Erudition on a High Note

Birthday ngayon ng aking writing mentor na si Mr. Nestor Torre.  Ang sumusunod na sanaysay ay sinulat ko para sa kanya.

I will always remember 1997 as the year of dead ends and new beginnings. I was 32 then, and had my first brush with the so-called mid-life blues—that philosophical crisis of the soul. I was jobless, loveless, penniless and didn’t really knew what I wanted to do with my life. I had just resigned from my job as a media officer of an NGO and with the persuasion of friends, formed our own events management company. It didn’t work out. I left the group and got depressed. This feeling dragged on for months until I found myself asking one hard question: what was it that I really want to do? The answer came in a flash: I seriously want to write!

Years before I experienced this epiphany of sorts, my experience as a writer bordered on the technical side. I wrote speeches for our company president,  annual reports, scripts for audio-visual presentations and business features for magazines and newspapers. But while I found joy doing all these corporate stuff, a tiny voice told me to write stories. This voice kept nagging me at all times and it came to a point when I told myself I just had to do it, lest I might die with a guilty, heavy heart. Since I was also a film buff, I decided to give screenwriting a try. I have read several books on screenwriting but I figured that if I really want to be a good screenwriter, I have to get myself a good mentor. It has to be someone who knew not just the basic principles of a good screenplay, but one who understands the ins and outs of the Philippine film industry. The question was, who would that person be?

The answer came a week after when I was leafing through the pages of a national daily. There was an announcement from the Film Development Foundation of the Philippines, Inc. (FDFPI) that said a weekly three-hour screenwriting course, which will run for four months, will be offered in March and that it would be taught by well-known media critic, writer and director, Mr. Nestor U. Torre. I knew he was the person I was looking for.

I have been reading Mr. Torre’s daily columns for as long as I can remember. His intelligent movie reviews had been my gauge in determining whether I would watch a certain film or not. I had also been a regular follower of Mr. Torre’s weekly television show, “Two for the Road,” a talk program he co-hosted for several years with the late Elvira Manahan. This background earned my good respect and admiration for Mr. Torre. Without hesitation, I abandoned everything I was doing and told my close friends I would be studying screenwriting for four months, with no less than Mr. Nestor Torre as my teacher.

I registered in the said course and before I knew it, I was already climbing the stairs of the Philippine Information Agency’s building, heading towards the third floor. There in that huge room, which was to be our classroom for the next four months, I found myself with more than a hundred young and old screenwriter wannabes. In the middle of the room stood Mr. Torre, telling all of us that this was indeed a very large class. “But I expect dropouts in the next few weeks because this is going to be an intensive course,” I remember him telling us. “Through attrition, the number of students in this class will naturally decrease. Marami sa inyo ay mag-s-shopping lang.”

That same afternoon, we had our first writing exercise. Our teacher said we had to pretend that today was going to be our last day on earth and we had to write our monologue to God. Since I was in that mid-life crisis mode, I remember writing a melodramatic and philosophical piece about not being able to reach my goals and asked God what was life really all about and why He has to take me without giving me another chance to improve myself. The following week, Mr. Torre evaluated what we had written and said it was a good gauge on who among us will survive the course. Then he returned our written exercise and to my surprise, he wrote a “very good” mark at the upper right hand corner of the paper. I was thrilled and told myself I was on the right track.

The following weeks, our whole class went to work, and immersed ourselves on the basic principles of film language, particularly the use of the subjective camera to express private and personal messages to the audience. We were told that in order to tell good stories, we should have a background on different kinds of shots, camera angles, framing, editing and lighting. Our teacher said Alfred Hitchcock, the master storyteller of suspense, conceptualized shots in his mind.

We devoured tons of handouts on screenwriting, most of which were written by Hollywood screenwriters and I earnestly read each one of them, highlighting phrases, sentences and paragraphs which I found instructive. There were also sample scripts distributed to the whole class, which we noted as script format templates which we can use when we would be writing our individual projects. There were handouts on tips about writing themes, character development, intensifying conflicts, creating subplots, foreshadowing, deconstruction (the making of old materials fresh), etc.

