“All the world is made of stories, and all the stories are here…

…No matter what’s out there, mijo, write your own story.”

Director Jorge Gutierrez was beaming like a proud father who couldn’t wait to tell the world about his first born child.

It may have been an ordinary Texas morning, maybe a little too grey outside despite its being early August. But no matter, once you entered the confines of the Reel FX Studio, it felt like all the colors in the world were being housed in this one specific location deep in the heart of Dallas. Standing in the midst of production photos and the folkloric garlands of brilliantly colored tissue paper strewn across the entry way, the smiling Gutierrez made it clear that the day’s media visitors were all very welcome.

The morning routine at the Reel FX studio had just kicked into high gear. A few artists and staffers straggled in but most were already hard at work. Even before the department heads gathered to reveal a look at the making of “The Book of Life,” the sense that this was a family gathered with a unified purpose was tangible. It was an important day as Gutierrez and team would also be offering a teasing first look at the feature, fleshing out what the trailers have only promised to date.

It may have taken nearly two years to animate the “The Book of Life” into reality, but the project has been gestating in Gutierrez’s fertile imagination since he was a boy. Born and raised in Mexico, the 39-year old director had long been drawn to the iconography of his homeland’s country’s rich history and cultural traditions. And no tradition resonated with him strongest than that of Día de Los Muertos or the Day of the Dead.

“I always loved Day of the Dead,” Gutierrez explained, “especially growing up. It was a very, very important holiday. I was really inspired by all the stories and so I went through animation school and film school here in the U.S. at Cal Arts. I made my thesis film about Day of the Dead.”

A joyful celebration of the afterlife and the living that occurs during the first three days of November, the Day of the Dead has evolved into one of Mexico’s most treasured traditions. Today, the wildly ornate images of calaveras (skulls), the carefully prepared ofrendas (altars), marigolds and the iconic goddess Catrina have been appropriated by a modern generation of artists and youth culture. Inspired by his personal connection to the holiday, Gutierrez was steadfast that a universal story for all audiences could be inspired by such a poignant celebration. His thesis would be the first chapter in an evolving narrative that would eventually bring him to lead a team of over 400 people in Dallas, Texas.

“It won a student Emmy and I got to go to the Cannes Film Festival and show it over there,” Gutierrez explained. “At that point, an agent said, “You should write a movie about what inspired your short.”

Taking the adage of “writing what you know to heart,” he only needed to look at his whole “crazy family” that had “all these crazy stories.” Encouraged, Gutierrez went to a local bookstore to look for a book on how to write screenplays. But he was still a few chapters away from living out that Hollywood ending.

“I thought, ‘How hard could it be?’ and I wrote the worst screenplay you’ve ever read. I pitched the script to pretty much every studio in town back then and they all laughed at me. They said, ‘You’re just a kid out of school. No one wants to see a movie about this stuff. We’re looking for talking animal movies and none of your animals in your movie talk.’ They basically told me it wasn’t something that they wanted to make.

Undaunted, Gutierrez shifted his focus to pursue other avenues within the animation industry. After marrying his wife Sandra, also an artist, the couple crafted a cartoon pilot that did go to series at Nickelodeon. That show, the critically acclaimed “El Tigre,” was an award-winning hit that benefited from a strengthening, multi-cultural audience.

“It was a love letter to the culture,” Gutierrez continued. “As the show became more popular, it started winning awards, it started winning Emmys and it did really well. The same doors for feature animation started to open again.”

At that point, producer Brad Booker, whom Gutierrez had remained in contact for several years, advised that up Reel FX was ready to start creating original movies. Despite the success of “El Tigre,” Gutierrez was hesitant to revisit “The Book of Life” after his previous experience with other studios. If he was going to bring this passion project forward, he actually wanted to get away from Hollywood and be free to trail blaze, not conform.

“I wanted to go somewhere where they would let us do something different,” Gutierrez said. “This place promised that and they delivered. I came here and we started developing the movie. At that point they asked who would be your dream producer and like all young Mexican filmmakers, I yelled “Guillermo del Toro” at the top of my lungs.

“I wanted to go somewhere where they would let us do something different,” Gutierrez said. “This place promised that and they delivered. I came here and we started developing the movie. At that point they asked who would be your dream producer and like all young Mexican filmmakers, I yelled ‘Guillermo del Toro’ at the top of my lungs.

