Film Scouts Interviews

Gregory Nava on "Selena"

by Henri Béhar

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The author of "El Norte" and "Mi Familia/My Family", Gregory Nava felt "both honored and terrified" to bring singer Selena's life to the big screen. The problem was at least two-fold: how do you integrate the music so every number doesn't become a show-stopper in the negative sense and, more importantly, how do you deal with an icon, one who, like James Dean, met with violent death as she was about to break into major stardom? Starring Jennifer Lopez as the singer, Edward James Olmos as her father Abraham and Jon Seda as her husband (and guitarist) Chris, "Selena" is Nava's answer to both preoccupations. An effusive man - and, with his black hair slicked back, a dead-ringer for actor Joe Mantegna with his black hair slicked back, director Nava treats every musical sequence as if it were an aria in an opera: part of the character's emotional journey. Excerpts of a conversation about Selena - the daughter, the singer, the woman - about violence in films and Latino filmmakers, about that huge Selena concert at the Houston Astrodome which is the centerpiece of the film. - H.B.


GREGORY NAVA: That was the first big concert scene that we did. 35,000 extras came to the San Antonio arena where we staged it. They came because it was Selena. They all came with their signs as if they were at a real Selena concert. In fact, a lot of them HAD been to that Houston Astrodome concert. And when Jennifer came out dressed as Selena, the crowd went nuts! They just lost it. We all cried. Selena's mother, Marcella, started weeping so much she had to leave, she couldn't finish the concert.

FILM SCOUTS: Since Selena's death, there has been some controversy over her life. In making a film about her, was there not a danger of sanctifying Selena and turning her into a perfect human being?

GN: That is exactly what I didn't want to do. I wanted to put up a real human being up on the screen. In fact, very early on, I had a lot of back and forth with the family about what I wanted to put up there on the screen. I wanted to tell the truth, and one of the major things was the story of how she ran off and married Chris.

The family had never told that. I found out that, after a big argument on the bus with her father, whom she actually defied, it was SHE who went to Chris in a hotel room in Corpus Christi and told him, "Hey, let's go off and get married" -- which they did, against her father's wishes.

Until Chris told me, told us, Selena's father, Abraham, didn't know it had really been HER idea.

Initially, I thought, "My God, she's a role model to the Latino youth, we can't show her running off against her father's wishes and marrying this guy."

But Selena was an independent, very strong willed young woman. She didn't always do what her mom and dad told her to do. She did what she wanted to and she fought for her independence, which is what the struggle of the film is. She fought for her dream.

At the same time, you can't find anybody who knew her who will say anything bad about Selena. "Oh, she was mean", or "She was holier than thou". Selena was open; she was a trusting, loving person who always saw the best in everybody. That was, in a way, the tragic flaw that brought about her death: she didn't suspect anybody.

FS: You don't show Selena's murder.

GN: Well, how do you deal with it? Do you just obliterate Yolanda and just have a title at the end? You can't. I decided to bring her in the film, but not in a major way. She really came into Selena's life at the end of her life, and we're telling the whole story of her life.

We live in a society in which, it seems to me, we're always in the mind of the person pulling the trigger. The person who gets killed is just, who cares? Every time you see someone killed in a movie, the killer is a real human being who had a life and a potential and a whole thing, the victim just an itch that gets scratched, and then the murderer goes on as if nothing happened.

I wanted to do a film about the person that gets killed.

As a nation, we need to start focusing on the loss at the other end of the barrel as opposed to always being with the person that pulled the trigger.

I wanted to focus on Selena, but it became apparent to me that we needed a little bit of Yolanda to understand and bring this story to an end. I didn't want to probe her psychology because none of us could ever fathom her motivation.

We knew enough to know that Yolanda was a troubled person. But not so much so that Selena or the family would suspect anything.

In terms of dealing with the death, I decided to go back to the most ancient template that there is for dealing with violence. I think it is, perhaps, the best still and that is the ancient Greek tragedy where you do not see the actual act of violence. It always takes place off stage and what you see is the consequences of the act.

When people speak about the depiction of violence in movies and television that we see today, many say, "Historically, violence has always been depicted." That is not true. Historically, be it the ancient Greeks or Shakespeare or whatever, when violence is depicted, you see and understand the consequences of an act of violence.

FS: Where were you when Selena was killed?

GN: I was driving down Sunset Boulevard in the middle of post-production on "Mi Familia". I was crushed when I heard the news because I was really excited about her and about what she was doing.

I never met her personally but if you're a Chicano, the barriers that she was getting through were extraordinary. Being a woman in the Tejano music world, which is a male-dominated world. Being accepted in Mexico as a Mexican-American, which is a great point of pride to any of us who is Mexican-American. Crossing over into the mainstream of the United States... We were all very proud of her.

So when I heard on the radio she had died, I simply couldn't believe it.

FS: How important was Selena to the Latino community?

GN: One of the reasons why our community loved her so much was because she was a real natural person. She became important to us because she crossed barriers no one had ever crossed before, and she did it without sacrificing her identity.

In the past, we have seen Latinos make it big time, but at a price. Margarita Cansino became Rita Hayworth and Raquel Tejada Raquel Welch. What they did, they had to do, it was part of the evolution. I'm not putting it down in any way. As a matter of fact, I respect their accomplishments.

But Selena showed you could do that without sacrificing your identity. She embraced herself, loved herself, accepted who she was and put it out there.

For instance, she had a very Latina figure: a good set of hips and a big...whatever, right?

Well, instead of trying to hide that, Selena put on tight pants and the bustier, went onstage and said, "I'm beautiful."

At that moment, millions of Latinas all over the western hemisphere went "Yeah! We are beautiful! We don't have to look like Barbie dolls in order to be beautiful."

And by the way, Jennifer Lopez has the exact same beautiful body type as Selena.

FS: The word one often hears about Selena, and particularly Selena's music, is "crossover", crossover into the American mainstream...

GN: I know what you're going to say, and I agree. To me Selena is in one way as American as apple pie. She's all-American. Selena could no more come out of Mexico than Frank Sinatra could come out of Italy or Ella Fitzgerald from Africa.

In a way, much smaller way, the same thing applies to me. Some people say I make "ethnic movies." Well, I don't see it that way. To me, "Mi Familia" is no more ethnic than "Home Alone." Everybody has a cultural underpinning to their lives and their families, so I just see them as good stories about people. I'm Latino, so naturally, I'm attracted to Latino stories. But I see my films as films about people and myself as a filmmaker. Not a Chicano filmmaker. Just a filmmaker.

True, because there aren't very many of us around, you do feel there's a pioneering aspect to it.

I've always seen two ways to make movies, to make money at movies. One is building up the barriers that exist between people. Violence against women and whatever. Or you take down the walls that exist between people. Audience will pay for both of those experiences. I've always seem myself in the category of those who try to take down the wall between people.

And I don't mean just between cultural groups like Latino and Anglo, but between father and son and husband and wife. Just bringing together concept which I think is what I feel real strongly about in movies that needs to be done, and what I want to do.

Audiences always like a good story about people. "El Norte," "Mi Familia"... I've seen them playing in Japan and everywhere, and people relate to the films because it's finally the human experience is what drama is all about.

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