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Tucson-born TV writer Peter Murrieta champions the behind-the-scenes jobs at ASU film school

Peter Murrieta has produced over 300 hours of television in his career, including shows like Disney’s “Wizards of Waverly Place” and Netflix’s “Mr. Iglesias.” But it all began for him building sets with hammer and nails.

Now, the Tucson-born TV writer is deputy director of the Sidney Poitier New American Film School at Arizona State University's LA campus, and he's working to bring young people into the industry he’s dedicated his career to.

He was just named as part of the Imagen Foundation’s 2024 class of Influential Latinos in Media and brought some ASU film students with him to the gala celebrating it. 

Murrieta said he didn’t grow up obsessed with TV and movies. He actually thought he might be a high school baseball coach. But, then that all changed with one professor in college.

Full conversation

PETER MURIETTA: I had a professor who kept after me when I would turn in papers and kept saying you're really funny and you should look into writing dialogue for people. And so I met some people that were doing a sketch comedy group on campus and started writing for them. And from there, I just started learning about places like the Second City in Chicago. And I moved there and got involved with that. And then from there, went to L A and started writing for TV.

LAUREN GILGER: Were you always on the back of the camera side of it? Did you ever do the acting?

MURIETTA: I did in college. I was in the sketch group but I always was more interested in the writing part. The on camera stuff made me not as excited as the, seeing a scene done well that I wrote.

GILGER: That's really interesting. That's like, so opposite from most Hollywood kind of stories we hear, right? Like you, you preferred the backside. That's interesting.

MURIETTA: Yeah, I think I didn't really want like all the focus.

GILGER: What do you love about writing?

MURIETTA: I think I like the idea that there's a vision of my head of what is perfect and it's not gonna come out that way. And I love that struggle. I love that struggle every day. I just wrote something this morning and you get better at it as you get more experienced. But I think you learn to embrace the idea of, hey, how's this going to be different than I thought it was gonna be? And I really love that.

GILGER: I read that you used to build sets. That's kind of how you started in Hollywood. Is that right?

MURIETTA: Yeah. When I first moved back out to LA from Chicago. Those are the, one of the first and second jobs I could get was a friend of a friend that was working on crew and I used to do construction in high school. And so I was able to build sets in the valley for a while until I got an agent.

GILGER: And then you got an agent. As a writer. Talk about the first kind of projects you got writing for like, do you remember? You know, the first big gig you got?

MURIETTA: Yeah. Yeah. The first big job I got as a writer, there's little ones, but the first big job I got was doing what's called punch up, where you go in two days a week to a show and you write jokes for them. And you come on and they've already gotten in the rehearsal process and they've done rewrites and it's a high pressure situation because you're only there two days a week. But you're also an easy hero because you just take, come in with fresh eyes and you make a few jokes and everybody goes, that guy is good, and then you go home. And it was pretty great, but it also taught me that I wanted to do more and being around the writers that were there every day, wanting to know more about storytelling and more about structure and trying to get all those skills so I could do the whole thing.

GILGER: So you you might be best known for Disney's "The Wizards of Waverly Place," starring, of course, you know, a very young Selena Gomez, now a huge superstar, you kind of launched that career. I mean, but you've done a lot of work throughout the, over the years, I mean, like, are there projects in your mind, like moments in your mind and your career that you'll never forget where you're sort of like this moment, this episode, this script was what I want to do and I did it.

MURIETTA: Yeah, there are, that's a great question. That's a really great question. When you're talking, I can think of very specific moments. I can think of being on the set for "Greetings From Tucson." My first show that I made that was created by me and seeing the audience, the studio audience and then the director came over to me between the first and second scenes. And he was a veteran director and he turned to me and he said, look over there. And over there was where all the network and studio executives were. And he goes, when this isn't working, those people are gone by now, look over there and they were all still there very interested in the process. And it was like a moment where I thought, wow. So I thought of this thing and it's working and people are coming toward it, not away from it.

GILGER: So I think one of the common themes, not obviously the only one in the work that you've done because it's incredibly diverse. But from "Mr. Iglesias" to the kind of Latino focused Christmas movies that we've had you on The Show before to talk about. You've written a lot of stories about Latinos, about Latino families, kind of about that culture that you grew up in. Talk a little bit about that and, and, and why that's been important to you in your career.

MURIETTA: Well, I think when you start off, you, you have to come to this work with what you have. And I had my family, I have my, my mixed race family, my growing up, my experiences in Arizona and as I started to get my legs underneath me, you know, I quickly became aware of how few people were trying to do that. There were not a lot of us back then. And I felt a sort of responsibility to, to my family and to my community to make sure that we had a seat at that table. And over the years, it's been pretty awesome to watch as more and more creators and more, more actors have built careers. It's not as lonely a place to be anymore. There's so many of us.

GILGER: And you think behind the camera as much as in front of the camera?

MURIETTA: I think the, the increase of our representation over the years is pretty substantial. Yeah, I do, behind and in front of. Now having said that, you know, I think one of the biggest mountains we still have to climb is we don't have as many shows on the air in any platform that I think we should. You know, I think we look at today, you and I are talking and "Lopez Versus Lopez" is on NBC and got picked up for another season. But there are several other Latin-themed shows that were canceled and, you know, you go back to 2002 and 2003 when my, my show started and George Lopez had a show on.

So if you do that math, you go, I don't know how far we've come, but there's so many people and so many shows, you know, that have come and establish themselves and it just feels like there's a lot more of us at work.

GILGER: I wonder how you think the, the industry's, like the, the way the industry itself has changed and just kind of exploded in a way, like just, there's so many different places to get content. There is so much content, there's so much TV, being made on various platforms, not just on networks, right. I mean, like, do you think that's, that's helpful? Do you think it's a hindrance in some ways?

MURIETTA: Oh, I think it's both. Yeah, I think it's both. I think it's a help for opportunities and it's a hindrance in the way that there's a show that will break out from the pack and establish itself as a sort of national, you know, audience that everyone knows and talks about, I guess if you wanted to talk about it in the comedy space right now, you'd probably say "Abbott Elementary" is like the closest thing to something that's got a national profile that's hugely watched and hugely successful. There's so many shows, it's hard to push forward through the, the noise.

GILGER: Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely. OK So, now you are the deputy director at ASU's Sidney Poitier New American Film School in LA, growing in kind of a new program. I wonder so sort of having done this your entire career. I know you still do this, you still write all the time. But what's it like to, to bring young people into the film industry today? Does it feel kind of full circle?

MURIETTA: Oh my gosh. Yes. I mean, I, I, when I'm looking for recruits for our new cohort in, in LA, I'm always saying like I'm looking for young versions of me who wanted to maybe do this, you know, had a professor that or a high school teacher that told them, hey, you could maybe do this. I think it's an amazing opportunity to, to come in and you know, for, for students and parents to, to understand that there's so many jobs available that are behind the scenes that doesn't take away from you wanting to become an artist.

Like I, I became, you, you, you can swing a hammer to start, you can, you know, operate a camera, you can do all these different things. And I think a lot of times when parents think about their, their kids doing film, they get worried about, oh my gosh, how are they, how are they going to make a living doing this? But there's so much opportunity. 

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.