Well, ask and you will receive because Gutierrez did find himself in the position to pitch the project to much sought after del Toro. (It was a meeting that would be the stuff of legend as Gutierrez recounted later.)

“Jorge arrived with a beautiful trunk filled with skulls, flowers, and amazing images,” del Toro recalled of their initial meeting. “He had some beautiful and very powerful keyframes for his story. When I saw these images, we started talking, and little by little I fell into his trap.”

Gutierrez has compared the experience as “getting a Ph.D. in cinema from a very loving but strict professor” because of del Toro’s involvement in the picture. Once the collaboration was in place, “The Book of Life” had found its place in the world to be cared for and nurtured by a team of like-minded individuals, very much a family.

“Being a young, leaner studio really sort of created an atmosphere,” Gutierrez said with a smile. “We were the town and the bandits were the production schedule and the budget. We knew if we worked together that we might survive and we did.”

“Jorge is his movie,” del Toro added, “and the movie is an imprint of his personality.”

When it comes to magical realism in Mexican literature, fate is very present in the sometimes outlandish journeys experienced by its characters. The film industry, which already possesses its own brand of surrealism, is no stranger in calling the destiny shots for the countless dreamers who make their way west. Once Gutierrez’s goal in collaborating with del Toro was real, “The Book of Life” had found its place in the world to be cared for and nurtured by a team of like-minded individuals, very much a family.

“Being a young, leaner studio really sort of created an atmosphere,” Gutierrez said with a smile. “We were the town and the bandits were the production schedule and the budget. We knew if we worked together that we might survive and we did.”

So how does an incredible animated fantasy-adventure that spans three fantastical worlds in manner never before seen by today’s audiences? Find out as Gutierrez, del Toro and members of their creative team lead you into the heart of what makes “The Book of Life” a vivid celebration of the past traditions that looks to the future of what animated entertainment can offer audiences.

BOL Mediajor

QUESTION: “The Book of Life” is being praised for offering a visual aesthetic that is truly singular, which is saying something in a genre that never stops evolving. What inspired your journey to become an animated filmmaker?

DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER JORGE R. GUTIERREZ: Having grown up in Mexico, I saw the golden era of Mexican cinema. They would first show all these cartoons and then the cartoons ended and these movies started. I would just keep watching whatever the TV showed and so the cartoons and the movies kind of melded. Then my father introduced me to the movies of Sergio Leone, so “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” is my favorite movie of all time. I might have seen it when I was a little too young, but it made a huge impression on me. It was a fairy tale. There’s good people, there’s bad people and there’s people who are defined by their choices. I’ve always loved that idea. As a kid, I loved Greek mythology. This movie is lie Orpheus. My favorite mythology has always been the stories where mankind teaches the gods a lesson, which to me is a fantasy of children teaching their parents something.

QUESTION: “The Book of Life” embraces the folk art of not just Mexico, but of Latin America and the rest of the world to create a universe audiences have never seen before. And yet, the colors, the shapes, everything is rife with subtext. Cultural veracity aside, was it enough to just tell the team, “Be different?”

PRODUCTION DESIGNER SIMON VARELA: I grew up with black and white films pretty much because that’s what they showed in El Salvador. I was into a lot of comics. A lot of comics. I also looked at a lot of artists that had nothing to do with painting. I looked at sculptors, architects. Because it’s still an art. It’s an art form and we are creating worlds. We wanted to be so different, right? Every director says they want something no one’s ever seen before and you’re like, “Okay here we go again!” But you do the research and then you try to figure out what it is that they want. Jorge wants everything. (Laughs). We needed to figure out what percentage of that “everything” we put it in a drawing, in a piece, in a design.

ART DIRECTOR PAUL SULLIVAN: To start off, Jorge gave me 11 eleven DVDs that I had to watch. So I watched all of them. I also have been around the culture and I knew what he wanted. The culture inspired me also, so when he said “folk art,” I knew everything about it because I do collect folk art. I did do some research because even though you’ve been there, you know the spaces, you do want to get involved a little more visually. You get on Google and start looking for images. Jorge will come out with some crazy idea where you’re like, “What? Okay, how do we do this?” (Laughs) Then you start exploring. You look at his characters and you go from there because you’re creating a world where these characters are going be working on. What we do is secondary to the characters, but they still have to live in that world.

GUTIERREZ: We are giving you an artisan’s version of real history. We are able to get away from all the sort of realistic things about it by making the good guys made out of wood, the bad guys are made out of metal, so metal can hurt wood. When you go to the Land of the Remembered, you turn into stone. All of the objects and the materials become really important, but it was all of us going, “Why not? No one’s done this. Let’s do it.”

