to play upon and affect the central core of the action.

The Wild Bunch opens with the outlaws, led by Pike Bishop (William Holden), wearing soldier uniforms and riding into a small town. They pass a group of kids setting fire to a scorpion, a little visual aside to what's about to come.
[Actually, when they ride into town several scorpions are being overrun by angry ants. When the gang escape after the robbery, we see the kids setting the scorpions on fire. So there are two visual metaphors here: the people (in the form of the bounty hunters) rising up against the gang, and the final pyrrhic victory of their shootout with the Mexicans.]

When the Wild Bunch rides into town, they pass a preacher standing underneath a tent, denouncing the evils of alcohol. In almost every Peckinpah film, there is some kind of reference to the evils of alcohol.
Pike's character reveals his sympathetic side immediately; as the group prepares to enter the bank, he inadvertently bumps into a little old lady and knocks her parcels to the ground. Everybody freezes, but with the decorum of a gentleman, Pike picks up the packages, extends his arm, and helps the lady across the street.

The bank robbery does more than just set up for an action sequence. Peckinpah sets up his characters and situations in order to illustrate his theme, which is "unchanged men in a changing land." The relationship between the two main characters, Pike and Dutch, is established immediately. In the first scene we see they've ridden together, stood by each other, and fought each other; they have a history between them. They know that the days of robbing banks and railroads are "closing fast," and they're locked into a dead-end future where the only alternatives are death, prison, or living out a meager kind of existence in a small Mexican village.
Late one afternoon, after Sam had finished his day's writing on The Wild Bunch, we were enjoying a beer and watching the sunset when I asked how he structured his stories. He paused for a moment, then told me he liked to "hang" his stories around a centerpiece. Typically, he said, he would build the action up to a certain event, about midway through the story, then let everything else be the result of that event.

In The Wild Bunch it is the train robbery, done in almost total silence. It's a magnificent sequence; once he sets up the story and the characters, everything leads to the train robbery and the rest of the movie unfolds as a result of that sequence.

First posted: 12 August 2013

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