Because I was intensely thirsty for knowledge, I wrote practically every important thing our teacher said in a thick notebook, which I still keep to this day. There I wrote quotes like: “Why do we live? As a writer, we may have an obligation to open up perceptions.” Or, to write a good screenplay, we have to understand the core of the material. “Choose an exciting character. Anyone can be interesting. Understand the person. What is his/her “public face?” He or she has to be pushed in order to drop that “public face” and reveal his/her real character.” I underlined important sentences our teacher uttered like: “A writer always has to ask himself: Why am I telling this story? He should be able to write the gist of his screenplay in one sentence.” I kept those quotes by heart.

In between viewing scenes from classic films like Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane,” Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru,” etc. we were also asked to think of possible themes for our first screenplay. The themes should be something we were familiar with, said Mr. Torre. More often than not, he explained, the best screenplays are those created by writers who were emotionally committed to their projects.

Meanwhile, while we thought of themes for our full-length screenplays, which we were told would automatically be included in the annual FFP’s screenwriting contest, we had exercises which Mr. Torre said was supposed to sharpen and hone our sensitivities as writers.

In order to develop our observation skills, we were asked to follow a stranger for at least two hours. “Just be sure you won’t be caught,” cautioned our teacher. This silent “spying” exercise excited me and I remember following a middle-aged rich looking matron as she shopped in Rustan’s, hanged around in the mall, ate her snacks in a coffee shop and had her nails and hair done in a nearby beauty salon. “I think she’s a bored, lonely woman,” I remember telling the whole class when we were asked to report our observations. “She maybe rich but her eyes told me she was sad.”

We also had an eavesdropping exercise where we were asked to listen to conversations of different people in order for us to learn how to write in a conversational tone. I remember hanging around in two places which were poles apart—a rowdy public market in Bicutan and the posh lobby of Hotel Intercontinental in Makati. There, not only was I able to compare how the poor and rich people differ in terms of conversations and speech patterns, but I was also able to discern their similarities, too. For one, people from both opposite ends of the social spectrum love to engage in gossips and mouth cuss words and expletives.

Another exercise that was assigned to us was to observe life in a cockpit or sabungan. This is a territory quite familiar to me because my late grandfather was an inveterate sabungero, and I remember scenes from my childhood when he would tag me along to watch the warrior poultry birds fight for their lives. This time, our teacher asked us to observe not only how the cockfighting game was played, but  also how the people reacted and behaved as they made their bets, won, lost, argued, cheated, fought, etc. There is an avalanche of emotions happening in a cockpit and my classmates and I took note of the high drama that went on as the sabungeros raised the stakes and virtually gave everything they’ve got in order to win this fight-or-be-killed-game.

We also had group exercises on writing dialogue and I remember clearly how the whole class laughed in stitches as we collectively wrote a wife and mistress encounter. There were also a lot of “what ifs” and “create the perfect scene” exercises that really stretched our imaginations to the hilt. How do we create the perfect murder or a bank heist? What would happen if we were blackmailed or abducted? Looking back, these brainstorming exercises became my favorites because I soon found that while my strength as a writer lies in stitching dialogue, my weakness was plot development. Thinking of what’s going to happen next or ending my story is a thing that I still find difficulty when I write my scripts to this day.

In order to make sure that we had a wholistic approach to screenwriting and film education, showbiz luminaries who form part of the film industry were invited as guest speakers and were asked to interact and share their experiences with us. I remember ace screenwriter Dr. Doy del Mundo talking about how working outside the mainstream showbiz circle (since he is more identified with the academe) was doing him good. The triumvirate team of Armida Siguion Reyna, her son director Carlitos Siguion Reyna and daughter-in-law, scriptwriter Bibeth Orteza talked about the local film culture and morality, the joys and pains of producing a movie, with Orteza advising the whole class not to be discouraged when the director rejects or asks us to constantly revise our scripts. She likewise shared with us that as writers, all our life experiences, whether they were good or bad will deepen our sensitivities as writers. In fact, she said, the saddest or even the most harrowing experiences could be our secret amulets when we are developing our individual stories.

Director Peque Gallaga, whose classic “Oro Plata Mata” still remains to be my favorite Filipino film, talked about the sad realities of film production and warned us that “…we should be able to eat our piece of shit everyday in order to survive the competitive world of local motion pictures.” Actress Malou de Guzman, on the other hand, was invited because our teacher wanted us to “probe” her, since as writers, he said, we must be able to ask the right questions when doing research on a person’s character. De Guzman was a real trouper and gamely answered even details of her private life to the whole class.

