The Book of Life Director Jorge Gutierrez Visits CalArts

Animator and CalArts alumnus Jorge Gutierrez (Film/Video MFA 00) was on campus last Thursday (Dec. 11) to screen his directorial debut, The Book of Life, an animated film that takes place during the Mexican holiday Dia De Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead). The film features the voice acting of stars Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana and Channing Tatum as old friends caught in a love triangle, and Kate del Castillo and Ron Perlman as gods placing bets on which of the men would win Maria’s (Saldana) hand. 

The screening and Q&A at CalArts happened on the same day as Gutierrez’s Golden Globe nomination. He forgot that the nominations were going to be announced that morning and stayed up writing until 2 am. He was awoken around 5:20 am with more than 100 messages on his phone. The barrage of congratulatory messages for the Golden Globes only added to the accolades for the film, including a recent Annie Awards nomination and the distinction of being Mexico’s currently most pirated film.

When introducing the film to a full house in the Bijou Auditorium, Gutierrez said, “The film is a love letter to Mexico, my culture and to the Mexico that I remember.” He continued by saying that recent news coming out of his country paints it in an ugly light. “The Book of Life is also Mexico’s ambassador to the world, a reminder that there are beautiful things in the country,” he says.

Watch a trailer for The Book of Life below:

After the screening, Gutierrez opened the Q&A session by speaking about the earnestness of the film. “We live in such cynical times…That the new punk rock is emotion,” he said. “The way to be rebellious is to be earnest.”

Gutierrez also discussed the challenges to making the film. He moved from Los Angeles to Dallas, Texas, in order to produce it with Reel FX, joking that there is something of the circus people in artists. “You have to go where they’ll let you perform.”

He described working with the small animation studio with a relatively small $50 million budget (“I soon found out that it wasn’t a lot of money for a feature film”). “One of the things I’ve learned is that the more money you have to make a movie, the less creative input you can have. Don’t look down on the little places, because that’s often where the most innovative things happen. And Pixar, Disney and Dreamworks used to be small places, too, so take chances.”

The Book of Life started out as a much darker story, he said, which made it very hard to market as an animated feature. Aside from death being ever-present in the film, the character Xibalba (voiced by Perlman) was initially supposed to be the Devil himself, making The Book of Life a story about Death and The Devil betting on humankind. One studio first offered to make Gutierrez’s movie—but only with major changes, including making it a a hip-hop reggaeton musical set in present day urban New York.

Gutierrez also had to jump through numerous hoops to obtain clearances for elements he felt were vital to the film’s success. Because the film features a lot of pop music, he had to deal with permissions and licensing.

Radiohead’s Creep is used in the film, and despite being told by several people that there was no way he was going to secure the license, Gutierrez, “drunk with ignorance,” sent a letter to Radiohead. Radiohead agreed, charging only the minimum fees. He had to beg Mumford & Sons for permission to use the song I Will Wait through an iPhone movie wherein Gutierrez did a whole spiel that included the phrase “Do it for the children of Mexico,” ending with a ranchero version of the song. The band finally gave in. “This movie,” Gutierrez declared with a smile, “was built on guilt.”

Below is a clip from the film’s cover of I Will Wait.

Gutierrez also shared stories about meeting the film’s producer, Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro for the first time. Gutierrez found himself pitching The Book of Life in five minutes to del Toro instead of the 20 minutes for which he had prepared. At the same time, he had to shout the pitch over a cacophony of lawn mowers from neighboring properties. When he finished, del Toro said, “Son, that was horrible. But there’s magic in it.” Del Toro then told Gutierrez that he and his daughters love El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera, the award-winning TV series created by Gutierrez and his wife Sandra Equihua. Gutierrez only had one copy of The Book of Life‘s script with him, but he had spilled tequila on it. As he handed the copy to del Toro, the director smelled it and said, “I like it.”

The Book of Life is a visually and culturally dense movie. In addition to the main characters and their storylines, Gutierrez managed to squeeze in opera (with opera singer Placido Domingo voicing a character), soldaderas (women who fought in the Mexican Revolution), plus a priest who turns into a luchador

“In this movie, I got to animate, I had a cameo (he played Skeleton Carmelo, one of Manolo’s relatives), I wrote a song and sang a song. I have no regrets.” Gutierrez said that he put everything into The Book of Life with the thought that it might be the only movie he’ll ever make. “No retreat, no surrender,” he said. “It’s a motto I share with the film’s three protagonists.”

Gutierrez is currently working on a new film about Mexican Kung-fu. “I was inspired by hybrids that I’ve seen. Tacos with Korean beef, Indian curry in burritos.”

When asked by a CalArts student where he sees himself in 10 years, he answered: “I want to make two animated films, then move on to live action, maybe a Mexican wrestler Citizen Kane… then return to Mexico to become a farmer.”

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