Cha-cha's Field Trips: Screenwriter, storyteller, and new momma Charlene Sawit-Esguerra on Saving Sally, her writing process, and quiet adventures
PHOTOGRAPHY TRICIA GOSINGTIAN
There's a movie I reach for when I'm particularly stressed: Studio Ghibli's Only Yesterday, where Tokyoite protagonist Taeko Okajima is so enamoured by provincial life that she takes a trip to a family friend's home in the countryside, reminiscing about her childhood along the way. Even just the opening theme song is already enough to slow my heartbeat and calm my nerves when I need it most. If there were a physical manifestation of that movie, it's the gem of a human being Charlene Sawit-Esguerra, whose imaginative spirit and quiet grace always make for delightful, reassuring company. And the way she waxes nostalgic about her idyllic childhood memories of her hometown in Tarlac makes the city girl in me wish that I, too, had a province to call home.
“I grew up in small towns around Tarlac and Nueva Ecija, which is smack dab in the middle of Luzon—so rice and sugar cane fields, small towns, and a quiet life dictated by the seasons,” shares Charlene, a screenwriter by profession. She's worked on feature films ranging in genre from horror, action adventure, romantic comedy and drama, but is probably best known for penning (and co-producing) the cult favorite film Saving Sally, speaking to the geek girl in us.
“My early childhood happened around the time when there was no internet or even cable TV. So picture long, sprawling days of having no distractions or entertainment other than what was around me: the real-time events and emotions of daily life, the afternoons spent outdoors, the hours daydreaming, drawing and writing,” she shares dreamily.
“To have that freedom—to follow your own mind for days on end, and not have technology tugging at your brain, asking for attention every few minutes—is probably one of the greatest gifts of growing up in that place and time,” she muses. “It gives you time to be productive creatively, you’re more aware of the world around you, and you know how to sit with yourself and with your thoughts—in my humble opinion, all that helps you create things from a more personal place.”
A Sense of Adventure
Charlene moved to Manila to attend college, but because she had lots of family in the city, it wasn't such a huge adjustment. “I generally like new experiences anyway; I sometimes make decisions based on whether it will throw me in the path of something unfamiliar and exciting,” she reveals.
Naturally curious and far from being bashful, making friends was never a problem. “The times I have felt lonely or isolated weren’t because I was actually alone or unable to make friends—it was the result of being among people who I knew weren’t kindred spirits. You know the feeling: you’re unable to talk about the things that truly interest and move you because you instinctively know that others won’t understand or will find you silly—so that part that is essentially 'you' has to be muted a bit so you can better assimilate,” she muses thoughtfully.
“But I think everyone has to go through a period where they hang out with lots of different kinds of people to find the right fit, and it can take a while because you’re also trying to figure out who you are.”
Though generally comfortable around people, once in a while a bit of social anxiety and awkwardness will kick in. “I call this my 'hibernation periods' where I'd rather be on my own, and I'm perfectly satisfied with just working on projects, getting chores done, and spending afternoons reading or watching movies.”
In college, writing was still a “joyous hobby,” but Charlene thought it was simply something she would be doing on the side while holding down a “regular” job. “I took up Visual Communications at the College of Fine Arts in UP Diliman, with a view of eventually working in advertising. The world had other ideas: by the time I graduated almost no one was hiring due to a financial crisis, and mine was a generation of young people out of school and unable to find a job. After a period of sending out resumes everywhere I could think of, I was interviewed for a position in the art department at a glossy magazine—this was in the glorious heyday of print publishing—where I ended up getting a job in the editorial department instead.”
And thus began a career of writing for a living—she eventually did end up as a copywriter for McCann Erickson, and then she left to pursue a writing/publishing course in England, where she submitted part of a novel she was writing to a contest. “I was shortlisted and eventually won, something I found out at four in the morning, which is when I got the call. I ran to tell my mom and we danced around in our nightgowns.” (That novel, with the working title “Kissing Yellow Dogs Goodnight,” is awaiting international publication.)
