CS Interview: Director Gregory Nava Opens Up About Selena
The 1997 musical biopic Selena, starring Jennifer Lopez, in a star-making performance, lands on Blu-ray today! To celebrate, we reached out to director Gregory Nava to talk about everything from the difficult production to Lopez’s amazing performance, and Selena Quintanilla, the popular singer whose rise to fame is chronicled in the pic.
In this biographical drama, Selena Quintanilla (Jennifer Lopez) is born into a musical Mexican-American family in Texas. Her father, Abraham (Edward James Olmos), realizes that his young daughter is talented and begins performing with her at small venues. She finds success and falls for her guitarist, Chris Perez (Jon Seda), who draws the ire of her father. Seeking mainstream stardom, Selena begins recording an English-language album which, tragically, she would never complete.
ComingSoon.net: Thank you for talking to us!
Gregory Nava: I’m so excited for this new Blu-ray of Selena! It’s been a long time, but I think it’s still an amazing film that audiences continue to love. This new Blu-ray has the original theatrical version, but also, we did a second version of the movie for television, an extended version. And that appears on the Blu-ray as well. And there’s lot of extras. People are always asking me, “How’d you make the movie and how did you do this? And what are your memories?” So the documentary with me, Jennifer Lopez, Eddie Olmos, we’re talking about all of those things, about how we made the movie, our great memories making the movie and how it all came to be. It’s wonderful. I know that fans of Selena and the movie will love that. And then there’s also another documentary about the career of Selena, her incredible career and her incredible life of stardom. There are also outtakes. All the scenes that we shot that are not in either the theater version or the extended version, all these new scenes that people can see the first time with Jennifer, with Eddie, new parts of Selena’s life. So for people that love this movie and love Selena, this is a treasure.
CS: So, what was it like revisiting the movie after all these years and putting together this Blu-ray?
Nava: Well, it was a great experience, and of course I wept and laughed and it was a joy remembering everything. But it seems like yesterday that we made this movie. It’s very close to my heart. It’s the most emotional and special film that I’ve ever made. There’s really nothing else quite like it that I’ve ever done in my life, so all the memories are so treasured. And I’m so proud. It was such a big challenge to make this film, the tragedy was so huge and there was all this gossip and stuff. And the family wanted to do something to really cement the memory and the legacy of their beautiful daughter with this movie. So I was tasked with a big job. And Jennifer Lopez was tasked with a big job. And I’m so proud that we were able to do this and that it lived so long and now gone all over the world. The key to me, the family telling us that they have people coming from China, from Africa, all over to see the Selena Museum. So I’m real proud that we brought Selena’s life to the world. But the reason I think we were able to do that is because there’s a magic to that movie and it’s because Selena’s spirit was with us, guiding us, when we made that film.
C: Interesting. And I was going to ask, because Selena died in March of ’95, and you guys were right into production September of ’96. What was the mood like on set during that time, as you were recreating all these amazing moments from her life that had more or less just recently happened?
Nava: Yes. I don’t think there’s ever been another musical biopic that had that, that was made so close to the actual events that you were depicting. But as I said, the family wanted to do it because there was so much gossip and so much negative stuff coming out and they knew that a movie could make that all go away, and it did. And so, then Selena’s life could be preserved. And we didn’t want to make this tragedy worse. We wanted to try and bring something positive out of the tragedy. So when I was interviewing the family and Chris Perez, the husband and his friends, they were talking about things that were very recent and that was very fresh in their memory. And they could recite dialogue. They could recite things that I’ve never really encountered before in doing research for a film. It’s really helped me bring that intimate, authentic life of this young woman to the screen. I really have to thank them for being so open with me. And then, I got to thank the people of Texas. When we get to Houston Astros stadium, there’s 35,000 people that came for free, filled the stadium and all of them had seen Selena in person, right? Most of them had been to the Houston Astro concert that we were recreating. Normally when you do these movies, the people who you’re paying to be extras, they don’t know what The Doors or whoever, right, Judy Garland. They never saw them. They weren’t there. We had 35,000 people that were there, okay?
C: That’s interesting.
Nava: And they were all dressed like Selena and they all had their signs. And it was emotional, like nothing you have ever seen in your life. And so I gotta thank the people of Texas and I gotta thank Jennifer. She was like 24 years old. The pressure on her to go on that stage in front of all those people. She had never done a musical number before. It was her first one at the beginning of the movie, the first time she was ever on stage. She really rose to the occasion. And she didn’t dance like Jennifer, she danced like Selena. She studied those takes and she imitated her perfectly. And we used Selena’s voice, but she did that lip syncing, you’d think it’s her singing. And the audience. They were weeping. They were cheering. They were saying, “That’s Selena again, once again.” And Jennifer really channeled her on that piece. When you see that movie, that’s not Jennifer Lopez, that’s Selena.
C: See, that’s interesting to me because it’s hard to even imagine anybody other than Jennifer Lopez being in this movie. But at the time, there was some negative backlash when she was cast.
