Alfred Hitchcock said, “To make a great film you need three things—the script, the script and the script.” But to craft the blueprint for a movie, TV show, or stage play is much harder than most people think. More special effects, gunplay, car chases, or laughs can enhance a good script, but by themselves they’re nothing. A script must get an audience up on the edge of their seats and keep them there, holding them in its thrall. That’s the job of a dramatist. Once you crack the script, everything else follows.
In the history of entertainment, a handful of names are uttered when industry insiders speak of the best in any category. The Russian actor, director, and coach, Konstantin Stanislavsky, considered the father of modern acting is such a name. He founded ‘method acting’ and his deep training inspired generations of great actors. Many of the old school Hollywood writers were trained as playwrights, and now writers emerge from film schools and writing classes. One of the top-rated dramatic writing teachers working today is Jeff Kitchen.
Jeff was classically trained as a playwright and for thirty years he’s trained thousands of writers from Broadway to Hollywood. Among his former students are multiple Oscar and Emmy nominees, showrunners and directors, writers, and producers. Author of Writing a Great Movie: Key Tools for Successful Screenwriting, Jeff has trained development executives at all the major Hollywood studios, who they consistently say he teaches the most advanced development tools in the industry. With aspiring screenwriters flocking to LA each year to pursue their dream, I wanted to interview one of the leading dramatic writing teachers and coaches in the business. I sat down with Jeff to discuss his career, his techniques, and Scriptwriting Mastery, his new training program, a comprehensive digital apprenticeship for writers.
Vic Gerami: With the increase in production due to streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu, plus ‘reality’ entertainment now a fixture in the 21st century, how do you see the state of scriptwriting and screenwriting in Hollywood today?
Jeff Kitchen: It’s a truly great time to be a writer today because there’s such an explosion of opportunity. Producers have repeatedly told me they’re starving for people who can write scripts that work, so if you want a career then master your craft. Dramatic writing is notoriously difficult and tricky, but newcomers often think it’s easy. It’s hard work, but if you can show up with deep skills as a storyteller and substantial craft as a dramatist, then you can forge a career for yourself. The door is wide open and studios want to try new things because the whole game has changed. So, make bold choices and dazzle them with your vision—but make sure it works on the page. That’s your job as a scriptwriter—to tell a good story and to make it work dramatically.
VG: What are three things that you would tell writers who want to get into script or screenwriting specifically?
JK: 1) MASTER YOUR CRAFT. The craft of the dramatist is about adapting a story for a theatrical performance—whether as a film, TV show, or on stage. You’ve got to tell a good story and it must be actable and grip an audience. Dramatic writing is generally considered the most elusive of all the literary mediums, so you need solid skills if you want a writing career. There are certain distinctions that help make the skills work and if you muddy those distinctions every time, they become inconvenient, then you lose their power. Scripts are more constructed than written, so mastering plot construction and dramatic principle is crucial. You must be able to wade into the chaos of story creation and structure it into compelling dramatic plot, no matter what the genre. It’s like being a helicopter pilot—hard to learn, but once you do you can always find work.
2) FIND YOUR OWN VOICE. Write a lot. Don’t get sidetracked by distractions or rejections. Dig deep into your own creative reservoir and keep cranking out scripts, but don’t be a robot. Don’t just copycat trends because that’s what there’s too much of already. Always look at things through the eyes of a writer, turning things over in your mind and playing What If. Put yourself in other people’s shoes and think about what you would do in their place. What if you are a ghost with unfinished business? What would it feel like? How could you affect the world of the living? What if you’re a corrupt politician who found one honest thing worth fighting for? What if you’re lost in the woods and know you’re going to die? Listen to your inner voice. You are a distinct person with your own take on situations. What do you bring to the table? What do you love? How are you wired and how are you warped? The deeper you go into your own particular taste and energy, the less you imitate others. Read all the time so that you deepen and broaden your inner resources. Listen for the stories that percolate all around you, and then make them your own. Producers are starving for original creative material, so grow your own and put it out there. The more craft you have as a dramatist, the bolder the story choices you can make.
3) BE TENACIOUS AND SAVVY. Making a living as a writer is no easy feat. You need grit and you need perspective. You need to know how to handle rejection because it’s a huge part of the game. Wanting to never have your writing turned down is like being a boxer and expecting to never get punched. Learn to take care of your inner needs so you can survive emotionally. Understand that your writing won’t be a fit for everyone. Think about movies you loathe that other people think are genius. It can take time to find the people who fit your sensibility. Find your own creative rhythm so you can keep to a pace that works for you. Cultivate your creativity.
You’ve also got to think strategically and work smart to create a career. The ability to collaborate (I don’t mean co-writing but interacting professionally with others) is crucial because you end up working with so many people, and if you don’t play well with others, they won’t want you back. I heard one casting director say that she would never work with this particular person again “because life is too long.” Be professional, reliable, and consistent—someone that other people want to work with.
VG: What is the greatest misconception about scriptwriting?
JK: That a good story automatically makes a good movie, TV show, or play. A story must be dramatized so that it works as a performance medium. In the theater they have a good saying for it. They say the story might sound good around a campfire but it’s not stageworthy—it’s not capable of being performed so that it grips an audience. A good script is consistently dramatic, with no flat sections, which means you keep the audience on the edge of their seats for most of the show. Consistent coherent compelling Dramatic Action is the secret ingredient. Dramatic Action is not car chases and shootouts; it’s a state of action that you put the audience in, wondering how things will turn out, what comes next, how it will end. So, it’s not just storytelling. You need storytelling skills as big as you can get them, and you also need substantial craft as a dramatist.
VG: Your digital apprenticeship program, script.kitchen, offers Scriptwriting Mastery, a high-intensity training program for serious scriptwriters. What are some of the benefits of your program and how does it help writers in their career?
JK: I teach seven of the most powerful dramatic writing tools in the industry and my students are rigorously trained in them by constantly building multiple scripts. They work hard to master each tool and principle, and then to merge them all into one fluid capability. The entire program is laser-focused on teaching the craft of the dramatist. This two-year training program will turn them into a seasoned professional scriptwriter, ready to tackle any project in any genre. They’ll be trained how to trap a protagonist in a dilemma to create riveting dramatic action; how to develop dynamic, complex, flawed characters that feel familiar; how to put their finger on the theme that’s emerging through the complete action of a story rather than the theme they insist it must be; how to jumpstart a story, utilize all its native elements, and amplify its strengths; how to use the power of logic to fuse all the elements of a story into one main action; how to dramatize every part of a story so none of it is flat dramatically; how to make the audience the central focus of all their work; and how to work from the general to the specific as they construct their plot and flesh out its details, keeping only that which is necessary to propel the story forward. The main thing I teach is how to engineer a script properly before you write it, and the way I teach it is by a rigorous apprenticeship built around constantly working on multiple scripts of all genres.
For more information about Jeff Kitchen and Scriptwriting Mastery, please visit http://script.kitchen
Learn more about making progress on your screenplay in our upcoming SU course, Fitting Writing Into Your Life: Becoming a Productive Screenwriter