Alum Pete Chiarelli’s ‘terrifying’ move to L.A. leads to screenwriting success
Perhaps most well-known for writing “The Proposal” under the fake name Jennifer Kirby, alumnus Pete Chiarelli (B.A., 1996) found success in Los Angeles, where he moved a couple of years after graduating from the University of Washington. Although the film starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds was the highest grossing romantic comedy of 2009, Chiarelli said he never really feels like he ‘made it’.
“As soon as you finish a project, it’s like what’s next?” he said. “There’s a certain comfort level where you make a name for yourself and people generally know who you are in certain circles, but I never feel like I can kick back and relax, and that I have it figured out.”
In addition to the premiere of “The Proposal,” Chiarelli said other memorable moments in his career include the first day as a University of Southern California graduate school intern at DreamWorks and producing a short film that got turned into a super bowl commercial.
“When they pay you to work on making movies – that was a great day,” Chiarelli said. “At DreamWorks, there is a fence that looks like Jurassic Park to let you in, they give you free lunch, and people are always talking about movies. It was exciting to be there.”
As an undergraduate at the UW, Chiarelli focused on broadcast journalism, worked at KING 5 during his last year of school, and landed a job at the fledgling Northwest Cable News. Working his way up to becoming an assistant producer (and producing the Sunday after Thanksgiving 4 a.m. broadcasts that no one wanted), he had no inkling that he would later become a screenwriter.
“For a while I tried to convince myself that TV news was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and I liked it a lot, but when I got into grad school, I just couldn’t help but give film a shot,” Chiarelli said. “It was a great year at Northwest Cable News – I worked overnights, but I wrote a lot of dialogue for people which proved to be helpful down the road.”
The two words that came to mind when describing the move to L.A. to attend grad school at USC were ‘intimidating’ and ‘terrifying’. He said his biggest piece of advice to students wanting to move to the City of Angels is to be on top of the simple stuff: Figure out where you are going to live, if you need a car or not (you probably do), how much money you need to live, and what you are going to do to stay in L.A. for a long time.
“I’ve seen more people who didn’t figure that part out and then the pressures of life starts to chip away the drive to keep reaching for your dreams – as cheesy as that sounds,” he said. “You have to figure out the boring stuff and then you can go big.”
Chiarelli describes the experience as a marathon, not a sprint – and added that having a plan is important, but not to be afraid of changing course. He moved to L.A. with the intentions of becoming a producer, but found that his strengths and talent lied on the storytelling side of film.
“That is what I was good at; it was like my superpower,” Chiarelli said. “I realized that in order to be happy and have a job that would sustain me and I would love – it had to be screenwriting. I set myself up in a way that it was an option that I had and it was a choice that I could make.”
Although his education from USC may have had more tangible influences on his career, Chiarelli is a proponent of a non-film undergraduate education.
“What you need to make movies and television is a well-rounded education so you have a baseline to pick from and can come to L.A. with great ideas, thoughts, and things that you learned,” said Chiarelli, who majored in economics, took English classes, and read a lot of books in addition to his Communication degree. “It makes for better movies, better filmmakers, executives, agents – and that’s what I got at the University of Washington; a great undergraduate education that I’ve been able to draft off of for years.”
Chiarelli has been giving back to UW Communication students interested in the entertainment industry by mentoring them during annual Career Exploration trips to L.A. Because of this leadership, the Department of Communication honored him with the inaugural 2014 Alumni Award for Excellence in Mentoring in recognition of his invaluable contributions of expertise, time, and advice given to students.
“I think back to my 20-year-old self who had absolutely no idea how any of it worked, and I would have killed to go on a trip like that to know what I was getting myself into to make the move a little less terrifying,” Chiarelli said. “You hear L.A. and think the Hollywood sign, Hollywood Boulevard, and the downtown skyline when in fact those just aren’t the places you will be working and spending your time.”
During those two-day Career Exploration visits, Chiarelli hopes to make L.A. less mysterious and make it known that all the people making movies are just people.
“The trip is demystifying and empowering because then you can make a better decision about whether you want to move to L.A. or not,” he said. “Some students have done the program and moved down here afterward to give it a go, and some decide to stay in Seattle – which is just as much a success in a weird way because it’s them making an informed decision. They can do something great back home and not have that gnawing feeling of wondering whether or not they should have tried it.”
One of Chiarelli’s most recent projects was co-writing “Now You See Me 2” with Ed Solomon, which began shooting on December 1. Although his other projects are secret for now, he assures that Jennifer Kirby will not be used again.
“It was a one-time deal and a very effective pseudonym despite the flack I get for it,” he said. “We had a good story and people bought it – I forgot that Jennifer Kirby went to the UW!”