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A Filipino in Disney TV lives to write our ‘wild, worth-telling’ stories

/ 06:18 PM January 09, 2020
Mikki Crisostomo

Disney TV writer Mikki Crisostomo. Image: Bianca Catbagan

There is no such thing as a typical day for this Disney girl. Some days she’s downing worrying amounts of coffee as she works on a TV show’s script or outline. Other days she’s attending writers’ meetings and brainstorming with colleagues, and desperately spinning on a chair during bouts of creative block. Or, perhaps, she could be playing with the office dog while waiting for executive notes on a work she had just submitted.

Not everyone can say they’re working at their dream job, but Mikki Crisostomo can — when she is not bowling over in disbelief from being an actual staff writer for Disney Television Animation in Burbank, California. But of course, it did not happen overnight. Nothing worth having ever does.

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Mikki had her break when she was just an undergraduate student at the University of the Philippines, Diliman. An animated short she made for her thesis called “Bottled Star” was screened at the Animahenasyon 2010 and the Cultural Center of the Philippines at that time. It would be an understatement to say that animation is indeed a passion for Mikki.

But it was upon watching Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s whimsical “Amelie” that screenwriting truly became the dream for her. It was the first time in her life when she fell in love with a film script, she professed, so much so that she went into her closet to finish the film when her family arrived home as she was watching it, so it would not break its spell on her.

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“There was just such a specific and evocative visual and narrative language to it that transported me into another world immediately,” said Mikki. “I didn’t know that words could [lead to] do that to you. And I wanted to be able to do it, too.”

From UP to Columbia, and farther

Similar to the trajectory of many others fresh from graduation, Mikki did not have it all figured out upon leaving UP Diliman.

“I didn’t know where to start,” she said. “I gained valuable experience in my years spent working in post-production and PR, but I knew that if I didn’t make it back to the film world, I would have succumbed to practicality and never written again.”

It would be hard to imagine where Mikki would be today had she chosen a life for practicality’s sake. And so, running away from the promise of practicality and the sensible, she applied to Columbia University, where she received a scholarship to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in Screenwriting.

Studying in New York was no cakewalk. Apart from being parted from her family, what could not be more intense was the culture shock she experienced in America. But from this very same culture shock, the differences she encountered out of being surrounded by peers from all walks of life taught her just as much as her professors did.

“Between writing workshops where we exhaustively critiqued each others’ scripts and directing classes where we scraped together people, funds and equipment to shoot short films, I learned so much about storytelling,” she said. “I’m aware of what a privilege it was to be able to focus on writing to the exclusion of other practicalities, and I’m grateful that I was around people who encouraged me and saw something in me worth investing in.”

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Mikki was one of the fellows of the Film Independent’s 2019 Screenwriting Lab, chosen from hundreds of applicants around the world over a screenplay she wrote “in a mad feverish rush to meet the deadline.”

“Babaylan”, her screenplay, sees the heroine as Lida, a priestess who accidentally summons a god and from whom she learns how to perform miracles, as per Film Independent.

There seems to be a tinge of self-deprecation in Mikki over being chosen as a fellow, but she allows herself the understanding that her story possessed something the selection committee saw potential in.

“I came to realize that my story had an authentic and emotional voice, a richly realized world that no one outside the Philippines has seen before, and some really good jokes about ensaymada!” she said. “It’s what the Film Independent selection committee responded to and wanted to help foster. It’s proof to me that the world is looking for Filipino stories.”

Women take centerstage in the worlds of Mikki’s stories, and the women she writes about are exactly the ones that the world seems to have no space for.

“I like to write about women trying to figure out their place in a world that has no room for them —a world that expects them to be one thing, when they’re determined to be something entirely different,” she said. “My stories also tend have some fantastic or absurd element to them, because I am and always have been convinced that if there is no magic in this world, and the jury’s out on that, then it’s our responsibility to make it.”

As for the monsters and demons she writes about, Mikki says they are never as dangerous as the ones we carry inside ourselves.

“And all of this, I leaven with jokes, because I always would much rather laugh and hope, than cry and despair,” she said. “If this sets me apart from other Filipino screenwriters in the [United States], then I hope that we all succeed, because we’re all trying to carve out a place for Filipino storytelling in the world, and I’m rooting for all of us.”

Disney, finally

“The Owl House”, an animated horror-comedy series set to premiere on the Disney Channel, on Jan. 10, 2020, was a match to Mikki’s creative proclivities. Its creator, Dana Terrace of “Gravity Falls”, knew this too and got her onboard, thus ending their long search for a writer to join the team.

“I was never a very religious person, but boy did I pray the rosary every single night for two whole months,” she said. “Then I got an email — Dana Terrace, the showrunner and creative genius behind the show, asked me if I would like to join them on their witchy adventure.”

“The Owl House” centers on teenage girl Luz who stumbles on a portal to another realm. There, she becomes an apprentice to a witch named Eda and must be able to survive witch school. It is reported that the show was given a second-season order by Disney Channel just this November.

But as Mikki works on “The Owl House”, she has also been in talks with producers about possibly getting “Babaylan” off the ground. Sure, there’s the upcoming Disney animated movie “Raya and the Last Dragon”, reported to be inspired by Southeast Asia, but Mikki believes putting a Filipino on the Disney princess map is something else.

“I know there’s a [Southeast] Asian Disney movie coming out soon, but wouldn’t it be grand to have a Filipino Disney princess?” she said.

Despite the sheer awesomeness of this Filipino writer’s work conditions, she admits to having her own moments of inadequacy, recalling how she experienced impostor syndrome when she was starting out on Disney TVA.

“My first week at work, I kept expecting someone to jump out with a camera and tell me I’ve been had,” she admitted. “But whenever it happens to me, I try to remind myself that I love what I do, and that they chose me out of a large pool of established (and American) writers, and there’s a reason for that.”

Filipino all the way, and a child always

There is also excitement in bringing ideas to the fore, knowing these are original and unique to her, growing up in the Philippines. And there is much joy, still, in being on her toes, always on the lookout for windows where she can sneak in elements into her work that she knows Filipinos would recognize.

“Given the chance, I will always write about Filipinos, because our stories are wild, amazing and absolutely worth telling! We span the world, we occupy a unique perspective in world history, straddling the boundaries between tradition and progress, east and west,” she said. “Who doesn’t want to hear what we think? We may be third world, but we sure as hell aren’t third rate.”

Mikki’s rootedness in her Filipino identity runs parallel with her ability to still hold on to her inner child. There is unspoken power in telling children’s stories, in creating realer-than-real characters one cheers for, and which are carried throughout the course of a life. Mikki believes in this, and applies it on her work.

“I always try to look on the brighter side of things, or to take happiness in small victories,” she said. “It’s so easy to be cynical these days — the news cycle always brings some kind of fresh new horror [to] the day. So, I really like the idea that I’m putting something hopeful and good — and just a little spooky — out into the world.” JB

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TAGS: Amelie, animation, Disney, scriptwriting, University of the Philippines, US TV, writers
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