I sat down and talked with Pete Chiarelli, writer of ‘Now You See Me 2’ and ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ regarding approaching the iconic magic franchise and developing and releasing ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and looking at how it become so culturally impactful.
DISCUSSINGFILM: To begin, how did you first get into the screenwriting industry?
PETE CHIARELLI: I started off as a producer, that’s what I came to Los Angeles for From Seattle, I went to graduate school at USC, and I took the producer route for a long time, I took a job at Dreamworks making copies for scripts and as an assistant eventually becoming a producer. In that time and all these jobs, I was kinda the story guy and doing the notes for everybody and helping writers with the story. I had enough of them say for example “hey thanks for giving me the story for the third act of my movie, you should get pay a lot more for doing that, it’s not normal in your job position” which I did for 10 years and then I did finally decide to go into screenwriting, I started with one that is in the bottom of a draw that no one will ever read and then my second script was for ‘The Proposal’, once that movie was about to release, I decided to quit my job as a producer, that’s how long it took me to finally be comfortable to go into screenwriting full time.
DISCUSSINGFILM: In doing research for this interview, I saw that you went to the University of Washington and they did a piece on you that led off with this incredible line that you are perhaps best known for writing ‘The Proposal’ under the fake name ‘Jennifer Kirby’, what’s that all about?
PETE CHIARELLI: So at that time I was working as a producer, I was a studio exec, Sony bought MGM so we all got laid off when I finished ‘The Proposal’ but I wasn’t sure what to do with that screenplay. I then got a job running a production company for two writers; Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. They had just started a production company at Dreamworks so I went back there, I was at that job for about six months and then I re-read ‘The Proposal’ screenplay and thought I could set this up but I knew the odds against setting this up were really high so I came in with this plan where I pitched it and said “we need new projects, here’s a new project, let’s try and set it as a spec but if it doesn’t sell, I’ll be cool with just doing this job but let’s see what happens with it.” To make sure that no one would guess it was me because I didn’t want it out that “oh he’s running the production company but maybe he really wants to be a writer” so it was a fallback position so no one would know I wrote it in case it didn’t sell. I came up with this whole story and picking a woman was to throw people off the scent, I came up a story that I went to school with her at the University of Washington, we set it up for bare minimum, it barely sold but when Disney called to ask who to write the check too, I unmasked myself and told them it was me. That was Jennifer Kirby’s writing career over with one script.
DISCUSSINGFILM: She must have the best success rate in the industry though
PETE CHIARELLI: Yea, she’s for 1 for 1, she’s the Harper Lee of screenwriters.
DISCUSSINGFILM: After ‘The Proposal’, you worked on the story for ‘Now You See Me 2’, how did the development process for that story come around?
PETE CHIARELLI: When they came to me, my belief was that you can’t do the same film but bigger and different, what intrigued me was taking the characters and putting them in a different situation. In the first film they are in control the entire time and are leading the narrative, a natural thing for a magician to do too, now I aimed to invert it where they are being played and can they fight their way out of this situation?
DISCUSSINGFILM: How was it like to explore and play around the world of that film franchise?
PETE CHIARELLI: It was really complicated, there were some open-ended questions that we had to figure out answers for, we had to make sure everything lined up. It was really complicated though and it was a box inside a box inside a box situation so you have a lot of crazy whiteboards and yarn connected together ‘Homeland’ style to make sure everything lines up and everything doesn’t feel like homework to explain it. You have to try and pack as much in as possible whilst making it entertaining for the audience. Not to mention learning this world of magic and the principles of magic, then applying these tricks into the story and getting into the structure of the eye.
DISCUSSINGFILM: Then you worked on this film ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ which has been trending everywhere this year.
PETE CHIARELLI: That one worked out!
DISCUSSINGFILM: Definitely! So how did you approach the screenplay to that film and are you surprised by the reaction it received?
PETE CHIARELLI: So we worked like shared custody of a child, so I would work on it and then she would work on it, it was always in concert so you are trying to raise the same happy child but in different households. When I started on this film, I went for a meeting with Nina Jacobson’s company and they had this book and gave me it, when I got to 150 pages in I knew I wanted to do this film. Then I finished the book and gave them the pitch on how we were going to create a structure for the film which is structured differently to the book but still satisfies the readers. We then pitched what characters stories we were going to tell and the threads we were going to pull. Jon M. Chu then came aboard who brought Adele in who had a point of view that was invaluable for the film. Before production began they brought me back in for a while, with Adele on set.
DISCUSSINGFILM: What are your thoughts on the cultural impact and significance that the film has had, especially since it’s a movie that has helped push the diversity banner in Hollywood?
PETE CHIARELLI: I see it as a piece of proving that telling a story that’s representative of a culture that we haven’t seen before can also be entertaining and very profitable. You see Black Panther and Get Out And see you can tell these stories that we haven’t seen in the past 100-150 years of cinema, sorry not good math but these stories that are diverse and have this particular cultural point of view mean we can tell even more stories that apart of this culture and I think ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is a clear example of that. I’m excited to have been apart of something that will hopefully inspire other filmmakers to do the same. I’ve worked on a lot of movies, and have made many successful ones but talking to people who have never seen themselves in a movie like that before and how much it means for them to see themselves in the movie and you think of all those other opportunities where hopefully more people will get to see themselves in these types of movies. I really do think it’s happening, studios are seeing that a broader audience will go and pay to see a movie with diverse faces, how cool is that? It’s just been a high mark for me personally where I’ve done something that has made a positive difference.
DISCUSSINGFILM: Absolutely, breaking down that myth that those types of films wouldn’t work but now we are seeing a change in the narrative.
PETE CHIARELLI: Yea, when I first got the book, I asked “so we don’t have to change anybody?” and the studio said “sure” which I then responded with “are you sure?”. Because I’ve worked on other jobs where for example this romantic comedy where someone meets these parents because one is Chinese American and thinks she will have something in common with the parents but she won’t because she’s Chinese and I’m glad that’s fading away. That we got ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ made and proved it could work, I’m very proud.
DISCUSSINGFILM: Additionally, the sequel to ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is in development, what’s the status on that as of now?
PETE CHIARELLI: There’s a lot of deal making and time managing, Jon has another film he must shoot first but the sequels are definitely on the way that’s for sure.
DISCUSSINGFILM: What can audiences expect from these sequels?
PETE CHIARELLI: I can’t say much, if anything at all, but I will say that in the first film we got a thin slice of Asian culture where we saw the ultra wealthy of Singapore, but now it opens up to the rest of Asia and now we’ll get to see these characters in these different environments and more reflective of what is going on all over of the area.
DISCUSSINGFILM: To conclude this interview, are there any upcoming projects that you’d like to mention to promote to make our audience aware of?
PETE CHIARELLI: Right now I’m working on a pilot for ABC which is set in the fashion industry, which if you saw the way I was dressed you’d think that’s a bad idea but the job of the writer is to learn these things so I’m working on it with a designer named Zack Posen, hopefully we will be shooting the pilot in the Spring.