Qulture’s Franco Ford caught up with Writer/Director Gregory Nava at the viewing of his feature film Selena (1997), at the 2013 San Diego Latino Film Festival. Selena is arguably Nava’s most beloved film, but it was Nava’s second feature film, EL Norte (1984), which earned him and his wife, Anna Thomas (who co-wrote the film), an Academy Award nomination. Nava’s other works include celebrated features such as Mi Familia, Why Do Fools Fall in Love, and Frida.
FRANCO FORD: You were born and raised in San Diego, yet many of your films focus on the stories of immigrants. When and why did you begin to take an interest in lives south of the border?
GREGORY NAVA: Well, because I’m from a border family and I have family in Tijuana as well as San Diego. We used to cross the border all the time when I was a kid–two or three times per week. I saw people coming across ever since I was a child. I just lived that experience. They’re powerful stories and the contrast between the two worlds is amazing. That’s what I based my cinema on. In fact, I just closed a deal today to do a mini-series for ABC called Gates of Eden about the border and immigration.
FF: What is your goal when you tell stories of not only immigrants, but Mexican Americans?
GN: Just to strike the universal human cord. I think the human experience is universal. So I tell stories for everybody. I believe if you tell the story of your village, you tell the story of the world. That’s what I try and do with the movies I make.
FF: You directed Why Do Fools Fall in Love. It was quite a bit different from the stories you were known for telling. What prompted you to direct the feature?
GN: Well, the story to me was a musical drama much like Selena. It interested me that he had three different wives and with each one of them he was a different person. The wives are fighting for the rights of this song and they each tell their story. It’s like he was a different guy with each one of them. It was interesting to me to deal with the issue of who are you. Are you you or the person people see you as? He [Frankie Liman] was a great artist. When you look at Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and everybody who took their inspiration from this guy, from the way he sang to his style. He was very influential in the history of music. Of course the teenagers were Latinos as well as African-Americans. The musical group was a mixture as well. I believe very strongly in both the Latino and African-American experience. It’s the non-Anglo experience that interests me. I always felt the African-American and Latino world should come together. If we came together we would own everything. In the business, everyone is chasing and dependent upon the Anglos. What if we came together? We would have the biggest audience. It’s so much about our experiences that are similar and we have so much in common. I was attracted to the story for a lot of reasons, but principally I like the humanity of it. I thought the fragmented nature of an artistic personality was powerful in this particular tale.
FF: The Hispanic/Latino population is one of the fastest growing populations. Do you feel they’re still being ignored in Hollywood?
GN: Yes, it’s being massively ignored. It’s also hard to get projects the Latino audience is going to go for. You also have to please people [movie executives] who aren’t Latino. What they feel and see isn’t necessarily what we like. They still want to do stuff about gangs and drugs and the Latino audience doesn’t like that. They want something completely different and I think the same thing is true in the African-American community. You see a guy like Tyler Perry who does whatever he wants. Nobody would have made a Madea movie, but there was a big audience that wanted to see it. The same thing will happen in the Latino community as soon as someone in Hollywood gives someone like me the green light to do what we know our people will like. But you have to please them and still try and do something our people will like. So far we haven’t brought that together. You don’t have any executives with the wisdom to admit I don’t know, let me trust you to bring me back the brass ring. With that being said, it makes it tough to get the projects made that should be made.
FF: What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?
GN: If you want to be a filmmaker to be famous, make a lot of money, and have beautiful lovers, don’t do it. Those aren’t good enough reasons. If you are burning with passion about something you have to say and have a unique new voice and can’t live without getting it out then you’re the one that has a shot at having a career. It’s all about passion. It’s all about love. It’s all about what you want to say. Those are the ones who break through.