We had the good fortune of connecting with Jeff Kitchen and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Jeff, we’d love to hear more about how you thought about starting your own business?
I thought long and hard before starting this business. I was already considered one of the top scriptwriting teachers in the business, but I wasn’t satisfied with how I had taught for eighteen years. I took some time off and then came back to it fresh, determined to find a better way to teach writers than doing 30-hour intensive weekend seminars.
The materials that I teach are complex and require proper training and experience to get their full power. I made a professional study of how people learn, and in the process came across several innovative training models that made huge differences in how I train screenwriters, TV writers, and playwrights.
Previously, I used to blast information at my students in weekend intensives, and even though I worked with groups of six or less and got them using the tools on their own scripts, it was not enough to give them substantial expertise in the tools. So my new focus became deep know-how instead of mere knowledge. I figured out how to train writers in a comprehensive two-year program in which the central component is constantly building multiple scripts—so that it’s learn-by-doing.
Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
My art is strange because many people believe they can do it well. But screenwriting, TV writing, and playwriting—the craft of the dramatist—are notoriously difficult. In fact, dramatic writing is generally considered the most elusive of all the literary disciplines. It’s tricky, it’s slippery, it’s hard to predict, and it’s devilishly hard to do well on a consistent basis. But most people think it’s easy—you get an idea for some clever bank robbery or romantic comedy, type it up, get paid your million dollars, and then go relax by the pool.
But 99% of all scripts are rejected, and that’s true across the board in film, TV, and theater. Surely all those stories can’t be that bad, so what’s the problem? The problem is that while of course the story has to be great, it also has to work as a performance medium which means it must be actable, consistently grip the audience, with no dead spots, and it needs a powerful emotional payoff. That may not seem so hard until you comb through all the scripts submitted to the industry in one week, trying to find ones that really work.
So it’s a field that is considerably more difficult than most people imagine. And yet due to my unusual training, I stumbled onto a technique that is so different that people constantly say that they’ve never seen anything like what I teach, and that it works better than anything out there.
I was classically trained as a playwright and spent three years reading two old books on the subject, one by a top Broadway script doctor circa 1900, W.T. Price, and the other by one of his students. Price revised every play for top producer, David Belasco, before it was produced and received so many requests for help from writers that he formed the first school of playwriting ever in the history of the world. Price had twenty-eight students and twenty-four of them had hits on Broadway.
I studied the innovative techniques in these two books relentlessly, working hard until I had a “lightbulb moment” where it all suddenly clicked into place. I worked to refine my understanding of the tools and to develop them further, and a few years later I was hired as a script doctor (dramaturg) for a New York theater, and later to teach playwriting at a theater on Broadway. As my interests morphed into screenwriting, I began teaching the same tools to screenwriters, and before long I was even training story executives at all the major Hollywood studios. They love these tools, consistently saying they’re the most advanced plot construction and story development tools in the industry. Past students have been nominated for multiple Oscars and Emmy awards, and I’m one of the top-rated writing teachers in the industry.
I took a break after teaching non-stop for eighteen years, to help recover the biggest sunken treasure ever found and to start a toy company that sells treasure. When I came back to teaching, I wanted to improve on the thirty-hour intensive seminars that I’d been doing. By building on a technique called Cognitive Apprenticeship as well as on the work of Anders Ericsson, a top expert in how to train people to expert levels, my new focus now on deep know-how rather than mere knowledge. I figured out how to train writers in a comprehensive two-year program in which the central component is constantly building multiple scripts—so that it’s learn-by-doing.
We named the new program Script Kitchen, and with it less than a year old, we’ve written one complete thriller from scratch, and are about halfway through writing a romantic comedy. We’re also working on an action-comedy while we develop several other stories. This is done within a workshop format and all of the scripts we build originate within the program, so that we’re not working on students’ scripts. This makes the process more objective and enables them to focus exclusively on mastering their craft, and because we’re constantly working on multiple scripts, they get experience in various genres and in different formats, like film, TV, or stage scripts. It’s a rigorous training process that builds deep habits and turns them into seasoned versatile scriptwriters.
