Leading By Story
Updated: Jun 22
Part 1 of 6
For my first professional gig as a filmmaker, my sensei, the late Marilou Diaz-Abaya, “loaned” me to her friend who was looking to do a come-back in the film industry. Her director-friend was looking for a screenwriter and an assistant director to help him mount his first film after a long hiatus from cinema. At the time, I just finished my Masters in Information Technology and had gained a reputation as a writer because of the Palanca Award I just won a couple of years prior. My formal training in filmmaking under the sensei had barely started.
“But I don’t know how to AD, direk.” I protested.
“The best way to learn to swim is to throw you into the ocean,“ was her reply.
I thought it would be the perfect setup for a first gig. I was the screenwriter and also the assistant director. It was the closest I could get to being a writer-director in a mainstream movie (and on the first try at that!). I imagined that I would be in the position to make sure the script would be executed as I saw it in my head.
The writing process was fun. The sensei locked me up in her warm and cozy japanese house by the beach in Anilao, Batangas. We stayed there for a week, until I finished my first draft of the screenplay. Since I was her recommendation, she wasn’t going to let me ruin her reputation by allowing me to write a mediocre screenplay. She had to oversee it herself. So I wrote during the day while she swam and went diving. At night, we’d have dinner together while she read and critiqued my work.
The director loved the screenplay I sent him and had very little adjustments. He made reasonable requests for revisions which I was happy to oblige. Some of the actors even sent their compliments. One of them, a legend in the industry, personally called me up just to commend the script. I was happy. And proud.
The high from my “success” as a first-time screenwriter was short-lived when filming commenced. On the set, the director would ask me to rewrite and restructure some scenes, add and delete sequences, and revise some dialogue. I did not mind the revisions at first, but since I was also the assistant director, it became more apparent to me that the movie we were shooting is getting further and further away from how I imagined the movie to be.
Every weekend, the sensei would invite me to her house at Hilltop Drive for a debriefing. This was part of my training under her. She wanted me to be precise in identifying my feelings so that we can both process my experiences better. Of course, I'd complain to her during these sessions: "My screenplay is being ruined! This is not the movie I imagined!"
Her response shut me up.
"Who told you that this was your film?"
I thought she was going to take my side.
"This is not about you." She tells me. "Did I not teach you to leave your ego out the door? This is not your story anymore. You may be the source of the story, but all of you--the director, cinematographer, production designer, editor, scorer, actors, the entire lot--are the authors. This is a collaborative art. You collaborate with your fellow artists to deliver a single narrative."
Was I so used to being the one calling the shots in theater (since I wrote and directed most of my productions) that I have forgotten about the collective narrative? Collaborative art is not alien to me, but now that I am not calling the shots in this film set, have I lost sight of my place in this collective story?
The sensei was right. This was not my story anymore. The film set was not there to serve me as the originator of the story. Everyone is there as collaborators, to serve the story. We were all there to work together in the service of the story.
This is when I begin to realize the power of a collective story. Sharing in a collective narrative, telling a shared story with your community moves people in ways that your run-of-the-mill leadership could not. This is why I believe that leaders must become storytellers. Not in the sense that they must be thespians or great orators that are able to emphatically deliver moving stories. Although that is very useful too. What I mean is, leaders must be able to draw out the community's collective story and drive everyone to contribute to the crafting and telling of that shared narrative to the world.