CENTURY CITY, Calif. — For Guillermo Del Toro to get involved with a new filmmaker, to hop onto a project to produce when it will take him away from his family, away from his life, it goes without saying, it has to be worth it. And when animator Jorge R. Gutierrez came to him with "The Book of Life," an animated feature set for release by 20th Century Fox in October, it checked off a lot of boxes for the "Pacific Rim" director.
"I try, as a producer, to specialize in introducing first-time directors because I think it's important to introduce new voices into genre," Del Toro explained to a small audience on the Fox lot Monday morning prior to a footage presentation. "But I need to see something that I have a kinship with, first of all. Second, I need see something that is worth protecting, that is very fragile, and I want to help [a filmmaker] go through the big machine of movie-making without losing a finger or two. I want to protect, shepherd and sometimes nag them. The third thing that is important to realize is when I see someone has a vision. We use this word and the lingo, 'visionary.' A visionary is someone who lives and breathes the universe of his movie. Jorge is his movie. He can riff on that universe freely. It's always an imprint of his personality."
In "The Book of Life," Gutierrez had zeroed in on something very personal. He likes to say it is a cook book from his family, "and all the dishes that everyone loves in my family are in there, all the recipes are in there," he explained. "These stories are basically the story of my family. Some elements are obviously more embellished than others, because my grandfather used to tell me, 'Jorjito, don't ever let the truth get in the way of a great story.' That got me in trouble a lot as a kid, and my grandmother hated that saying, but it really made me fall in love with storytelling."
The look of the film was largely inspired by Mexican folk art and South American folklore, the design of its characters reminiscent of little hand-made figurines you might find for sell by a Mexican vendor. That unique look was particularly important for Del Toro. "I'm not going to help finance something that just looks like everything else," he said. "Many CGI movies have a CGI 'look.'"
For Gutierrez, that design base was part and parcel of his thematic vision of the film. "It's art by the people, for the people, about the people," he said. "These are reflections of who we are. It's the kind of art that can be in a museum or it can be in your house. If your kid breaks it, you go to the market and you buy watermelons and you buy more folk art. It's really accessible art. So the movie is really a love letter to that type of art work. It's very imperfect, full of texture, you can see the traces of the artisans' hands in these characters."
The Mexican holiday Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) was also something quite personal to Gutierrez, as he and his wife had a Day of the Dead wedding and it is, of course, important in the culture. But he didn't want a film that was necessarily about the holiday, rather used it as a canvas on which he could paint his yarn. But he was very conscious not to alienate non-Latinos from his story. Growing up on the U.S. border in Tijuana, he said he has always been on that "bridge," seeing what American art forms catch on in Mexico and vice versa. But it's the specificity and passion that makes a story resonate. "Hitchcock said if you want something to be universal, be specific," Del Toro said.
"The Book of Life" tells the story of Manolo (Diego Luna), a young man grappling with the challenges of being himself while caught in a love triangle, desperate to win the affections of Maria (Zoe Saldana) over his charming friend Joaquin (Channing Tatum). A pair of spirits — La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) — make a wager on who will win those affections, and naturally, the wicked Xibalba cheats, sending a snake to kill Manolo. This plunges the character into the Land of the Remembered, leaving him to find his way back to the human world through the colorful landscape of the film. Check out the trailer at the top of this page for a closer look.
"The Book of Life" hits theaters Oct. 17.