We train five days a week for two hours a day, plus an assignment, usually to dig further into the story we’re building. It’s a learn-by-doing process, much like apprenticing to a plumber where your education mostly consists of crawling under houses and soldering copper pipes together rather sitting in a classroom being lectured on pipe fitting. The tools are unique and quite powerful, but you only get that power if you know how to use them fully and properly, so the emphasis is on pure practicality rather than mere theory.
And it’s been scientifically proven that the harder it is to learn something the better it sticks in long-term memory, so I deliberately disrupt the learning process in various ways to make students think on their feet and become resourceful and independent. The life of a professional writer is not a neat array of predictable problems, so this is good preparation.
They finish their training by building a complete script on their own within the workshop. It’s done in full view of the group, and I drop in now and then to see how they’re progressing. I’ll have them articulate what they’ve solved so far and where they’re stuck, making sure that their mastery of the techniques is solid. They have taken years off their learning curve because they now know how to turn a good story into a drama that works in any genre, whether that be comedy, action, thriller, horror, or drama. Their scripts will tend to work.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Surfing at Sunset where Sunset Boulevard hits the PCH is a fun outing, even if you’re a beginner. You can park literally right next to the ocean on the PCH just south of Gladstones, a good restaurant right on the water. There are five different waves breaking at Sunset, but they only break at low tide. And there’s a section of beach to swim at on the south end. I often park there and write with the water fifteen feet away, looking out at the South Bay.
Speaking of which, the South Bay, with Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Redondo is so gorgeous to explore along the coast. Its small beach-town beauty is spectacular in so many ways, and it’s a nice break from the busier city beaches in Venice, Santa Monica, and above. You can bike and blade along the beach for miles on a concrete strip.
Malibu is great to visit and to eat. In Santa Monica the Third Street Promenade has great restaurants as does the Santa Monica Pier. Montana Avenue has great food and the Aero, a theater that shows classic movies and often has the stars or director as a guest speaker. You can be sitting a few rows away from Quentin Tarantino or James Cameron talking about Pulp Fiction or The Terminator. And each Jan. 1st they show Marx Brothers movies.
In Hollywood, go to the Grauman’s Chinese Theater and sit in the front row to see a great movie. Do the same in the Cinerama Dome. Front row center for some great cinematic film like Dune is an unforgettable visual experience. You’re still thirty feet from the screen so it’s not too close, and all you can see is the world of the movie. The Arclight has a lot of great screens and there are so many movie theaters, great restaurants, live theater, and shopping in Hollywood that it’s a really fun place to visit.
I’d go see the Kings play hockey, or skate where they practice at the Toyota Sports Center about a mile south of LAX. Universal Studios theme park is fun and has a full-sized Harry Potter castle, and Disneyland is just 35 miles south. The Pantages always has great shows, and you can ride the subway right to it from Hollywood Boulevard. You can also take the subway down to the Santa Monica Pier and soon it will go through Beverly Hills and into Brentwood.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I spent three years reading the works of a legendary but largely-forgotten Broadway script consultant from circa 1900, William Thompson Price. He worked with many top Broadway producers and he got so many requests for advice that in 1901 he formed the first school of playwriting ever in the history of the world, The American School of Playwriting. He had a number of extremely successful students with hits on Broadway.
Price worked hard to create several new tools for the dramatist and came up with groundbreaking techniques that are mostly forgotten these days. I’ve trained many thousands of writers, including multiple Oscar and Emmy nominated writers. Story executives at all the major Hollywood studios who I’ve trained consistently say they’re the most advanced plot construction tools in the industry.
Other: My book is called Writing a Great Movie: Key Tools for Successful Screenwriting. It’s available on Amazon as a paperback or a Kindle book.
Head shot by Matt Reagan