Screenwriting guru Jeff Kitchen teaches the fine art of violating the rules


By Michael Tunison

(Reprinted from Entertainment Today with permission from the author)


The question isn't whether or not there are mountains of bad screenplays in Hollywood-even an occasional cineplex-goer back in Cleveland can tell you there are. Seen any movies lately? The question, of course, is what's wrong with the scripts, and that's one the studios, with their mill-like development processes, never demonstrate much knack for answering.


That's where Jeff Kitchen comes in. The writing guru/script doctor has made it his mission to help movie scribes-both the wannabe and professional varieties-improve their work with a system of structural tools aimed at pumping up the dramatic power of material. In seminars he conducts in LA and other cities the Los Angeles-based "dramaturg" outlines the function of these tools in hopes writers will use them to make their scripts more original, logical and engaging.


In Hollywood, where the exploding interest in screenwriting has led to a lucrative and sometimes parasitic cottage industry in training and consulting services, such seminars are nothing new. Bookstores have entire sections devoted to the subject, and advertisements scream out lists of blockbusters allegedly written by teachers' alumni. Advice on writing-mostly anecdotes and vague discussions of studio pet theories such as the infamous "three act" structure-is all too plentiful, and often seems targeted more at giving moral support to aspirants than nuts-and-bolts training.


Kitchen's approach is a more serious attempt to infuse screenwriting with theories of classic dramaturgy-the study of dramatic composition-and as such is more demanding of students, who may not be prepared to apply Aristotle's concept of dilemma to their buddy-cop thriller or syllogistic logic to their broad action-comedy. But Kitchen argues that such knowledge is exactly what most screenwriters lack.


"People tend to be pretty much tripping at the end of the 30-hour seminar, because not only has their script come up quite a bit, but they now have a set of tools with which to approach any material," he says. "Not that they're necessarily an expert in the application of the tools, but they see that the tools really work, and that if they apply themselves to them they can have something that actually works."


Kitchen, whose usually soft-spoken demeanor grows intensely animated when discussing subjects such as the difference between story and drama, developed his techniques through characteristically unorthodox means. A self-educated screenwriter and movie buff, he studied informally under the tutelage of Irving Fiske, a playwright whose work received acclaim in the '30s and '40s. "He gave me these two books to read, and I went off and read them for three years," Kitchen says. One of the books Fiske gave him was a pioneering dramaturgical study by William Thompson Price, a turn-of-the-century teacher whose students went on to write 24 Broadway hits, but whose own scholarly work has largely been forgotten.


Kitchen based one of his "tools" on Price's model for determining the key dramatic questions in a story. In his seminars, Kitchen teaches this technique as well as other more common theories of drama, such as material from Aristotle's much quoted Poetics and the widely misunderstood Thirty-six Dramatic Situations by Georges Polti. Kitchen is the first to admit that the techniques are tricky to master, but students who work through his process often see results that are… well, dramatic.


"The material almost always improves extensively, because the tools are so powerful," he says. "I have increasing respect for the tools because I've seen a trend form in so many pieces of work. In the 30-hour seminar, it almost always improves substantially. That is not to say that they might not have already had a very well-done piece, but that it can highlight the strengths of that piece, isolate and extract those, and still help take it to another level-even if it's only organizing what's already there."


His three-day "Action-Thriller Screenwriting Seminar" includes two days of instruction on how his techniques work, and a third day of applying them to writers' individual scripts in a one-day "Development Session." While the development workshop is optional, Kitchen thinks most students require some practice applying the techniques to their own work. He expands on the workshop format in his 30-hour intensive program.


"Fully half of what I'm teaching is what in hell are you actually applying these structural tools to?" he says. "You want to be the master of these tools-you don't want to follow them slavishly. You want to be the judo master throwing them around."

When talking about writing, Kitchen tends to speak in violent terms-"torturing the protagonist," "putting the screws to" or "plotting to murder" an audience, "attacking material"-and this aggressive tone fits his approach to the craft. In his workshop sessions, he and his students vigorously assault scripts in hopes of injecting them with what Kitchen likes to call "dangerous ideas."


"In my 30-hour seminar, I will attempt to shake their material up, and a big part of my job in that format is to go around throwing hand grenades into their ideas, so that I'm violently challenging a lot of their stuff. Not in the sense that, ''This sucks,' but like, 'What if you tried this?' I'm not by any means trying to dictate their plot to them, but I have a great deal of freedom in that I don't have to make things work, and I can blow things up quite extensively. But I can often take them to a new level in terms of daring of thinking in general."


While Kitchen teaches specific techniques for doing so, he stresses that he isn't instructing students to learn any particular formula or to follow any particular "rules." If anything, he's more interested in breaking conventions.

"The main thing is that anything can work, and either it works or it doesn't. If it's somebody milking a cow onstage for two hours and people line up around the block for six months, then it works. Even if it has utterly no structure. Some of the wildest movies have utterly no structure and violate everything, and they're totally fun to watch."


Kitchen has ongoing seminars with hands-on development sessions; action-thriller screenwriting with some of the top action writers in the business as guest speakers; special workshops for development executives; and private courses. He can be reached at (213) 243-3817.