“Years later I thought I’d try my hand at writing films and now that’s my 'day job'—writing screenplays for films and series. And I really enjoy it because I get to collaborate with other writers and different directors, and I get to bring my family to the theater when the movies premiere.”
Saving Sally and Other Shenanigans
“I wrote a short story for fun called ‘Monster Town’ about a girl with a complicated home situation and her best friend, an aspiring comic book artist who sees unpleasant people as monsters. I showed it to one of my closest friends at the time, Avid Liongoren, who was a music video director. He and I went to UPCFA together, and we've known each other since we were seventeen.”
Idle talk about how much fun it would be to work on a movie together evolved into a serious plan to turn "Monster Town” into a film that combined live action with animation. “We were very young, and full of enthusiasm, and we had no idea that it would take us over a decade to finish the film,” clucks Charlene.
“If I wrote a story about how the film was made, it would be the stuff of a long-running, coming-of-age series—an emotional rollercoaster of drama, comedy, soul-crushing setbacks, friendship, romance, heartbreak, unforgettable characters and absolute magic.”
Saving Sally was the little Filipino film that could, and everyone who witnessed their 14-year odyssey felt as if they were part of the film's journey, too. “What did I learn? A lot, but the biggest takeaway from working on Sally is: never ever EVER give up. I honestly believe if you work really hard and put your heart into whatever it is you are doing—even small tasks—the universe will reward you. Though it may take much longer than you expect, and happen in a different—and sometimes better—way from how you imagine it. Oh, and: don’t listen to the people who put you down. They don’t know a thing.”
At present, Charlene is head writer for an HBO Asia series, which starts shooting at the end of the year, and she in the middle of developing another series. On the side, she's started a personal #WriteWhileTheySleep writing challenge, feverishly cobbling together the most inventive short stories while her son sleeps and posting a story on her Facebook writer page a week. “Aside from forcing myself to do some personal writing outside of work, I just really miss writing stories and sharing them for free, which is what I used to do when I was a kid,” shares the gifted storyteller.
“I used to scribble serialized stories and draw comic strips in old notebooks, and these would be passed from person to person and read around school, and the notebooks would find their way back to me at the end of the day, which goes to show how starved for entertainment we all were. It was fun because people would be involved in the characters’ lives and they would make requests as to how they wanted the story to go.”
Method to the Madness
I remember a conversation with Charlene years ago, trading stories about our writing process (mine: procrastination) and hers (dilgently putting pen to paper everyday, training herself to “show up for work” until the words would come). “Inspiration sometimes hits me during difficult situations. I think sometimes my brain copes with stress and anxiety by coming up with a story. By the time I'm done constructing and choosing the right words, calm and order has been restored. But sometimes inspiration hits randomly, like when I’m in the shower or riding in a cab,” shares Charlene, grateful for the hallelujah beam of clarity in the most mundane moments.
She adds, “As for mental blocks: I usually put a story away and work on something else for a while, then come back to it with a fresh perspective.”
Sometimes, everything comes together; sometimes she'll slave away at a script only for it to come back bleeding with revisions, or worse, end up on the proverbial cutting room floor. “I’m not too bothered when my work has been rejected. I find a piece of work will always find its way to the correct audience, or it means I can work on it some more and it will come out better, or bits of it can be used to better effect in other stories. So nothing is ever wasted.”
“After you have a child LIFE WILL NEVER BE THE SAME AGAIN—all caps, insert a clap of thunder and the words echoing around some mountaintops here,” she jokes playfully. “And that can be a good thing.” After all, baby Noah is the little bundle of joy she and her husband Pancho (and a batallion of relatives and friends) prayed for, never mind that there were days when she didn't even stop to run a comb through her hair.
“Once you get past the newborn stage, where all your time and energy is focused on keeping this beautiful fragile little human alive and learning to adjust and wrap your head around to this new normal, life settles into a routine of predictable naps and mealtimes, and you can see spaces where you can attend to personal projects—and basic grooming, haha—again. And slowly, by degrees, balance is restored. Basically, the big difference before and after Noah is the degree of magic in my life daily.”
