Writer Pete Chiarelli, a native of Fort Lewis, Wash., is the storyteller behind "The Proposal," a romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds opening at theaters June 19.

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Unlike many young people who move to Los Angeles to work in the film industry, Pete Chiarelli didn’t have a screenplay in his pocket.

“I just knew nothing about screenplays,” said Chiarelli, a Northwest native born to a military family in Fort Lewis. He studied economics and broadcast journalism at the University of Washington, graduating in 1996, before entering the Peter Stark Producing program at the University of Southern California. “I remember sitting in a class in the Stark program and having a professor explain that a screenplay has three acts and thinking, oh, my God, [screenplays] do have three acts.”

But, upon graduating and starting a career as a producer in the industry, he quickly discovered a love for storytelling. After completing a screenplay now “buried in the deepest drawer in my house,” he began work on “The Proposal.” A romantic comedy about a demanding boss who tries to avoid deportation to Canada by enlisting her assistant to marry her, the screenplay found favor at Disney and is opening in theaters this weekend, starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds.

Chiarelli said he was always “a closet fan” of romantic comedies, citing “Tootsie,” “When Harry Met Sally” and Cameron Crowe’s movies as favorites. “But I hadn’t seen a romantic comedy in a while that I liked. So I had this idea from working in Hollywood, just witnessing this boss-assistant relationship dynamic. I thought it was a good fit.”

He liked the idea of making a funny movie that was also romantic. “I think you can lead with the comedy,” he said.

During production, Chiarelli was very involved in the making of the film, continually revising and tweaking the dialogue in response to suggestions from the director (Anne Fletcher) and the cast. Bullock, in particular, had numerous notes for her role. “She was like, let’s go for it. There are some jokes at the beginning where [the character is] highly unlikable. She says awful things. It wasn’t that awful originally, but [Bullock] was like, let’s really go for it, don’t pull any punches.”

Chiarelli said he set the story in the world of book publishing (Bullock’s character is an editor) to keep things far from Hollywood. “I remember the first year I moved down here, I was so hellbent on succeeding professionally that I realized I hadn’t read a paper in a year, other than Variety or the Hollywood Reporter,” he said. “Your world becomes so small, so competitive, dog-eat-dog. You just kind of lose focus a little bit.” That’s what happens, he said, to his two lead characters in the movie. “That’s kind of the journey that both of them go through. They realize, OK, we were a little out of whack.”

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com