Ricky Lee has written over 150 produced screenplays—as well as short stories, novels and essays. He’s worked with famous directors and received numerous awards. While some Filipino writers write only in English and some in English and Tagalog or another Filipino language, Ricky Lee writes exclusively in Tagalog as a matter of principle. His subject matter tends to deal with the marginalized in society, social problems and the dark side of human nature. He’s been quoted as saying that writing can change the world. A friend of mine is among his many devoted former students and workshop participants, and he introduced us at the University of the Philippines after Ricky received an award from the College of Mass Communications.
As a former teacher who’d attended several inspired writing workshops, I knew what effect they could have on a person’s work and life. From Ricky’s workshop participants I learned about his emersion method, where he had them engage in totally new experiences. I suggested that he begin our interview by talking about his own background.
I grew up in a very small place in Bicol about eight hours from Manila. My mother died when I was five, and my father turned me over to my relatives, who adopted me. I started writing fiction when I was in my fourth year of high school. At sixteen I wrote my first short story and sent it to Manila, where it was published.
After some misunderstandings with my relatives, I ran away from home, so from the age of sixteen I survived alone in Manila. I was a working student—a waiter, an accounting clerk, a salesman and a tutor of English and math—who was always writing. There were short stories, and then I went into journalism. I studied English at the University of the Philippines while I was working first as a proofreader, then copyreader for a magazine and eventually a staff member.
While I was a student I got involved in the movement against the Marcos dictatorship. Martial law came when I was in my fourth year of college. I dropped out of school and went underground for three years, mostly writing. I never handled a gun. We were assuming different names and hiding most of the time. We lived in underground houses. The military raided my place, and I was arrested and put in prison for a year. That was 1974. At Christmas time they released fifty prisoners as Marcos’s “gift.” I got out and started looking for a job. That’s how I got into the movies. I worked in the movies and television for fifteen or twenty years. On the side I wrote fiction and a couple of plays.
In 1982 after I had done four or five scripts I started conducting free scriptwriting workshops. Many writers asked how I had the nerve to conduct workshops when I’d written only five or six scripts.
That’s a lot.
Yes, but some people believe you have to accumulate so much “knowledge” before you can transfer it to other people. [This is in the Asian tradition of the master’s “transmitting” to the students.] I thought that you should share while you’re learning.
Yeah. It’s more alive that way.
It’s more dynamic: you learn, you share, you learn more, you share more. Rather pass dead knowledge from your head to other people. I never charged money. I’ve never stopped. Basically, it’s about opening your sensibility, your heart, your mind to all the options and the possibilities. Share all the techniques. Then the choice is up to you. You write stories with your unique voice. There’s no formula.
This room is where we do the workshops with twenty to thirty participants. I never thought of myself as a teacher. We’re sharing with each other all on the same level. Usually the workshop goes on for about twenty sessions, all day Sunday until five or six in the evening or later. During the week most of the time participants will be here in the house. They’ll sleep over. We’ll watch films until morning. We call them film orgies.
While a workshop is going on, the participants become part of my life. I spend most of my time with them because they’re usually fresh from high school or college. They don’t know anything about the world or about the movies. I take them to premier nights and shootings. So people say, “Be careful when you invite Ricky to a premier night. He’ll always bring his angels.” I’ll have ten, fifteen, twenty who are always with me. Invite me to parties, and they’ll be there.
That’s also how I conducted my classes at UP and at Ateneo University. I’d bring my students home, they’d sleep over, we’d watch films. They’d take books and CDs home with them. We’d go to shootings. They’d become my friends. Many of my former UP students are still my close, close friends.
Usually I say, “Inside the workshop space, pull everything you can from me, in much the same way that I’ll pull everything I can from you and you from each other. The main thing we’re doing is just being together.”
Are you reading and critiquing scripts?
Yes. We talk about techniques. They go through the entire process from concept to sequence outline, to the script, revising the script and rewriting scenes. We critique each others’ work. They learn how to “punch the bag”: you have this idea or this story, and you work it left, right, east, west, up, down until all the juices come out. Then they start revising. We do critiques, film viewings, lectures, discussions and exercises. And sometimes emersion trips. They choose a place like Ermita, Malate or Roxas Boulevard because of the bars or the prostitutes and the pimps—a very colorful place where they don’t usually go.