Nava: Well, that was part of the pressure that was on her when she went to that stage that day. But we knew that she was the right person to do it because we had all these auditions. 21,000 people auditioned for that film, which was the biggest search in the history of cinema for an actor to play this role, both known and unknown. We narrowed it down to 12. We had a big, full audition with costuming and cameras and everything. And of course, when we looked at the auditions, it was clear there was nobody who even came close to what Jennifer could achieve on the stage. And I had to fight for a Latina because the way the studio thought about it, they were like, oh, the Hispanics will come because it’s Selena. And if we get a white girl to play Selena, then the Anglos will come. And they’re thinking about their box office. And I’m going, no way are you going to get anybody but a Latina in the role of Selena. Absolutely not, you know? So I fought for that and we got that. And Jennifer was clearly the only one. It wasn’t that widespread, but thought she was the wrong kind of Latina. I didn’t worry about it because I knew once you saw Jennifer, that would all go away immediately.
She was extraordinary. Look at what she did. Nobody now looks back on it and even thinks about that. On the contrary. Most people say it is the greatest performance in the history of musical biopics. And I think it certainly is. What she did — because she not only had to do the lip syncing and the drama, but she had to do the dancing and trace all of Selena’s dance movements from when she was a teenager to when she was a fully-fledged performer. Who else had to do that? And who else did it so perfectly? And then again, where else in the history of cinema do you have two icons meeting in this movie, Selena and Jennifer Lopez? That’s never happened before. And one playing the other. It’s magic. That’s why I say, the spirit of Selena was with us. No, you’re right. It seems almost incredible to believe that anybody objected at the time, but she wasn’t known. This was her first big role. But we had seen the auditions, so we all knew that she would deliver something very special, and she really did.
C: A lot of biographies tend to portray their subjects in a glorified light, whereas you said you wanted to paint a more realistic portrait of Selena. How difficult was it to get that particular version of the character onscreen? Because as you said, there was a lot of negative things flying around about her at the time.
Nava: You know, the truth will set you free. And people were very open with me. I’ll tell you a story about that. You know, Chris, he says, well, what do you want me to say? He’d tell me exactly what really happened. He goes, “Abraham is not going to like it.” I said, “Well, I don’t care about that. You just tell me what happened.” So he told me. And he said, “You know, everybody thinks I’m the one that talked her into eloping, but it really was Selena.” And he told me. The scene that you see in the movie is exactly like he related it to me. So I’m like, okay, I wrote it as it really happened. Abraham read the script and he hit the ceiling because he found out that it was Selena’s idea to elope reading the screenplay, okay? Talk about doing something truthful and authentic. Oh my god, I had a scene with him. “We can’t do it. And we can’t show this. And I don’t want this and blah, blah.” And I said, “Listen,” I said, “Selena was a strong, independent young woman and everybody has to go from childhood to being an adult and they have to free themselves from their parents. You did that when you grew up. You know that every child has to do that. This is her moment where she did it. And after she did it, you know that you said to her, I’m glad you did what you did and you embraced her.” And he goes, “Yeah, that’s true.” And I said, “So we have to do it.” And he goes, “Well, all right. If I have to look bad in order to make Selena look good, I’ll do it.” And he went along with it. So these are the things I had to do to tell the story and to tell this beautiful story and this beautiful love story as well as the beautiful story of a father and a daughter and a beautiful story of a family.
And you know, people say, oh, you’re such a great Chicano filmmaker and all of these things. But I’ll tell you. I don’t think of it that way. I think of myself as just a filmmaker, and I want to tell stories that are universal because I believe if you tell the story of your village, you tell the story of the world. I love “War and Peace” and I’m not Russian, okay, and I did not live in 1812, but I identify with those characters because Tolstoy reaches a universal level. But I’m not comparing myself to Tolstoy. What I’m saying is that that’s the process that I think you need to do, and what I tried to do with “Selena”. I wanted to reach a universal level with this story. And you think this is a story of a family. This is a love story. This is a story of a father and a daughter. This is a beautiful, universal story and I’m so proud of the fact that it had that impact. When it was first released, it was all Latino. And it really crossed over to the non-Latino audience in the United States on cable. For many, many years, “Selena” was the most-played movie on cable. Everybody saw it. Everywhere I went they’d say, “What movies have you made?” I said, “’Selena’.” “Oh my God,” they go crazy, whether they’re Latino or not, Anglo, African American, Asian, they love that movie.
And then, to now all over the world, you know? So, people go to that Selena Museum because they’ve seen the movie. So I’m real proud that all that wonderful work that we did, Jennifer, me, the people of Texas, the family, really helped bring her life to the world and we’re real proud of it. And this Blu-ray is just absolutely wonderful with all these beautiful extras. It’s just going to be a real great moment for people who love Selena.
C: That’s fantastic. Do you have anything else that you want to say about the film?
Nava: Well, I want to say that I feel that Selena’s spirit was with us and it’s in that movie. She inspired us. We opened ourself to it. Everybody helped us, the people, the family. And she guided us in making that film. It’s because of her that that film is so special, her life, and I’m so proud of that film. I’m so proud of Jennifer. And most of all, I’m so proud of this young woman, who is such an extraordinary person. She touched everybody so deeply who knew her, and now, she’s touching everybody in the world.