Selena Director Gregory Nava Talks About Making The Film And Its Success


In 1997 the movie Selena saw the rise of two stars.  The first telling the story of Selena, a young Mexican singer whose life was cut short before she could really make it in the United States.  The movie brought Selena’s popular Spanish music to mainstream media in the United States and saw her popularity rise after her death.  The second rise was of the young Puerto Rican actress/singer Jennifer Lopez.  In her first lead role Jennifer Lopez had began to show the world her talented singing and acting abilities.  The movie Selena became an instant success in the Latin American market and has kept its popularity over the years.  On May 19th, Selena will be released on Blu-ray for the first time.  I got to sit down with the director Gregory Nava on what it was like to make the film and if he knew the success the film would have.

Nancy Tapia: Did it ever cross your mind that after writing and directing Selena and two decades later it be a film that we’d still be talking about? And now coming out in Blu-ray!

Gregory Nava: Wow. Yeah. You know, a film takes on a life of its own after you make it. This film is more popular now than when we first made it. It’s such a tribute to all the fine work that everybody did making the film. But I think overall it is a tribute to Selena’s spirit because I feel that her light and her spirit was with us when we made this film and it comes through in the film and that is what has touched hearts. The more people see it, you know, the more, you know, the love for this film grows and grows and grows and not just in the United States, but now all over the world. So it really, it’s humbling really to see how this film has grown. And now we have this beautiful Blu-ray coming out, which is so wonderful. So, you know, Selena lives and ‘m so proud to have been a part of creating her legacy.

Nancy Tapia Let’s talk from the very beginning, how did it start?

Gregory Nava: Well, I’m a writer, director. To me they’re part of the same process, and because I’m a storyteller. So when I was offered this role, this film after the success of MI Familia, I was trying to decide whether or not to do it. And a lot of my representation advised me against it. But it’s a perfect example of not paying any attention to your agent. So I was walking in my neighborhood, Venice, California, where there’s a lot of Mexicanos Chicanos. I encountered these two young girls when I was eight years old when I was 10 years old and they had Selena t-shirts. And I asked them, “Why do you love Selena?” and they looked at me and said, because she looks like us.

And that touched me so deeply because at that moment I realized to our people, we don’t see ourselves on the screen. You know, we don’t see ourselves. We’re never there and there’s so many of us here, yet we’re overlooked and we’re ignored. I thought, I’m going to make this movie for those young girls so they can have their princess, they can have their queen and they need that. They need her and she needs them to show them that yes, they can make it and achieve the American dream. So I decided to, to make the film and I was so fortunate. This is why I feel Selena’s spirit with us because I received so much help making this film. I don’t think any other filmmaker has gotten the kind of help I’ve had.

First of all, the family, they were so open with me and Chris Pettis, her husband and her friends, they shared for hours all their most intimate memories of her. That really helped me write a script that would capture her spirit and to make a film that would be very intimate and very authentic. Then of course the casting of Jennifer Lopez, which wasn’t easy. We had 21,000 people come to audition for this part and we narrowed it down to 12 and then finally did a major screen test. It was really clear that Jennifer was by far the best person to play this role. She’s such a great actress and she really channeled Selena not only in her drama, but the way she did the lip syncing and the dancing was not her dancing. She’s a great dancer, but she danced like Selena. Nobody else was able to achieve that.

So she was by far the right person. Then finally I have to thank all the people of Texas. I insisted with the studio that we filmed in Texas because I wanted people to see the town of community, their faces. I wanted people to see the land that Selena came from. I thought that was very important and the way the people have texted the talent community supported this movie is unlike anything that’s ever been in the whole history of cinema. When we shot the Houston Astrodome concert scene that opens the film, 35,000 people came for free. We didn’t have the money to pay them, they love Selena. They came dressed as if they were there for a Selena concert and they stayed all day long. It was a difficult shoot. It was so emotional. Everybody was cheering and everybody was weeping all at the same time. And Jennifer really Rose to the occasion and gave her a performance that was absolutely spectacular and everybody said, that’s Selena on the stage. So they supported this film like I’ve never seen, 10,000 people came when we did the Monterey concert. 8,000 people came when we shot the candlelight vigil. All of this, they came for free because they love Selena and they wanted to support the movie. So no filmmakers had this kind of support, and these are all the reasons why this film is so special and why every time somebody sees it, they weep and they cheer. It’s a celebration and they then tell their friends, you gotta see it and then their friends tell their friends. So here we are 22 years later, it’s a tremendous honor to be now regarded as one of the great classics of Hollywood filmmaking.

