How The Proposal Writer Peter Chiarelli Duped Hollywood Into Thinking He Was A Woman
So get this pitch: A young, handsome Hollywood executive has some spare time on his hands, so he writes a script -- a romcom. And because this is a small town and he wants it to be judged on its own merits, he puts the name "Jennifer Kirby" on the front page. The script makes the rounds, people love it, and everyone wants a general meeting with this Kirby girl. So our hero gets his best friend to do him over in drag, heads out into the unforgiving L.A. sunshine, and not long after that the macho head of a studio falls for the script...and for him.
It's Tootsie for a new generation, right? And right when you have the suit sipping a Diet Coke on the other side of the desk hooked, that's when you reel him in with those five magic words:
Based on a true story.
Well, all of it was except for the dressing up in drag part and having a studio head fall head over heels. But you gotta take some creative liberties, right?
The exec-turned-gender-illusionist-screenwriter in question is Peter Chiarelli, and his script was Touchstone's The Proposal, a romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds opening this Friday. Movieline asked Peter to tell us the details of his fiendish deception:
Tell the story, because it's a great story.
I had been working in development for a long time. I was a studio executive at MGM when I had this idea. The studio got bought by Sony, and all of a sudden the phone stopped ringing because everybody heard we weren't making movies. So I had a little extra time on my hands. I started writing the script at night. I finished it before I took a new job at [Star Trek writer/producers Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci's shingle] Kurtzman/Orci, kind of running that company. I put it in the drawer for a while, then read it again and decided I'd really liked it.
What had given you the idea for it?
It's a Hollywood story is what it comes down to. I worked as an assistant in Hollywood. I worked for a woman who was actually fantastic and became a really good friend -- so it doesn't quite work out that way -- but I had a lot of friends who had worked for both men and women for whom it was just a tough job. So the idea that you've got these two people that are working together. One has all the power over the other. They have all these things in common -- they picked the same profession, they both are total workaholics, they both love in this case books or film or whatever, these are two people that have a lot in common. So how do you get them to actually see that they are meant for one another. That became the puzzle. How do you get these two people to fall in love in three days?
There's almost something about it that's like crossing a line. It's almost like incest.
Oh yeah. And it makes people very uncomfortable. But it's that kind of uncomfortableness that makes things funny, and gives you a little fuel for the comedy, too.
Getting back to the story --
So I wrote it, liked it, and decided I wanted to go out with it as a spec. So I went to Alex and Bob and said, "OK, here's my plan. I'm going to go out with it as a spec. What I'll do is I'll go out with it under a pseudonym that no one will guess." So I went under a female name that I just made up. I wrote up a bio for this woman that my agent would give to anybody if they asked who wrote it.
It was all a little conspiracy.
It was a total conspiracy. A total conspiracy. For a few reasons. People knew me in town, as a studio executive. So I didn't want it to be a script that Pete Chiarelli wrote. If it didn't sell, I wanted to be like, OK, I'm just going to produce full time. Because at that time, I thought that I wanted to produce more than I wanted to write.
How important was it to you that it be a woman on that front page?
class="pullquote right">It was all about deception and lies, as opposed to wanting people to think a woman had written it. It was about not wanting them to think that I had written it, not anything socially relevant. So it worked, and went out and fooled everybody. And at Disney, [former President of Walt Disney Pictures and Television, now Mandeville CEO] David Hoberman and [Mandeville President] Todd Lieberman read it and liked it a lot, and they came on as producers, and then Disney bought the script.
So your agent gets a call that they'd like to meet this Jennifer Kirby and buy her script.
Well the script had actually shown up on the Black List, if you know the Black List. And, people called him for a year asking for a general meeting with Jennifer Kirby.
What would he do if that happened?
He'd just say, "Uh -- that's Peter Chiarelli." I outed myself after Business Affairs called, and I thought well I want them to write the check to the correct person, so that's when we told them, and the cat was out of the bag.
So you're on the other side now. Is it everything you'd ever hoped it would be? Are you living the life of a tortured writer?
Absolutely. The thing about the writing, I'd always loved to write, I just never thought I'd love to write screenplays. And I really have fallen in love with it. I've worked a lot of different jobs in Hollywood, and this is the job I like the most. I fell in love with it through the development process, as insane as that sounds. It's a tough process. I've been in hundreds of development meetings at this point, and it's a very different world when you're the writer and there's ten different people giving notes --
The notes that you would usually be giving.
Exactly, and trying to figure that out. Being able to understand sometimes, like, okay, they're giving me a note, but this is the note that they're really giving me. What's the note behind the note? And kind of doing the Socratic method to get what they're really saying is something I'm able to apply, just because I've done so much development. And I found that I really liked going back to my computer and having this problem to solve.
Your feelings weren't hurt?
Never. And honestly I think that's probably the reason I stayed on the movie from beginning to end. I never took it personally. But it's really hard not to take it personally, because it is something that you're writing and putting out there, and people are criticizing you and telling you that it's bad and it's not good enough, and it's awful. Awful. You just feel naked, and vulnerable, and all those things. But you can't take it personally. And I didn't know if I could do that, but I find out that I could just separate myself from that and just say, "OK. Let's make it better." ♦
And that's not all. We then asked Pete if he'd like to play a little round of One-Page Screenplay roulette, and he was game. We proudly present, then, Peter Chiarelli's The Problem with Hot Coffee.
The One-Page Screenplay: