Is Michiko Yamamoto our movie-crazed generation’s JD Salinger?
Despite the huge critical success of two films she wrote, namely Maryo J. de los Reyes’ Magnifico (2004) and Auraeus Solito’s Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (2005), Michiko continues to shy away from public attention.
This is not just because scriptwriters are usually relegated to the background while actors and directors hog the spotlight. Michiko is, in fact, really “shy”; her unassuming disposition now becoming the stuff of legend.
Her writing mentor Nestor U. Torre once wrote about how Michiko was “too shy to even accept her trophies in person” when Magnifico won accolades here and abroad. The amazing thing, according to Torre, is that Michiko can boast of winning more scriptwriting awards in one film than most writers can in their entire careers.
Interestingly, Michiko points out that it is her shyness that pushed her to writing in the first place. “Even when I was in high school, I already wrote poetry and even tried with short stories. I always wrote the scripts for our class productions because I didn’t like acting. I have stage fright so I would do everything just so I wouldn’t go on stage,” she says.
Michiko was too unassuming to even recognize her own talent early on. In college, she took up Mathematics (major in Computer Science) from the University of Sto. Tomas, because “I didn’t know what course to take that time and Computer Science was ‘in’.”
As with most discoveries of genius, Michiko’s own discovery of her raw talent happened serendipitously, that is, by way of a newspaper writeup for a scriptwriting worksop.
“After graduation, I couldn’t get a job. Competition was tough and most of my batchmates ended up working in call centers. Because I had nothing to do, I decided to join a scriptwriting workshop I saw in [the newspaper],” says Michiko.
It was Torre who facilitated the workshop. A veteran writer with a nose for talent, Torre encouraged Michiko to write more. Soon, the unemployed computer scientist and reluctant mathematician was entering and winning writing contests. She was eventually hired by Viva as a creative consultant.
She, of course, continued to write scripts. Under the auspisces of the UFO productions, the story of Maximo Oliveros germinated.
“With Maxi, the UFO group brainstormed for the concept then I wrote the storyline,” Michiko recounts. “When it got accepted in Cinemalaya [filmfest], I didn’t have the time to write the script so what happened was that the day before the deadline, I had like 15 sequences with me and then I had to stay overnight in a hotel and finish the script for the next day.”
Despite (maybe even because of) the enormous pressure for Michiko, Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros proved to critics that her success in Magnifico was no fluke. The film eventually bagged the top prize in Cinemalaya, had a great local commercial run, and was invited to be viewed in a host of film festivals abroad.
“I’ve learned not to expect early on because I don’t like to be disappointed. I didn’t really think Magnifico would even be produced but it did. I didn’t expect Maxi to be so widely accepted, maybe even more than Magnifico so I was pleasantly surprised when it happened. It’s good to be surprised sometimes,” says Michiko.
Maxi was recently screened to packed audiences at the Sundance Film Festival. Michiko reveals that Maxi had four public screenings at Sundance. Each time, more and more people went. “Maybe it was word of mouth. On the third screening, I think some people weren’t able to get in because they sold more tickets than there are seats.”
In explaining the success of Maxi among local audiences, Michiko says that it may have something to do with the situation the country is in. “When so many bad things are happening around you and you feel helpless, you either become more cynical or you try to help by becoming optimistic and giving hope to people who need them.”
She clarifies that she did not write Maxi as a “gay story.” “We [at UFO Pictures] all agreed to make a story about a gay boy but we don’t want acceptance to be the issue. For us, homosexuality is not an issue anymore.”
Michiko claims she merely wants to entertain people. “If that happens, I would be happy already. If they get something out of the movie, inspiration or hope, that would be a bonus for me.”
With its success, however, Maxi may have something more to say about homosexuality than what the filmmakers are willing to admit. Maxi won audiences because, not in spite, of the main protagonist’s “gayness” and capacity to love. By humanizing Maxi instead of relegating him to the level of slapstick like countless gay characters in most Pinoy movies, Michiko made the strongest statement against gender discrimination inside and outside the film industry.
Perhaps, Michiko is only reluctant to admit that her stories make that much impact. Like the reclusive American writer’s character Holden Caulfield who appealled to generations of anguished youth, Michiko’s Magnifico and Maxi may yet again demonstrate for us the enormous capacity of the creative artist to inspire and shape people’s minds.