Also Related: Introduction To The Cast of Netflix’s Selena

Nancy Tapia: That is so true. I actually rewatched it last night.  I’ve obviously seen it several times, but I watched it with my mom and, and then we’re both kinda like, Oh, this, that and I remember this. It’s one of those things like it’s even a film that helps you bond again with your family.

Gregory Nava: Yes, because it’s about Familia and so much about Selena is about Familia and that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to make it about her, but also her Familia because they were all together, you know, supporting her and performing with her and AB was writing her songs, but then she has this very special relationship with her father. You know, this film is totally crossed over and I meet so many people who aren’t Latino and the minute they find out I made Selena, they go nuts. So many women relate to the relationship with her father that they love each other and yet Selena has to become her own woman. She has to become independent, and she does break away from her father. Then of course they reconcile because her father realizes that she did the right thing. You know, no one can tell you to do those things but Selena did, and it was funny because when I wrote the script, Chris told me the story about how it was Selena’s idea to elope and the father didn’t know that. He thought it must’ve been Chris, so when he read the script, he hit the ceiling.  I had a long meeting with him to call him down and say, look, this is what happened. He said, well, we can’t put that on the screen because you don’t want to put that on the screen for young girls. I said, no, you have to put it on the screen that young women have to become their own person. That really hit him, and then he said to me, well, you know what Greg, if I have to look bad in order to make Selena look good, then I’ll do it. And he went along with it.

Nancy Tapia: I don’t think it made him look bad. If anything it helps relay with in any father, daughter relationship. We as daughters have grown up, we’re adults, we’re our own person now. You did great raising me and I’m super thankful, but I’m also not a little girl anymore.

Gregory Nava: I know and I think that that’s hard for a father to see. That’s hard for a father to accept. You know, the little girl is grown up now and I think that that’s one of the powers that the film has. The universality of the human experience is that you get the father’s side of it as well and identify with why he’s being so controlling and then why he finally realizes that he’s glad that she did what she did and they had that beautiful scene where they reconcile. So this is part of human life and everybody goes through these things and the film captures that. Then people know that you’re not, you know, giving them a line, you know, you’re telling them the truth and this is what really happened. So I think there’s a truth to the film that people respond to.

It’s very deep and it’s very, very universal. So these are all the reasons why I think the film continues to be popular and continues to be so well loved. And you know, with this Blu-ray, it’s not just the movie. It has lots of extras with it for people who love the film and we did an extended version. My favorite version of the movie is the theatrical version. I think that’s the best version. But the studio asked us to do an extended version because it was so popular and capable. So that’s included as well. It has extra scenes with Selena as a child and musical numbers in the film. That’s a very beautiful thing and then we have a documentary on the movie about how we made the movie with interviews with Jennifer and interviews with me, interviews with Abraham, and we’re all talking about how this film came to be.

Then in addition to that, there’s another documentary tracing Selena’s career as the queen of spanish music. Then finally, all the outtakes that were not included in either of the versions of the movie. So you get to see all kinds of new scenes that you’ve never seen before that are being shown now for the first time with Jennifer, with Eddie, with everybody. I know that people who love the movie will have the chance to really enjoy it all the more and see all aspects of everything, the work that we did and how we did it. It’s great for fans of the movie and of course obviously great for fans of Selena.

Nancy Tapia: That’s marvelous. That’s definitely something I’m going to have to do again with my mother and I’m sure many others are going to do the same. So you were involved in the entire Blu-ray? 

Gregory Nava: Yes, we had to go through and find all the outtakes , and they were in work, print form. They’re not as in the same quality as the movie, but they’re wonderful to see. We had to find them all and put them all together. So yeah, I was involved in making it and obviously we did the documentary a few years ago, but it’s a great documentary. There was a real joy to revisit all these things and all the memories of making the film.I have so many and it was so beautiful.

Nancy Tapia: So how did this incorporated material for the Blu-ray come along?

Gregory Nava: Well, it’s because people love the movie so much. And Warner said, let’s do something special, but you have to  get all this stuff together. You know, they only do this for their most successful films. So I was very pleased that Warners wanted to do this extra thing and it’s part of their archive collection, which as I said before, that’s where all their classic films were released. So here we are with Humphrey Bogart and Betty Davis and Meryl Streep and you know, all the greats. Now Jennifer Lopez and Selena, it’s the first Latino film to receive this honor. So we’re very, very, very pleased with the whole thing.