“Even crappy days have a sparkly lining of magic because he’s here. It’s sort of like being in that stage of love when you can’t stop talking or thinking about your crush, but multiplied by a thousand and deeper by a million miles,” Charlene gushes.
With the arrival of Noah, she admits she occasionally daydreams about moving out of Manila. “I want him to run around and spend whole afternoons outdoors like I used to. But then I see my husband, who grew up in the city, and he’s a fantastic, good-hearted guy, and I think well, it’s not all about the environment, it’s how they’re brought up. I just want Noah to grow up in an environment full of encouragement, creativity, fairness and love.” Besides, she adds, “I figure we can take lots of vacations and day trips to places where he can enjoy the great outdoors.”
Facebook Rabbit Hole
Even if you live in the most remote corner of the world but have access to wifi, stress may still come from an unhealthy relationship with social media. “My take is: it can definitely distract you from getting anything done and make you feel bad that you aren’t doing as much with your life as you think others are doing, which is absurd because we ALL know that most people use social media as an ad for how they wish they are perceived,” she says matter-of-factly.
“But on the flip side: social media is amazing because it keeps you in touch with friends and as a creative person you can share your work—or the work of others that inspire you—at the click of a button. You can get in touch with people and start collaborations, and you can find a community of like-minded people through social media.” Charlene attests, “When I was a new mom struggling to care for my kid, I got a lot of encouragement and good advice through social media.”
As someone who tries to view social media as portal of possibilities instead of an insecurity minefield, what's her advice to #hinhingirls on putting yourself out there? “Honestly? You don’t need to 'Put yourself out there' if you don’t want to just yet. You don’t need to share things on social media just because other people are doing it. If it’s more you to quietly do your own thing, then do that. Let yourself have the time to figure some things out in private: like who you are, what you like to do and why you like to do it—so that when you do choose to put yourself or your work out there, it will come from a place that’s genuine.”
Whispers of Her Heart
Looking like a Miyazaki muse herself in a Hinhin dress, we shoot Charlene in her wonderland apartment brimming with books, records, and vintage knick-knacks (she and Pancho are nostalgia hoarders).
“If I had to choose one word to describe the things I like, it’s 'sentimental.' Usually if I’m wearing or listening to something, or if it’s in the apartment, it’s because there’s a story behind it, a good memory and some emotion attached to it. So I feel surrounded by all that goodness. As for books, anyone who likes to read knows that when you find a writer you like, you end up hunting down all her/his work, and that work leads you to similar or related work, or stories from that era or place, or writers with a similar mood—it’s like I said, you eventually know what fits, and you recognize what objects, music, stories and people have a kindred spirit.”
A multitasking momma's secret thrills: “When I have free time, usually in the dead of the night while the bubs is asleep, I explore random corners of Netflix. Like it is a huge sprawling house with many rooms and I like to wander away from the party in the front and peek into the quieter—and sometimes creepy—corridors,” she reveals conspiratorially.
“Recently, I discovered an old book I never finished from over a decade ago: Edith Wharton's The Children, and I find myself happily reading again. There's nothing like the right book to slow down time. Right now I like the kinds that lead you quietly by the hand to a more peaceful place in your mind.”
These days, her most epic adventures take place reading in bed with her son nestled against her, mimicking her and “reading” a book, too, his little hands turning the pages just to hear them rustle. “That's the best,” she shares, sighing contentedly.
“'See all those things on the page,' I tell him. 'Those are words. They're very important to your mama. It's her work and her rest. Someday you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. It'll be good, I promise.' He traces his chubby finger down the page like he understands, ha ha.”
How to break the ice with Charlene:
✿ Compare notes about Netflix obsessions, from Terrace House to Call My Agent
✿ Ask about her son Noah, tell her about yours
✿ Geek out about books and Studio Ghibli movies (Whisper of the Heart is a fave)