The highly anticipated animated film, The Book of Life, directed by CalArts alumnus and creator of Nickelodeon's El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera Jorge Gutiérrez (Film/Video MFA 00) opens nationwide in theaters Friday (Oct. 17).
Using Mexico's Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) as a frame of reference, the film follows Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna), a young man living in 1920s Mexico, torn between "fulfilling the expectations of his family and following his heart." Joining him in the film are two friends Maria Posada (voiced by Zoe Saldana) and Joaquin (voiced by Channing Tatum). Some of the characters are transported to the afterlife—a risky undertaking for any children's movie.
In a recent NPR interview, Gutiérrez talked about the film's journey from idea to screen. His own childhood experience of losing his best friend, who died at the age of 9, served as a touchstone for the film.
Later, as a student at the California Institute of the Arts, Gutiérrez wrote his own Day of the Dead story, with ideas and characters based on himself and his family. His 3-D film Carmelo won a student Emmy Award in 2001 and was shown at the Cannes film festival. Gutiérrez tried pitching it as a feature to all six major studios.
"Here was this Mexican kid saying, 'Hey, it's a movie about death — for children!' And so I kind of scared everybody, and everybody turned me down," Gutiérrez recalls. "They said, you know, 'You're just a kid out of school, and this subject matter is too ... too weird, and honestly a little dark!'" ...
Eventually the studio Reel FX understood the Day of the Dead story Gutiérrez was trying to tell. They encouraged him to persuade Oscar-winning filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro, his hero, to produce it.
And Del Toro agreed. The director of such films as Pan's Labyrinth, Hell Boy and Pacific Rim signed on as a producer for the Day of the Dead-themed film—Gutiérrez's first feature.
The Book of Life trailer: