The story of how the new Touchstone Pictures comedy The Proposal came to be is one for the books, but it all started with Peter Chiarelli, a former creative executive at MGM who decided to use his downtime after the company was bought by Sony to do some writing. Shortly after being hired by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci to head their production company K&O, Chiarelli showed that script to the producers, and they decided to shop it around under the pseudonym “Jennifer Kirby.” Once it was picked up by Touchstone and Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds signed on for the lead roles, it was fairly obvious that Chiarelli had a new career that needed to be explored.
ComingSoon.net actually first heard of this project a year ago when we interviewed Bob and Alex, so we were thrilled to finally have a chance to talk to the writer who pulled one of the most amazing backdoor script sales we’ve heard.
ComingSoon.net: I’ve spoken to Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci a few times and last year, when I asked them about some non-genre work, they mentioned this as a project that broke that mold. I understand that this project came about in an odd way, because you wrote it before you started working with them?
Peter Chiarelli: Yeah, I’d been an executive at MGM, and they got bought by Sony, so all of a sudden, the studio wasn’t making movies any more so I had all this time on my hands. I started playing around with this idea and I actually sat down and wrote it, finished it in the idle time in between jobs, just not really with the intention of being a writer. It was more like, “Hey, I’m going to do this.” Started there, was there for a couple months working for Alex and Bob (Sidenote: They told us it was within Peter’s first week!) then kind of walked into their office and said, “I wrote this thing and I like it and I want to go out with it as a spec and attach us as some form of producer to it,” which was just an awful moment. What do you do if they hate it? Thankfully, they liked it, and they got it set-up at Disney with David and Todd as producers, and in addition to running the company full-time, I would bang away on this thing and keep on rewriting it.
CS: Whose idea was it to submit it under a different name?
Chiarelli: Here’s the thing. I went to them and said, “I want to go out with it, but I also don’t want to confuse everybody on what I’m doing here, so I’ll go out with it under a female name to really trick people and then if it sells, great. If it doesn’t sell, then no one will ever know and it’ll be like it never happened.”
CS: How does that work in Hollywood? Because you’d think that people would get mad at being tricked like that. I understand why a big name filmmaker might want to write something under a pseudonym to avoid preconceptions but how does that work going the other way?
Chiarelli: You know, with the spec game and all that stuff, there’s so many scripts that come down the pike that if you read a script and you like it, you don’t care who wrote it at the end of the day. Nobody was mad. A lot of my former colleagues at MGM were a little surprised, but nobody was mad.
CS: How involved were Alex and Bob in terms of developing it? Did they help shepherd it and get it read by the studios?
Chiarelli: Alex and Bob were most involved in the development of the script, so mostly on the rewrites, and then as we went into pre-production and production on it, they were so busy working on “Eagle Eye” and “Transformers 2” at the time that they just didn’t have any time. Physically, they didn’t have a lot of time to spend on this, and it was all filmed in Boston as well. It was mostly through development of the script.
CS: I wondered what led you to this kind of material. Looking over some of the material you’ve worked on as a producer, “Tad Hamilton” is probably the closest to this sort of romantic comedy. Was it just an idea you had that ended up going in this direction?
Chiarelli: I like movies like this that are good, and when you work in development, you go see pretty much every movie that comes out, and I was finding, not to name names, but any movie that was kind of in that romantic comedy genre, I just didn’t enjoy. I love Billy Wilder stuff and “Tootsie” and Preston Sturgess and “When Harry Met Sally.” There’s good versions of these movies, and it was almost an exercise of like, “I think I can do this” and it was like, “You know what? I’m going to do it. I’m going to write it.” The idea came from, you know, working in Hollywood and seeing bosses and assistants interact. I actually was an assistant for a couple years to a woman. Unfortunately for the story, she was like the nicest person (laughs)… it would be great if she was awful, but she was fantastic, like became a friend.
CS: Has she seen the movie yet?
Chiarelli: I don’t know if Grace has seen the movie yet, I don’t know if she has.
CS: I just want to make sure you’re not just trying to cover your ass there.
Chiarelli: No, no, no, but I’ve seen with my own eyes and watched and had friends who have worked for both men and women, where it can be an ugly job. Just the idea of taking a relationship where the boss knows absolutely nothing about the assistant and the assistant knows everything about the boss, and then actually, these two people have kind of everything in common in that you’re working in the same industry. The boss was an assistant before, so it would be two people who are actually suited to be together. How do you get them together in a three-day period? How do you do that? They should be able to fall in love with one another, so that kind of became the puzzle of the movie and then you get the immigration stuff and then going up to Alaska. All that stuff came out of… that was like the solution to the problem.
CS: Who came on first? Was it Anne as director or did you already have some of the main cast attached?
Chiarelli: Sandy and Ryan were on first, and then Anne came on.
CS: When Anne came on board, what did she want to bring into the mix as far as her own experience with the genre, having directed “27 Dresses”?
