What new generation writers can learn from Ricky Lee

To be a successful playwright, screenwriter, or writer for any medium, for that matter, patience is what you need besides writing skills. And that, according to multi-awarded screenwriter Ricardo “Ricky” Lee is more important than mastering your own craft.

Lee talks about why University of the Philippines is very close to his heart.  PHOTOS BY MANNY PALMERO

Seeing writers working double time just to get recognized and become a movie or television director in a short span of time is commonplace. Not that it is bad, but true-blue writers know that building a portfolio of writing credits, an enduring process of starting small and slowly working to the top, is a much better way.

“Unlike during my days, we didn’t have a sense of time. Today, well not all them, but majority of aspiring writers, they want to be up there really fast,” says Lee who himself can boast a four-decade successful writing career.

One fine afternoon, Ricky Lee welcomed this writer to his humble abode in Quezon City. I decided to come earlier than the agreed time for our interview because his assistant informed me that Mr. Lee has another interview for that day.

Upon entering his house, together with a photographer, Mr. Lee’s assistant guided us to a separate room at the backyard. It’s a library with pillows on the floor, and instead of carpet, a huge banig is spread across the room. Movie posters of his most revered films are hanging on the wall. On my right, just after entering the door, is a big white board. Lee later explained that the library also serves as the venue for the workshops he conducts for budding writers.

The award-winning writer has been instrumental in mentoring and honing skills of the next generation of playwrights through his scriptwriting workshops and books, contributing significantly to Philippine literature and popular culture.

From the early 80s, Lee has been conducting scriptwriting workshops at his home for free. Every time that a schedule is announced, hundreds of aspiring writers sign up just to be personally mentored by the seasoned screenwriter.

“I enjoy doing workshops more than the participants do. As you know, I don’t have a family of my own. That’s why the people I mentored have become my family. I devote time for them because they make me learn relevant things. One time, after launching my book, someone asked me how, amid my age, am I able to write stories as if I belong to this generation. I said, as much as possible I try to keep an open mind. In my workshops, it’s not just all about me imparting what I know, it’s a two way communication where I also learn,” Lee starts.

Seasoned screenwriter Ricky Lee is this year’s UP Gawad Plaridel awardee.

Lee grew up with his relatives in Daet, Camarines Norte. His mother died when he was 5 years old and only saw his father on few occasions. He studied primary and secondary school in the same town. Driven by his passion to pursue his dreams, he ran away from home and took a bus to Manila. He roamed the streets, taking on menial tasks. And as they say, the rest is history.

“People already know my story and my body of works including my struggles as a writer. And I always told my students that struggles are part of the process,” he enthuses.

After completing Himala in 1970, the screenwriter had a conversation with the late Lino Brocka. They wanted to come up with something different. Hence, the story of Cain and Abel came about.

“Action films were in that time so we wanted to create something new but the final product turned out to be a drama, still,” he chuckles.

But that’s part of the learning process, he reiterates asserting that a person can’t stay in a one box forever. He recognizes the beauty of experimenting and learning from trial and error. He talks about reinvention and defying complacency.

Lee understands that in today’s generation, a lot of people are complaining about formula films being the dominant force in the local cinema. He said that in the scheme of things, it’s imperative that we recognize this box.

“I want new writers to learn that the box will always be there. No matter how you try to ignore it, the box will always be there,” he says.

He explains that even indie films are subject to formula, no matter how dark the movie is, regardless if it talks about subjects mainstream films don’t dare discussing, the box will always remain.

“The best you can do is to acknowledge the box and then fight it, from there draw out your creative juices and make something different. We also have to consider the audience and the producer. If the movie is too dark, people will not see the movie,” Lee explains.

Ricky Lee and Nickie Wang in a one-on-one interview at the screenwriter’s residence in Quezon City.

He furthers that striving to go against the current once in a while makes creative writing delicious because “You cannot totally put the material in the box. That makes the work very exhilarating. If you have already perfected your craft, there’s no more room for improvement. You’ll get bored and you will no longer have the drive to do better next time. You wouldn’t even know what to do next time.”

In doing so, Lee wants to remind young writers to invest time in doing research. He believes, apart being creative, research is crucial because it makes the writer credible as well as it convinces audience that the writer is talking about a real world, or a plausible world, at least.

“Say, what’s the truth about Jose Rizal or Elsa’s life? You have to do research. Research is important in writing stories. Don’t get tired of doing research because that is your attempt to back your story with truth. Even fantasy has to have a truth,” Lee explains

Low points and sweet success

At one point, Lee doubted his talent. Amid writing hundreds of stories (more than 170 screenplays to date) he had an episode when he thought he was not a good writer.

“Artistically, I thought I didn’t know how to write. Maybe nakaloko lang ako ng mga tao. I had so many insecurities back then. Well, right now, I know I can right well but my struggle continues. It’s part of the whole process,” he says.

Lee wants young writers to remain humble. He wants them to embrace the idea that they cannot be too sure of themselves. As the adage goes “no one is indispensable.”

“Hindi ka dapat maging segurista na magiging matagumpay ka, that you’ll succeed professionally and win awards. That shouldn’t be your goal. A writer’s goal is to seek for the truth and be sincere to your story. In the process you’ll realize that there will be defect in your story but as long as you attempted to be sincere and seek for the truth, the audience will appreciate your work,” he states.

Lee’s practice as a writer surely paid off. Staying true to his ideals has made him won more than 50 trophies and accolades to date. Next month, Lee will have another feather on his cap. He is this year’s UP Gawad Plaridel awardee. The recognition comes with a trophy, especially designed by National Artist Napoleon V. Abueva, which will be awarded to Lee by UP President Alfredo Pascual and UP Diliman Chancellor Michael Tan in ceremonies to be held on Aug. 26, at the UP Film Center.

The UP Gawad Plaridel recognizes Filipino media practitioners who have excelled in any of the media (print, radio, film and television) and have performed with the highest level of professional integrity in the interest of public service.

“My biggest contribution in this industry is my being a mentor to new generation writers. I just wanted to be remembered as a mentor, I don’t want to be remembered any other way. That’s what I do, I mentor people. I share with them what I have learned, my struggles and what we can do to achieve truth in our stories. I have reached the bottom many times over, that’s why awards for me are sweet victories.”

“The UP Plaridel is also nothing but a sweet success. This award is very close to my heart because UP is my home. This is where I grew artistically. It served as my home when I needed a shelter, literally. And I’m paying it forward” he ends.

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