QUESTION: Still, how do you balance the desire for originality with creating a project that is also commercially viable?

GUTIERREZ: The goal of the studio is for the movie to be seen and by the most amounts of people and be the most commercial the movie can be. I think the goal of the filmmakers is to make the movie as good as it can be and finding that balance I think is really hard. We’ve been able to navigate all that and say, “Okay, if we get a big star like Channing Tatum that allows us to have more indie actors in other roles. If we get a big song from this band that allows us to get more indie songs from these other bands.” That’s been a tricky thing for me, as a director, trying to figure out how it can’t just be for film nerds and animation nerds. It also can’t just be so commercial that it doesn’t connect emotionally.

QUESTION: You mentioned the dream of collaborating with Guillermo del Toro earlier. How did he become part of “The Book of Life” family? What made that first pitch so unforgettable?

GUTIERREZ: Like Batman, we turned on the “Guillermo del Toro Sign” and he showed up! (Laughs) At the time, he was working on “The Hobbit.” I was under the impression that there’s no way he can produce this, he’s so busy. But he said, “No, no, no, I’m coming back.” We all scrambled to put together this presentation. Then, we kept getting invited to pitch to him and he kept canceling because at that point, everybody wanted to work with him. Everything was getting pitched to him. He kept putting us off until finally I guess he felt so bad, he said, “Come to my house and pitch it to me directly over there. So, we go to his house and it was very overwhelming. It was like in August, it was like a 110 degrees. He opened the door and a little steam came out because it was cold inside. He lets us in and his house, which is so full of artwork that we said, “We can’t put all our artwork up because there’s so much artwork it’s going to blend in. Let’s pitch to him outside. That way it’s not competing.” We had maquettes and we had these beautiful paintings that (art director) Paul (Sullivan), (production designer) Simon (Varela) and Sandra and I had done at this point. We go outside and we put all the artwork up. He has a pool that has a life-size statue of Ray Harryhausen and it felt like the statue was judging me the whole time. (Laughs) They had told me, “Pitch it to him in 20 minutes.” Guillermo goes, “Pitch it to me in five minutes.” He’s already sweating and I’m already sweating and just as I’m about to say what the movie’s about, three lawn mowers go on at the same time next door. It’s super loud and Guillermo goes, “Just yell it to me.” I’m red and sweating. I think I had a heat stroke. Worst pitch in the history of pitches. I’m drenched in sweat and ready to just shake his hand and say, “Thank you for taking the time.” We sit down and he goes, “That was a terrible pitch. But I know there’s something amazing in there. I have two daughters and on Saturday mornings, we would get up to watch your cartoon “El Tigre,” so I know your style. I know your sense of humor. I know exactly who you are and of course I want to produce your first movie.”

QUESTION: Animated films tend to embrace a more homogenized world to ensure mainstream appeal. How did you intend to preserve the cultural elements that are central to “The Book of Life?”

GUTTIEREZ: I never wanted the movie to just be with Mexican actors because I didn’t want the movie to just be for Mexicans. I wanted it to be for the whole world. Certain roles should absolutely be a Mexican actor, but other roles were opened up like other movies like “Kung Fu Panda.” These are movies that are very specific to a culture, but feature actors that are from everywhere to let everyone know, “This is a universal story.”

PRODUCER GUILLERMO DEL TORO: If you’re telling a story and want it be universal, then you have to be specific. If the filmmaker loves the story and characters, then audiences will love it. And if a filmmaker feels it’s powerful, more people will love the story he or she is telling because it’s powerful. And that’s exactly what Jorge has done with “The Book of Life.”

BOL Junket

QUESTION: How did your principal cast of Diego Luna, Zoë Saldana and Channing Tatum come together?