Chiarelli: A lot of it was tone things, because we didn’t play with the structure too much when she came on. It was something I wanted to do, it’s something like sharpening the characters a little bit, getting to know them a little bit more, but then also, we worked really hard on the movie, any time you have a sappy or emotional beat, always undercut it right after so you don’t have to live in that moment too long and to just keep it sharp, the whole movie. You know, clarify the things that weren’t clear, those kinds of things. She was awesome, she was great.
CS: I really liked “27 Dresses” a lot, and like you said, romantic comedies tend to use this formula that’s annoying, which Anne was able to break away from with both her movies.
Chiarelli: Yeah, and everybody who worked on the movie, it shows you what you can do when everybody’s on the same page, but everybody had an affinity and really liked a good romantic comedy or a comedy with romantic elements, as I like to call it. Kind of going back to that screwball, “Bringing Up Baby,” that’s what everybody wanted to do. We just made sure that everything in the script and everything we were doing was kind of all focused on that point.
CS: As far as Sandy and Ryan, when they came on board, did that change the dynamics or did they immediately fit into the mold of what you were hoping for anyway?
Chiarelli: No, we all worked really closely together. We didn’t change much of the structure when they came on but definitely did some dialogue polish, stuff to make them more comfortable with what they were saying. In the script originally, we did not make fun of the fact that Sandy’s character had small breasts, and Sandy’s like, “Look, let’s just go for the joke.” That’s a rather crass version but it was doing that for all these little beats to really tailor them all for Sandy and Ryan.
CS: Once Anne came on board, did you just let her go and do her own thing or were you still heavily involved, because you’re also a producer?
Chiarelli: Anne was just so great and like, “I want you around all the time. As much as you can be here, please be around.” It was a real collaboration the whole time. She’s the director and she ran the show, but I’d always be there if she had a question or a suggestion, and then we were always tweaking with the script, again to kind of tailor it, to “Hey, let’s make this line better. Let’s make this scene a little sharper. Let’s cut a half page out and let’s get there.” Sometimes we’d put a scene up on its feet. We’d rehearse it and on the page it looked great, rehearsal was great, and the cameras would start rolling and it was just dead. It was just garbage, man. Again, we would just stop, take a breath and rewrite it, fix it right there on set with everybody. Everybody would tell me what they wanted and the direction they wanted, and I’d go away and come back and work it out. It was a really nice process.
CS: How was it being in that kind of situation as opposed to being a producer where you’ll have a say in the script, but actually being the writer and the go-to guy for all these changes?
Chiarelli: A whole ‘nother set of neuroses that I never thought I’d have, just because sometimes we’d have a scene we’d be shooting the next day and we’d talk about it at the end of the night. Then we’d decide “I’m going to make some changes here. We don’t like this or that. Pete, go back and fix this and then we’ll read it in the morning.” Yeah, sitting there on the day with everybody reading your stuff in front of you is the generator of a great flop sweat that I did not know that I could every have, because it’s just torturous. I will say that it’s pretty damn exciting now that the movie’s finally coming out.
CS: What about the physical comedy stuff? Were a lot of those set-ups written in the script and they developed on set?
Chiarelli: Yeah, all the physical stuff was all written in the script. The scene they run into each other naked is constructed within an inch of its life in the script. That scene was really written out, it was really a blueprint and then there’s other stuff, like Oscar/Ramon’s dance for Sandy, that was something that was written like it would be somebody like Ramon and then he’d be dancing for Sandy, but that was something where Anne choreographed that whole number. The dance around the fire, again, the situation was set-up, what she was wearing, all the information that comes out, but the dance was choreographed.
CS: Were you able to take a leave of absence from your day job at that point to do this?
Chiarelli: The great thing is Alex and Robert were executive producers of this movie, so between running the company or me making the movie, they were really great about saying, “Go make the movie!” And then that finished and then a couple months later, I came to them and said, “I love this company but I think I’m actually going to make it as a writer. I’m going to try to go do that full time” and they were great about it. I’m just writing full-time now.
CS: How did the writers strike affect this movie? Was it happening around the same time?
Chiarelli: Yeah, it was a huge drag, because Sandy came on and then we had maybe two weeks before the writers strike, so she gave us some notes right before the writers strike and I just wrote my fingers to the bone, trying to get it done before the writers strike. Got everybody a draft, which actually, I’ve never read. I didn’t even get to proofread it because it was like getting it out by midnight, and then the writers strike happened. Obviously, didn’t do anything on the movie then, and then it ended a couple weeks, maybe a month, before we were starting principal production, so came back and again, just wrote in a panic, a fury, just had to get it ready. Being on set also helped play catch-up.
CS: Do you have anything else in the works that you’re going to be shopping around soon?
Chiarelli: I’ve got a project, a comedy, over at Sony, and I’m making a deal for another movie right now, so yeah, finding work.
CS: Are you still involved with Alex and Bob? Do you think they’d come to you to write stuff for their company down the line?
Chiarelli: Oh, yeah. I’m still consulting with the company, but that’s just a fancy way of saying we still work together.
CS: How nervous are you about taking on Harold Ramis next weekend? He’s kind of the Godfather of comedy in some ways.
Chiarelli: I’m totally nervous! I can’t get it out of my mind! But you know what? I love the movie and I think people will really like it, we’ll see.