Producer Marichu Vera Perez Maceda, whose family owned Sampaguita Pictures is one of the biggest film studios in local film history, was a funny woman. Her stories about how she would “terrorize” a film director during the early `80s were certainly one for the books. And of course, Director Chito Roño, who to date, still remains as one of the best active mainstream film directors in the country, gave a no-holds barred lecture on how he deals with writers. Roño hates stupidity and it showed on his words and deportment. “I once had a writer whom I fired…kasi….bobo sya, e. Yes, I think I said the word.”

We also had an exposure trip to the high tech post production house “Roadrunner” where we were able to observe how a film was edited and scored. This was another area which I found to be truly fascinating because as soon as the principal photography is finished, the real magic happens when the editors, sound engineer, musical scorer, together with the director, steer the wheels of the whole film in its final “palatable and running” form. And with today’s modern digital technology, seeing raw scenes “doctored” with the help of sound and visual effects was really a marvel to witness.

We  visited the old Sampaguita Pictures in San Juan, Manila, where countless photographs of the studio’s films and its collaterals during its heydays were displayed. We were likewise given a brief lecture on the nature and science of the combustible celluloid film. The discussion soon veered towards the important role that film archiving plays in film production.

Throughout the whole exercises, talks by our guest speakers and exposure trips, Mr. Torre made sure we discussed the things we learned in class and integrated them into our individual screenwriting projects. But while we found Mr. Torre’s teaching methods truly effective, we were not really prepared for his occasional bursts of temper. When he asked questions and no one answered, he would flare up and scream at our obvious clueless mode. “Hindi kayo mga turista dito! Ang bababaw ng mga utak nyo! Can anyone think of a better story?” I could still remember one particular afternoon when he was asking for new story ideas and all we came up with were rehashed old plots. He screamed from the top of his voice and all of us virtually shook and cringed in fear and commanded our brain cells to instantly invent new stories. Later, when his anger subsided, he apologized to all of us because he said he felt helpless since we were already approaching the end of our workshop and still had no concrete strong film stories to tell. Who says learning is easy?

Over the next two months, the number of workshop participants dwindled. From more than a hundred students, our class size shrunk into half. Some of our classmates got busy with their real jobs, while some felt they had better things to do. Others simply didn’t show up in class anymore. By this time, I already had formed my regular peer group of around 10 and found ourselves bonding even after we were dismissed from class. We watched movies together and later criticized the films that we saw. We hanged around in hamburger stands, drank in bars, engaged in philosophical discourses till the wee hours of the morning and partied in some of our classmates’ homes. Looking back, I believe that was one of the most creative periods of my life when all I did was practically think of films.

Another thing that kept our learning process on a high note during those months was the continuous discussion of our individual scripts which we dissected for hours. We paid keen attention not only on plot development, but also in terms of commercial viability. Mr. Torre made sure that our scripts, aside from having enough “hooks,” could also attract local producers to turn them into actual films. There was a lot of balancing act on the part of our teacher because much as he wanted us to explore the depths of our imaginations, he also kept warning us that our scripts should have that “filmable” quality. Otherwise, it would just end up gathering dust in the producers’ filing cabinets. Some of our classmates’ story ideas really fell on the edgy, experimental side. I remember a young classmate who wanted to write a  story about a raindrop who  deeply fell in love with a man and became its main stalker. While our class found the idea cute and romantic, we were able to convince him that no producer at that time would be interested to turn his story into a full-length film.

Mr. Torre also got worried that writing a full-length screenplay which would run for two hours might overwhelm us, so he instructed us  to write a five-minute script first, followed by a 20-minute script, and a 30-minute romantic teleplay. When we passed those exercises, he said we were now ready for the real game—writing our two-hour screenplay. But before we went into actual writing, we also had to learn how to do the sequence treatment—a written summary of how each scene would flow. In fact, I could still remember how we dissected the sequence treatment of “Sleepless in Seattle,” a Hollywood romcom which we analyzed and discussed in class.