Nancy Tapia: It’s been so many years, but what’s the one scene that still today touches you everytime when you watch the film?

Gregory Nava: Well, I, you know, there’s just so many scenes that touch me. You know, the Houston Astrodome scene where 35,000, we didn’t know if anybody was going to come, you know, 35,000 people showed up. That was overwhelming because we had filmed a concert before without anybody because the studio said shoot it to make sure we got it. But none of that footage is in the movie. All the footage that’s in the movie, it’s from the day that the 35,000 people came. Cause I wanted to show the people, and Selena being one, you’ll notice when you see it almost every shot you see the audience with Selena, to show how she’s bonded with her audience, but also for Jennifer, having that audience there that just elevated her performance in a way that was amazing. And the people, they had all been to Selena concert, everybody was there, had seen Selena, most of them had been to the Houston Astrodome concert.

So for Jennifer to win them over and to make them weep and cheer and go that Selena was on the stage took a tremendous amount of courage and talent and fortitude for her to rise to the occasion, which she did. After it was all over, I was with her in her dressing room and we were both trembling with emotion and holding each other. The family was there. It was such an emotional moment. So that probably of all the memories I have is the strongest memory. But there were so many others that were beautiful. You know, I love Eddie’s performance. He did so many things spontaneously when we were shooting, like that wonderful scene where he falls over on his chair when he was at the drums, when he’s trying to convince the family to play the drums.

He didn’t tell me he was going to do that and we did not rehearse it that way. He just did that in the moment, you know, to get a spontaneous response from the kids and everything. So, I love that about Eddie. You know, he infused that performance with so much bond and vitality and he really captured Abraham just as strongly as Jennifer captured Selena. They both channeled the people that they were that they were performing. So, that’s why I think that the chemistry between the two of them is so strong. And that’s one of the reasons why I think that people fall in love with that father daughter relationship in the film. And that’s one of the most beautiful things about the movie. So I have so many beautiful memories from making that film and it was like yesterday for me. They’re so powerful and this is another reason why I say I feel that Selena’s light was with us when we made this film.

Nancy Tapia: Did you get a chance to see Selena perform?

Gregory Nava: No, I never did see her in person. You know, in that period when she was reaching her fame. But you know, cause she was only a few years, I was very busy doing  MI Familia and in Hollywood with the film. So I never had a chance to go out to Texas to see her. I had heard of her, but I did not ever have a chance to see her. And of course we were all thinking that she’d come out to Los Angeles to perform.  But since I’ve been doing research for the film, I saw every single concert cause they filmed them all. I feel as though I was there because even when you watch the videos of her concerts, her performances are so strong and her charisma is so overwhelming, that you get the feeling as if you were there and we wanted to capture all that in the movie.

Nancy Tapia: Can you share your favorite Selena song?

Gregory Nava: Well, it’s almost impossible to say. I think Como la Flor is for me, it really defines her. I loved that song and that was her first big hit. That’s the song that she sang to calm the crowd. She really channeled something very, very beautiful with that song. And then of course, turning to English, the song that we use at the end of the film, Dreaming of You, I mean, it breaks your heart.

So we chose that for the end sequence of the movie. That’s a real heartbreaker, you know, so for Spanish and English, I think those are my two favorites, but it’s almost impossible to say, you know, because they’re all so great and we use the song Bidi Bidi Bom Bom to be the song that she sings, declaring her independence and her becoming her own person. As you say, going from being a girl to being a woman and being her own independent person. And in the film,  Bidi Bidi Bom Bom, which is a song that she wrote herself. So that one also, you got to love, and I love that sequence in the film. It was really beautifully done.

Nancy Tapia: Were you in touch with a family?  As you were putting it together for the Blu-ray?

Gregory Nava: I talked to them a lot. Yes. I have a good relationship with them butI don’t know if they were part of making the Blu-ray. I haven’t spoken to them recently, but I’m sure they’re all at home staying safe as we all are. It’s very difficult, period, you know? But it’s a good time to watch Selena again with your family. Bring some light into your life. Don’t we all need some light in our lives right now, the very dark period in America right now.

Nancy Tapia: I know. Perfect timing for this Blu-ray. Not to be a Debbie Downer here, but the news of her loss,  I remember the day vividly, where were you when you received the news?

