From documenting the lives of party kids to churning one hugot line after the next, Ex with Benefits writer Jeff Stelton might just be telling the story of our lives.
To some, the thought of transitioning from indie cinema to mainstream cinema may seem like a piece of cake. Local mainstream movies these days consist of cookie-cutter rom-coms designed to fuel the careers of the AlDubs and KathNiels of the industry. Jeff Stelton, screenwriter of Viva Films and Star Cinema’s latest hit, Ex With Benefits (starring Derek Ramsay and Coleen Garcia) and the Cinemalaya-screened indie dramas The Animals (2012) and #Y (2014), thinks that it doesn’t have to be that way.
You could say that Jeff’s own transition was successful — seamless, even, judging from the lists of hugot quotes from the movie that hundreds of people have been avidly sharing on social media. He was brought into the project after Star Cinema got his best friend, director Gino Santos, to work on a movie that would be Coleen Garcia’s first starring film role. They liked the tandem’s previous work on the indie dramas The Animals and #Y (both of which were about privileged youth in Manila), and they brought Jeff in so that the movie would have the same feel.
“We were very lucky when we got the break for The Animals, because we were in college then, and Gino asked me to help him write a script,” Jeff says of their first project together. Now, almost three years after he got that big break, Jeff declares that he owes most of his success to luck and hard work.
Writing a mainstream film certainly didn’t come without challenges. Contrary to popular belief, the writing process for the Wattpad-inspired Ex With Benefits was more tedious because of all the people who had a say in it. “Along the way, there are so many different people giving you their two cents. So you just have to learn how to filter the comments,” he recalls.
Coming up with lines that people will remember is a daunting task, and it took Jeff 13 drafts before he got to the approved script. There were times when he would give up and write typical dialogue and stereotypes, but those lines never made the cut. Despite that, he says that it helps to power through, and that when the going gets tough and you’re tempted to stick to the cliché, “you have to delve deep in your soul to figure out what you’re going to write to make it memorable.”
Apart from just working through the material, experience is another thing that the 24-year-old swears by. “Personally, I don’t have an ex,” Jeff declares matter-of-factly. It would’ve been hard to tell, considering the many #hugot lists of lines the film has become known for. He says that he found it much easier to write after he talked to friends who went through similar experiences.
He advises aspiring screenwriters to go around and talk to different people to understand how they approach different situations because reactions vary. “Sometimes you do feel boxed in. But then when you feel stuck, or when you feel like you just want to write something ordinary, that’s when getting out there and actually experiencing different things comes in handy,” he notes.
For now, he is sticking to his day job as a copywriter in digital advertising. “Copywriting helps exercise the writing muscle,” he notes. According to Jeff, his job forces him to write something every day in the form of online videos, Facebook posts and tweets. The job helps him to make his screenwriting “snappier and wittier,” which are tools that screenwriters looking to connect with their audiences need.
Now, still buzzing from the surreal experience of his first mainstream premiere, Jeff recalls how he was overwhelmed by how everything came together that night. “Just ask her,” he exclaims, motioning to his girlfriend. “Sometimes she would just see me staring at the crowd.” This comes as no surprise, though: a packed premiere night at SM Megamall is quite a stretch from the more subdued atmosphere at the CCP for Cinemalaya. But for Jeff, that is a welcome change.