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An Interview with Gregory Nava

Director/Producer/Writer of American Family

Gregory Nava
Gregory Nava

Q: How is the second season of American Family going to be different from the first season?

A: I come from a filmmaking background, and when I did the first season of AMERICAN FAMILY, I conceived of it as 22 little movies. This new season of AMERICAN FAMILY, I conceived of as one big 13-hour move. It really is going to be a miniseries in 13 parts, that is going to be continued from week to week.

Q: You say it's going to tell one story, what is this story going to be about and how did you come to this story?

A: One of the most interesting aspects of the AMERICAN FAMILY concept when I originally conceived it was that I wanted to do shows that were very topical, dealing with the real issues that families in America were going through. I didn't realize all that this would entail when I started doing the show a few years ago. Since then, the world has changed completely, with 9-11 and the events that followed. Our show always worked to reflect these changes. Last season, Conrado, the Gonzalez family's oldest son joined the Army as a doctor. It was obvious to me that this season he would be serving in Iraq. It was also obvious that given the political leanings of the various family members, especially Jess and his daughter Nina, that the family would be deeply divided about the war even as the country is deeply divided about it. Slowly to me, and to the other writers on the show, Barbara Martinez Jitner and Lorenzo O'Brien a large story began to form based around the events of the war in Iraq.

The Gonzalez family is in crisis as the nation is in crisis. The whole journey of the family to achieve the American dream comes into question. The story began to expand and open up into the family's past. All the sacrifices the family made in the past to send Conrado to medical school became part of the story, as well as the sacrifices the family made to come to America during the Mexican Revolution of 1915. The story became a great epic drama of one family's quest for the American Dream and all the triumphs and tragedies the family has suffered in pursuit of this dream. This season AMERICAN FAMILY is a stand alone work, with a definite beginning and a definite ending. It even has its own title, AMERICAN FAMILY - JOURNEY OF DREAMS.

Q: And why should people watch AMERICAN FAMILY - JOURNEY OF DREAMS?

A: I believe that AMERICAN FAMILY - JOURNEY OF DREAMS is the most exciting, innovative, topical show on television today. We are dealing with real stuff that's going on right now that touches people's lives, and I think it's very rare in television to be able to do a story about events that are still going on when the show is being aired. That is a remarkable thing.

The events of the war in Iraq become the catalyst that opens the doors to the family's past, and all of it forms a story that I think will touch the hearts of everybody in America regardless of their background. The story of the Mexican Revolution for example is a remarkable and powerful story that I think reflects the universality of the American experience. In every house in America there is an epic tale of how their family came to the United States - some fantastic story about where the family came from and all the sacrifices they have made through all the generations being here trying to realize the American dream. That's what we are doing this year with AMERICAN FAMILY - JOURNEY OF DREAMS. We're going to tell the epic story of one American family.

Q: You're well known for the "dream realist" style of your films, can you talk about this, and will AMERICAN FAMILY be made in this style?

My background is Latino so I like to tell Latino stories in a Latino way. I love the dream realist literature of writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Miguel Angel Asturias. Novels like A Hundred Years of Solitude, and House of Spirits have been very influential to me. In all the films I have made, I have worked in the "dream realist style," but suddenly with the opportunity to do a 13-hour movie I've been able to write, if you will, the "dream realist" novel that I would write if I were a novelist. This meant that the show would be stylistically very innovative weaving together not only people's memories, but also their dreams. The show will also be taking place in many time periods at once. In any given episode, the audience will be moving very fluidly between the Gonzalez family in Los Angeles today, to the war in Iraq, to the Mexican Revolution of 1915, to the Korean War of 1950, to the Gonzalez family in the 1990's. Despite all the changes in time, location, memory and dream, AMERICAN FAMILY - JOURNEY OF DREAMS will tell just one story. The Gonzalez family's past and the present are completely interconnected. This is a very innovative structure for television and it is based on the structure of Latin American "dream realist" literature.

Q: Are there any technical innovations that you have used to tell this story?

A: In order to achieve the creative ambitions of the show we've done many technical innovations. First of all, we shot the series in the digital, High Definition format, the same format that George Lucas is using for his new Star Wars movies. This format allowed us a tremendous amount of flexibility to create a wider range of visual looks to distinguish all the different storylines in the series. We could shoot with many cameras at once, allowing for an edgy almost frenetic cutting style in certain scenes. The HD format also allowed us to do long, fluid shots on a level impossible before. For example, the first episode opens with a 38-minute long shot that weaves between the Gonzalez family's past and present. This was technically a very difficult thing to do, but I wanted to show how the reality of the Gonzalez family, both past and present is in a moment of complete balance. This unbroken ribbon of time gets shattered by the war in Iraq. Therefore the first cutting happens with the beginning of the war.

In addition, we used a lot of super-8 film in the show. This is employed extensively in the Korean War sequences and the Mexican Revolution sequences in order to capture the heightened feeling of disorientation and fear that soldiers experience in the middle of a battle.

All of the technical innovations in the show were designed to enhance the emotional impact of the scenes.

Q: And your coming from an independent film background, how do you bring that into AMERICAN FAMILY - JOURNEY OF DREAMS?

A: When we started the independent film movement, we did it because we felt that studio filmmaking was getting very stodgy, and it needed to be shaken up. New kinds of subject matter needed to be dealt with, and new storytelling techniques needed to be used. We started that movement and it made an impact with movies like my film, "El Norte," which dealt with undocumented immigrants. Spike Lee and John Sayles all of us were trying new things. To me, I see a parallel with television today television has gotten very stodgy, and needs to start changing. It needs to start dealing with new things, doing more stories about Latinos, African-Americans and Asian-Americans, bringing in new themes, talking about what's really going on in America today. With my show, I'm trying to bring the kind of energy and vision that made the independent film movement so interesting. I think on off-network, like HBO and other cable outlets, you are starting to see a more innovative kind of story telling and that interests me. PBS wants to be part of this change and I'm excited they've given me the opportunity to be adventurous both in style and content - that's what we're doing this season with AMERICAN FAMILY - JOURNEY OF DREAMS.

Q: You have an amazing cast, what attracted them to AMERICAN FAMILY - JOURNEY OF DREAMS?

A: They were very dedicated to the show because they saw their own stories and the stories of their parents and their grandparents in a way never before shown on television so it meant a lot to them. Despite the fact that they might be working on other shows or films, they all found time to work on AMERICAN FAMILY - JOURNEY OF DREAMS. It was very personal for everyone involved. There was so much love in the cast and crew for this project while we were filming it and I think that you feel that when you're watching the show. The result is that PBS was able to have this remarkable cast. It's very rare to get Edward James Olmos, Esai Morales, Sonia Braga, Raquel Welch, Constance Marie, Rachel Ticotin the cast is absolutely stunning. This year, we're adding Yancey Arias, Patricia Vasquez and Lynn Whitfield.

Q: This show and the concept have been supported by PBS. What does it mean for you to have PBS supporting the show?

A: For me, working for PBS is absolutely wonderful. I think I am the only executive producer in television who has complete creative control over their show. PBS has allowed me the freedom to create what I need to create, to do a show that I think will both touch the hearts of everybody in the United States and also allow me to be true to my world and my culture. In that way, we bring down the barriers that exist between people. In order to do that I need a lot of freedom and PBS has given that to me.

© 2004 Public Broadcasting Service. All Rights Reserved.