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Interview with Pete Chiarelli

By Dustin Rowles | | June 19, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | | June 19, 2009 |

Most of you have probably never heard of Pete Chiarelli, the former head of Kurtman/Orci Productions and head of development at MGM. There’s no real reason you might have, unless you were paying particular attention to our Future of Hollywood Guide, which was published last year. Chiarelli is a product of the evil studio system, who slowly rose through the ranks over the years to his position at Kurtzman/Orci, the production shingle ran by two of the most familiar behind-the-scenes names in Hollywood (they’re behind films like Star Trek, The Transformers, and Eagle Eye, which Chiarelli co-produced). During his time climbing the studio ladder — years in which he toiled away as an assistant — Chiarelli was also working on a script that, years later, would become The Proposal, which stars Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock and hits screens today.

We couldn’t actually get Ryan Reynolds for an interview because our site name rhymes with a female anatomy part and Mr. Reynolds has some dignity, but Chiarelli was kind enough to answer a few questions for us about The Proposal, and how it came to be. Chiarelli’s abs may leave something to be desired but, in some small way, he was able to validate my man-crush on Reynolds.

Dustin Rowles: So Pete, I know a lot of screenwriters spend years waiting tables and waiting for a big break — but I understand your background is pretty unique. What is your “day job”?

Pete Chiarelli: I came to screenwriting through working in feature film development. I moved to Los Angeles about 10 years ago, hell-bent on being only a producer. I went to graduate school for producing at USC, I worked in the story department at DreamWorks, went on to be an assistant, creative executive, studio executive, and eventually a full-fledged producer. But the longer I worked in Hollywood, the more interested I became in screenwriting. Eventually I wrote a script that is currently buried in the deepest drawer that exists in my home, and then began writing “The Proposal” when the studio I was working for was bought out. I finished the script when I was in between jobs, and sold it when I was working for Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci (Transformers, Eagle Eye).

DR: You submitted this screenplay under a female pseudonym - what’s the story behind that?

Chiarelli: I had just started working for Alex and Bob, when I walked into their office and handed them the spec screenplay of “The Proposal”. Now they just hired me to help them produce, and here I was outing myself as a closet screenwriter. I knew I liked the script enough to see if we could set it up, so I told Alex and Bob that I would take it out under a pseudonym in order to not confuse people as to what I was doing at their company. If it didn’t sell, it would be like it never happened. And in order to make sure that no one caught on, I put a female name of the script. I’ll have to say it worked pretty damn well, nobody guessed it was me. When Disney finally bought the script, we told them who I really was so they would make the check out the right person.

DR: How did the idea for the story develop? Is any of the movie autobiographical?

Chiarelli: The idea came from me working in Hollywood, but isn’t autobiographical. Although I did work as an assistant to a woman, she was a very cool boss. However, I did have a lot of friends who worked for horrible bosses, men and women who were completely self-centered and tyrannical. But what struck me is that it paid for these bosses to be this way, it paid off for them professionally. It made sense for them to be an asshole. So, what would happen if you took one of these bosses out of their environment and forced them to act like a real human being?

The other thing that came out of my own experience is setting the movie in Sitka, Alaska. When I was a sophomore in college I spent the summer in Sitka gutting fish. I remember going up to Alaska and having no idea what to expect. Are there igloos? And even though some of it is what we’ve all seen on Northern Exposure, I found that the people up there were much more sophisticated and plugged in than I ever thought. So that’s why when we get up to Alaska in the movie, Ryan’s family is so wealthy. I wanted them to surprise Sandra Bullock’s character, and make her see Ryan’s character in a new way, make her realize that her assumptions about him were wrong.

DR: You sold this screenplay four years ago. Can you sketch out for us what the process looked like between sale and when people actually started signing onto it?

Chiarelli: It was a long process. We spent about a year developing the script, trying some things out that ultimately didn’t work. Then there were some changes at Disney, and there was a while there where we weren’t sure if they were to move forward with the project. Thankfully we made the cut and then after another draft or seven we finally had a script that everyone was excited to attach a piece of talent to. Sandy and Ryan signed on at about the same time, and then our director Anne Fletcher came on. Unfortunately all that happened just a few weeks before the writer’s strike, so I didn’t have long to address everyone’s notes. After the strike, I came back on and kept writing throughout the production.

