Are you sick of the same old boring look of traditional animation? Do you crave a story that’s entirely new? Would you welcome a film that’s deeply personal while at the same time being incredibly universal? Well, we’ve got just the film for you! Enter co-writer-director Jorge Gutierrez’s THE BOOK OF LIFE. This transfixing animated fantasy tells the story of musician Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna), a romantic dreamer who’s out to win the love of headstrong beauty Maria (voiced by Zoë Saldana). If it’s not enough he must compete with macho decorated soldier Joaquin (voiced by Channing Tatum), he’s forced to travel through the underworld and back on a quest to win her love. Plus, he’s got two powerful forces from above (voiced by Kate del Castillo and Ron Perlman) taking bets on his fate. With wafts of influences resembling A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, A MONSTER IN PARIS and A LIFE LESS ORDINARY, it feels wholly original and looks absolutely breathtaking.
Since we had such a great experience at the footage presentation held on the 20th Century Fox lot, we wanted to share with you a few of the film’s best behind-the-scenes details.
THE BOOK OF LIFE was inspired by art, culture, music and – most importantly – Gutierrez’s family stories. He says, “There’s a c8 ookbook with my family’s recipes and they’re all in this movie. From my grandparents, to my parents, to my son, they are all in this movie. Some things really happened to my family, but some things are embellished more than others. This movie is a love letter to where I’m from and where I fell in love with life. Mexican folk art and Latin American folk art are a huge idea – art for the people, by the people, about the people.” He later continues, “There’s references to everything from videogames, to operas, to architecture, Mad Magazine. Lots of animated references – I’m a Miyazaki fan.” Del Toro adds, “We also looked at the story of Orpheus and Eurydice – which is essentially linked to a journey to the underworld for love and to use music to get out.”
Females in the film are drawn by Jorge Gutierrez’s wife Sandra. Gutierrez explains why. “All the characters are designed by wife Sandra and myself. She designed all the girls and I designed all the males. I’m not allowed to draw women because she says, if I draw a woman, she looks like she has relaxed morals.”
Music by artists like Radiohead, Mumford & Sons, Rod Stewart and Biz Markie are woven into the fabric of the film effortlessly. “We wanted to take these songs that existed in all eras, in all cultures and give it a BOOK OF LIFE spin to them. They are classics you know and love, but played in a way you’ve never heard before,” Gutierrez tells us. Radiohead’s “Creep” was the first song he wrote into the script. “I thought, ‘There’s no way they’ll let me use it, but what the Hell. I’ll just put it in.’ The studio said, ‘We’ll send it to them so you’ll stop asking.’ Radiohead said, ‘Absolutely! This is the song that works for the moment.’ After that, it opened the doors to a ton of other bands.”
This is the first time Diego Luna has sung onscreen – and he’s quite good! The second clip Gutierrez showed us spot lit one of the film’s vibrant musical numbers set to a ranchera version of Mumford & Son’s “I Will Wait,” sung by Luna, who’s got some great rock n’ roll pipes. “He was all gung ho,” Gutierrez says. “He says, ‘I’ll take lessons and everything.’ I was really nervous to see what was going to happen and I got the phone call from Diego and he says, ‘Jorge! I can sing!’ He sounds like a real guy – it’s not some super processed voice.”
In hopes to look more like his character, co-star Channing Tatum promised to grow a mustache for the film’s premiere. Gutierrez says, “He brought all this bravado to this character. I keep joking with him that he’s playing Captain Latin America. He swore to me he’d grow a mustache for the premiere.”
As soon as producer Guillermo Del Toro saw Jorge Gutierrez’s wooden puppets he was impressed. Del Toro, an imaginative and creative filmmaker in his own right, has been taking us on many cinematic adventures for years now. Needless to say, he’s probably seen it all – that is until he saw Gutierrez’s pitch for the feature. “Several years ago, Jorge came to my home with a bunch of drawings, some puppets and a trunk full of tequila. I knew right then and there that this could be a great movie. When I saw the images, I saw purity. I saw uniqueness. It embodies the complexities of the culture it was trying to represent. When I saw the puppets I said, ‘If we can do that handmade feel – see the gorgeous characters, the color, the sound, plus see that this movie represents Mexico not just as folkloric memory, but as a place that has been influenced by punk, ska, rock n’roll and modernity – it would be a success.’”
Day of the Dead is the backdrop of the feature. While on a superficial level this may look like it’s solely about Day Of The Dead, it’s really only the background of the narrative. Gutierrez states, “This film is dripping with iconography and symbolism. We love Day of the Dead! It’s colorful and a joyous celebration of life. I didn’t want the movie to end and have someone come on and say, ‘And that’s where Day Of The Dead came from.’ Our movie uses Day Of The Dead as a canvas on which we paint our story.”
In terms of THE BOOK OF LIFE’s aesthetic, Jorge Gutierrez had made a short at CalArts that had similar ideas. “That’s the first time I got into that idea. By having these characters and have them made out of wood and stylizing them, you get away from blood, from guns, from all these real things and you can make magic realism in animation.”
Bonus: Producer Guillermo Del Toro has a cameo in the film. He’s got one line in the “Land of the Remembered” segment, Gutierrez tells us, as “the Beautiful Lady Who Appears.”
THE BOOK OF LIFE opens on October 17 and is yet to be rated.