Ricky Lee wasn’t always a titan in the film industry—in fact, his life began as an orphan-turned-runaway-teenager living in Quiapo, hoping to become a big-name writer in Manila. Little did he know that decades later, his films would take him to the red carpets of Cannes, Toronto, and Berlin.
In retrospect, it is impossible to imagine Philippine Cinema without Ricky Lee’s work. His extensive array of films—over 150 scripts produced over the course of four decades—have turned into cult favorites and has garnered him more than 50 awards, including the prestigious Gawad Urian.
To celebrate his birthday, the film restoration project Sagip Pelikula is streaming 14 of Ricky Lee’s films on KTX, from March 16 to April 16. We spoke to the man himself to discuss his thoughts on the lingering influence of film and cinema, its role in preserving Philippine culture, and the art of storytelling.
Do you think new audiences would see your films differently as compared to your initial audience?
RICKY: I think film is film, and so we respond to it in certain ways that are universal. Emotions since time immemorial have always been the same, but the issues, the manners, and the mores of course change. I’m glad to say that I’ve watched many of these restored films with audiences now, and the films still resonate [with] them. The good thing, I think, is a certain discourse happens between audiences before and audiences now, mediated by the film.
Do you have a favorite film of yours? Out of the restored films available, which one would you want people to see the most and why?
RICKY: I’d like people to see Karnal, Moral, and Himala, but then mahirap sagutin kasi I’d like them to see Nasaan Ka Man too, and Anak, and so on. If I may say, there’s such a wealth of films, hindi lang yung sa akin kundi sa iba pa, that have been restored, and should be watched by audiences today. It helps that these films were made a long time ago, so there’s a certain distance that helps in giving us [a] clearer perspective on things.
Do you think filmmaking and screenwriting play a role in preserving Philippine culture?
RICKY: Of course. Para kang sumasalamin sa kultura ng nakalipas kapag tumitingin ka sa mga restored films na ito. Para kang kinakausap ng mga magulang at lolo at lola at mga ninuno mo at sinasabi sa’yo kung saan ka nanggaling, at dapat kang magmalaki, dahil ang kulturang Pilipino, ang pagka-Pilipino, ay ilog na dumadaloy at umaagos mula pa noong unang panahon hanggang sa panahon mo ngayon.
You've written almost twenty books and over a hundred screenplays since the '70s. Given how long you’ve been in the local industry, what changes have you noticed in the filmmaking landscape?
RICKY: So much has changed. Too many to mention, but also the basic things have remained, I think. The wonder of looking at moving images, the magic of life captured on the screen, is still there. Pero may malaki ring nawala, lalo na during pandemic. For one, nawala yung beauty of being captured by the screen inside a movie house, iyon bang you totally lose control to the magic of the screen. Such loss of control is sometimes divine. To just be lost in it. Ngayon, pinipindot mo lang, may kontrol ka na.
In your workshops and your screenwriting manual A Trip to Quiapo, you say that a good writer is someone who can transport his reader to a place that he has never been before. What did you mean by that?
RICKY: The good writer is always able to let us see what we did not see, even if it’s just staring us in the face all this time. He can transport us even to a place inside our being which we never knew was there. Good stories let us experience death and rebirth almost at the same time, all the time.
Some stories are left untold. For the legend, however, he would leave behind an immortalized legacy of movies that transcend both past and posterity. The rest, as they say, is history—or should we say, his stories.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.