GUTIERREZ: With Diego, I did write the role for him. I’ve always loved “Y Tu Mamá También.” I didn’t know if he could sing, but I specifically wanted him to sing because I didn’t want the singing in the movie, especially from the main character, to sound overly produced. I wanted it to sound like a real guy who grabbed a guitar and went to sing for his girl in a human and organic way. Diego and Zoë knew each other and I knew they had chemistry. When they got to speak together for the first time, we recorded them together because it was kind of a reunion. She speaks perfect Spanish and she understood the culture really well, bringing all this fire and feistiness to her role. After that, I said, “Well, (the role of) Joaquin needs to be a really big presence. Someone that everyone goes, “That’s a hero!” When we discussed Channing, I had never thought he would say yes. I really didn’t. We went to Chicago. He was shooting “Jupiter Ascending.” We pitched to him in his hotel room. He hadn’t slept. He had done a little cameo in “The LEGO Movie” as Superman, but this was going to be his first animated film lead role. He really got behind the idea and then at the end, he took me aside and he said, “Jorge, you know I’m not Mexican, right?” (Laughs) I was like, “Yeah, but you’re going to be Captain Latin America! You’re going to have the swagger of Argentina, the smoothness of Brazil, the machismo of Mexico! You’re going to be every country in one!” He said now that he’s a dad, he wanted to make movies that his daughter can see and so this was the perfect movie. He loved the idea that he could make fun of that persona that people see. That’s how it all kind of grew.

QUESTION: With so many working parts to keep moving forward, how important is it to maintain a sense of focus?

GUTIERREZ: As you can see by my weight, I have no control over what I do. I fall in love with everything! (Laugh) With the help of Brad and Guillermo, they keep me in line. It’s my first movie, so I want to put everything in there!

QUESTION: You aren’t kidding about wanting everything. While “The Book of Life” is not exactly a musical, music definitely expresses the hearts and souls of several characters. You chose to have new interpretations of classic rock songs interpolated throughout the film? You don’t always think, yeah, Radiohead/Día de los Muertos!

GUTIERREZ: Well, the original music will be from Gustavo Santaolalla and there will be little reinterpretations of various songs from different people. We got to do a more Latin American version of Ennio Morricone’s “Ecstasy of Gold,” which was amazing. The movie has a lot of spaghetti western references, too. At first, the people in the legal department said there’s no way any of the bands will give us the right to use any of their songs. But they started with the hardest one of them all, “Creep” by Radiohead. It’s a really complicated song because they don’t always play it. It kind of represents the “one hit wonder” era for them, so they don’t really like it. We sent them a description of how it was going to be used in the movie and what it meant and how it expressed the frustration of a teenager who couldn’t fit in with this world, couldn’t fit in with his family. The band said, “Yes! This is why that song was written and this is kind of what it means.” From that point on, any band that would give us any trouble, we would say “Oh, so you think you’re better than Radiohead?” (Laughs)

DEL TORO: Gustavo Santaolalla is known to mix the sound of Latin America with Northern influences, including electronic, punk and rock. That became the sound of The Book of Life. It’s the idea that these songs from all over the world, and from different eras would go through the film’s “sound machine” to sound authentically Mexican, but at the same time have a global reach.

QUESTION: Was there any song that required a little more effort to secure?

GUTIERREZ: The Mumford & Sons song, “I Will Wait.” That song is about faith and so when I first asked the band if we could use it to express Manolo’s waiting for Maria, the band said no. They felt it wasn’t a love song, that is was about faith. They said they would offer another song that hadn’t been released. We listened to the other song and it was beautiful, but it didn’t work as well as how “I Will Wait” would, so we went back. We hired a mariachi band to stand behind me and we shot an iPhone video of me begging the band, saying, “I understand this song is about faith, but you guys are artists should know that once you release a song, the audience will make the song into whatever they want. So when I heard your song, I heard it as a love song and in our movie, our characters will use it as a love song and love is about faith. And, if you guys love the children of Mexico, you will let us use your song.” Then the mariachi band started playing their song. This was on a Thursday when we sent it, and on Saturday the band said we could use the song.

QUESTION: Risks have always existed in breaking new ground, which seems even more challenging in today’s economic landscape. Still, now that “The Book of Life” is nearing release, how do you want this journey to be remembered?

GUTIERREZ: I’ve come to terms with that. I can only worry about what I present and then what the audience does with it. I would love to be able to tell them, but I feel like good artwork should speak for itself. But before we got here, I did say that if even if I never get to make this movie, there’s something really good here. I don’t mean “good” creatively. I just mean “good” for humanity. There’s some goodness in this idea that I got to pass on to non-Latino people and non-Hispanics. They need to know what’s happening out there. We live in such troubled times, but this is a huge reminder, “Hey you guys, there’s beautiful stuff out there, too.”

 “The Book of Life” opens everywhere on October 17.

Written for 20th Century Fox. Posted from Wayne Avenue Manor in South Pasadena, CA 

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