Peter Chiarelli, co-writer of this summer’s anticipated hit Crazy Rich Asians, knows a thing or two about screenwriting. After many years of working as an assistant, producer, and executive in the movie industry, Chiarelli decided to throw his all into screenwriting.
With hits like The Proposal and Now You See Me 2, and the freshly released Warner Bros. adaptation of the best-selling book, we’re more than ready to learn a thing or two from Chiarelli.
In a conversation with The Script Lab for the TSL Summit, Chiarelli shared a slew of informative anecdotes, advice for beginners, and tips on how to become a better screenwriter. Watch the full interview for free on the weekend of Sept. 22 and 23 only. You won’t want to miss it 37 minutes in when he talks about adapting Crazy Rich Asians from book to screenplay!
Here are seven helpful ways to better your skills as a screenwriter.
1. KEEP THE EXECS READING
When Chiarelli is writing, he likes to imagine the executive that will be eventually reading his script — probably sitting in their study, pawing their kids away on a Sunday afternoon so they can read yet another script. After Chiarelli’s many years as an executive himself, he doesn’t know how to write any other way.
“As a writer, there’s two things that you’re doing,” Chiarelli said. “You are writing a movie that’s going to go up on a screen — people are going to say the words, hopefully people will like it. But another audience for your script is the agent/manager/executive who’s reading it who’s going to say, “Yes I want to do this,” or “Yes let’s give this the green light.”
In order to get that positive response, Chiarelli said, you have to grab them. You must get them to flip through the pages without realizing how much time has passed on their Sunday afternoon.
2. READ & WATCH
This advice is given with such frequency that it’s often received with eye-rolls and snarky comments, but it’s repeated for a reason — because it works. To be a better writer, you have to read a lot.
“If you’re just reading Paul Thomas Anderson and David Koepp’s scripts, you’ll see what a good script is, and what a good screenwriter does,” Chiarelli said. “But you gotta read the shitty ones too.”
Likewise, you must actually watch films to learn about filmmaking. So watch a ton of movies, maybe even commit to a schedule of one movie every day like Chiarelli did for a while. By doing so, you’ll see what works, figure out what you like, and what just isn’t good at all. You’ll absorb pace, feel, structure, and learn how to break the rules, too. Watch, read, and learn.
3. LEARN HOW TO TAKE CRITICISM
“For me, screenwriting is very personal,” Chiarelli said. “I’m handing over a document that says, ‘I think this is good. I think this is worth your time.’”
That process — the handing over of the document — is terrifying. It’s not a good feeling at all (maybe in some ways), but one that every writer knows well.
Getting feedback can be hard, and getting criticism can be brutal. But, as a writer, you must open yourself up to criticism, Chiarelli said. You have to disassociate for a while to get through without taking offense to everything anyone points out and be ready to use the criticism you receive to make your work better.
4. DON’T CHASE TRENDS
Superhero movies may be just about the only things that make money at the box-office nowadays, but that doesn’t mean you should be throwing all of your energy into writing one. After all, you never know when the bubble will burst.
“I don’t think you can write anything to try and chase a trend,” Chiarelli said.
Case in point: when Chiarelli wrote The Proposal, romantic comedies were on the decline. Studios weren’t interested at all in rom-coms. But Chiarelli’s story was original, it was fresh and, most importantly, it was funny.
You just don’t know what the next big thing will be. So don’t bother chasing the market; instead, write what you love.
5. HAVE FUN AND BECOME AN EXPERT
Chiarelli loves the beginning of projects — that wonderful time when you get to immerse yourself in the world of your story and have fun with learning as much as possible.
“I’m a pretty curious person and you get to ask a lot of dumb questions and talk to these experts, meet these people and read all these books, and then fold it in so that you’re hopefully giving people information that they didn’t have before.”
In writing his screenplays, Chiarelli has become an expert on magic, dragons, Paris, the construction of NFL stadiums, old-money families in Singapore — you name it. And his projects are all the better for it, since Chiarelli’s knowledge of the subject matter comes through in the screenplay and in the final product.
If you’re in the beginning stage, embrace it and get your research cap on.
6. ADMIT THAT YOU DON’T KNOW EVERYTHING
Our personal experiences are limited, it’s true. But that doesn’t mean we need to live by the age-old adage “write what you know.”
Chiarelli threw that advice out the window when he started writing. He made a movie about a horrible boss when he never had one himself. He wrote a script about magicians when he didn’t know anything about magic. He adapted a book about being a Chinese-American thrust into a place of old-world money in Singapore.
How did he do it? Well, that’s simple. He admitted that he didn’t know everything, and he asked questions to bolster his knowledge.
“I don’t know what it is to be the son of a Chinese woman,” Chiarelli said. “I don’t know what it is to be a magician on the run. But if you talk to [someone] enough, you can figure out what it might be [like].”
7. PIGEONHOLE YOURSELF IN THE BEGINNING
Chiarelli hates hearing young writers say that they don’t want to, or are afraid of being pigeonholed. Nothing makes him want to yell, “Shut up!” more than that phrase.
His take on things? If you want to get paid in the beginning, you have to pigeonhole yourself. You have to make yourself known for something so that when executives and producers have work to hand out, they think of you in particular.
“Once you’re established, then you can branch out,” Chiarelli said. “But at the beginning, if you’re the anime person, be the anime person. Be the home-invasion thriller person. It’s okay to be pigeonholed early. We’re not all Stanley Kubrick. You can make yourself Stanley Kubrick later. You’ve got time.”
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the last thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.