Gregory Nava: I was editing MI Familia when the news came of her passing. I remember that very distinctly. Yeah. But we were putting the film in cameras. You know, people were shocked. Roughly shocked and I’ll tell you something about that. Actually getting back to me meeting those two young girls in Venice, I decided I was going to make the movie and the other decision that I made was I was not going to spill Salinas blood in this school. I didn’t care what the studio said or what anybody said about how commercial it would be to do that. I wasn’t going to spill her blood for our young girls, for our people. And I had to think, how am I going to do this? How am I going to do her death? And, I used it as my model, I thought about it. Ancient Greek tragedy.

Talk about it,  Oedipus Rex and the RS diet because in those plays, in their great wisdom, the ancient Greeks did not have the act of violence on the stage. It happens off stage. You don’t see it. What you see on stage is the consequences of violence. How this act of violence affects people. And I thought that’s the way to do it. And that’s what’s missing in Hollywood today. I think having a general discussion of violence in films, you see the violence, but then you don’t see the consequences of the violence, which is far more powerful, right? So in the movie, you hear the radio announcement that this has happened and you see her in the ambulance. But what you see is how this horrible event affected everybody. And the first consequences with Yolanda, you see her in her car, in her truck, with a gun at her head in the rain, weeping saying, I just killed my best friend.

I want my mother. And she’s weeping. And you realize that she has ruined her life from this senseless act. And then you see the family and they’re all in the hospital and they’re all weeping at the loss of this beautiful young woman, their daughter and their wife and their sister. And then you see the fans all gathered together on the night that Selena died, thousands of fans gathered all over Texas with candlelight. And we reproduced that. So you see how this affected everybody, the family, the fans, and then, you know, we see the real Selena and this beautiful sequence that we did. And by that time, everybody in the movie is weeping and, but they’re all feeling her light. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to try to do everything I could to bring something positive out of this tragedy so that her light and her spirit would live on.

That’s how I decided to do it. I think that those choices, you know, if we’d done something more sensational, we’d done this movie would not have lived. The reason is because it is, we made it about family. We made it about a young woman’s journey. We made it about how despite the tragedy her light lives on with all of her fans and those who did not know her in person, they see the movie and they feel as if they knew her. And that has gone to the whole world. I think that that is at the heart of why this film continues to be so popular. Why it’s become a classic, why they’re releasing this blue right now and why the film is more popular today than when we first made it. Viva Selena,

Nancy Tapia: Thank you for covering that. That’s actually something I wanted to ask you about how you came about. And you’re right, a lot of times, today, people just seem to feed from violence and that’s not necessary. And you definitely give it a good example of it in this film.

Gregory Nava: Yes. You know, it was funny because I did a special presentation at the motion picture Academy, uh, about that last sequence at all. You know, cause everybody wants to know about it. I’m so famous among filmmakers as being such a brilliant sequence. I mean, I say that with all humility because it wasn’t, you know, I came to it because I was trying to channel Selena’s spirit and the people, you know, and, and, and say what came through me in designing that sequence. But people were so impressed by it that we did a whole lecture where we showed that scene, the sequence from when she imagines herself singing in front of the audience and the white Rose comes and everything. And then we go into that sequence and how we edited it and the, the music I had, the people, the editors, and then the people that did the, the sound because the sound was very complex through that entire thing and very beautifully done. 

We all talked about how we mixed it and how we edit it. I talked about the, the whole way I came about doing it because no one had ever seen anything like that before. That final sequence of the movie. Selena was unlike anything that anybody’s ever seen. Nobody had seen a violent act treated in that way. It went against all the norms and yet it worked in a way that was, that was very impressive to people. So they actually had me do a whole big lecture and it was packed with filmmakers. I was very honored, you know, uh, because they were so impressed, you know, people in the Academy were so impressed with that sequence, and I, and I’m very, very proud of it because it was something that we were able to do to show it, show the consequences. We knew it happened, and yet have people’s spirits uplifted.

Nancy Tapia: It was very classy and very respectful for the fans and the family.

Gregory Nava: Viva Selena May 19th I know everybody is going to love this Blu-ray. Yes. It’s been a real pleasure speaking with you.

Nancy Tapia: Thank you. Thank you so much. 

Selena will be viewable as Original Theatrical Version or the Extended Cut – Both in HD/Blu-ray

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