And they feel safe with the group.
They feel safe with the group, and they get to see. Each participant chooses a character to inhabit, then just goes with it. I don’t force them. They can just be there and observe the others. Beyond that, they could pretend to be hookers or go farther than that. Someone might work side-by-side with a sidewalk barbeque vendor. The more adventurous ones totally inhabit the character. When we arrive at the place, usually on Sunday evening around six, they’re in costume, maybe as homeless people on the street. I’ll have about five volunteers going with them just to make sure that nothing untoward happens to them.
Do you get much into the issue of privilege? Do you get your students to see social class from another perspective?
I suppose indirectly. Mostly what we see are the marginalized, and that’s most of the emersion we do: with those living in the streets, the prostitutes, the lesbians, people not in the middle of society. They’re not the privileged who have everything. Most of my own characters are also marginalized. I have some rich characters, but I wouldn’t know how to really get the character of a privileged person. I do agree that you have to see from whatever vantage point.
If you take a look at the racism issue in the US, you see people with no idea of what it’s like on the other side. None.
Here privilege can also be like a macho guy who believes that his wife is his property, that that’s what women are. He can rape his own daughter because he might as well be the one to devirginize her instead of somebody else. We have Filipinos in the barrios who think there’s nothing wrong with incest because their daughters are their property. The man, the male, feels entitled. I’ve written about that in many of my films. Or the privilege of feeling you’re “normal” if you’re straight, not sick like lesbians and the transgenders. That prejudice still exists although we’re taking some very progressive steps. The poor are still mistreated. Also, to a great extent Filipinos are still colonized. The tendency is to be more forgiving or more lenient towards the American than a Filipino because we will always look up to the white man. We’ve always been the poor little brother.
Is your idea to have students write more realistic characters? Or is it to give students a view of a social situation that they haven’t been in before?
Yes, yes, and more. Of course it’s a good thing to see, to observe everything, to become “the other.” I think it’s important for a writer to cross a threshold where there’s a sense of danger, where you don’t know what lies behind that door. You it, and then you don’t know if you’re facing just darkness or a monster. I think it’s important for a writer not to know everything, not to be sure about everything, not to have a safety net. Becoming someone else means crossing a threshold, losing control, not knowing how to be yourself. You’re disconnected.
So the writer comes in contact with his or her own fear and also with the darkness.
You can get in touch with your own darkness. You also have a chance to empty yourself. I think sometimes we’re too full of ourselves—our fears and our joys and everything else. By inhabiting another person, even for a few minutes, or maybe hours, you’re able to free yourself of all your baggage. It will come back, but at least for a length of time you’re completely lost. You’re completely…
You’re empty, so you’re able to see or to feel without rules telling you how you should feel, how you should be, who you are. You are able to be free by not knowing.
I notice a big change when people come back from the emersion trip. About one or two or three in the morning, we meet and start sharing. Each participant gives a monologue from the point-of-view of the chosen character. “I am a call boy, and ….” In the monologues they are able to articulate and systematize whatever they felt. So it does a lot. Maybe they’ve blocked their emotions, their instincts, their intuitions. Through this process some of the blinders get removed, and something inside gets unblocked because they feel looser or freer. Because they enjoy the whole experience, they don’t have their defenses up, they’re more off guard.
If I ask people to write a storyline to submit on Monday, and I tell them to make it beautiful, make it correct, do it well, they’ll have a hard time. But if I say, “Let’s play a game, just go there and come up with your story. It can be a mess, but let it come out. You can revise it later. Honesty is the only thing that matters.” Then they can write a story in twenty or thirty minutes, and when they read it in class it will be meaningful. And it will be very fluid. When you force them to write, sometimes the results are very choppy. The same thing happens on an emersion trip. Things get cohesive. They suddenly flow easily and seem to come from a continuous flow inside. Their monologues are more fluid.
I’ve noticed that, when a piece reaches a certain emotional point and I pour it all out for several hours, the emotion seems truer than if I try to do it in a more controlled manner.
