Filmmaker Alek Keshishian went through over 200 hours of Verite footage and more hours for AppleTV+ “Selena: My Mind and Me.” Through it, the director who helmed “Madonna: Truth or Dare” had unprecedented access to singer and superstar Selena Gomez.
What began as a behind-the-scenes of Gomez on her first tour in 2016,\ evolved into something much bigger. Keshishian would end up following the singer on a journey for over six years as she navigated heartbreak, fame, depression and anxiety.
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Here, he talks about following Gomez on that journey and capturing those moments, but also, knowing when “enough was enough.”
It’s been a while since you’ve done a music documentary — what made you say yes to this, and were you in any way hesitant?
It’s been written that I said no to doing another music doc after “Madonna: Truth or Dare,” for a variety of reasons. But, I said, “I’ve made one doc, I don’t need to make another one.” That’s my attitude about my work, I do something once and I’ll be like, “OK, I never want me to do that again.”
When my sister called me in 2015 and said Selena was the biggest fan of “Truth or Dare,” I didn’t know that much about her. At that time, she wasn’t on my radar, and I wasn’t her target audience. But, she asked me to do a music video because she really wanted to work with me.
I enjoyed working with her a lot. She had a vulnerability and authenticity and lacked any sense of guile. A lot of celebrities have to develop armor, sometimes even a persona, and they have a million handlers. She didn’t.
What happened after that?
In 2016, she was doing the Revival tour and asked if I would ever think about doing a music doc about her tour. I said, “I don’t think that’s a really good idea.”
I loved her. But she said she wanted something special and said, “This is my first tour.” I thought to myself that she was so different than Madonna and most pop stars that I’ve run into. So, I said, “I’m not sure you’re going to be comfortable with the way I make a doc. I’m a cinema verité guy, so I shoot and shoot.”
I’ve been spoiled by Madonna because I didn’t have to ask permission to shoot anything, I would just walk into a room.
She said, “I’ll give you that,” and that’s what we did. I shot for two weeks and got some unbelievable footage. I also realized that she was not in a great place, and she was so young, but I felt that the timing wasn’t right, and she agreed with me.
We remained friends, and when she came out of the mental health facility in 2019, I saw her very early on. My heart broke for her, but I had hope, she was going to figure out how to come to life again.
When she asked if I would shoot her charity trip to Kenya. I said of course. I said it was going to be nothing big, and it would be 10 minutes long. I suggested shooting two days before she left because everyone who has gone on this trip has said it is life-changing.
The very first day that I shot, she was going to McLean’s Hospital and debating whether or not to announce to the world yet that she was bipolar. I thought, there was a documentary about this girl who is in recovery, but is determined to make sense of her diagnosis by helping others. So, I asked her if she would be open to me shooting in L.A., and we slowly began shooting.
We weren’t trying to impose a paradigm of what this documentary is going to be about. It took a real act of faith on the part of Interscope [Records] who were funding at that point, but they were very artist-friendly, both towards Selena who wanted to do it and to me.
When you shoot verité style, how many hours did you capture?
200 hours of footage, roughly the same as Madonna. The difference is that for this, I had so much archival footage to go through. I knew I had to tell parts of this story through archival, which is very time-consuming.
But with the 200 hours, it took us six months just to do the string outs which meant taking each scene and shortening it.
How did you land on the opening where it’s Selena saying, “It killed me because there’s always Selena?”
That was when she gave me two boxes of journals. Originally, I asked her to pick 10 interesting journal entries for me, but by that point, she said, “I’d rather you have everything so that you can tell the story you think is important.”
But that opening journal entry, which we were playing with up until the month before we locked was the most important in a sense, because it shares the fundamental conundrum of her life. She wanted this fame and she got it all but then there’s still this construct of Selena as a projection of other people’s fantasies, Selena is the person being written up about, and that is the duality that she’s trapped in.
Can you talk about the lupus flare-up that we see and filming that?
I showed up with my iPhone. I was going to hang out that day with her to shoot some B-roll. I walked in there and she was in pain. She walked out and I said that I didn’t need to film, but she said, “You should.” And I’m filming and hugging her and trying to encourage her. But you get those moments by being so close to your subject that I was like a big brother to her at that point.
I didn’t have to shoot everything.
I would know when enough was enough.
When she has that breakdown after the dress rehearsal, I’m the first one there, I was holding her hand and talked to her for 10 minutes. And my camera people are there. I said, “We don’t need to shoot this,” but she said I could. The reason I stopped filming in 2016 was that I felt she wasn’t strong enough, and this wasn’t what she had signed on for.
How did you talk about the decision to deal with the Justin [Bieber] factor?
I show that moment in her breakdown, where she feels haunted. She’s haunted because people don’t want to let it go. I showed unrelenting interest in the press. I wasn’t that interested in covering subjects that had been covered to death. What I wanted to do was to show it in a different way. I wanted to show how cruel some of that stuff that’s yelled to a 24-year-old girl who’s going through whatever private moments she’s going through is, how brutal it is. On another level, there’s this misogyny, that the woman is always somehow that dumped one, and that the woman should be jealous.
I was more interested in some levels of implicating the paparazzi who are unbelievably cruel.
What was it like capturing those dark moments when you were in Kenya, hearing Selena talk about suicide?
Kenya was the hardest part, editorially, and shoot wise, Those girls became close to Selena and they wanted to tell their life story, so I shot a lot of stories, I’ve wanted it to be about two women who are from such different worlds, but who find common humanity. What Betty Chep says to her is so wise. I wanted that message of “Sometimes you have to keep going.” The reason she gives for not taking her life is so beautiful, to remember in our darkness, that there are people who still love us and who look up to us and need us.
Each one of those women lived the ethos of wanting to give back. If you ask any one of those young women, what you want to be, it would be a surgeon or electrician and you’re inspired. I think that gives Selena that final motivation to give back in a much more concerted way.
I know everyone is asking if would you do another music documentary, but would you do another movie again?
I’d like to work more but I’m a very sensitive soul and my best work happens when I’m given the freedom to find certain things. I’d love to make a movie again. But it would have to be with a support system that didn’t take years off my life because I don’t phone anything in and I care a lot about these things.
For this, we started so humbly but that gave me the freedom to develop things the way I needed to. I think there are more opportunities now.
What was the decision about Selena’s stepfather, he’s mentioned a lot, but never does appear.
if you notice, neither her stepfather nor her sister appears. That was a choice that they made collectively. First of all, it’s not a documentary that delves into her family. She wanted this to be a documentary about her as an adult. She’s very close to them, but that was an aspect that she didn’t want to necessarily share. There are a lot of things that I didn’t put into this 93-minute film. It’s a potent experience, but it doesn’t have everything.
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