DR: Betty White totally steals the movie. Did you have her in mind when you wrote the part?

Chiarelli: I didn’t have Betty in mind, but I did know what I didn’t want. So often the grandma role just sits back and delivers wacky one liners, but you don’t get a chance to ever know who they are. I like to call this the “rapping grandma”. And while Betty certainly has her share of one-liners, the idea for Betty’s character was that if she had been born in a different time and a different place, she could have been a high-powered executive in New York, just like Sandy’s character. Betty of course caught on to this right away, and just nailed it. Now I think I’m a jackass for not writing it for Betty.

DR: Ryan Reynold has a great deadpan, sarcastic delivery that is rarely capitalized on, Blade Trinity aside. Did you rewrite anything for him once he was cast, or did you have a sardonic leading man in mind? And how much did you add to the script during production?

Chiarelli: Ryan actually is the one actor that I had in mind when I wrote the script. When I was a studio executive at MGM, I supervised a film called The Amityville Horror and spent a lot of time with Ryan on set. We became friends on the movie and found that we had a very similar sense of humor. So without him knowing it, I went off and thought about things he might say while sitting in my boxer shorts for many many months. It’s not creepy at all. Really.

And once Ryan signed on we definitely spent some time playing with some of his dialogue. Ryan is a great writer and we had a lot of fun coming up with some of his stuff. There’s one line when we get to Alaska that I think we spent two days getting right. Thankfully it gets a big laugh in the movie.

DR: Pardon the question, but for my own edification, you think it’s unusual for a lot of straight men to have man crushes on Reynolds?

Chiarelli: R-squared is a dreamboat. There’s no two ways about it.

DR: People often complain about the contrivances of studio romantic comedies. The premise in “The Proposal” is studio friendly — green card marriages aren’t new. But the love story felt organic to me. How did you achieve that given the constraints of the genre?

Chiarelli: For a love story to work, you have to believe the characters are capable of falling in love with one another. So at the beginning of this movie, when Margaret and Andrew are hating each other, we set up all the things that they have in common. They are both career minded. They both love literature. They both work hard. They’re independent. Funny. Smart. However, they are both playing a role in the office that makes it impossible for them to see who the other person really is. She’s the boss. He’s the lowly assistant. And never the tween shall meet.

Getting them out of the office is key to allowing them to be themselves. To allow them both to see each other for who they really are. Believe me, it’s no mistake that they have their first real bonding moment after they run into each other naked. I mean, once you’ve slammed into another person naked, you’ve got no place to hide. You can’t play a role anymore when your bits and pieces have just crashed into the other person’s bits and pieces. It’s after the naked scene, about halfway through the movie, that they begin to really connect and fall in love.

The other thing that we tried to do, was to not have either Ryan or Sandy change in an unbelievable way. She’s not a bitch who finds she has a heart of gold, she had the red slippers on all along, it just didn’t pay for her to show a softer side at the office. And he’s not some wimpy assistant who learns that he has a back bone, he was forced to subjugate himself at work because that’s what his job called for.

DR: Why are studio rom-coms formulaic? A lot of people have forsaken the genre as a result; do you have a rejoinder to those viewers? How is “The Proposal” different? And is it harder than it looks to make these types of movies?

Chiarelli: With this movie we tried to put a comedy first. Always. We talked a lot about some of the screwball comedies from the 30s and 40s like The Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby, Some Like It Hot, It Happened One Night. And more recently, movies like Tootsie or A Fish Called Wanda. All those movies were great love stories, but it’s the comedy that drives them. I think a lot of romantic comedies nowadays forget that just because something is romantic, doesn’t mean that it can’t be funny.

And yes, it is harder than it looks to make these movies. It is hard to make people laugh, they make you earn it. It’s also really hard to create the illusion that the story is just bouncing from one moment to the next. Of course she’s going to force him to marry him. Of course they are going to visit his family in Alaska. Of course they are going to fall in love. It is an f’ing trick to make it all seem so effortless.

Pajiba’s review of The Proposal will be up later today.

Bridezilla Review | Pajiba Love 06/19/09

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.