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‘The students keep me energized’: Award-winning screenwriter talks teaching at ASU

One of the newer professors in The New American Film School, Peter Murrieta brings many years of experience to teaching film. His journey began in comedy and includes stints writing for notable television shows and movies as well as opening his own school; today he teaches students at ASU while continuing to utilize his knowledge and skills in the industry. In September, the Netflix show he currently screenwrites for, "Mr. Iglesias," won an Imagen Award for best primetime comedy, adding to Murrieta's list of accomplishments, which includes two shared Primetime Emmys for "Wizards of Waverly Place" in 2009 and 2010. 

Peter Murrieta's journey has included writing on such shows as “Jesse,” “Three Sisters,” “All About the Andersons” — and his own series, “Greetings from Tucson.”

Question: How did you get into the field of film and teaching film?

Answer: I was always interested in stories when I was a kid. I read comics (and still do!), and would get excited for TV series and new movies. During my time as a student at the University of Arizona, I was part of a comedy group. This led to me moving to Chicago and getting involved with the Second City, ultimately becoming a teacher and one of their touring company members. 

I eventually moved to Los Angeles and was accepted into the esteemed ABC Writing Fellowship. My success in the fellowship led to professional writing jobs on “Jesse,” “Three Sisters” and “All About the Andersons,” and then on to my own series, “Greetings from Tucson,” which told the story of an upwardly mobile family of mixed ethnicity. It was the first to focus on a mixed Latino family since “I Love Lucy.” 

Teaching improv at the Second City and iO Chicago led me to open up my own comedy school in Los Angeles. Bang! Comedy Theater was open for 12 years in the historic Fairfax District and taught thousands of individuals of all ages the joys of performance comedy. At that time, I was lucky to be busy as a writer and producer, but this took me away from teaching. I missed being a teacher. When American Film Institute invited me to become one of their instructors, I took the leap into learning how to balance a professional career with being an educator. 

I am honored to now be a professor at Arizona State. Not only is it great to be back in my home state, but to have the opportunity to commit my time, experience and purpose to teaching and mentoring the next generation of filmmakers.

Q: What drew you to Arizona State’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts?

A: Arizona State’s charter says, in part, “We don’t define ourselves by who we exclude, but by who we include,” and it was incredibly powerful the first time I saw it chiseled in stone on campus. It resonated with me on a personal and professional level. Inclusion behind and in front of the camera is something to which I’ve been dedicated during my entire career. 

Being able to commit to The New American Film School and its vision for the future in Mesa, Arizona, while also being able to maintain my professional career in Los Angeles was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. 

The students keep me energized. Their intense focus on their education and their commitment to their dreams is a reminder of where I was when I first set out to break into the entertainment industry. I feel we both have a lot in common — many of them are working jobs while getting their education, and I’m working my writing jobs while giving an education.

Q: What projects have you worked on that you feel have made you better at your profession? 

A: I learned how to run a television show when I worked for Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline on “Three Sisters” (NBC). I learned to improve my writing and understand what makes a successful story when I sold and produced the first series of my own, “Greetings from Tucson” (WB).

Later, when putting together and running “Wizards of Waverly Place” for Disney, and having that be both a big hit commercially and be critically acclaimed in the community, it was all the proof I needed that the education I had received thus far was worth it.  

Q: What is something about the film industry that you hope to see change or improve in the future?

A: I’d love for everyone’s stories to count, and that diverse stories can be told that aren’t only about our trauma.

Q: Is there something that you hope your students walk away with after taking your classes or working with you?

A: I have a motto, “Work hard and be nice,” and I try my hardest to practice what I preach.

The students at ASU have a vibrant and committed care for their projects that expands their profile with me in class, and I know it will do so for their careers in the professional world.

Q: What projects are you currently working on?

A: An animated feature film for DreamWorks Animation, an animated comedy series about the Latino experience trying to make it in Hollywood for Amazon, and I’m developing an hourlong action-drama series with Blumhouse and an incredibly talented Latina horror film director about a major figure in Mexican folklore (and distant relative in my bloodline!).

I’m also waiting to hear if we’ll have a third season of “Mr. Iglesias” at Netflix.

Q: What are you looking forward to about living in Arizona and working at ASU?

A: The smell of the desert after a monsoon storm is something that takes me back to my childhood. I’ve loved being in Tempe when the rains come, and I look forward to many days like that.

Being at a university that takes its mission seriously and demands that we do too gives me hope that the near future is going to be amazing.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

A: People occasionally say that I am an inspiring person because I’ve been able to go out and make a career as a Mexican-American from Tucson, but the truth is that being at ASU inspires me when I see the students absolutely committed to their dreams. 

dnmunoz1@asu.edu