Yes. The conscious mind is a liar. It keeps telling you what’s correct based on what it has seen or what it has read or what other people have said. But the subconscious mind is more honest. It usually doesn’t tell lies. So write from the subconscious, from inside, rather than from the head. Although that’s difficult because from the moment you sit down, it’s the conscious mind that’s operating. It takes a while before you can get inside to the subconscious, before the real you starts writing.
Doing the emersion trip in a way helps you get inside faster because it tears down the defenses. Once several participants said to each other, “Let’s not apply for a job at a gay bar or beg on the street. Let’s crash a Chinese debutante’s party.” So they did. They registered, took pictures of the debutante and mingled with the guests. That was their experience, and they were able to inhabit somebody else. It was as harmless as that.
One workshopper applied to be a dancer in a club. She passed the initial stage of the hiring process, but when the manager came back with a tiny bikini for her to wear she admitted she was just doing research. At least she was able to take some steps. The wife of a really famous filmmaker, when she was younger, inhabited a fortuneteller in Qiapo. People started coming up to her and asking her to tell their fortunes. She did for about thirty minutes to an hour, but then she told many of them what she was doing. Filipinos are really nice people—usually, not all the time. Luckily, these people didn’t resent it. I suppose because she also handled it well.
We also do a lot of exercises, sometimes in class, often on the first day. I say, “Write down the name of a person you can’t communicate with. Maybe your mother died before you were able to talk to her, or your father left and you never saw him again or your boyfriend jilted you on Facebook and you weren’t able to talk to him.”
Yes. They do that now. The first exercise is to write a letter to the person in class, uncensored. Nobody else will read it. As they write people start crying and so forth. It gets them to unblock. Afterwards it’s easier because the emotions from the first exercise get transferred to the next. They feel relieved, and they feel ready. The second part of the exercise is to assume the point-of-view of the other person. If your boyfriend jilted you, inhabit the character of the boyfriend, write as the boyfriend. They start writing, not logical writing but associative writing.
The pen doesn’t stop.
The pen doesn’t stop. The writing helps them understand because usually a person, even one who does bad things, believes he’s right—at least for the moment—and he’s doing the right thing. He justifies it to himself. So be the person who dropped you or the parent who died without saying goodbye. That exercise has helped them open up their sensitivity.
Writing is being open and opening your material, but sometimes you can’t be open unless you go into the dark place to something dangerous. You can make it go white and light, but first you have to go dangerous and dark. There’s that journey that you need to do in order to get on the safe and bright side.
In Korea I had a meditation teacher who used to say, “Embrace your dark side.” Become friends with all this anger and resentment and fear. Accept it.
Yes, because it’s part of you. You can’t keep denying the dark side. Embrace it. I say, “The coin always has two sides. It’s bright because it’s also dark. We can see the stars because the sky’s dark. You need both. The protagonist’s story can’t just proceed on a plateau. It dips and soars, dips and soars, and the emotional range is larger. It has to go down so it can go up. When it goes up it’s sweeter because it’s more fulfilling.
If you’re a writer and you’re able to articulate thoughts from the gut, not from the head, which are more difficult to articulate than the ones from the conscious mind, then you’re trying to articulate something that can’t be articulated, that’s unfathomable, from the darkness of the emotions. That’s what’s important.
My meditation teacher talked about breathing from the abdomen and feeling from there.
Yes. I believe that’s where the writing should come from, at least for me. It’s more honest, and it’s what we want to read. I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of workshoppers and students over the years. Most of them aren’t working as writers, although many writers came from my workshops. Some are on the production side, or they’ve gone back to advertising or being housewives. Still, the workshops benefit everybody. I say, “You don’t have to be great writers when you come out of the workshop, but at least become better people. Hopefully by becoming a better person you also become a better writer.
Is that how writing changes the world?
Ha! I suppose, yeah. I always tell them that in a way we’re all broken and wounded and in need of another’s hand on our shoulders. The story gives you a shoulder to lean on for a while. It can be a hand that’s extended to others who are also broken. But first you have to have your eyes and your sensibilities so you can see what’s around you. You can’t write stories in order to blind people. You have to open their eyes, open up their consciousness. As far as changing the world goes, you have to see the darkness, the brokenness, the disconnection and the connection.
fabulous interview/write up/thank you.
I love his stories. I have his book, Si Tatang at ang mga Himala ng Ating Panahon. Wonderful interview!