Around the second week of May, I started to write my very first full-length screenplay which I entitled “Gitna,” a syndrome story about how five middle-aged urban people coped with their own individual crisis. Talk about channeling my personal crisis into a creative endeavor—I did it! I wrote the whole script in one sitting—from 5pm till 7pm the following day. I did a lot of revisions and with my teacher’s comments, edited and added new sequences to make my story more cohesive. Since I was one of the few students to finish my script, Mr. Torre challenged us to write one more screenplay and suggested that I expound my 20-minute script about early marriage into a two-hour script. I took the challenge and started writing again.

By this time, the rest of our class was already busy writing our individual projects. This was the most nerve-wracking period in the entire workshop and I remember me and my classmates calling each other in the middle of the night just to check each other on how we were progressing. “Anong sequence ka na? Ha? 72 na? Nakaka-insecure ka. Sequence 25 pa lang ako.” Even in the middle of my sleep, classmates would call and ask me: “Ano sa palagay mo? Papatayin ko na ba ang bida ko o magkakasakit lang sya?” I remember jogging inside my room when I felt blocked, biting my nails when I couldn’t think of a nice dialogue for my protagonist, and slapping myself when I found my written comic or dramatic sequences corny, too mushy or plain stupid.

Tension ensued during the final writing stages when technical glitches got in the way of our actual writing. A classmate nearly went on a killing rampage when he found that his 50-page typewritten script was irretrievably lost in his computer. Another female classmate broke her wrist from too much typing that her right arm had to be put in a cast. It was unbelievably maddening but we managed to laugh at ourselves in the process and always made it a point to unwind and grab a beer or two when the stress became unbearable.

By the end of June or early July (the workshop was extended till August), most of us were able to finish our first and second screenplays and our class briefly met to discuss our individual revisions. Mr. Torre commented not only about our scripts but also imparted his own advice on the entire writing process. “Writing is all about mind power,” he said. And the one thing that really struck a chord in me was when he emphasized that. some of us will be writing for the rest of our lives, so we always have to remember not to write anything that we would later be ashamed of. “You should always be proud of what you wrote,” he told us.

Forty-one of us graduated in August 14, 1997 and had our ceremonies in Club Filipino, which was attended by officers of FDFPI. It was quite an emotional moment because in six months, our class had really become so close and the thought that we won’t be seeing each other every weekend made some of us misty-eyed.

Yes, it’s been 15 years since we finished the screenwriting workshop and I am proud and glad to tell that our core group still meet each other regularly and have really become very good friends. Among our group, it was our friend Adolf Alix, Jr., who won first prize in the 1997’s FFP Scriptwriting Competition for his script “Ada” (which was later made into film by Carlitos Siguion Reyna) who really became an award winning scriptwriter and director, and we are most proud of him.

Several years later, another classmate, Rica Arevalo, won the Palanca Award for her script “ICU Bed # 7” which she also directed and won as best director in the 1st Cinemalaya Awards. She got me as her line producer and I had my first real immersion into actual film production.

I never regretted or felt bad that none of my screenplays was made into a movie because through this workshop, I was able to tread other writing avenues. For several years, I wrote for television, with my classmate and dear friend, the late Agnes de Guzman, as my Head Writer. Likewise, I became a regular contributor of the Saturday Special section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, which also opened a lot of doors for me as a freelance writer and communication lecturer. Like the rest of our classmates, I knew that screenplays, as our teacher repeatedly said, have long gestation periods, some even stretching for decades before they are finally realized and seen on the big screen.

We still get to see Mr. Nestor U. Torre occasionally and we are glad that he continues to touch base with us to find out how we are progressing as active writers. He was and always will be our much revered writing mentor. Thank you is such a cliché to tell someone who has helped us a lot in our respective careers, but we will continue to do so, because our gratefulness to him is really beyond valuation.

I found myself on a dead end at the start of 1997 but also found new beginnings after that six-month screenwriting workshop. That was truly erudition on a high note, and one fruitful unforgettable experience which I will always cherish for as long as I live. Fifteen years ago, I made a decision to seriously write and am doing just that, constantly learning and trying to improve my chosen craft not only by commanding words and punctuations to behave, but by keenly observing, studying and living life as I experience it everyday.

About pinoytaipeiboy

Pilipinong nagtatrabaho sa Taipei. Mahilig magbasa, magsulat, kumain, manood ng sine, gumala, maglakbay at matulog. Interesado sa milyon-milyong bagay.
This entry was posted in English Entries, Memories of Home, Personalities, Reflections, The Writing Life. Bookmark the permalink.

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