"Hindi ka na nagsusulat?" Ricky asked as he signed my copy of his new book, his very first novel. "Well, I write in my blog." A heartbeat, and then I knew it was a rather stupid thing to say. "I hope you go back to writing soon," he wrote in his dedication, which made me feel worse. I wanted to say, I was never into writing so how can I go back to it, but that would be digging my grave just a little bit deeper. But I do write, just not literature or screenplays, and certainly just for fun. But still I feel a bit guilty.
How can I not if the person I was talking to was Ricky Lee, whose hands wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for such masterpieces as Himala, Moral, Brutal, Salome, Jaguar, Itim, Relasyon, and so many others? Who gave Philippine cinema strong women characters? Whose style influenced virtually every young filmmaker and scriptwriter working today in the country? Who was responsible for many of these young filmmakers' and writers' careers in the first place (that's why during Ricky events, you see them volunteering to help out, ushering guests, manning the tables)?
Ten years ago, I walked into the Mowelfund Film Institute compound to audition to be part of Ricky's writing workshop. I'd already been with Namfrel for just a couple of months at that time, but I was still dreaming to become a film director. I thought, how can I be a good director if I do not know how to write? In hindsight, I did not really know what I was doing. Many of the participants, as I would later find out, didn't either. We were there because this great opportunity was there. And we wanted to get to know, and be known by, the Ricky Lee, who in Philippine movie writing, was and is a god, no one bigger.
Apparently, hundreds of people were thinking the same thing. I think I went on the last day of auditions, and Mowelfund's spacious compound was just bursting with people. How the hell will I pull this off, I thought. A cattle call. Hundreds of people, hundreds of dreams. This could get bloody.
They made us write on the spot a short narrative, in longhand. I wrote mine in English, a comedy. I don't remember exactly how the story went, but the main characters were John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Sean Lennon, with the couple having an argument, throwing Beatles memorabilia at each other including a limited edition copy of The White Album, with Yoko making strange sounds, and Sean throwing a tantrum and wishing he were Jakob Dylan instead at the end of the story (I knew I should have made a copy). The screening committee was composed of writers and directors, including Marilou Diaz-Abaya. I left Mowelfund thinking, thanks for the experience, what a way to spend the weekend.
Less than a month later, I received a letter from Ricky and a call from his assistant. I was in.
There were about thirty of us in our batch, the 12th batch of Ricky's workshoppers (the first had theirs in 1984; officially there would only be two more batches after us). We called ourselves Dosé ("twelve"). Some of us were already writing, if not for TV, for print media. There was an illustrator, a businessman, some were jobless. There could have been an actor and a singer, had then-budding star Piolo Pascual not opt out due to scheduling conflict, and had Jeffrey Hidalgo not drop out for an unspecified reason. Some of us were from the province, spending many hours traveling to Ricky's house in Quezon City, borrowing money from relatives just to be able to buy bus tickets (once in a while we chipped in for the travel). We were a happy bunch. Isabella de Leon, the daughter of our fellow workshopper Dean, was our unofficial mascot, before she became a child star and did those movies and soap operas for GMA-7.
Aside from the writing itself -- from conceptualizing ("pagbubuntis") to characterization, structure, milieu, dialogue, to making the outlines and the sequence treatment, all taught by Ricky himself in his very informal, funny, thorough, and easy to digest style -- what I remember most fondly about those months of workshop were the movies. Sometimes we would spend half the day just watching classic movies; some even pulled all-nighters, watching stuff like Pasolini's "Salo" (which many of them could not stand, but remains one of my favorite films).
Then there's Ricky's house. The talent that has passed through Ricky's doors is innumerable, it being the venue not just of his workshops, but also countless nights of brainstorming, story conferences, or simple get-togethers with colleagues and collaborators. For a movie and music junkie (like Ricky), his house is a dream. I could spend a whole day just staring at his extensive book collection (literature, art, movies, music), his huge cabinets of CDs (mostly rock), and racks upon racks of laserdiscs and DVDs (mostly hard-to-find art films). And you can borrow them, if you ask nicely.
And of course there's Ricky himself. An orphan from Daet, Camarines Norte, he went to Manila as a teenager and worked odd jobs, while writing short stories for which he won Palanca awards. While studying English in UP, he was involved in the underground movement, and was jailed in 1974 when Marcos declared martial law. After his release, he went on to write more stories, stage plays, and finally screenplays and teleplays.
In spite of his achievements, what strike people upon meeting Ricky Lee (currently the creative manager of ABS-CBN and creative consultant for Star Cinema) is his being soft spoken, his humility, his total lack of airs. For us who have gotten a bit closer to him, what we really value is his generosity, his desire to share what he has, not only for our success, but most importantly, for the future of the art of writing in the country. There are now plans to make The Writers Studio, which he and some of his closest associates have founded, to officially become a foundation that will put aspiring writers in school and make those dreams closer to reality.
And he really goes out of his way to help aspiring writers enter the business.
A few weeks after our workshop wrapped up, I was shocked when his assistant called me up at the office. He then gave the phone to Ricky. Would I like to write for ABS-CBN? My NGO life could have ended that day. I was with Namfrel for only a few months at that time, and I truly loved my job. It was an easy decision to make.
(Which partly explains my guilt. After almost ten years, after everything he has graciously done for people like me, I still owe him a screenplay).
There is one advice from Ricky that has stuck with me all these years. Pertaining to the style of writing we should follow, he would say, "kahit naka-kahon, basta nakabukas ang kahon." It is okay to be conventional, as long as there's something in it that is not conventional. Or, it's okay to compromise (if you're in the entertainment business), as long as there's something in it that pushes the art form forward. Funny that it has not struck me as merely a sound advice for writing, but for living a life. It's okay to be normal, but don't be boring. It's okay to be a suit, but be a bit crazy after 6. It's okay to have a regular job, but do other things on the side. It's okay to go along with a group, but don't lose your individuality. It's okay to live according to others' expectations, but do not sacrifice your integrity.
It is probably one of the best advice a young person could ever get, probably the best gift that Ricky has unwittingly given me. And I'll forever be grateful.
(Click the image below to see photos from the launching of Ricky Lee's first ever novel, "Para Kay B: O Kung Paano Dinevastate ng Pag-Ibig Ang 4 Out of 5 Sa Atin").