The Emmy-winning, Mexican-born director of TV animation makes his feature directorial debut on the Fox release – guided by none other than Guillermo del Toro.
The story of a romantic bullfighter’s journey to discover himself and win the heart of his love is inspired by the Mexican tradition of the Day Of The Dead and the Greek myth of Orpheus and boasts dazzling art work, a killer soundtrack and an all-star ensemble.
Zoe Saldana, Diego Luna, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman, Kate del Castillo and Placido Domingo are among the voice artists. “Just remember you have the whole weight of Mexico on you – don’t let us down,” del Toro told Gutierrez. Book Of Life opens through Fox on October 16.
Tell us about you first of all
I’m originally from Mexico and went to Cal Arts and I made a little short about the Day Of The Dead, this Mexican tradition. The movie won a student Emmy and I got to show it at Cannes and then an agent signed me and said ‘You should turn it into a feature.’ so I want to a bookstore and I bought a book on how to write a screenplay in 21 days and I figured, well it might take me a little longer, and I started conceiving this movie. They sent me to every studio in town.
How did that go?
Pretty much everybody told me the same thing: ‘You’re just a kid out of school, you don’t know any better, there’s no audience for this type of movie and we’re looking for funny talking animal films.’ So with my heart broken I went back and kept working in animation. Over the years my wife [Sandra Equihua] and I developed a show called El Tigre on Nickelodeon and it got picked up, we did a series, it won a bunch of Emmys and sure enough the doors opened again.
Which doors in particular?
A small studio in Texas called Reel Effects kind of got behind the movie and there was a producer there who had been a long friend of mine, Brad Booker. He brought me in and we started working on the film for a while and they said, ‘Who would be your dream producer?’ and like all up-and-coming [Mexican] directors I yelled ‘Guillermo del Toro!’ and like the Mexican Santa Claus sure enough he appeared.
What was your first meeting like?
I famously pitched him the movie – and it was a disaster. I decided to pitch it to him outside of his house next to the pool and I almost fell in multiple times. There were these gardener leaf-blower guys next door making the loudest sounds I’d ever heard in my life so I had to yell the pitch to him. At the end of it he said, ‘You know Jorge, that is a terrible, terrible, terrible pitch but there’s something here, something magical. And so that’s where the relationship started and what other director of his stature looks for up-and-coming talent and so he took me under his wing and I started working with my hero.
Did the involvement of del Toro help find a studio?
It was actually still very, very hard. Twentieth Century Fox Jim Gianopulos and [Fox Animation Studios president] Vanessa Morrison heard the pitch and fell in love with the story and here we are, with the finished movie.
What was is like working with del Toro?
At the beginning I couldn’t say no to him because I was so in awe, but as soon as I started disagreeing with him and we started going at it that’s when he really liked me… He always tells me that the movies themselves don’t matter to him so much as the director behind them. What he always kept telling me was, ‘I don’t want you to make something you think I want. I want you to make something you believe in.’ As he always puts it, ‘I want to feel it.’ And so from the beginning I would show him stuff and he said, ‘Jorge are you really happy with it?’ I’d say ‘Yeah I’m…’ and he’d say, “Jorge are you really happy with it?” and it was that Catholic guilt that I kept feeling. Every meeting would end with him saying, ‘OK Jorge, just remember you have the whole weight of Mexico on you – don’t let us down.
What is the story of Book Of Life about?
Book Of Life is very much inspired by Greek mythology, especially Orpheus. In mythology I’ve always loved stories where the humans teach the gods a lesson. So Book Of Life is two mischievous gods make a wager on the heart of mankind and there’s a group of three friends – two boys and a girl – and one of the boys becomes this big military hero [Joaquin voiced by Channing Tatum] and the other boy is sort of a romantic who wants to play the guitar [Manolo, voiced by Diego Luna]. The third is what we call the anti-princess [Maria, voiced by Zoe Saldana]. She is a very feisty girl. And so the wager they make is, who will win the heart of the girl? And the girl will pick. It’s sort of a wager on mankind: is the heart of man pure or is it corrupted? And so our hero Manolo goes on this amazing journey through three magical lands, not only to win the heart of Maria but to find himself.
Explain the meaning behind the Day of The Dead
Day Of The Dead is a celebration of life. At its core there’s a very universal belief and it’s this: as long as we tell the stories of those who came before us, as long as we sing their songs, as long as we cook their dishes, tell their jokes, they’re here – they’re here with us. We say their name and literally they are with us. The moment we don’t speak of them, the moment we don’t say their names, then they truly are gone and so Day Of The Dead is a way for us to remember them and way for us to remind ourselves we’re alive, enjoy this, make it count and do things, hopefully admirable things, that other generations will talk about. As a kid I remember celebrating it and [visiting] the graves of my great-grandparents and my father telling me, ‘OK Jorge, what are you going to do so we remember you? What are you going to do so that we tell your stories?’
You use songs by Radiohead and Mumford & Sons in the movie. It’s daring but you pull it off
I grew up in the border at Tijuana so I had one ear to the US and to the UK and one ear to Mexico and so I would listen to these songs and these bands would come to Tijuana, so these songs were the soundtrack to my life. [Radiohead’s] Creep was a song that in high school I really connected to and so at that moment in the movie I write it in earnestly saying, ‘This is how our character feels.’
I loved Moulin Rouge and I always loved this idea that once a song exists people will take it and make it their own and that’s one of the messages from the movie: you come from a certain place, your parents do a certain thing, but you are who you choose to be and you make yourself out of the things you love. And so you reinvent all these things and you make them your own. With these songs we did our take on them. You’re going to hear them in ways you’ve never heard them before. I Will Wait [by Mumford & Sons] – we did a Ranchero Accordion version of it. Creep is a sort of grunge Bolero version. All these songs were meant to evoke this idea that this kid can grab songs from the universe and make them his.
What is next for you?
The audience will decide [on the fate of Book Of Life], but I would love to continue the saga of the Book Of Life and then I have something else I’m cooking up that hopefully we get to announce soon. This is my first movie but I’m hooked. I cannot wait to make more stuff.