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From Producer to Screenwriter

Story by
Nancy Joseph

When Peter Chiarelli (BA, Communications, Economics, ‘96) penned The Proposal, a 2009 romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds, it was only the second screenplay he’d ever written. The film has since grossed more than $314 million worldwide.

Beginner’s luck? Hardly.

By the time Chiarelli wrote The Proposal, he had worked as a film producer in Los Angeles for more than a decade on a range of projects from Amityville Horror to Eagle Eye. He had read thousands of scripts—from brilliant to dreadful—and had worked closely with screenwriters on projects he was producing, offering detailed script notes. It was that close working relationship that led him to pen a script of his own.

Peter Chiarelli

Peter Chiarelli.

“I wanted to write one script to know what the process was like,” recalls Chiarelli, who had no intention of switching from producing to writing. “It was awful, that first one. But then I just had to keep doing it. The second script was The Proposal.”

Since writing The Proposal, Chiarelli has been in great demand as a screenwriter. It’s been an exciting turn of events for the Northwest native, who has been fascinated by film for as long as he can remember. “As a kid, I was always making movies—stop animation films, that sort of stuff,” he says. “I was really dorky about it.”

Chiarelli planned to attend University of Southern California (USC) to study film, but a tuition scholarship to the UW convinced him to stay closer to home. “It’s the best thing that ever happened,” he says. “At USC, I would have focused on film. At the UW, I got a broad liberal arts education that’s made me better at my job.”

Visiting the UW campus last spring, Chiarelli shared that message with students interested in film careers. He said that his UW education helped hone his research skills, which have proven essential to his work. “I used to love researching papers, pulling information from different places and synthesizing it into a thesis,” he explains. “It’s what I still do today, researching for my writing.”

During his undergraduate years, Chiarelli completed internships at KING-TV and Northwest Cable News, the latter leading to a full-time job as a news producer after graduation. He crafted copy for the anchors at Northwest Cable News, taking care to make their scripted words sound as natural as possible—a skill he would tap again when writing dialog as a screenwriter.

The film bug did eventually lead Chiarelli to graduate school at USC, where he chose the producing track. He attended school at night, interning at DreamWorks during the day. After earning his MFA, he worked full-time at DreamWorks and made short films in his precious free time. “I was always doing two things at once,” he says. 

That was still true when Chiarelli wrote The Proposal. He was running Kurtzmann/Orci Productions while writing the screenplay after hours. Given his day job, and a previous stint as director of development at MGM, Chiarelli worried that sending his screenplay to colleagues would cause confusion—was he the producer or the screenwriter?—so he used the pseudonym “Jennifer Kirby” on the script. When producers called, wanting to meet the talented Jennifer Kirby, Chiarelli had to come clean. “I get teased quite a bit about that now,” he admits. “But at the time I figured if it didn’t sell, no one would know. It would be just another script in the pile.”

The film did sell, attracting top talent. Seeing the film come to life, with talented actors reading his dialog and a dedicated film crew bringing his imagined world to life, was an experience that Chiarelli will never forget. “Walking on set the first day was the most exciting,” he recalls. “That it was getting made, that it was real…I’d accomplished that and no one could ever take it away. That was the highest high of the whole thing for me.”

Although the success of The Proposal has led to other screenwriting opportunities, including What Men WantMost Wanted, Pete’s Dragon, and The Layover, Chiarelli is aware that the film business can be fickle and nothing can be taken for granted.

“It’s a difficult industry,” he says. “’No’ is a big word in Hollywood. As I told the UW students during my visit, the only reason to do it is because you love it. I just knew that if I didn’t try, I’d always regret it.”